Recap: “Civilians & the Laws of War: The Case of Civil War Missouri,” w/ LSU Prof. Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Though the French Revolution is typically designated as such, LSU Professor and Chair of History Aaron Sheehan-Dean opened his November 21 lecture at the Center for Missouri Studies with the competing claim that the Civil War was instead the “first popular war,” primarily because it was being fought by two democracies, if two highly imperfect one. As a result, he noted, it was likewise the ideal test case for the question at the heart of his recent Harvard University Press book, The Calculus of Violence: How do democratic societies determine how to manage wars democratically; how, that is, do they establish democratic boundaries for and impose these boundaries on lethal violence?

Missouri, he explained, was central to this inquiry because it was a bloody staging ground of sorts for a related and perhaps even more fundamental question: Who must be acknowledged as a soldier in, and thus be subject to the laws of, war? This question was, on the one hand, particularly relevant to Black men, who the Confederacy categorically didn’t acknowledge as soldiers. Especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, and especially in border or divided states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, this led to a surge of savage violence directed at Black troops. Also of acute interest in Missouri was the case of the Confederacy’s irregular or guerrilla soldiers: those bands of men who organized independently, who wore no uniforms and had no chain of command, and whose indifference to the laws of just war introduced a system of barbarity on Missouri’s western border. As Prof. Sheehan-Dean showed, the Union’s difficulty in determining how to deal with these combatants would lead to one of the most notable escalations of violence in the history of the Civil War.

Initially, the Union tried non-lethal, primarily monetary and confiscatory means for curbing guerrilla violence, but on balance, these strategies failed (a problem compounded throughout the region by inexperienced Provost Marshals’ trouble with even identifying irregulars in the first place). They then turned to taking hostage known or presumed supporters, but when the roof of a Kansas City women’s prison collapsed, killing the wives, sisters, and children of many guerrilla fighters, the issue reached a new nadir. In retaliation, Quantrill’s Raiders stormed Lawrence, KS, burning huge swaths of the city and executing 150 men and boys. The response was swift and brutal. Figures like military theorist Francis Lieber declared—for some, re-affirmed—that guerrillas were not public enemies and were thus not owed the privileges due prisoners of war (i.e., they could be killed if caught). More dramatically, the U.S. government issued General Order No. 11, which held that residents of four Missouri border counties must either take a loyalty oath and re-locate to a Union military outpost or face forcible displacement from their homes. This introduced unprecedent wartime consequences for white, non-combatant civilians. Some, as George Caleb Bingham’s General Order No. 11 depicts, were killed in the course of the Order’s execution, while others perished from disease or exposure after being cast, shelter-less, onto the western plains.

These are, to be sure, grim histories, but as Prof. Sheehan-Dean underscored in the second half of his talk, for as bloody as the Civil War was, it was also, somewhat paradoxically, restrained in its savagery. In some respects, the boundaries placed on violence were pragmatic; for both the North and South, courting European support meant fighting the war with European decorum. That said, there were certainly moments of willing de-escalation. For example, not only did James Anderson blow the whistle to Jefferson Davis about the inhumane conditions at the Andersonville POW camp; even after Harper’s published horrifying images of Andersonville POWs, Northern citizens’ calls for ruthless counter-action were quelled by Union leaders. Similarly, broad commitment to the rules of right retaliation—that enemy violations of the laws of war should be balanced but not exceeded—helped ensure that retaliatory cycles were hemmed in, versus exponential, trajectories of vengeance.

Prof. Sheehan-Dean closed by citing what he saw as the two most powerful forces curtailing Civil War violence. One was Lincoln’s insistence on managing the war with the ultimate goal of re-unification in mind (and thus an implied imperative to not embitter Southerners via excessive force). Even more significant than this, though, was the fact that, in spite of a claim to righteous violence, formerly enslaved people pursued freedom over revenge, fleeing en masse to Union lines rather than bearing out slaveholders’, and even some cabinet members’, racist prophesy of a second Haiti.