Lincoln’s Retaliation Proclamation a Stern Warning to the South

July 30, 1863 (Thursday)

Through much of the beginning of the war, President Lincoln believed the nation to not be quite ready for black soldiers. By this time, of course, that was a distant memory. Ready or otherwise, the United States had armed both free and escaped blacks, placing them in their own segregated regiments, overseen by white officers. It was no picture of utopian equality, but then, it wasn’t the master’s whip on the cotton fields, either.

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When Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, caught wind that the Union was making soldiers out of black men, he was incensed, and called for the execution of slaves in arms and their white officers. This was based on the intentionally misunderstood idea that the white officers were inciting a slave insurrection.

For the most part, black Federal soldiers had been used as a sort of back up to white soldiers. There were cases, such as at Port Royal, Louisiana, where they took to the front lines, but more often than not, they were on garrison or fatigue duty. The first time that black combat soldiers really made the news was after the Battle of Battery Wagner.

There, the 54th Massachusetts led the second assault upon the Confederate fort below of Charleston, South Carolina. Their casualties were staggering and included the death of their colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. These circumstances combined and quickly made a riveting piece of news. Adding to the drama, the Confederates refused to send Col. Shaw’s body home to Massachusetts because he led a black regiment.

News being what it was – often was little more than rumor – had it that the black soldiers taken prisoner were being sold into slavery. In the case of the black soldiers captured at Battery Wagner, this was not the case. Though soldiers of African decent had indeed been cast into slavery upon capture, the troops of the 54th Massachusetts were, for the time being, languishing in a Charleston prison.

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According to the Confederate law, captured black soldiers were to be given over to the state where they were taken prisoner. Each state had varying ways of dealing with them, but South Carolina wanted to put them on trial. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Rebel forces in Charleston, disagreed. Since none of the prisoners were escaped South Carolinian slaves, he wished for them to be treated at official prisoners of war. Both Charleston and Richmond disagreed, and (on July 29th) Beauregard was forced to hand them over for a trial that wouldn’t be held until September.

The call from many of South Carolina’s citizens and newspapers was for the twenty-four black prisoners to be put to death, even though only four of them had ever been slaves (and none were from South Carolina). It was amidst these rumors and blood-thirsty calls that Abraham Lincoln took action.

On this date, he issued General Order No. 252, an order of retaliation.

“It is the duty of every Government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of Nations and the usages and customs of war as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color, in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person on account of his color, and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism, and a crime against the civilization of the age.

“The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers; and if the enemy shall sell or enslave any one because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession. It is therefore ordered, that for every soldier of the United States, killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy, or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on public works, and continued at such labor, until the other shall be released, and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.”

These were harsh words. After calling out the South on their culture of barbarism, he threatened Old Testament-style retribution for crimes against black soldiers. But there was more to this than at first it seemed.

Prior to the war, Lincoln was hardly in favor of emancipation, let along equal rights. Yet, in July of 1863, he claimed it the duty of every government to provide equal protection to all its citizens, regardless of color. Here lies the smallest seeds of what would become the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, which gave equal protection to all citizens. The echoes of this call for equal protection would echo here and there until they finally took Constitutional hold.

Of course, it was the second paragraph that caught the attention of the South. When news of Lincoln’s Retaliation Proclamation reached Charleston, the press and many of her people called for the state to ignore Lincoln’s threats and execute the prisoners anyway. They were willing to risk the lives of twenty-four of their own sons and fathers to kill their twenty-four black prisoners.1



  1. Sources: Lincoln’s Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address by James Tackach; Gate of Hell, Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863 by Stephen R. Wise; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6. []
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Lincoln’s Retaliation Proclamation a Stern Warning to the South by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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