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The Perils of Running the Blockade: The Influence of International Law in an Era of Total War
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THE PERILS OF RUNNING THE BLOCKADE: THE INFLUENCE OF INTERNATIONAL LAW IN AN ERA OF TOTAL WAR Mark E . Neely, Jr. In RECENT years historians have seen in President Lincoln's early proclamations ofblockade a foretaste of"total war" as the Lincoln administration would later wage it. When the naval blockade began, on April 19, 1861, the North was otherwise pursuing rather limited objectives, treating secession and the firing on Fort Sumter not as an internal civil disturbance "too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course ofjudicial proceedings," but as something which seventy-five thousand men might quell in the space of three months. Blockades, on the other hand, were accepted instruments of war as waged against foreign belligerents, and Lincoln's blockade, as James M. McPherson says, proved to be the better indicator ofthe fiercer nature ofthe conflict to come: By imposing a blockade on Confederate ports and treating captured Confederate soldiers as prisoners ofwar rather than as criminals or pirates, the Lincoln administration had in effect recognized that this was a war rather than a mere domestic insurrection. Under international law, belligerent powers had the right to seize or destroy enemy resources used to wage war—munitions, ships, military equipment, even food for the armies and crops sold to obtain cash to buy armaments. As the war escalated in scale and fury and as Union armies invaded the South in 1862, they did destroy or capture such resources. Willy-nilly the war was becoming ... a total war rather than a limited one.1 By the end of 1862 President Lincoln was willing to take steps he had thought too radical a year earlier, threatening to free the slaves of all people, loyal or not, resident in areas controlled by the Confederacy. This blow, aimed against the Southern economy rather than directly against the Confederate army, would constitute a new departure. Attacks on civilian property in general were new, but, as Russell F. Weigley says, "This idea of 1 James M. McPherson, Lincoln andthe Strategy ofUnconditional Surrender: 23rdAnnual Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture (Gettysburg, Pa. : Gettysburg College, 1984), 13, 14, and "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution," paper delivered at Brown University Conference on "Lincoln and the American Political Tradition," June 1984, 11. Civil War History, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, ©1986 by The Kent State University Press 102CIVIL WAR HISTORY course was not startlingly new; it was implicit in the blockade from the beginning ofthe war, as it had been one ofthe objects ofblockades in times past. In the modern Western world, however, war by land armies waged directly upon the enemy's economic resources had been attempted only very charily and within narrow limits imposed by the accepted rules of war." Within two years William T. Sherman began his historic March to the Sea, with its conscious espousal of the idea of total war. And on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died ofa gunshotwound—with acopy ofSherman's orders for the March to the Sea in his wallet.2 In many respects the Civil War certainly degenerated into that "violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle" against which Lincoln warned in his message to Congress of December 3, 1861, but the blockade gave no real clue to the future nature of the Civil War. Furthermore, the military actions provoked on the blockade itself were peculiarly nonviolent and restrained. As both McPherson and Weigley admit, blockades partook of both the passive siege mentality ofeighteenth-century rational warfare and the more encompassing idea of total warfare of the modern era, which, taking deliberate aim on more than the armed soldier on the field ofbattle, aims as well at the enemy's economy and even at civilians resident in enemy territory.3 These and other writers have underestimated the degree to which blockades were a throwback to eighteenth-century notions of limited or rational war. Nothing in nineteenth-century warfare was more formalistic and legally limited than naval blockades. Blockades and the international laws which governed their use were aimed at preserving as much normal civil activity in world trade as was possible while two nations engaged in the irrational practice ofwar. The laws of blockade had become so rigid and complex...