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Lincoln on Trial

Southern Civilians and the Law of War

Burrus Carnahan

Publication Year: 2010

In light of recent controversies and legal actions related to America’s treatment of enemy prisoners in the Middle East and Guantánamo Bay, the regulation of government during wartime has become a volatile issue on the global scene. By today’s standards, Lincoln’s adherence to the laws of war could be considered questionable, and his critics, past and present, have not hesitated to charge that he was a war criminal. In Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War, Burrus M. Carnahan conducts an extensive analysis of Lincoln’s leadership throughout the Civil War as he struggled to balance his own humanity against the demands of his generals. Carnahan specifically scrutinizes Lincoln’s conduct toward Southerners in light of the international legal standards of his time as the president wrestled with issues that included bombardment of cities, collateral damage to civilians, seizure and destruction of property, forced relocation, and the slaughter of hostages. Carnahan investigates a wide range of historical materials from accounts of the Dahlgren raid to the voices of Southern civilians who bore the brunt of extensive wartime destruction. Through analysis of both historic and modern standards of behavior in times of war, a sobering yet sympathetic portrait of one of America’s most revered presidents emerges.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

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Introduction: Crisis at Baltimore

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pp. 1-8

Fort Sumter fell on April 14, 1861. Five days later, pro-Confederate mobs attacked Massachusetts infantry traveling through Baltimore en route to Washington, D.C., and the troops returned fire. To prevent further movement of U.S. troops through Baltimore, railroad bridges connecting that city to Washington and the North had been burned, not by saboteurs or guerrillas, but by organized members of the Maryland state militia acting with the approval of the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of the state. ...

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1. "With the Law of War in Time of War": Applying International Law to a Civil War

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pp. 9-33

At the beginning of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln had diametrically opposed views on the nature of the conflict and the laws that should apply to the conduct of hostilities and the treatment of enemy persons. The Confederate government argued that it represented an independent nation at war with another independent nation, and that their relations were regulated solely by international ...

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2. "Property, Both of Enemies and Friends, May Be Taken When Needed": Seizure and Destruction of Civilian Property

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pp. 35-51

One of Lincoln’s earliest acts as commander in chief was to promise respect for the property of enemy civilians. In his proclamation of April 15, 1861, calling out 75,000 militia for federal service after the fall of Fort Sumter, the president deemed it proper to state that when these forces sought to repossess the forts, places, and property seized from the United States by the rebels, “the utmost care will be observed . . . to ...

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3. "Strong Measures, Deemed Indispensible but Harsh at Best": Retaliation and Guerrilla Warfare

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pp. 53-76

Most of the house burning that bothered the president had been carried out, by both sides, as acts of “retaliation.” In theory, each was a response to a violation of the laws and customs of war by the other side, intended to deter future violations. Article 27 of the Lieber Code expressed the prevailing view: “The law of war can no more wholly dispense with retaliation than can the law of nations, of which it is a branch. ...

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4. "War, at the Best, Is Terrible": Devastation and Command Responsibility

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pp. 77-99

In defense of the order authorizing his soldiers to live off the land, General John Pope’s official report on his 1862 campaign in Virginia asserted that orders to subsist off the country were “common in the history of warfare” and that his orders were “well calculated to secure efficient and rapid operations of the army, and, in case of reverse, to leave the enemy without the means of subsisting in the country over which our army had passed, and over which any pursuit must be conducted.” Although ...

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5. "Can You Get Near Enough to Throw Shells into the City?": Personal Injury to Civilians

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pp. 101-118

When President Lincoln wrote the order of April 25, 1861, authorizing bombardment of Baltimore, he may not have realized the full implications of the power he was giving General Winfield Scott. Errors in the order that are apparent when the full text is read suggest that it was written in haste and excitement: ...

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Conclusion: “Government Should Not Act for Revenge”

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pp. 119-128

Under the standards of his time, President Lincoln did not authorize or condone any violations of the laws of war against enemy civilians. Beyond this generalization, the record suggests additional conclusions that may be drawn on Lincoln’s policies toward Southern civilians and how those policies reflect his leadership style and personality. ...


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pp. 129-154


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pp. 155-165

E-ISBN-13: 9780813173665
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125695

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 646068468
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Lincoln on Trial

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Subject Headings

  • Civilians in war -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Lincoln, Abraham, -- 1809-1865 -- Military leadership.
  • Lincoln, Abraham, -- 1809-1865 -- Ethics.
  • Combatants and noncombatants (International law).
  • Just war doctrine.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Moral and ethical aspects.
  • War -- Moral and ethical aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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