Monday, December 13, 2021

Lorien Foote's "Rites of Retaliation"

Lorien Foote is the Patricia & Bookman Peters Professor in History. She joined the faculty at Texas A&M University in 2013 after teaching and researching for thirteen years at the University of Central Arkansas. Her books include The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners of War (2016), which was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (2010), which was a finalist and honorable mention for the 2011 Lincoln Prize, and Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-Century Reform (2003).

Foote applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War, and reported the following:
I have always been a good test taker, so I am not surprised that Rites of Retaliation passes the Page 99 test, although I must admit that it barely passes. On this page I present key evidence for one of the important arguments of the book. A booklover who turned to page 99 would read that during the American Civil War, officials in the Confederate War Department were worried because President Abraham Lincoln had issued an order of retaliation against Confederate soldiers in order to protect freeborn Black Union soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts who had been taken prisoner. In response, these officials decided to change their policy and treat Black men born free in Northern states differently than they treated those who were formerly enslaved.

An important theme of Rites of Retaliation is the story of how Union and Confederate civilian and military officials used a ritual of retaliation that shaped the conduct of military campaigns. I argue that retaliation worked to alter policy and practice during the war, and on page 99 we get a glimpse of a major storyline in the book related to that argument. In the Department of the South, Black Union soldiers conducted raids along the rivers of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In May 1863, the Confederate Congress issued a retaliation resolution that declared that all Black Union soldiers captured would not be considered legitimate combatants. Rather than being treated as prisoners of war, such soldiers would be turned over to state governments, where presumably they would be sold into slavery or executed. Federal officials believed that the Confederate resolutions violated the international laws of war and responded with a retaliation proclamation demanding that free-born Black soldiers be treated as prisoners of war. The U.S. War Department set aside three Confederate soldiers from South Carolina as hostages and threatened to execute them if Confederate officials did not treat Northern-born Black soldiers as prisoners of war. The Confederate War Department changed its policy, pressuring southern governors not to put on trial captured Black soldiers who had already been turned over to them, placing Black soldiers from northern states who were subsequently captured in military prisons with white prisoners, and delivering free-born Black soldiers for exchange as prisoners of war.

But something critical is missing on page 99, which makes my passing score disappointingly marginal. The word “civilization” is never used. Rites of Retaliation, at its heart, is about the worldview of civilization that Americans shared. It explores the kind of war they wanted to fight, one that separated them from savage peoples through its restraint of violence, its use of customs that stretched back to ancient times, and its confirmation of combatants’ honorable reputation before the world. Retaliation was a ritual they used, drawn from the international customs of war, to address the atrocious acts that seemed to abound during the war and threatened Americans’ view of themselves as civilized. A reader who turned to page 99 would not get a glimpse of the picture I paint throughout the book: of Americans fighting over the very meaning of civilization itself, and who could be included in the civilized world.
Learn more about Rites of Retaliation at the University of North Carolina Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Gentlemen and the Roughs.

--Marshal Zeringue