Order of Retaliation:
In December 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis ordered that “all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” Officially, the Confederate government considered all African Americans caught in Union blue to be criminals—not prisoners of war—and “in insurrection against the state.” Eight months later, in the wake of the battle at Fort Wagner (outside of Charleston, South Carolina), state authorities charged captured soldiers from the famed Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment with fomenting rebellion. While awaiting their trials, which proved inconclusive and were not repeated, the black soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts endured harsh conditions and abuse in a Confederate prison. As news spread about the egregious Confederate policy and the maltreatment of captured African American soldiers, Lincoln came under enormous pressure to respond. His Order of Retaliation (General Order No. 252) put the Confederacy on notice that the United States would insist on proper treatment for all its soldiers, regardless of “class, color, or condition.” Yet its threat to execute one rebel soldier for every Union soldier killed in violation of “the laws of war” proved toothless and was never enforced. Confederate leaders quickly abandoned attempts to try black soldiers as insurrectionists and allowed individual units to resolve the issue on the battlefield, where summary executions became common. Confederate atrocities reached new depths at the April 12, 1864, Battle of Fort Pillow, but Lincoln concluded that retaliation would only spark an unending cycle of retribution, and failed to support his black troops. Howard C. Westwood, “Captive Black Union Soldiers in Charleston—What to Do?” Civil War History 28 (March 1982): 28–44.