Book Review: Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War


by Lorien Foote

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 300. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $26.95 paper. ISBN: 1469665271

Retaliation as an Instrument of War

In this book Prof. Foote (Texas A&M), examines the Union’s campaign in the Confederacy’s “Department of the South” (Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina), and particularly against Charleston, to explore the role of retaliation as a “weapon” in the Civil War. She addresses matters such as the Federal enlistment and use of Black troops, the Confederacy’s treatment of Union prisoners- of-war, and the Union’s treatment of civilians in the war zone.

Foote found a significant number of well documented incidents of retaliation over several years in this theatre. For example, Union commanders often treated Confederate guerrillas as illegitimate combatants, and executed them, while in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy adopted severe policies toward the Union’s Black troops.

Foote makes a good case that Americans of the times, whether Unionist or Confederate, believed that the war would be conducted civilly and that they would remain as a civilized people, but as the war dragged on, their views on the matter grew more complex. Civilized nations fought with uniformed participants who represented their armies and states, who exercised self-control and were disciplined and commanded by gentlemen officers. In the course of the war, for example, Robert E. Lee made several complaints to various Union generals, such as John Pope, and to the U.S. government over matters that he perceive d as contrary to the accepted norms of warfare. So the “hard war” of Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman was considered by Confederates as morally unjustified, especially when fighting affected women, children, and the home front.

Foote, further emphasizes that in a number of instances in which the traditional norms of war were violated, military leaders on both sides approved formal retaliation, with the intention of preventing further savage behavior. She notes that because the Union armies did control some areas of secessionist states continuously, it was difficult for the Confederate authorities to take action when Federal soldiers plundered farms or former slaves burned plantation houses. Both sides mined U.S history and precedents from European wars and laws to justify the actions they took to cope with such incidents.

In the end, the Union tried to adhere to Francis Lieber’s “Code” when organizing retaliation. In the end the code was a framework for responding to the Confederacy when its troops violated the traditions of civilized warfare. For Jefferson Davis, Confederate actions often were dictated by the Emancipation Proclamation, arguing that aiding slaves to free themselves from bondage, amounted to encouraging servile rebellion, which threatened the existence of “Southern civilization”. Davis and the Confederate Congress threatened to kill white officers of the U.S.C.T., and permitted their commanders to use black prisoners-of-war as human shields and killed white Union foragers upon capture. Both sides used starvation of prisoners as compatible with the laws of war.

Foote’s research involved the evaluation of the thoughts and experiences of 1,200 commissioned officers who fought in the Department of the South and how they crossed the line of civilized man and savage beings.

Rites of Retaliation is a riveting read that brings a human element to fighting where humanity was lost amid campaigns and battles. Foote provides students and scholars with a deeply researched, even handed treatment of this little understood aspect of the war.

This reviewer highly recommends Rites of Retaliation, which the Organization of American Historians declared the best book on the Civil War and Reconstruction of 2021.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include, , Voices of the Army of the Potomac, The Record of Murders and Outrages, Gettysburg 1963, No Common Ground, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Ellsworth, Their Maryland, and The Lion of Round Top.



Note: Rites of Retaliation is also available in hard cover and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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