The American Civil War was a vicious conflict that developed in intense hatred between opposing sides. Despite some historians’ assertions that this was history’s last great “gentlemen’s war,” the conflict was anything but civil. There is ample evidence to suggest that both sides quite commonly retaliated against one another throughout the war, often in chillingly inhumane ways.
Violent retaliation was most apparent within Federal and Confederate penitentiaries. Prisoners of war were frequently subjected to both physical and mental abuse. This sort of mistreatment was employed to obtain information, recruit prisoners for military service, or to force prisoners to sign oaths of allegiance.
In addition to the torture and neglect that were carried out on a regular basis, even more unbelievable—and less known—was the actual killing of these unarmed men in retribution for their army’s actions on the battlefield. Sometimes it happened as the prisoners threw down their weapons and raised their hands to surrender. More often, however, the killing took place at the prisons, where guards carried out cold-blooded executions, their victims chosen by lottery. These unconscionable acts were frequently sanctioned by the highest levels of authority in Washington and Richmond, and at times the conflict devolved into a “war of retaliation.” Threats of revenge were often countered by the opposing army, each side trying to outdo the other. These acts of vengeance were seldom directed at the guilty; most often, soldiers targeted innocent prisoners who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Author Lonnie Speer explores this little-known practice of reciprocal wartime violence, focusing on the most notorious and well-documented cases of the war. The author illustrated his claims with the first-hand accounts of numerous prisoners, painting a chilling picture of Civil War military and political policy.
A historian and freelance writer, Lonnie R Speer has published several articles in Civil War Times Illustrated and America’s Civil War. He is also the author of Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War. He lives in North Carolina.