Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Letter from General Lee

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 1, Number 4  (1876)  by Robert Edward Lee
Letter from General Lee
Southern Historical Society Papers, April 1876

Soon after the signing of the cartel, a correspondence ensued, which would unquestionably have stopped all exchange of prisoners had the Confederates not held a large excess of prisoners. The following

LETTER FROM GENERAL LEE

clearly sets forth the points at issue:

[Copy.]

Headquarters Army of the Confederate States,
Near Richmond, Virginia, August 2, 1862. 

To the General Commanding United States Army, Washington:

General—In obedience to the order of his Excellency, the President of the Confederate States, I have the honor to make to you the following communication:

On the 22d of July last a cartel for a general exchange of prisoners of war was signed by Major-General John A. Dix, on behalf of the United States, and by Major-General D. H. Hill, on the part of this Government. By the terms of that cartel it is stipulated that all prisoners of war hereafter taken shall be discharged on parole until exchanged.

Scarcely had the cartel been signed when the military authorities of the United States commenced a practice changing the character of the war from such as becomes civilized nations into a campaign of indiscriminate robbery and murder.

A general order, issued by the Secretary of War of the United States, in the city of Washington, on the very day that the cartel was signed in Virginia, directs the military commander of the United States to take the property of our people for the convenience and use of the army, without compensation.

A general order, issued by Major-General Pope on the 23d of July last, the day after the date of the cartel, directs the murder of our peaceful citizens as spies, if found quietly tilling their farms in his rear, even outside of his lines.

And one of his Brigadier-Generals, Steinwehr, has seized innocent and peaceful inhabitants to be held as hostages, to the end that they may be murdered in cold blood if any of his soldiers are killed by some unknown persons, whom he designated as "bushwhackers."

Some of the military authorities of the United States seem to suppose that their end will be better attained by a savage war, in which no quarter is to be given and no age or sex to be spared, than by such hostilities as are alone recognized to be lawful in modern times. We find ourselves driven by our enemies, by steady progress, towards a practice which we abhor, and which we are vainly struggling to avoid.

Under these circumstances this Government has issued the accompanying general order, which I am directed by the President to transmit to you, recognizing Major-General Pope and his commissioned officers to be in a position which they have chosen for themselves—that of robbers and murderers, and not that of public enemies, entitled, if captured, to be treated as prisoners of war.

The President also instructs me to inform you that we renounce our right of retaliation on the innocent, and will continue to treat the private enlisted soldiers of General Pope's army as prisoners of war; but if, after notice to your Government that we confine repressive measures to the punishment of commissioned officers, who are willing participants in these crimes, the savage practices threatened in the orders alluded to, be persisted in, we shall reluctantly be forced to the last resort of accepting the war on the terms chosen by our enemies, until the voice of an outraged humanity shall compel a respect for the recognized usages of war.

While the President considers that the facts referred to would justify a refusal on our part to execute the cartel, by which we have agreed to liberate an excess of prisoners of war in our hands, a sacred regard for plighted faith, which shrinks from the semblance of breaking a promise, precludes a resort to such an extremity. Nor is it his desire to extend to any other forces of the United States the punishment merited by General Pope and such commissioned officers as choose to participate in the execution of his infamous orders.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully your obedient servant,

(Signed)

R. E. Lee, 
General Commanding.

Adjutant And Inspector General's Office, 
Richmond, August 1, 1862.

General Orders, No. 54.

I. The following orders are published for the information and observance of all concerned:
II. Whereas, by a general order, dated the 22d July, 1862, issued by the Secretary of War of the United States, under the order of the President of the United States, the military commanders of that Government within the States of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, are directed to seize and use any property, real or personal, belonging to the inhabitants of this Confederacy, which may be necessary or convenient for their several commands, and no provision is made for any compensation to the owners of private property thus seized and appropriated by the military commanders of the enemy:
III. And whereas, by General Order, No. 11, issued on the 23d July, 1862, by Major-General Pope, commanding the forces of the enemy in Northern Virginia, it is ordered that all "commanders of army corps, divisions, brigades and detached commands, will proceed immediately to arrest all disloyal male citizens within their lines or within their reach, in rear of their respective commands. Such as are willing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, and will furnish sufficient security for its observance, shall be permitted to remain at their homes and pursue in good faith their accustomed avocations. Those who refuse shall be conducted South, beyond the extreme pickets of this army, and be notified that if found again anywhere within our lines, or at any point in rear, they will be considered spies, and subjected to the extreme rigor of military law. If any person, having taken the oath of allegiance as above specified, be found to have violated it, he shall be shot, and his property seized and applied to the public use":
IV. And whereas, by an order issued on the 13th July, 1862, by Brigadier-General A. Steinwehr, Major William Steadman, a cavalry officer of his brigade, has been ordered to arrest five of the most prominent citizens of Page county, Virginia, to be held as hostages, and to suffer death in the event of any of the soldiers of said Steinwehr being shot by "bushwhackers," by which term are meant the citizens of this Confederacy who have taken up arms to defend their homes and families:
V. And whereas it results from the above orders that some of the military authorities of the United States, not content with the unjust and aggressive warfare hitherto waged with savage cruelty against an unoffending people, and exasperated by the failure of their effort to subjugate them, have now determined to violate all the rules and usages of war, and to convert the hostilities hitherto waged against armed forces into a campaign of robbery and murder against unarmed citizens and peaceful tillers of the soil:
VI. And whereas this Government, bound by the highest obligations of duty to its citizens, is thus driven to the necessity of adopting just such measures of retribution and retaliation as shall seem adequate to repress and punish these barbarities; and whereas the orders above recited have only been published and made known to this Government since the signature of a cartel for exchange of prisoners of war, which cartel, in so far as it provides for an exchange of prisoners hereafter captured, would never have been signed or agreed to by this Government if the intention to change the war into a system of indiscriminate murder and robbery had been known to it; and whereas a just regard to humanity forbids that the repression of crime which this Government is thus compelled to enforce should be unnecessarily extended to retaliation on the enlisted men in the army of the United States, who may be the unwilling instruments of the savage cruelty of their commanders, so long as there is hope that the excesses of the enemy may be checked or prevented by retribution on the commissioned officers, who have the power to avoid guilty action, by refusing service under a Government which seeks their aid in the perpetration of such infamous barbarities:
VII. Therefore, it is ordered that Major-General Pope, Brigadier-General Steinwehr, and all commissioned officers serving under their respective commands, be and they are hereby expressly and specially declared to be not entitled to be considered as soldiers, and therefore not entitled to the benefit of the cartel for the parole of future prisoners of war. Ordered, further, that in the event of the capture of Major-General Pope or Brigadier-General Steinwehr, or of any commissioned officers serving under them, the captive so taken shall be held in close confinement so long as the orders aforesaid shall continue in force and unrepealed by the competent military authorities of the United States; and that in the event of the murder of any unarmed citizen or inhabitant of this Confederacy by virtue or under pretext of any of the orders herein before recited, whether with or without trial, whether under pretence of such citizen being a spy or hostage, or any other pretence, it shall be the duty of the Commanding General of the forces of this Confederacy to cause immediately to be hung, out of the commissioned officers, prisoners as aforesaid, a number equal to the number of our own citizens thus murdered by the enemy.

By order.

S. Cooper, 
Adjutant and Inspector General.

Now here was a fine opportunity for the authorities at Washington to stop the cartel and charge the "Rebels" with bad faith. They would doubtless have done so had we not held the excess of prisoners; but they simply indulged in a little high rhetoric, continued the cartel, and caused Pope to cease his high-handed outrages. And so the cartel continued until July, 1863—the Federal authorities frequently violating its provisions, and the Confederates carrying them out to the letter.