November 1862. South Carolina. Confederate soldiers captured four black soldiers who were all wearing Union uniforms. Both Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon and President Jefferson Davis approved their “summary execution” and hoped it would serve as an example to other slaves who had ideas about joining the Union ranks.
A month later, President Davis issued an infamous Christmas Eve Proclamation. He promised several things, but the last two points were especially troublesome:
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.
That the like orders be executed in all cases with respect to all commissioned officers of the United States when found serving in company with armed slaves in insurrection against the authorities of the different States of the Confederacy.
Former slaves would be returned to slavery, while their white officers faced execution.
On May 30, the Confederate Congress sanctioned the policy, but added a caveat—captured officers were to be tried and punished by military courts, rather than by the states.
Though the policy was not strictly enforced, there is no doubt some Confederate officers took matters into their own hands. Secretary of War Seddon acknowledged that captured officers were sometimes “dealt with red-handed on the field or immediately thereafter.” Anecdotal evidence confirms the observation. A Confederate colonel reported that his regiment captured a squad of black soldiers in Louisana. When some of them tried to escape, the colonel wrote, “I then ordered every one shot, and with my Six Shooter I assisted in the execution of the order.” Similarly, a North Carolina soldier reported helping capture several members of a black regiment, but “afterwards either bayoneted or burnt [them]. The men were perfectly exasperated at the idea of negroes opposed to them & rushed at them like so many devils.”
Rumors of such atrocities made their way to the White House, prompting the War Department to Draft an “Order of Retaliation.” On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed his name to General Orders No. 252. Here it is in full:
Order of Retaliation
Executive Mansion, Washington D.C July 30. 1863
It is the duty of every government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person, on account of his color, and for no offence against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age.
The government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave anyone because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy's prisoners in our possession.
It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war