“Pirates,” et cetera
Bush II Administration has experienced, or created, some confusion
in the matter of prisoners taken in the ongoing “war.” This is not
entirely without antecedents, some of them tracing back to our very
own War of the Roses (floruit 1861-1865). I refer of course
to the War of Secession.
my life I have heard the question, posed by outsiders, “Why do they
keep fighting that old war?” It is a good question, especially in
the form, “Why do Yankees keep fighting that old war?” I
can say this with little rancor and with no wish, right now, to
open up debate on the merits of the case and whether the better
side won, and so on.
All-Changed Post-9/11 climate has raised this question in new ways
and whittled it down to a point sharper than the average Neo-Con’s
wit. Within days of Nine Eleven, sundry pundits, historians, and
neo-cons without portfolio were appealing to the “best” in American
traditions, with the “best” understood as a truckload of post- or
supra-constitutional abuses undertaken in major wars by strong presidents.
Much was heard of Abraham Lincoln conjuring up numerous ways of
dealing with dissent and opposition, while brooding over his duty
to re-found the union. These ways are now gilded, or at least brazen,
were allusions to the 15,000 or so “Copperheads” imprisoned without
warrant, charges, or any hint of legal ground, in the north. Suspension
of the Bill of Rights was mooted. Less was said about prisoners
of war, until numbers of captured Taliban began turning up in Cuba
in those moronic orange jumpsuits. There were those who brought
up the Geneva Convention, but the administration waved that aside
while simultaneously juggling several theories about the status
of the... no one knows... “detainees,” perhaps.
this brings me to the colorful memoirs of Admiral Raphael Semmes,
CSN, best known as Captain of the very successful Confederate raider,
Alabama. I should preface this section by saying that, as
an advocate of free markets and commerce, I do not regard attacks
on private property and shipping as a really good idea, even
or especially in wartime. (See
my comments on Gustave de Molinari’s views.) On the other hand,
all the powers thought differently in the mid-19th century and Mr.
Lincoln’s government had set the standard with a draconian blockade
of Southern ports, which has some resemblance to the US embargo
of Cuba. Given these facts, I am not going to worry as much about
Confederate commerce raiders as I otherwise might.
the hands of someone like Semmes, such naval operations were carried
out with maximum adherence to the rules. Some have found him the
model of absurdly outmoded punctilio on the grounds, one reckons,
that Total War was the wave of the future and that the Future must
always be embraced. That’s progress, you know. If the old rules
said that a raider must utter a particular formula, treat those
on board an enemy ship with a certain respect, and stand by to aid
those in danger of drowning once a battle was over, Semmes followed
helps explain Semmes’s indignation over the other side’s pragmatic
outlook, as displayed upon the sinking of the Alabama by
the USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg on the English Channel on
June 19, 1864. It wasn’t just that he lost his ship; there were
principles at stake. I shall not discuss the battle; Semmes does
that ably and with great style.
is enough to say that, with his ship damaged beyond hope of escape
or recovery, Semmes struck his colors. He writes: “The Alabama
was sunk in open daylight the enemy’s ship being only
400 yards distant and ten of my men were permitted to drown.
Indeed, but for the friendly interposition of the Deerhound,
there is no doubt that a great many more would have perished” (Raphael
of Service Afloat During the War Between the States (reprint,
1987), p. 759).
was in direct violation of the existing rules of naval warfare.
John A. Winslow, Captain of the Kearsarge, excused himself
by reporting that he had feared a Confederate “ruse.” Writing to
advise Charles Francis Adams, US Minister to London, on what he
should say to Lord John Russell, US Secretary of State William H.
Seward said, “it was the right of the Kearsarge that the pirates
should drown,” unless they somehow saved themselves, or were
saved by the Kearsarge as a matter of policy, but in any case “without
the aid of the Deerhound” (p. 762, Semmes’s italics).
says, rather dryly, “the American war developed ‘grand moral ideas,’
and Mr. Seward’s, about the drowning of prisoners, was one of them”
Semmes and his crew were prisoners was the natural assumption
of the pragmatic union-savers. Charles Francis Adams, a real son
of a President, wrote Secretary Seward on June 21 in some excitement,
complaining about the “conduct of the Deerhound” and asking
whether he could demand “the surrender of the prisoners” (p. 765).
A private vessel had rescued drowning men, taken them ashore
in a neutral country, and the US representatives wanted “their prisoners”!
There was really nothing to be said.
Adams got his instructions and made his demands. Lord John Russell’s
reply performed, in effect, an indelicate surgery on Adams. As if
politely correcting an especially dull schoolboy, Russell restated
the prevailing rules of naval engagement and concluded that the
captain of an English yacht “was not under any obligation to deliver
to the captain of the Kearsarge the officers and men whom
he had rescued from the waves” (p. 766). Russell rubbed in salt
by saying that there was no treaty between the US and Britain
applicable to the case.
held that as the Kearsarge never had his crew in hand, the
latter were never prisoners.
union-saves maintained that if they had accorded belligerent status
to the Confederacy in any respect, this flowed solely from their
great kindness or their considered policy. At sea, the Northern
government took the line that Confederate raiders were mere “pirates.”
Semmes comments: “It did not occur to the wily Secretary, that,
if we were ‘pirates,’ it was as competent for Great Britain to deal
with us as the United States; and that, on this very ground, his
claim for extradition might be denied...” (p. 778).
intimated that John Lancaster, owner of the Deerhound, had
been turned from his duty to hand over the “prisoners” by money
tendered him by Semmes. The latter comments that it “was quite natural”
for Seward to “suppose that money and stealings had had something
to do with Mr. Lancaster’s generous conduct. The whole American
war, on the Yankee side, has been conducted on this principle of
giving and receiving a ‘consideration’ and on ‘stealings’”
mattered a great deal to Semmes whether or not he and his men were
prisoners, even in theory. For in the Northern government’s mind,
they would not have been real prisoners of war, but pirates liable
to be hanged. The US government has had difficulty, at times, with
the existing rules of war.
Spaniards were a real enemy in 1898, but the Filipinos in the so-called
Philippine Insurrection (the sequel) were bandits to be killed out
of hand. In World War I, the US treated Germans as real soldiers
but compensated for this by treating the German government
as illegitimate. At best, there has been a certain reluctance on
the part of the United States to accord its enemies any legitimacy.
That reluctance reflects a kind of moral imperialism whose first
great victory was over the Southern states. But it makes it hard
for policy-makers to decide just what the status of defeated, captured
imagine: All that moral grandeur embodied in one government, and
one government alone.
have only pointed out a persistent syndrome. Am I comparing Confederates
and Taliban? I think not. Anyway, a host of northern writers
and pundits have been doing just that ever since 9/11. Mr.Victor
Davis Hanson can’t let a day pass without praising General Sherman
for burning and looting his way across Georgia and South Carolina.
(As if to prove my point, he has issued another NRO medal to Sherman
column of April 30.) Other kindly souls have taken to calling
Confederates “terrorists” and recommending Mr. Lincoln’s brazen
usurpations of power to meet the present situation. I suppose it’s
their idea of reasoning by historical analogy. Nonetheless, they
have set the terms of discussion.
do wish those fellows would quit fightin’ that old war.
R. Stromberg [send him mail]
is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig
von Mises Institute and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
© 2002 LewRockwell.com
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