Accountability of Officers
- Kristine Statham wrote:
"Does anyone know if officers during the CW were held accountable for the
actions of the men under their command? They can in some instances today.
I'm doing research on Sherman for a paper on whether his March to the Sea
would comply with present day military standards vs CW standards. Help,
I get the impression you are alluding to "war crimes". If I am mistaken
then what follows is waay off base.
Other than the occasional court-martial for the failure of a division,
army, or corps on the battlefield, I am not aware of any legal actions,
during or after the war, to hold officers accountable for the actions of
their men on the battlefield nor of any legal requirement to do so. The
court-martials I refer to were primarily driven by the lack of leadership of
the officer and not due to any perceived wrongdoing on the part of the
soldiers. Of course, there was that unfortunate misunderstanding concerning
Nathan B.'s men and Fort Pillow, but even after the war there was no
conviction or imprisonment of the Wizard because of the actions of his men.
The only postwar punishment was of Captain Wirtz who was the commandant of
Andersonville. He received, in fine vigilante tradition, a fair trail
followed by a first class hanging. Such judgment and punishment, of course,
administered by the Federal government who had chosen to overlook the
depredations, starvation, diseases, and deaths in their own camps.
The concept of "war crime" is ambiguous at best, in my very humble
opinion. These crimes, like "hate crimes", are created through the fickle
and ever changing arena of world or national opinion. They allude to our
prayer and hope as human beings to maintain a level of humanity and
civilization during armed conflict. We acknowledge the necessity of war but
desire to retain a sense of our decency in the conduct of such an enterprise.
To that end, crimes in these categories are based on subjective legal
reasoning at best. Whereas theft, murder, rape, and vandalism have roots in
common law and shared cultures, the concept of "crimes against humanity" are
based more on altruism. The Nuremberg Trials and the war trials of the
Japanese generals are two of the best examples and show how the ideology and
culture of the victor can be stamped and impressed upon the hearts and minds
of the vanquished. Reconstruction of the South is an example of the same
It is my understanding that the concept of an officer being accountable
for the actions of the men under his command didn't come into play until
after the Geneva Conventions of the 1920's and 1940's; after World Wars One
and Two. These conventions and treaties lay the groundwork for the concepts
which our military forces operate under today and were the peg that the
Federal government hung their hats on during the trials of Calley and Medina.
To compare present day military standards to CW era standards would,
again in my very humble opinion, be a difficult task. You would not only
have to compare the legal standards and authority of military commanders but
you would also have to include the social and political thoughts and ideas
that prevailed throughout each era and their corresponding influence on the
military philosophy. Don't forget the civil military commanders as well, the
Military Governors during the occupation of Southern cities during and after
If you are near a military base, I would suggest contacting the base
information officer and asking for publications on the Law of Land Warfare or
even visiting the base library and asking the librarian. Each service
publishes these manuals to be used as lesson plans for training sessions.
However, don't be put off by thinking that you will have to wade through a
whole bunch of militaryese. By the time I retired in '92 the style of
writing was more coherent, informative and easy to read. Many of these
publications provide a bibliography for further study and research. If you
are not near a military base, you might try the Government Printing Office as
these manuals are not classified.
Also I would suggest you look into the history, development, and present
day articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or UCMJ. These are the
rules and laws that govern the day to day life of everyone in the military
and the articles upon which a member may be charged for violation of the Laws
of Land Warfare.