Lincoln: “The law of nations … permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies”

Aug 29 1863.  Apparently the rumor of the execution of colored soldiers during the battle at Milliken’s Bend has been printed in a newspaper and has made its way to Gen. Halleck.  I received the following letter from him,

Major-General GRANT, Vicksburg, MISS.:

GENERAL: I inclose herewith a slip taken from the Missouri Democrat.

The Secretary of War directs that you report any answer you may have received from General Taylor to your communication to him on the treatment of colored troops and of white officers of such troops. You will also report any reliable evidence you may have of the alleged ill-treatment of any of our troops by the enemy.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,



[From the Missouri Democrat.]


The following is given us upon the authority of Lieutenant Cole, of the Mississippi Marine Brigade:

The day after the battle of Milliken’s Bend, in June last, the Marine Brigade landed some 10 miles below the Bend, and attacked and routed the guerrillas which had been repulsed by our troops and the gunboats the day previous. Major Hubbard’s cavalry battalion, of the Marine Brigade, followed the retreating rebels to Tensas Bayou, and were horrified in the finding of skeletons of white officers commanding negro regiments, who had been captured by the rebels at Milliken’s Bend.

In many cases these officers had been nailed to the trees and crucified; in this situation a fire was built around the tree, and they suffered a slow death from broiling. The charred and partially burned limbs were still fastened to the stakes. Other instances were noticed of charred skeletons of officers, which had been nailed to slabs, and the slabs placed against a house which was set on fire by the inhuman demons, the poor sufferers having been roasted alive until nothing was left but charred bones. Negro prisoners recaptured from the guerrillas confirmed these facts, which were amply corroborated by the bodies found, as above described. The negroes taken were to be resold into slavery, while the white officers were consumed by fire.

Lieutenant Cole holds himself responsible for the truth of the statement.


I have already questioned Gen. Taylor about the rumored atrocities and I am satisfied that they did not occur.  I wrote back,

HDQRS. DEPT. OF THE TENN., Vicksburg, August 29, 1863.

General H. W. HALLECK, Washington, D. C.:

Your letter of the 12th instant, owing to my absence from headquarters for a few days, is just received. The letter referred to contains an extract from the Missouri Democrat (entirely sensational, I think), detailing horrors said to have been committed upon officers and soldiers said to have been captured at Milliken’s Bend, in July last. Inclose correspondence which ensued.

I have no evidence of ill-treatment to any prisoners captured from us further than the determination to turn over to Governors of States all colored soldiers captured.

Owing to movements now going on WEST of the Mississippi, I cannot communicate well with either General E. K. Smith or General Taylor. As soon as I can, however, I will do so, and inclose a copy of the President’s retaliatory order. I am also in hopes of having on hand by that time a number of prisoners of war from Smith’s command, which would add great force to anything I might say.

The expedition from Goodrich’s Landing is now five days out. Between Steele’s movement and this one, it will confuse the enemy so as to make Banks’ entry into Texas easy.



The President’s retaliatory order was issued on July 30 and reads,

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



The Papers of Ulysses S Grant, Vol 9, p 210-1

O.R., I, xxiv, part 3, p 589-90

Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, VI, p 357

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