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Jus In Bello

Just as the concept of duty is important to a soldier, so is the adherence to the laws of war. Although, to be sure, history shows that these laws have not been rigidly adhered to, as a whole, professionals within the American military tradition exalt the ethical treatment of the enemy and prisoners as a sine qua non to an effective and just officer. In many ways, it is a soldier’s duty to adhere to these laws. This principle gathered greater importance as former North Carolina Confederate officers worked to explain and justify their wartime endeavors against the Union Army.

Most important in the wartime narrative of appeals for amnesty was the petitioner’s insistence that they never mistreated prisoners or Union soldiers on the battlefield. Articulating this, former navy Lieutenant Joseph Alexander wrote, “He never exercised or attempted to exercise the power confided to him infamously or oppressively.”(Item 470) D.H. Hill also underscored his ethical treatment of prisoners and civilians, both northern and southern alike, by claiming that he “conducted” the war on “humane principles” and that he “in no instance maltreated Federal soldiers or citizens claiming to be sympathizers with the Union cause.” (Item 472) Former officer in the Confederate navy John N. Maffitt of New Hanover County wrote on June 1, 1867 that, as commander of the privateer Florida, “all acts in that capacity were ethically governed by the rules of civilized warfare and prisoners taken by him were treated with kindness, humanity and indulgence.” (Item 477) Edgecombe County resident and former Brigadier General W.G. Lewis also employed this justification by writing on June 20, 1865 that “I have never maltreated or allowed my men to maltreat any prisoners who have been thrown by the fortunes of war into my hands.” (Item 478) With jus in bello being the duty of a loyal Confederate officer, Lewis tied his duty-bound ethical treatment of prisoners and devoted service to the Confederacy to the foundation of a faithful restored citizen of the United States with an interesting twist of logic. He declared, “Having faithfully discharged my duties to the Confederate States as long as it had an existence, I trust that you will not doubt my fidelity to the Union.” (Item 478)

W.G. Lewis effectively correlated the idea that the adherence to jus in bello by a Confederate officer qualified him for readmission into the Union. By ethically treating prisoners, a Confederate officer thus proved the fact that he harbored no animosity toward the soldiers of the Union and served in the war only to support his state. To Lewis, this fact could facilitate Johnson’s decision to grant amnesty. If a Confederate officer’s duty and loyalty had simply been misdirected, would he not be a faithful and valuable United States citizen with redirected allegiance? By asserting this, these former Confederate officers hoped to sway President Johnson by impressing the idea that reconciliation between the states could be easily fostered by readmitting former Confederate officers who acted ethically towards Union prisoners and soldiers; if the brutality of war did not convince them to maltreat or resent Union citizens, then they surely would not during peacetime.