Monday, November 21, 2011

November 22, 1861 (Thursday): "...Some Desperate Characters"

Confederate Articles of War-Museum of American History

          Richmond, November 22, 1861.
JOHN LETCHER, Governor of Virginia:
   SIR: Will not your convention do something to protect your own people against atrocious crimes committed on their persons and property?  There are in the Army, unfortunately, some desperate characters—men gathered from the outskirts and purlieus of large cities—who take advantage of the absence of the civil authorities to commit crimes, even murder, rape, and highway robbery, on the peaceful citizens in the neighborhood of the armies.  For these offenses the punishment should be inflicted by the civil authorities.  Our people must not lose their respect for law in the midst of the clash of arms.  Some legislation is absolutely indispensable to provide for changing the venue, for carrying the accused into some county where the process of law is not prevented by the presence of armies.  There are murderers now in insecure custody at Manassas who cannot be tried for want of a court there, and who will escape the just penalty of their crimes.  The crimes committed by these men are not military offenses.  If a soldier, rambling through the country, murders a farmer or violates the honor of his wife or daughter, courts martial cannot properly take cognizance of the offense, nor is it allowable to establish military commissions or tribunals in our own country.  I appeal to Virginia legislators for protection to Virginians, and this appeal will, I know, be responded to by prompt and efficient action.
    I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
                                                                      J. P. BENJAMIN,
                                                                                Secretary of War

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 51, Part 2, Page 386.

At the start of the war the Articles of War (1806), observed by both sides, did not specifically deal with issues such as rape or murder of civilians.  However, Article 34 did compel military authorities to turn over soldiers, where serious offenses were alleged, to civilian authority.  It is unclear why Benjamin would believe the legislation he advocates here was necessary.  As a side note, President Lincoln would issue General Orders 100 in 1863 (the Lieber Code) which dealt specifically with crimes against civilians.  The Articles of War would not be revised again until 1912.  It is no surprise Benjamin, a Yale graduate, took interest in military-legal issues.  He began the war as the Confederacy's attorney general.  He also had quite a command of the language, as his use of purlieus (the area near or surrounding a place) attests.

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