Beginning with the 1637 Pequot War, conflicts with eastern Native Americans were bloody. Punishing the Pequots for the death of an English trader, Massachusetts militia attacked men, women, and children at the stockaded Mystic village, setting it ablaze and shooting escapees. Celebrating their rivals' destruction, the victors set an enduring pattern in Indian‐white relations. Anglo‐Americans decried Mohawk, Miami, Seminole, or Creek attacks on their settlements or troops as massacres, but praised no less brutal strikes against Indian villages as just.
Distrust of English rule grew after the Boston Massacre, in which royal soldiers fatally shot five members of a protest mob in 1770. During the Revolutionary War, when bayonet‐wielding British troops ambushed and routed sleeping colonial militia at Paoli in 1777, some Americans retaliated by denying quarter to their foe at Germantown. Frontier fighting between patriots and loyalists, especially in the South, was particularly ruthless.
Mid‐nineteenth‐century wars saw efforts to curb atrocity. But in 1836, Mexican troops killed all 187 defenders in the Battle of the Alamo and executed 330 prisoners at Goliad. Thus, when vengeful Texans under Sam Houston overran the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto, they shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death enemy soldiers (some wounded) begging for mercy. During the 1846 U.S. invasion of Mexico, newspapers reported pillage, rape, and murder of civilians by Gen. Zachary Taylor's soldiers. Consequently, Gen. Winfield Scott set a code of conduct enforceable by military courts.
In the Civil War, the federal government issued General Order 100 to limit battlefield excesses. The first man executed under it was Confederate Henry C. Wirz, commandant of the most infamous of Civil War prisoner‐of‐war camps—Andersonville. Public outrage over the deaths of thousands of Union soldiers by starvation, exposure, and disease overrode evidence that Wirz did everything in his power to improve conditions. In another controversial case, a Confederate brigade under Nathan Bedford Forrest overwhelmed a Union garrison in the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in 1864, slaying 60 percent of the defenders. Sparing one‐half of the white Federals but killing over four‐fifths of the black soldiers, Forrest's men seemingly committed a calculated racist massacre. Congressional hearings yielded contradictory testimony, but prompted no trials.
Late nineteenth‐century authorities contended that laws governing combat between “civilized” powers did not apply to irregular warfare and “uncivilized” foes. The Colorado volunteer militia's 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of 105 Cheyenne women and children inspired Indian depredations against settlers and the dismemberment of 81 U.S. soldiers in the 1866 Fetterman Massacre. In Gen. George Armstrong Custer's 1868 Washita raid, only 13 of 103 Cheyenne killed were warriors. Thwarting a U.S. raid at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Sioux and Cheyenne braves took no prisoners, killing Custer and 265 of his men. At the Battle of Wounded Knee, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry ended the cycle of retribution by slaughtering 200 Sioux refugees.
During the 1899–1902 Philippine War, some American commanders allegedly condoned atrocities, including denying quarter, indiscriminate burnings, and torture of prisoners and civilians. Reacting to the 1901 Balangiga massacre, in which Filipino guerrillas hacked to death thirty‐nine U.S. soldiers, Gen. Jacob Smith told officers to make the island of Samar a “howling wilderness” and kill any males over the age of ten. Though not implemented as policy, his directive exonerated one subordinate who illegally executed civilians.
Reaction to atrocity contributed to U.S. involvement in both world wars and in war crimes tribunals. In 1915, Americans shuddered at reports of Germany's ruthless Belgian occupation (made even more lurid by British reportage) and Berlin's use of submarines—most notably the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, in which 1,200 passengers (128 of them Americans) died. The 1937 “Rape of Nanjing” (260,000 Chinese civilians and POWs were killed and as many as 30,000 women sexually assaulted) helped fix the Japanese government in the American mind as a rogue regime. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the April 1942 Bataan Death March, in which 15,000 American and Filipino prisoners died from abuse and starvation in the Philippines, seemed to confirm the perception of Japanese barbarity. Even more horrific was the genocidal policy of Nazi Germany, whose systematic liquidation of millions of civilians, including two‐thirds of European Jews, shocked global opinion into united action. After 1945, international courts convicted and executed many Axis officials for war crimes against humanity.
In the Vietnam War, U.S. officials emphasized the Communist insurgents' campaigns of kidnapping and assassination, but downplayed atrocities of their Saigon allies. U.S. Army suppression of reports of American participation in the My Lai Massacre inflamed national anger at the 1968 slaughter of 200 unarmed villagers, damaging public confidence in the war effort. A 1971 court‐martial condemned Lt. William L. Calley to life in prison for the crime, a sentence later commuted.
Charges of atrocity justified U.S. military involvement in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, as well as the Persian Gulf War. Reported abuse of civilians during Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait galvanized an international coalition to reverse the invasion and attempt to supervise the elimination of Saddam Hussein's offensive arsenals. Seeking to end the deplorable famine and factional violence in Somalia, U.S. troops safeguarded relief efforts in 1992–93, but could not stop the vicious fighting. Outrages in the Bosnian Crisis (“ethnic cleansing” and the use of land mines, artillery, and snipers against civilians) eventually led to 20,000 U.S. troops joining NATO forces to police that area of the former Yugoslavia. The same occurred in the Kosovo Crisis (1999).
[See also Geneva Conventions; Genocide; Holocaust, U.S. War Effort and the; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans.]
Leon Friedman , The Law and War: A Documentary History, 2 vols., 1972.
Richard R. Lael , The Yamashita Precedent: War Crimes and Command Responsibility, 1982.
James Grant Crawford
"Atrocities." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atrocities
"Atrocities." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved June 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atrocities
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