why rebels commit mass atrocities: the american civil war

A commemorative sign at the site of the Shelton Laurel Massacre, from North Carolina History Today.

As Alex Bellamy observes in a recent post, the human rights abuses of Mali’s myriad insurgencies highlight the role of mass violence in rebel military strategy. Mass atrocities often–in fact, overwhelmingly–occur alongside the violent give-and-take of insurgent and counterinsurgent forces, due to the insurgency’s inextricable reliance on civilian intelligence, resources, and sustenance. According to Bellamy, two factors drive rebel atrocities: the context in which violent conflict occurs, and the rebel movement’s ideological predisposition towards violence. Contemporary case studies–Central Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s M23 insurgency, or unrestrained factions of Syria’s opposition forces, for example–bely these micro-level functions of mass atrocities in rebel mobilization. In keeping with my American-history-as-political-science experiment, however, I find it useful to turn to a home-front case study, a mere four hundred miles from my Georgetown abode.

The 18 January 1863 Shelton Laurel massacre, which took place in North Carolina’s mountainous Madison County, is a minor, if well-documented historical snippet of the American civil war. Where the massacre graces the historical record, historians often describe the event as a representative counterpoint to conventional depictions of the American civil war as, well, conventional. Indeed, the massacre took place several counties away from the  center of Union/Confederate exchange; with the Emancipation Proclamation seventeen days prior, and the Battle of Chancellorsville a couple of months away, the Shelton Laurel massacre is something of a sideshow. The exceptional cases, however, often yield the most compelling reflections on micro-dynamics in civil conflict.

According to Rick Beard‘s recent Disunion post on the Shelton Laurel incident, Madison County was ripe for political violence: in 1861, the county boasted a Unionist delegate to North Carolina’s secession convention. Confederate military authorities viewed the county’s infantrymen with suspicion, as North Carolina was known for its disproportionate population of deserters. By the middle of the conflict, in late 1862, restricted flows of food and supplies left Madison County civilians to face widespread scarcities. Salt-provision gaps were particularly acute, little improved by Confederate soldiers’ persistent search for Union sympathizers. These scarcities prompted local civilians, many in fact harboring Union sympathies, to develop small guerrilla forces, which conducted salt raids against Confederate supply stores. In early January 1863, the 64th North Carolina Infantry’s Lawrence Allen and James Keith, stationed in eastern Tennessee, received approval to march on Laurel, North Carolina, with the express purpose of holding the Unionist guerrillas accountable for their salt raids.

By the time Lawrence Allen and James Keith’s counter-guerrilla force reached Laurel, the majority of the salt raiders had fled, according to eyewitness accounts. Instead, the 64th Infantry picked up a small contingent of thirteen civilians. After unsuccessfully torturing Laurel residents for actionable intelligence, Allen and Keith marched the thirteen civilians to the town’s outskirts, proceeding to shoot each, including youths, at point-blank. Despite efforts to hold Keith, in particular, accountable for his role in the massacre, the Confederate lieutenant general managed to skirt extended imprisonment until President Johnson’s 1868 general amnesty.

The Shelton Laurel massacre is a useful case study in evaluating Bellamy’s analysis of rebel motivations for mass violence. To convey the illegitimacy of the South’s secession, Unionists often referred to Confederate forces as the “rebels.” As a Yankee, I’m admittedly sympathetic to this perspective, but it also carries a modicum of historical truth. Matt Dickenson’s recent post on “moonshine and state-building” in the postbellum Mountain South indicates as much: prior to the expansion of the Reconstruction-era Revenue Service, informal institutions, rather than state authority, were the predominant mode of political organization in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. To describe the Confederacy’s Shelton Laurel counter-guerrilla efforts as a contested interaction between sub-state actors, then, is not entirely off the mark.

In keeping with Bellamy’s analysis, the Shelton Laurel case palpably demonstrates conflict contexts’ importance in shaping in the severity and scope of mass violence. Lawrence Allen and James Keith were local boys, so to speak–their hometown, Marshall, was the most prominent site of the Unionist guerrillas’ salt raids. Acknowledging the likely non-cooperation of local residents, Allen and Keith chose to extract intelligence through gruesome force. The Confederate officers’ violence was, in a sense, performative–that is, the officers indirectly displayed accountability for Unionist salt raids, rather than seeking it directly. Given the region’s Unionist sympathies, and the deep-seated class divisions that framed them, the 64th Infantry could expect little more than mass violence to be effective in controlling the population. Context mattered, and framed the 64th Infantry’s strategic environment.

As the Shelton Laurel case demonstrates, ideology is a necessary, but insufficient component of mass violence. Bellamy cites dehumanization, in-group/out-group designation, and scapegoating as representative forms of atrocities ideology. According to Drew Gilpin Faust’s cultural history of death during the American civil war, however, each ideological form was ubiquitous throughout the American civil war, regardless of civilian atrocity environment. Wartime correspondence offers anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon: in several circumstances, Civil War soldiers conducted American “Indian war dances,” donned “Indian-style” war paint, and imitated war whoops, casting themselves as elated savages amid the battlefield melee. These acts show Bellamy’s dehumanization as a common quality of warfighting in Civil War soldiers’ perceptions of both themselves and their military opponents. Lawrence Allen and James Keith may have harbored resentment towards the Shelton Laurel Valley’s Unionist population, but their violence was opportunistic, rather than ideological.

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