Why Atrocities?

I study European history, so why did I post about Sand Creek earlier today? And why excerpt seemingly gratuitous violence? I have no expertise in U.S. history, but I am interested in the history of violence per se, which can reveal a lot about peoples and cultures at a given point in history. Further, the U.S. Civil War has some important structural similarities to the Franco-Prussian War, and perhaps to other European wars in the mid nineteenth century.1 Given the causal relationship between the U.S. Civil War and the expansion of violence against Native Americans out west, there might be a case, for example, to include France’s nineteenth-century colonial conflicts in such a comparison. However, my main interest relates to cultural taboos—or lack thereof—about specific kinds of violence against specific categories of people, assuming those people have not been perceived to violate any important taboos themselves.

In this particular case, the willingness to kill women and children indiscriminately underlines how little value these people’s lives had in the eyes of their butchers. Further, it suggests how utterly alien these Indians were in the eyes of their attackers, how far outside the attackers’ own ethnos or kin-culture community.2 Indeed, in Michael Fellman’s account of the guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the Civil War, white fighting men broke more cultural taboos in their fight against Indians than they did when committing violence against free and enslaved black people.3

At the same time, Congressional testimony points to other attitudes towards the slaughtered Native Americans. We hear of white men with native partners and sons, for instance, although the latter were called “half breed.” The paternalistic congressmen investigating the atrocity were also humane, in a certain sense, but a question about how long the witness-cum-translator had lived with the Indians suggests how different they that congressman perceived him to be. At the same time, commentators who sided with the Colorado troops responsible for the massacre portrayed their opponents as brave. Of course, it was safer to make the women and children seem like incidental casualties of a battle, but the self-respect of fighting men also requires a worthy opponent. Without one, the act of killing brings no honor and—we are learning in recent conflicts—can leave deep scars in the soldier who pulls the trigger.4

Given the tiny source base behind this post, it only represents an approach to such violence, nothing more, especially since such an approach must also consider the specific historical context of this awful American story.

  1. See Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861–1871 (Washington, DC: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1997). 
  2. On kin-culture communities, see Azar Gat with Alexsander Yakobson, Nations: The Long and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). 
  3. Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). 
  4. See Sharon E. French, “The Code of the Warrior,” The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History 47 (United States Airforce Academy: Colorado, 2004). French has published a book by the same title. 

Sand Creek

In the New York Times, Ned Blackhawk reminds us, “It’s the 150th anniversary of one of the most appalling massacres of Indians ever.”

In terms of sheer horror, few events matched Sand Creek. Pregnant women were murdered and scalped, genitalia were paraded as trophies, and scores of wanton acts of violence characterize the accounts of the few Army officers who dared to report them. . . .

Sand Creek, Bear River and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible . . .

See the full article here. There are more details in the Smithsonian Magazine, and a few sources from the time here.

Hat tip: @myHNN and @wcronen.

Atrocities in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71

An essay on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) that I wrote last year appeared in print this fall in a book about war atrocities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Here’s the reference, in case you read German: Mark R. Stoneman, “Die deutschen Greueltaten im Krieg 1870/71 am Beispiel der Bayern”; in Sönke Neitzel and Daniel Hohrath, eds., Kriegsgreuel: Die Entgrenzung der Gewalt in kriegerischen Konflikten vom Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2008), 223–39.

The essay focusses on German soldiers and French civilians using the example of the Bavarians. It examines why soldiers sometimes departed from generally accepted standards in Europe about sparing civilians the effects of war as much as possible.

The war began as a “cabinet war” that the German leadership hoped to win quickly through a series of decisive battles of annihilation. In this way the state, led by the king and his cabinet, would maintain control over the war effort and not face any undue influence from civilians, whether its own or those of the enemy. After destroying the Second Empire’s army at Sedan, however, France refused to capitulate. Its people toppled the empire and vowed to fight on. The German leadership had a “people’s war” on its hands that it took five more months to win. While the French and Germans fought most of this war with conventional means between armed forces organized by the state, the war also saw substantial civilian involvement that had the potential to lead to an ever deepening spiral of violence.

The most extensive contact between soldiers and civilians occurred as a result of the German military policy of living off the land, which made German forces more mobile. To maintain discipline, officers were supposed to take small details of soldiers to requisition what animals, fodder, and food their units required. Requisitioning resembled theft in that those whose property the German officers took had no choice in the matter, but it differed insofar as the German officers issued receipts for what they took. These would be paid off by whichever side lost. German forces were also quartered on civilian households. These circumstances enabled soldiers to pursue their own private initiatives. If their “hosts” would not give them what they needed, the soldiers often took it.

More famous, however, were reports of armed French civilians called francs-tireurs. While their number was not great enough to present a strategic threat, the German forces did have to devote some 120,000 soldiers to their lines of communication. Armed incidents led the invading soldiers to shoot suspected partisans summarily, burn down houses and even villages where such incidents occurred, and use hostages, most famously on locomotives. While some reactions had an ad hoc quality to them, the common thread was the notion of “military necessity.” The German forces found the actions regrettable but necessary, in order to prevent the war from lasting longer than necessary. The idea was to counter French “terror” with measures so harsh that the French would see the error of their ways and refrain from any further resistance.

References for these incidents and the historiography of the Franco-Prussian War are available in this new essay as well as the following related one, in which I devote a lot of space to the events in Bazailles, which the Bavarians infamously burned down during the Battle of Sedan: “The Bavarian Army and French Civilians in the War of 1870–1871: A Cultural Interpretation,” War in History 8.3 (2001): 271–93.

My source base for this research was published personal narratives, that is, letters, diaries, and memoirs. Most of them came from Bavarian soldiers and officers, though I drew on other German narratives by way of comparison. It is in some ways surprising how freely the fighting men wrote about these events, but what they were describing was either acceptable in their minds or told in relation to what lines they believed the French had crossed.

One phenomenon I found little mention of was the hostage-taking. This might be because the Bavarian veterans felt they had crossed a line, although it is also worth noting that their units were not as heavily involved in maintaining lines of communication in the rear, which is where the hostage-taking occurred. Recently I learned more about this subject from Heidi Mehrkens’ new book, which includes a section on the German military using hostages on locomotives. Mehrkens’ book is also helpful, because it uses archival sources that confirm the impressions I gained about relations between soldiers and civilians from the published primary sources.


I was looking through Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, a play I have used a few times in a survey course on modern Europe. In the back of the English translation by James Kirkup are “21 Points to The Physicists,” one of which reads, “The more human beings proceed by plan the more effectively they may be hit by accident.” This quote sums up my recently completed dissertation on three levels that I would like to consider: the content of my research from the point of view of its historical subjects, the path my research takes from my point of view, and the shape of the narrative that eventually emerges. I plan to look at these paradoxes in future posts at irregular intervals. For now I will mention a different one that is not as difficult to resolve:

I spent four years in the U.S. Army during peacetime, and I disliked being a soldier. I also rarely found military history interesting. Nonetheless, my research has focused on war. My M.A. thesis is about Bavarian soldiers and French civilians in the Franco-Prussian War, and my Ph.D. thesis is about the Imperial German officer corps and war planning. How did a former soldier who hated his experience in the military come to enjoy studying military history?

At least part of the answer lies in my military experience. A kid from the woods of New Hampshire had a lot of learning to do in a unit in which most everyone else came from the inner city or rural south. Add class, race, and educational levels to this mix, and I got a first-rate education. You see, I was not just in the army, but combat arms, specifically, the field artillery. When I enlisted I made the naive assumption that the army was the army no matter what one did, and it was offering a substantial bonus for four years in the artillery. So why not? Without going into a longer story, let me say that I left the army in 1987 with an insight of which at the time I was unaware: studying the army can teach a person a lot about that army’s country.

Not until I was doing my M.A. in Augsburg, Germany did I realize that I knew this. I think it was late 1992 or early 1993 when I met Professor Stig Förster, who had just returned to Europe from a stint at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Stig was editing On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871, and I, as an American there, was recruited as one of his student helpers. I found the topics interesting, because in a seminar I had recently taken with another historian, we had learned about the lead-up to the war and the postwar settlement, but the war just kind of happened. I remarked on this circumstance to Stig. One thing led to another and he suggested I could explore the Bavarians’ treatment of civilians in 1870–71 for my master’s thesis. The topic sounded interesting, but also vaguely pornographic. Was it even decent to probe into such suffering? At the same time, scenes from Bosnia on TV suggested to me that such topics mattered. Before making up my mind, I asked if there was an historical treatment of these kinds of issues that might show me the historical value of examining atrocities. That led to Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict In Missouri During The American Civil War, as well as James M. McPherson, Battle Cry Of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Of course, I also dug into Michael Howard’s perennial The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-71. These books showed me that the study of war was integral to mainstream history and vice versa. With war being fought once again on European soil (the Balkans), I not only was hooked, but I thought such studies were a moral imperative.

Having completed a PhD program and many years of teaching, I no longer see my research in such grandiose terms. Still, I try to integrate at least one lecture on broad trends in war and society into each survey course I teach. I think students need to know that human behavior in war is historically contingent. They need to know, for instance, that humanity and atrocities in warfare have a history. The list is much longer, of course, but I can revisit the topic another time.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.