Changing the Rules of War

A war order that changed international policies toward white women civilians during war.

Document Text


For example, those who rise in arms against the occupying army, or against the authority established by the same, are war rebels, or military traitors, and incur the penalty of death. They are not entitled to be considered as prisoners of war when captured. Their property is subject to military seizure and military confiscation. Military treason of this kind is broadly distinguished from the treason defined in constitutional and statutory laws, and made punishable by the civil courts. Military treason is a military offense, punishable by the common law of war. Again, persons belonging to such occupied territory, and within the military lines of the occupying power, without proper authority. To do so, the party not only forfeits all claim to protection, but subjects himself or herself to be punished either as a spy or a military traitor, according to the character of the particular offense. Our treatment of such offenses and such offenders has hitherto been altogether too lenient. A more strict enforcement of the laws of war in this respect is recommended. Such offenders should be made to understand the penalties they incur, and to know that these penalties will be rigidly enforced. Anyone who resists the army, or government they establish after winning control of an area, are traitors and can be executed. They are not prisoners of war. Their property can be taken. This is military treason, so it does not need to go to court. It is subject to military law. This applies to anyone behind army lines. Anyone who resists or rebels, man or woman, is a spy or a traitor and can be punished accordingly. We have not been punishing these people strictly enough. We recommend we start enforcing the laws of war. We should tell the people that we take these laws seriously and they will be punished for breaking them.

Excerpt from “Chapter XXXV,” The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1888).


At the start American Civil War, the Union Army presumed that all white women were innocent civilians. This was part of a Western tradition that dated back thousands of years based on the idea that war dealt with questions of citizenship, politics, and government. Since these were all subjects women were not supposed to think about, it was assumed they could not possibly be a threat during war. So while Union soldiers knew that the wives, sisters, and daughters of Confederate men were enemies because of their ties to the men in their lives, their race and sex kept them safe from military action. This was part of Abraham Lincoln’s strategy to win Southern civilian support at the outset of the war.

For example, Missouri Confederate Sarah Jane Smith was caught cutting Union telegraph wires twice. She was released both times. The third time she was caught she was sentenced to hang, but the commanding officer of her area changed her sentence to imprisonment for the duration of the war. Had a white man or a woman of color been captured cutting telegraph wires, they would most likely have been hanged after the first offense. 

Confederate women took full advantage of the protections their sex and race gave them. Union soldiers occupying Confederate and border states reported white women taking part in guerrilla military actions, from spying to smuggling to sabotage. Their actions were so harmful that military policies changed forever.

About the Resources

On March 5, 1863, Major General Henry Halleck issued a set of orders that changed the international rules of war. Halleck was the General-in-Chief of the Union Army. He received many complaints about the guerrilla actions of Confederate white women and decided that drastic action needed to be taken. His March 5 order stated that women could be punished as traitors, just like men, if they participated in any anti-Union action.

Halleck’s order was incorporated into a new code of war published by the Union government in 1863. From there, it became the basis of new policies toward civilian women in occupied territories in all major western wars going forward. White women could no longer rely on their race and sex to automatically protect them.


  • border state: The slave-holding states in the Union that shared a border with the Confederacy.
  • civilian: A person who is not in the armed forces.
  • civil courts: Courts for non-military personnel.
  • Confederate: Relating to the group of states that seceded from the United States before the Civil War in order to preserve slavery.  
  • entitled: Having a right to certain privileges.
  • forfeits: Gives up.
  • guerrilla: Unauthorized.
  • incur: Earn.
  • lenient: Merciful.
  • occupying: Controlling
  • statutory: Relating to a law.
  • subjects: Allows.
  • Union: The name for the states that remained a part of the United States during the Civil War.   

Discussion Questions

  • What was the problem with the Union Army’s early policy toward white women civilians?
  • How did Halleck’s order change the international rules of law?
  • What does this story reveal about the role sex and race played in the American Civil War?

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