Saunders: 'Murder' depends on the battleground

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2014 

OK. Now that we’ve determined how many angels can fit onto the head of a pin – 12, as long as none of them stops off at the Golden Corral buffet on the way to the fitting – it’s time to argue about something equally important: Was it murder when you killed somebody – who was planning to kill you – 150 years ago on a battlefield?

Unlike the theoretical theological question about angels that has presumably kept philosophers stroking their chins for centuries, the one about Stephen Rought killing Grief Mason on a Civil War battlefield in Virginia is not theoretical. They had a real-life philosophical difference of opinion: Rought, a Union soldier, thought Mason should surrender the flag he was holding, under which the Confederates were fighting. Mason thought he should keep it aloft to inspire his fellow combatants.

The Union victory at Spotsylvania is viewed by some as the denouement for the Confederates, the loss that showed them their cause really was lost, and it was the first Union victory with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as its leader. Anyone other than a pacifist would conclude that a battlefield is the one place where killing someone identified as an enemy combatant can be justified.

Historian Rex Hovey feels differently. In an N&O story last week before a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of the Wilderness, Hovey called the killing of the Confederate soldier “murder.”

Say what? Was Cpl. Mason’s death ghastly?

Yes, even in the retelling. Hovey, in that earlier N&O story, said “Grief Mason was bludgeoned to death with the butt of a rifle, with such force that it broke the stock of the rifle. I consider it murder.” I tried to reach him to ask him to explain how a battlefield death becomes murder, but my calls were unreturned.

Even if you’re grieved that Grief came to grief, you’d have to do some real mental gymnastics to conclude that a death resulting from hand-to-hand combat on a battlefield equals murder. Would Hovey recommend giving a speeding ticket to Kyle Busch the next time he wins a NASCAR race?

My Marine Corps vet buddy, Mike (Gomer) Hoke, to whom I often turn for matters dealing with the military or Fatburgers, directed me to something called the Law of Land Warfare.

“Was he a P.O.W. or was he still resisting?” Hoke inquired of Grief Mason, asking a question I’d planned to ask Hovey. “As long as someone has the means to resist and he’s still resisting, you can kill ’em.”

Makes sense to me. There is no evidence that Mason was armed with daisies or waving a white flag. He was waving the battle flag. Of course, some people probably figure that any Confederate death at the hands of a Yankee in the “War of Northern Aggression” – yep, some people still call it that – was murder.

I hadn’t intended to spend much of my weekend reading the Law of Land Warfare manual, but once you get started reading what you can and cannot do while at war, it’s hard to put it down. Turns out all is not fair. Maybe in love, but not war. In the section titled “Conduct of Hostilities,” it says “The object of war is to bring about the complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible by means of regulated violence.”

Hmm. Should Rought have tickled Mason until he loosed the flag?

Military necessity, the manual said, allows “(a)ll direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of war.”

T’ain’t pretty, but neither is war. The manual I read was published in 1956, so it doesn’t pertain directly to what happened on the Spotsylvania, Va., battlefield in 1864 between Rought and Mason. It’s not likely, though, that the rules of engagement 150 years ago were more enlightened than they are today.

So “murder”? No way.

William T. Sherman, my second-favorite Civil War general, said “I think we understand what ‘military fame’ is: to be killed on the field of battle and have your name spelled wrong in the newspaper.”

Or, in this instance, to have the cause of death listed wrong.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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