One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 8, Number 4
April 2000

Almost by definition, all wars are horrible. People get killed, property is destroyed, and violence is the norm. We accept these consequences today, because by the twentieth century human savagery in war has come to know no bounds.

The American Civil War didn’t start out that way. In the early years, there was a modicum of chivalry on both sides, and every effort was made to confine the violence to the armed combatants, while leaving the civilians out of harm’s way. One of the earliest examples of this is the dispatch from Union General Irwin McDowell on July 18, 1861, just prior to the 1st Battle of Manassas. General McDowell seems to have made an honest effort to conduct the campaign on the “principles of civilized warfare,” and expressed indignation at some of the actions of his troops: I am distressed to have to report excesses by our troops. The excitement of the men found vent in burning and pillaging, which however was soon checked. It distressed us all greatly. On the same day McDowell issued an order which stated in part: Any persons found committing the slightest depredation, killing pigs or poultry or trespassing on the property of the inhabitants, will be reported to headquarters, and the least that will be done to them will be to send them to the Alexandria jail. It is again ordered that no one shall arrest or attempt to arrest any citizen not in arms at the time, or search or attempt to search any house, or even enter the same without permission. The troops must behave themselves with as much forbearance and propriety as if they at their own homes.

McDowell’s efforts were commended by no other person than that old curmudgeon Jubal Early. In his narrative of the war, Early credited McDowell with making an . . . honest effort to prevent depredations by his troops; and it gives me pleasure to make the statement. Old Jubal then reverts to character, however, when he follows up with the comment: It is the last time I will have the occasion to make a similar one [statement] in regard to any of the Federal commanders who followed him.

Contrast McDowell’s efforts to wage a civilized war with General John Pope’s conduct a year later in Northern Virginia. Pope issued a series of draconian edicts which sent a wave of outrage through the South and offended many in his own army as well. The first ordered his men to . . . subsist upon the country . . . and to take from the local civilians whatever was needed without reimbursement. Another order specified that any damage to Federal troops or supplies would be assessed against all civilians within a five-mile radius. To enforce the orders, some offenders would be . . . shot, without awaiting civil process. . . . Sounds like the forerunner of twentieth-century wars to me.

Evidently at least some of Pope’s troops took his exhortations to heart at Cedar Mountain in August of 1862. There, on the north end of Cedar Mountain the magnificent library in the parsonage of the Reverend Philip Slaughter was desecrated and over a thousand books, including classics in Greek, Latin, and French, were strewn across the house lawn and mutilated to varying degrees by the invaders.

The South, for the most part, still clung to the notion of a romanticized and somewhat chivalrous conflict. This was manifested the following month when Lee marched his army north into Maryland. Hoping to win as many recruits as possible while in Maryland, he issued strict orders governing the conduct of the Army of Northern Virginia. For example, the first time in the infamous lost Special Orders No. 191 strictly prohibited men from visiting Frederick, Maryland, without written permission. Prior to that order, Lee had been forced to issue a stern rebuke to his men: A provost guard . . . will follow in rear of the army, arrest stragglers, and punish summarily all depredators, and keep the men with their commands. In spite of the commanding general’s strict orders governing conduct, discipline sometimes waned in the face of hunger. An officer in Jackson’s Corps wrote about a diet consisting mainly of green corn, and cited the disappointment of the men in his unit when: At about 2 o’clock at night, we were marched into a dank clover-field and the order came down the line, “men, go into that corn-field and get your rations—and be ready to march at 5 in the morning.”

Nine months later led his men northward again, this time into Pennsylvania. Again, he issued strict guidelines for the army’s conduct in hostile country. General Orders No. 73 on June 27, 1863, contained the following paragraph: The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed, and defenseless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. In another paragraph Lee reminds his men that: We make war only upon armed men and that any violations of his policy will be severely punished. Nonetheless, contemporary accounts tell of numerous lost chickens, cows, and horses being rescued, not to mention the green corn!

No doubt through the ages soldiers of all nations in all armies have pillaged and plundered to varying degrees. After all, as the man said: War is hell! However, there are degrees of discipline and conduct depending not only on the character of the leaders, but also on the circumstances and objectives. For example, by 1864 the nature of the Civil War had changed dramatically. Grant had taken charge of the Federal armies, and to his credit, he correctly assessed the situation and realized that the North’s greatest advantage lay in its enormous resources in both men and material. Using those resources adroitly, he proceeded to bludgeon the South into submission. A clear manifestation of this strategy was expressed in his statement in May of 1864: I intend to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer. Another example was the implementation of the plan to destroy the South’s resources. On August 26, 1864, Grant again set the tenor of the final campaign by ordering Sheridan to: Give the enemy no rest. . . . Do all the damage to the railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.

The world of war had changed in a few short years. And, as Bob Krick said: Chivalry had been thoroughly emasculated.