Was It Right?

How do you answer those hard questions? I prefer to study a situation and make a decision for myself…because rarely is there an easy answer which everyone will agree on. In the past four weeks we’ve been discussing the Autumn Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley during 1864 and The Burning. So…was The Burning right?

Let’s try hear both sides of the case and then try to form our own opinion.

1. The Prosecution (The Confederate Story) The crops and fields are destroyed. It will take years for the agricultural community to recover. In some instances homes have been burned, leaving civilians without shelter. Food supply will be limited in the coming winter, and many may face starvation. There wasn’t any reason for this destruction – all we civilians did was grow our crops and sell them to the Confederate army, which, by the way, is only defending our homeland from invasion. Then there is the factor of mental fear and physical danger. The Yankee commanders can say that civilians were not to be molested, but let’s be honest: verbal abuse was common, possibly along with serious threats. Physical injury may have been more common than reported or recorded. Thus, the civilians were innocent, and The Burning was malicious and without specific military cause.

2. The Defense (The Union Story) The Shenandoah Valley is “the breadbasket of Virginia.” Farmers are growing crops and selling them to the Confederate army. If we’re going to win the war, we have to cut the supply lines. In an effort to bring the war to a rapid conclusion the commanders are using the strategy of Total War; this strategy acknowledges that the civilian population is supporting the army and limits their effectiveness, thereby reducing the strength of the army. This strategy is harsh, but will bring the war to a quicker end. The Confederates are in rebellion against the United States government and thus ending the rebellion as quickly as possible is desirable. Maybe at the end we will help the communities rebuild…and maybe we won’t. We’re accused of frightening or maybe harming civilians – scared people don’t want to continue a war. And, by the way, the civilians sold their crops to the Confederate quartermasters even during The Burning, so not all of them were “poor farmers.” Thus, the Union implements a total war strategy in hopes of ending the war, and civilians are involved in the destruction because they are involved in the war.

I highly recommend reading this in-depth blog post to gain perspective on the situation of selling crops and destroying crops during 1864: Shenandoah Burning Raids (Shared with permission from MarkerHunter’s blog author).

Confederate Children watching Union Cavalry near Sudley Ford (c. 1861). This photo summarizes the silent conflict between soldiers and civilians. (Public Domain).

Confederate Children watching Union Cavalry near Sudley Ford (c. 1861).
This photo summarizes the silent conflict between soldiers and civilians.
(Public Domain).

3. Judgment (this is my opinion) There’s right and wrong on both sides. (I know, I know…never a simple answer). The “military necessity” strategy employed by the Union for the destruction of the crops has some level of justification when it is considered that they were doing it to bring a hasty end to the war. However, when we evaluate the broader effects and destruction of other personal property, the Union definitely falls into the “bad guy category.” Now the Confederates weren’t necessarily wise in their actions either; seriously, what did you expect would happen when you sell crops to the army when the enemy is in the vicinity? (Ultimately, the whole argument could end up redirecting to state’s rights, coercion, etc., but let’s not get into that discussion today…)

4. Summary You get to make your own opinion, but here’s my conclusions. The destruction caused by the burning was devastating and long remembered by the Confederates. There is great cultural and societal impact as individuals are (or believe) they are wronged. The Union used an un-deniably harsh strategy which did target civilians who were supporting the war effort. Perhaps I could partly justify the destruction of the crops which would be sent to the armies, but other actions calculated to complete the devastation and instill fear are not excusable. Thus, the whole scenario reflects the larger conflicts and questions surrounding the Civil War and will accordingly be interpreted though your belief lens on the entire war.

5. What To Learn?  #1. Unfortunately, civilians are not immune to the destruction of war. #2. It must be admitted that the total war strategy used by Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan was effective. They realized that to win the war they had to cripple the support system of the Confederate army (the farms, factories, and civilian morale). There is something to be learned from the Win Mentality: we’re gonna win quickly which will ultimately result in less loss of life. (Seriously, if McClellan or Burnside had still been the commander in 1864 the war could’ve dragged on five more years).

Well, maybe this helped to answer some questions, maybe it prompted more. As I admitted at the beginning, the “was it right?” questions are very difficult to answer and everyone is probably going to have a different approach or opinion.

Next week we’ll lay aside the tough questions and simply focus on The Burning’s effect on the civilian population.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. So what do you think… Was it right? Who was right? Share your thoughts… I’m interested in your opinions on the topic.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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One Response to Was It Right?

  1. Pingback: The Valley of the Shadow | Gazette665

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