1864: “Exaggerated Harshness”

August 7, 1864

The war is taking on features of exaggerated harshness. Hunter when he re-entered the Valley caused a number of private residences of the finest character to be burned… Early burned Chambersburg to enforce a refractory town into paying a requisition. The Yankees have had the unutterable meanness to make an expedition up the Rappahannock for the purpose of burning the house of Mrs. May Seddon, the widow of Major John Seddon, the brother of the Secretary. Her condition was perfectly well known to them, and the fact of her connection with the Secretary of War was avowed as the reason!! Somebody over the border will smoke for this outrage. I am satisfied that this thing which they have been doing now for three years in Florida (Jacksonville), Mississippi (Jackson), South Carolina on the Combahee, and all through Virginia on the Northern border can be stopped by deliberate and stern retaliation. They are in more of our territory but their people live so much more in towns that one expedition can burn more houses than they can destroy in a campaign. That they are amendable to the influences of retaliation is plain for the well known fact that when they have to deal with a man who they know will be as good as his word they are awed.

The whole Yankee army harks to Jack Mosby. He caught a fellow who had burned a home near or in New Market, Shenandoah County, and shot him. The officer in command swore he would burn the village; Mosby sent him word if he did he would execute prisoners of whom he held a number. A part was sent to burn the village but receiving the message in time did nothing, and New Market is yet safe…

It is a curious fact that precisely coincident with his tendency to aggravation in the character of war, a great development of a disposition towards peace is making public sentiment in the North. With their conscription in September and their election in November, this sentiment may be fairly expected to increase to a head that will be influential, though it will probably not suffice to defeat Lincoln. It may get control of the next U.S. Congress…

Robert Garlick Hill Kean, August 7, 1864, private journal

(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 319-321.)

Burning Chambersburg

On July 30, Confederates under General John McCausland arrived in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, sent by General Jubal Early. McCausland insisted on a ransom for the town and gave the residents a choice – $500,000 in United States currency or $100,000 in gold. The local bank had sent away its reserves and did not have those amounts on hand, but that didn’t matter to the Confederates.

Fires started, and about 500 structures of this county seat were destroyed, leaving approximately 2,000 people homeless. Homes of Republican politicians or abolitionists were particularly targeted, even if they were out of the path of conflagration

Some Confederates protested the burning, others felt sorry for the civilians and helped them move their possessions as the flames got out of hand. When Colonel William Peters refused to follow McCausland’s orders, he was placed under arrest.

“Remember Chambersburg!” became a battle cry for some Union units in 1864. This burning incident marked the only time a Northern town was decisively destroyed during the Civil War. It also offered a justification for the harsher war approach and more civilian involvement during the coming months of 1864, particularly as the Union invaded the Shenandoah Valley for a final time.

John Mosby

John Mosby’s Rangers

Colonel John Singleton Mosby went by many names. “Gray Ghost” is probably his better known moniker, and it came from his tendency to cause havoc for Union troopers and officers and then “melt” away into the darkness, leaving little trail.

In 1863, Mosby had received command of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, operating as a partisan unit. Known as “Mosby’s Rangers”, they made quick raids against Union outposts, railroad tracks, headquarters, and supply trains all across northern Virginia.

Increasingly frustrated, Union officers started treating captured rangers badly and even executing them under questionable circumstances; they also threatened civilians believed to harbor the Rangers. The partisans responded with similar brutalities, leading to an ugly war scene. Eventually, Mosby reached out to Union General Sheridan and requested a cease in these harsh actions on both sides, and the Union general agreed.

Historical Musings

1864 is sometimes heralded as the year of the Civil War when things got bad for civilians – Southern Civilians, that is. David Hunter’s Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and Sheridan’s Burning in the Shenanodah Valley are often held up as examples of warfare against civilians.

But…this is not the first time during the Civil War (and certainly not in history) that civilians felt the direct wrath of an enemy army. Gathering food (usually stealing stealthily or outright confiscating) from civilians had been going on for months. Arguably, Robert E. Lee’s Confederates engaged in the practice in the Antietam and Gettysburg Campaigns – although they liked to pride themselves on paying with Confederate money.

What makes 1864 the year of civilian/military interactions that hits the “basic history books”? I think it’s the intentional destruction with purpose. Taking food or supplies might be expected for those unlucky to live in the army’s path. Actually systematically destroying civilian property – such as barns, mills, graineries, forges, and occasionally homes – differed. Civilians were intentionally and regularly targeted in some of these campaigns, and they were targeted with a military purpose.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the homefront always has power. When Union and Confederates went after the homefront, they were attempted to alter morale and breakdown the support system for the army. Jubal Early’s case of burning Chambersburg didn’t really work and instead became a rallying cry and revenge point for Union soldiers. While Hunter, Sherman, and Sheridan might have angered Confederate military and caused soldiers to worry about their homes and families, they actually crippled homefront support for the Confederate forces – thereby accomplishing an objective but at the cost of the civilian mind which would cause lingering difficulties in the decades of reconciliation and reconstruction.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

Note: The section on Chambersburg is borrowed from part of an Emerging Civil War post written by Sarah.

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