150 Years Ago: A flag of truce to discuss “hard war”

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, on October 29, 1862, Colonel Robert A. Cameron filed a report addressed to General Alvin P. Hovey, commanding at Helena, Arkansas. Cameron had just returned from a mission carrying correspondence between Federal and Confederate commanders.  He left Helena on October 21, reached Little Rock on the 24th to deliver his dispatches, then returned.

Robert A. Cameron, as a Brigadier later in the war

Cameron’s report was officially an acknowledgement of completed tasks.  Additionally, Cameron offered some observations of Confederate dispositions.  And, since it fell under the scope of his mission, Cameron also added a lengthy summary of a discussion with Confederate General Theophilus Holmes, commanding the Trans-Mississippi forces.  The gist of that conversation centered on the conduct of war.  The entire report appears in the Official Records, Series I, Volume 13, Serial 19, pages 768-771.  I’ll only cite a portion of that lengthy report here:

… General Holmes said that he desired me to say to you that it was his desire to conduct this war upon honorable principles and upon the rules of warfare among civilized nations–yes, upon Christian principles; that he was filled with horror at the state of woe, desolation, and destruction brought to him by his people, which he was sorry to say he was forced to believe. For instance, a Mr. Moore, living near Helena, reported to his provost-marshal-general that a party of Federal soldiers had entered his house, and finding a feeble daughter and enceinte wife, did threaten and intimidate them and snap caps upon their revolvers, causing Mrs. Moore to produce an abortion and thereby endanger her life. I replied that the general commanding had no knowledge of such an occurrence, and that if it had happened and if the parties could be found they would be brought to punishment. He went on to say that a deserter had come to him and he asked him why he had taken place it would have been known among us, and I had never known of it, and that a man who would desert would tell a falsehood. He, the general, said he did not place implicit confidence in what a deserter might say; “but,” said the general, “it is true that in the route of General Curtis’ army houses were ransacked, women’s and children’s apparel taken without provocation, and all kinds of damage done to the property of citizens.” I replied that I had not seen it, but that I was led to believe that it might in some instances be true to a certain extent, but that I was satisfied it was not with the consent of commanding officers, but contrary to their positive orders, and that I had learned from the people of Arkansas that in some instances the Texans in his army had stolen the people’s meat and chickens, and that I was sorry to say there were some bad in both armies, whom in some instances it appeared almost impossible to control. General Holmes said that he knew General Curtis in his youth, and had expected him to pursue a fair and honorable warfare; that he, for his part, was determined to resist organized forces with organized forces as long as it could be done, but that they would fight until exterminated unless their independence was acknowledged. While they fought with organized forces he expected scrupulously to observe the rules of warfare, and had repressed the patriotic ardor of his people in the neighborhood of Helena for guerrilla warfare; “but,” said the general, “should we be beaten, and our army under Lee in Virginia and Bragg in Kentucky be crushed, we would rise as individuals and each man take upon himself the task of expelling the invaders.” I replied that I did not think his people felt as desperate as he did. “Yes,” said the general, “we hate you with a cordial hatred. You may conquer us and parcel out our lands among your soldiers, but you must remember that one incident of history, to wit, that of all the Russians who settled in Poland not one died a natural death.” I replied I could not, and knew our people did not, reciprocate the hatred he expressed. The general then entertained me with his former love for our flag and his present hatred at the sight of it, but fell into a pleasant vein in regard to his old acquaintances in the Federal Army whom he knew….

Some additional context here.  The deaf (and according to some contemporaries, nearly senile) Holmes was among those “reassigned” after General Robert E. Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia following the Seven Days.  He arrived in Arkansas in late summer.  Cameron also was a transfer from the east.  Having served in the 19th Indiana during the opening campaigns in western Virginia, Cameron asked for a new assignment that winter.  He became colonel of the 34th Indiana Infantry in June 1862.

Neither man had been a party to the “hard war” exhibited across Missouri.  Many of the incidents he mentioned in the discussion had occurred before their arrival. Holmes, in particular, was no doubt working from second- or third-hand information.   While Holmes cited somewhat ghastly incidents of rape and forced miscarriages, Cameron responded with deprivations inflicted upon the state’s citizens by the Confederates themselves.  No doubt each side could have continued that discussion, citing examples at length, for days.  Of course, that would have gotten nowhere.

The threat of guerrilla warfare underscores Holmes’ unfamiliarity with the theater in which he commanded.  Perhaps he was thinking of Virginia, or his native North Carolina.  But it would be hard to find a county of Missouri or Arkansas, north of the Arkansas River, which had not witnessed guerrilla warfare by that time in the war.  John Pope’s “hard war” transplanted from Missouri to Virginia now came back home through the words of old Theophilus.  Still this must be one of the earliest references to “a cordial hatred” of the Yankees… whatever a cordial hatred is.

Take the conversation for what you will.  To me it is an example of the narrow balance of morality that occurs in war, and how “proper” men attempt to deal with it.

Allow me to close by looking at a strictly military aspect of Cameron’s report.  Near the end he mentions that the Confederates, have a 24-pounder for reconnoitering “à la Schenck  at Vienna.”  Cameron was referring to Confederate forces on the Memphis-Little Rock railroad line.  Frequent readers are no doubt familiar with the railroad fight in Vienna, Virginia.  Seems the Richmond rebels were sharing their railroad gun ideas with those in other theaters.

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