150 Years Ago: Hard war or conventions of war at Fredericksburg?

On this day, November 21, in 1862, Major General Edwin V. Sumner forwarded this demand to the city officials in Fredericksburg:

Mayor and Common Council of Fredericksburg:

GENTLEMEN: Under cover of the houses of your city, shots have been tired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactories are furnishing provisions and the material for clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the Government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and, by direction of General Burnside, I accordingly demand the surrender of the city into my hands, as the representative of the Government of the United States, at or before 5 o’clock this afternoon.

Failing an affirmative reply to this demand by the hour indicated, sixteen hours will be permitted to elapse for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, &c., which period having expired, I shall proceed to shell the town. Upon obtaining possession of the city, every necessary means will be taken to preserve order and secure the protective operation of the laws and policy of the United States Government.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Bvt. Maj. Gen., U.S. Army, Commanding Right Grand Division.

Backing up the demand with iron, Sumner ordered up two batteries.

The reply from Mayor Montgomery Slaughter arrived later in the day.  After complaining of delays with delivery of the demand, and repeating the demands for clarity, Slaughter responded to the conditions noted by Sumner:

In reply, I have to say that this communication did not reach me in time to convene the council for its consideration, and to furnish a reply by the hour indicated (5 p.m.). It was sent to me through the hands of the commanding officer of the army of the Confederate States near this town, to whom it was first delivered, by consent of General Patrick, who bore it from you, as I am informed, and I am authorized by the commander of the Confederate Army to say that there was no delay in passing it through his hands to me.

In regard to the matters complained of by you, the firing of shots upon your troops occurred upon the northern suburbs of the town, and was the act of the military officer commanding the Confederate forces near here, for which matter [neither] the citizens nor civil authorities of this town are responsible. In regard to the other matters of complaint, I am authorized by the latter officer to say that the condition of things therein complained of shall no longer exist; that your troops shall not be fired on from this town; that the mills and manufactories here will not furnish any further supplies of provisions or material for clothing for the Confederate troops, nor will the railroads or other means of transportation here convey supplies from the town to the depots of said troops.

You must be aware that there will not be more than three or four hours of daylight within the sixteen hours given by you for the removal of the sick and wounded, the women and children, the aged and infirm from this place; and I have to inform you that, while there is no railroad transportation accessible to the town, because of the interruption thereof by your batteries, all other means of transportation within the town are so limited as to render the removal of the classes of persons spoken of, within the time indicated, an utter impossibility.

The assurances and explanations assuaged Sumner, who then replied:

Your letter of this afternoon is at hand, and, in consideration of your pledges that the acts complained of shall cease, and that your town shall not be occupied by any of the enemy’s forces, and your assertion that a lack of transportation renders it impossible to remove the women, children, sick, wounded, and aged, I am authorized to say to you that our batteries will not open upon your town at the hour designated.

General Patrick will meet a committee or representative from your town to-morrow morning at 9 o’clock, at the Lacy house.

Despite the tone of compromise in the last message, there were still details to work out and a few misunderstandings to resolve.  More negotiations took place the following day, and only then was the city spared the threat of bombardment (for the time being).

Not reflected in the dialog between Sumner and Slaughter was the input given by General Robert E. Lee, who had arrived outside Fredericksburg along with the lead elements of General James Longstreet’s corps.  Lee’s response was to withdraw his troops from the city and not use the city for military purposes.  Lee did, however, reserve the option to counter any move by the Federals into the city.  In short, Lee proposed, that while the city remained between the two armies, it would be spared the ravages of war.

Wishful thinking.  Perhaps the dialog reflected notions of earlier times – that warfare was an activity confined to the battlefields and fought out between organized armies.  (Although I’d be the first to point out such a time scarcely existed at any point in history!)  The “rules of war,” or more so the conventions of war, required the protection of civilians and private property.

Sumner’s initial demands had the weight of “hard war” in them.  Fredericksburg was an instrument of war as much as the Army of Northern Virginia was.  But Sumner, at heart, was not a true practitioner of “hard war.”  Perhaps John Pope or William Sherman would have responded with harsher terms, or followed through with more resolve.  Not “Bull Head” Sumner.

On the other hand, Robert E. Lee was willing to cast aside the conventions of war.  Within a few weeks, Lee changed the situation by not only reoccupying Fredericksburg, but fortifying it.  Lee was leading an army at the front of a rebellion and could little afford to give the enemy an opening.  Lee would put Fredericksburg back into the crucible of war.  There would be no safe zones on the Rappahannock in December 1862.


Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 21, Serial 31, pages 783-758.   Also see Frank O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), pages 36-37.