Raids along the coast: Were these precursors to the burning in the Shenandoah Valley?

Last week I discussed the Combahee Ferry Raid. But that was not the only raid Major-General David Hunter authorized. In the days after the 2nd South Carolina’s foray, several other similar raids hit points along the South Carolina and Georgia coast.

On June 4, 1863 a party from Fort Pulaski on five steamers worked through the backwaters to Bluffton, South Carolina. The Naval portion was lead by Lieutenant-Commander George Bacon on the USS Commodore McDonough. The Army detachment was from the 48th New York, led by Colonel William Barton. Bacon reported firing 143 rounds during the raid – fire from IX-inch Dahlgren, 100-pdr Parrott, 50-pdr Dahlgren rifle, and boat howitzers. Most of which were fired from the howitzers.

The Confederates were ill-disposed to oppose landings. Once again, Captain John F. Lay made an official investigation into the matter. Lay described the results of the raid in blunt terms:

The ashes of Bluffton, with its withered and scorched remains of noble trees and beautiful shrubbery, present a sad scene of desolation and fiendish vandalism unparallelled in the history of civilized nations.

And note please, the 48th was a white regiment.

Days later on June 8, another Federal force landed at Brunswick, Georgia. Prompt Confederate response thwarted the raiders. But a pattern was developing.

After losing two brigades to reinforce the imperiled western theater, General P.G.T. Beauregard reduced many of the outlying coastal posts. In many sectors, roving patrols were the only defenses. Beauregard did keep the Charleston & Savannah and the Atlantic & Gulf railroad lines protected. But a “no man’s land” lay between the railroad defenses and the coast. That area included many rice plantations and mills. Sort of a “rice bowl of the Confederacy” if I may. In addition many of the coastal communities supported fishing, shrimping, and other trades. Furthermore the docks and wharfs in those communities were part of a backwater transportation route used to move goods that supported the Confederate army.

Were these rice fields, rice mills, docks, and other facilities legitimate targets? Hunter thought so. A devout abolitionist, Hunter was not the type to shy away from “hard war.” But even Hunter set some limitations. In a June 9 letter to Colonel James Montgomery, the 2nd South Carolina (US) Infantry who’d just returned from the Combahee Raid, Hunter put forth directives about how these raids were to be conducted:

To sections I, II, III of these instructions I beg to call your particular attention; not that in any manner I doubt the justice or generosity of your judgment, but for the reason that it is peculiarly important, in view of the questions which have heretofore surrounded the employment of colored troops in the armies of the United States, to give our enemies (foreign and domestic) as little ground as possible for alleging any violation of the laws and usages of civilized warfare as a palliation for these atrocities which are threatened against the men and officers of commands similar to your own. If, as is threatened by the rebel Congress, this war has eventually to degenerate into a barbarous and savage conflict, softened by none of the amenities and rights established by the wisdom and civilization of the world through successive centuries of struggle, it is of the first moment that the infamy of this deterioration should rest exclusively and without excuse upon the rebel Government. It will therefore be necessary for you to exercise the utmost strictness in insisting upon compliance with the instructions herewith sent, and you will avoid any devastation which does not strike immediately at the resources or material of the armed insurrection which we are now engaged in the task of suppressing.

There’s a lot I should highlight in that paragraph. But I think it better for the reader to consider it without my markup. Hunter cites General Orders, No. 100, titled “Instructions for the government of armies of the United States in the field” or commonly referred to as the Lieber Code. The first three sections of those are too long for full citation here, so I refer you to the Avalon Project’s page on the orders.

One does not need to read between the lines to see Hunter wanted the Confederates to pull the first offense here. And reading between the lines, and considering the context of the Combahee Raid, the letter does sound like a rebuke, though only slightly, for Montgomery.

Hunter drew down on specific actions which he condoned:

All fugitives who come within our lines you will receive, welcome, and protect. Such of them as are able-bodied men you will at once enroll and arm as soldiers. You will take all horses and mules available for transportation to the enemy; also all cattle and other food which can be of service to our forces. As the rebel Government has laid all grain and produce under conscription, to be taken at will for the use of its armed adherents, you will be justified in destroying all stores of this kind which you shall not be able to remove; but the destruction of crops in the ground, which may not be fit for use until the rebellion is over, or which may when ripe be of service to the forces of our Government occupying the enemy’s country, you will not engage in without mature consideration. This right of war, though unquestionable in certain extreme cases, is not to be lightly used, and if wantonly used might fall under that part of the instructions which prohibits devastation. All household furniture, libraries, churches, and hospitals you will of course spare.

I know there are a million stories about the “Yankee devils” who burned everything in sight, and thus violate the rules Hunter prescribed. But focus for a moment on what Hunter felt was within bounds. Fugitives and slaves – see Articles 42 and 43 of the code, after the Emancipation Proclamation no gray area there (no pun intended). Horses, mules, cattle, and foodstuffs became “public property” in Hunter’s view. And you see his justification. I call to your attention then the irony of a government founded on the promise of States Rights, having to impose a levy on private property to feed its army, which in turn is considered the release for the opposing force to seize said private property!

That the wickedness and folly of the enemy may soon place us in a position where the immutable laws of self-defense and the stern necessity of retaliation will not only justify but enjoin every conceivable species of injury is only to be too clearly apprehended; but until such time shall have arrived, and until the proof, not merely of declarations or resolves but of acts, is unmistakable, it will be both right and wise to hold the troops under your command to the very strictest interpretation of the laws and usages of civilized warfare.

This comes from the same man who would, almost to a year later to the day, also order the burning of the Virginia Military Institute. And a whole lot more. Did Hunter’s interpretation of the Lieber Code change in the span of a year? Or was the destruction at VMI just a continuation of the practice he set on the coast? Likewise did Hunter legitimize the “rice bowl” and the “bread basket” as targets in the same manner? And how do we reconcile the differing perceptions of Lay and Hunter with respect to the conventions of war?

A lot to ponder. And I do hope this sets up some cross-talk among my fellow bloggers. But for now, I am moving down the coast to Montgomery’s next stop at a place called Darien.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 314 and 466-7.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

8 thoughts on “Raids along the coast: Were these precursors to the burning in the Shenandoah Valley?

  1. I see a slightly (emphasis on “slightly”) different David Hunter, in 1864. Beginning early-on in his ’64 Valley Campaign… I think Stephens City/Newtown might be a good example… it appears Hunter is back to his practices of ’63. Were it not for Major Stearns of the 1st NY Cav, I think it would have been left in ashes. Still, I see Hunter “wanting” to push what he had practiced in ’63, but I think there was a measure of restraint… as hard as that might be to believe. He pushes up the Valley, is successful at Piedmont, and once in and around Staunton unleashes his forces in order to take out local assets to the Confederacy… but… he doesn’t get into the scorched earth thing nearly as much as Sheridan later does. Later on, with his efforts in Lexington, he shows he wasn’t messing around, but even there I think he shows restraint. It was bad enough (enough for Early to justify burning Chambersburg), but, as we can see from him along the Georgia coast, it could have been much worse. I do think that Hunter’s destruction of VMI and Governor Letcher’s home seem more personal (VMI’s role in New Market and a “cradle of secession”, and Letcher’s home, mostly because of the pamphlet which Letcher had ordered circulated). I’ll mull this over a little more. It’s an excellent point that you bring up, in that we need to consider Hunter, here in the Valley, as more than just in that small window of time, but as the Hunter that existed even before he was here.

  2. Another remarkable point is that, while you write in terms of the Sesqui events in Ga. (1863), as of tomorrow, we are T+1 year till Hunter’s arrival at Lexington. Makes you wonder if he was reflective at all, on his actions in Georgia as he made his way through the Shenandoah. “A year ago today, I was laying waste to…”

    1. Yes, I could not resist the coincidental alignment with the burning of Darien and the burning of VMI. It made a very useful prop here!

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