150 years ago: “My headquarters are besieged by citizens… without the means of support”

On February 11, 1863, Major-General Joseph Hooker, then the commander of the Army of the Potomac, issued General Orders No. 11 from his headquarters at Falmouth, Virginia.  Paragraph four of that order read:

IV. Subsistence stores may be sold and issued to citizens residing within the limits of this army by commissaries of subsistence, under the following restrictions:

1. A certificate, under oath of the purchaser, that he is without the means of subsistence, and that he is unable to sustain life without being permitted to make such purchases. This certificate to be approved by the corps commander to whom application is made, who may thereupon direct the sales. Such sales shall not at one time exceed the quantity necessary to sustain the applicant and the members of his family five days.

2. Issues to destitute citizens may be made under the same restrictions, upon returns approved by the provost-marshal-general of the Army of the Potomac.

The parties in all cases will be required to take the oath of allegiance before sales or issues are made to them.

From a practical standpoint there are justifications for the strict nature of the policy.  More than five days of rations issued at one time might fuel a black market.  Indiscriminate issue of supplies might allow some to fall into Confederate hands.  The oath was the meal ticket, you might say.

Almost a year later, those orders remained in place and governed the issue of food, rations, or other support to civilians within Federal lines in Virginia.   On this day (January 21) in 1864, Major-General George Sykes wrote to Army of the Potomac headquarters, then just off Fleetwood Hill at Brandy Station, to ask for clarification on the policy.

My headquarters are besieged by citizens representing themselves as without the means of support. The number increases from day to day. The district of country north of the Rappahannock from Hartwood Church to Fayetteville is a desert, and the inhabitants come to me for bread. I have made issues of a few days at a time in conformity with existing orders, but the labor is becoming so onerous that I cannot continue it. I cannot picket the country from Bull Run to the Rappahannock on both sides of the railroad, therefore these people (women and children) get within the limits of my command. Either the people must starve, if kept out of the camp, or one of the Treasury agents must be sent to register the inhabitants and take measures to feed them.

Common humanity requires that they should be fed, especially as they have lost all they possessed, by the Federal Army. I wish to know distinctly whether it is the intention of the major-general commanding this army to have these citizens kept out under any and all circumstances. Being outside, of course they cannot obtain passes to come inside the pickets, and therefore the “proper authority” mentioned in your letter of the 13th instant has no existence.

Notice that Sykes inquiry took up two lines.  Should he continue to feed civilians?  Should he prohibit civilians from outside the lines to enter for such provisions?

The referenced “letter of the 13th” was in regard to reports of women “in the practice of passing through our lines at their option, without hindrance from the pickets, and visiting Catlett’s Station for the purchase of goods, &c….”  The instructions at that time were to turn away everyone without authorization.

Sykes’ request passed to Provost-Marshal Brigadier-General Marsena R. Patrick, who affirmed that General Orders No. 11 of the previous February remained in effect.  He added:

From an indorsement of Major-General Meade’s, some six or seven weeks ago, I learned that application had been made to the War Department for some modification of the order, but on a recent visit to the War Department I learned unofficially that there was little probability of any change in this order. The trade agents of the Treasury Department are only authorized to furnish limited supplies to parties who can make payment therefor, on orders approved at this office. No provision whatever is made by the Treasury for any others, and from a recent interview with Mr. Secretary Chase and other gentlemen in office I am led to believe that no action will be had in the premises officially.

That said, the official reply to Sykes’ request went out on January 27.  Paragraph IV of General Orders No. 11 remained in effect.  Such satisfied part of Sykes’ inquiry, but left the remainder unaddressed.

While one might easily criticize the Federals for being too harsh. Perhaps just cold bureaucrats unable or unwilling to adjust to relieve suffering of a fellow human being.  On the other side of that, was that justification for maintaining a loose, or almost non-existent, picket line?  After all, the troopers and partisans of the Confederacy were not laying about idle that winter.

And at the same time, perhaps George Sykes was a little tardy coming to the practice of hard war.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 25, Part II, Serial 40, page 66; Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 398-99.)


3 thoughts on “150 years ago: “My headquarters are besieged by citizens… without the means of support”

  1. Craig, just as General Sykes struggled from his Fifth Corps HQ near Rappahannock Station with the onset of starving Fauquier County civilians, the situation was even more dire in Culpeper County just across the Rappahannock where the Second, Third and Sixth Corps–plus the First and Third Cavalry Divisions were all encamped, in their entirety. The “military mayor” of Culpeper Court House (the hamlet) was none other that First Cavalry Division chief, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt. Writing from his HQ at the Bruce house near the depot, General Merritt wrote his superiors the following: “I do not allow these people to go out of the town limits…as being rabid rebel females, they give the enemy information. Something must be given them to eat, though.”

    So, being “rabid” was not enough reason to let people starve–at least the “females.” And this human show of compassion emanated from the same officer who in 1864 put the flame to much of Mosby’s Confederacy in the “Burning Raid.”

    War is indeed, “hell.”

    • Bud, today we’d consider this “civil-military affairs” and assign some team the express orders to feed the populace. This is of course driven by the optics of the situation and very much driven by the desired “strategic communications” narrative desired at echelons well above a lowly divisional or corps commander.

      I think it significant that Sykes, Merritt, and other Federal commanders saw the need to show some compassion. I’ve seen some later-day Confederate types cite the correspondence of these men, drawing the contrast to the “evil Yankees” who insisted on starving out the South. Yet, there is little mention of the Confederate actions which pushed those “Yankees” into such harsh courses.

      As I considered a “two post day” here on the blog, a coincidence did not pass unnoticed. On the same day Sykes complained about civilians crossing his picket line, Lee referred Mosby for promotion.

  2. The points each of you make are very valid and worthy of more examination. In Jan 64 David Gregg directly tied his need to secure his lines around Warrenton against Mosby’s incursions to the plight of the citizens in the town and sought permission to feed them. That April an officer reported that citizens being fed by the army were taking the rations and “feeding the Bushwackers.” The soldiers were not unfeeling but clearly in a difficult situation when it came to this point.

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