Custer stole Abraham Miller’s horses, saddles, and hay: Were the burning raids justified? Legal?

Some years ago I was visiting Cedar Creek and stopped in the visitor center there.  This was before the national park was established there, but still the battlefield organization maintained a good post.  As part of my visit, I took in the orientation video.  As the program covered the events which lead up to Cedar Creek, the Burning Raids received due time.  When the narrator mentioned the number of barns and farms destroyed by the Federals, a couple to my right let out a very emotional gasp.  Later, after the movie was over, they began pressing the guide for more details about the raids.  The docent explained that as part of the raids not only did the Federals burn down barns and other buildings, but they took livestock, crops, and other property.  At some point, one of them reached a conclusion to all this – “All that burning and stealing was wrong.  It was unnecessary.  A crime!”  I’ve learned long ago to avoid such lead-ins and leave the tending to those behind the desk with name-tags.

I would have liked to have interjected, saying to the effect, “I’m from Missouri, and both sides burned our state practically to the ground.”  After all, it was Missouri’s “hard war” that served as a precursor to that experience in Virginia.  But I doubt that would have been constructive.  Better yet I might have brought up many stories from South Carolina that demonstrated similar Federal actions and how those were justified at the time.  That, perhaps, would have demonstrated the evolution in Federal approach.  But to best demonstrate that point, I’d have to avoid the “generalizations” and focus on some “specifics.”  And that’s what is often lost in such conversations.  So let’s talk some brass tacks on this subject today….

One day and 150 years ago, Abraham Miller of Bridgewater in Rockingham County, lost some property.  According to a claim made after the war, on September 29, 1864 a party of Federal soldiers took two horses, a ton of hay, 28 bushels of oats, 10 bushels of corn, and two saddles ($241.86 in 1871 estimates).

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John A. Miller, who later provided testimony to support Abraham’s claim, said:

I went to the Cavalry Camp of General Custer (attached to General Sheridan’s army) on business and while there saw the two horses charged in the said petition in their possession. The horses were accounted as Cavalry horses and a Captain whose name I did not learn was on one of them.  I saw the hay, corn, and oats of the claimant taken by the troops of General Custer at about the same time.  I cannot say how much exactly of the said supplies were taken, but I am fully convinced that they took at least as is charged in this petition.

So a bunch of “Yellow Hair’s” troopers made off with Abraham’s horses, taking with them some supplies without so much as voucher or Yankee greenbacks in return.  They just “took” it all.

With that little bit of information, should we consider Abraham just a farmer trying to make his way in the middle of a war?  Perhaps it would be easy to cast him as a Charlie Anderson (there’s that cultural reference again, Robert).  But we should also consider that Abraham had done business with the Confederate army at several times during the war.

Abraham appears in the Confederate Citizens Files with, while not a substantial amount of business, enough to establish his association.  In June 1862, he sold a small amount of corn to Confederate authorities on two separate invoices.  The total was just over $30. More substantially, in February 1863, he sold $179.50 of bacon.

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Then in March 1863 he sold 28 bushels of wheat to the Confederate army.  Sure, less than $250 in transactions all told in the record – and that assumes the records are complete.  But we are not trying to say Abraham did business that rivaled Tredegar or other major businesses.  Rather this does establish Abraham as a person supplying goods to the Confederate Army, in context of what happened on September 29, 1864.

So did the Federals have reason to be concerned, had they left Abraham’s farm alone, that he would sell or otherwise turn those goods over to the Confederates?  Let’s go back to the records.  First there is this:

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Yes, on October 5, 1864… let be bold that for emphasis …. October 5, 1864, Abraham Miller gave 424 bushels of corn and 1500 pounds of fodder to Captain J.P. Dickinson.  Abraham was given a receipt for $365, and Dickinson marked the account as unpaid “for want of funds.”

But wait… didn’t Sheridan’s guys burn all there was?  Apparently not!

A few days later, Abraham sold 61 bushels of corn and 1200 pounds of hay to another Confederate quartermaster:

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The total there was $280.  And there is a strike through at the bottom “and that the articles have been accounted for on my property return for the quarter ending the 31st day of December 1864.”  I don’t know exactly what to make of that last, other than to say again that Abraham Miller continued to do business with Confederate authorities.

I would caution, however, that these receipts are just part of the story.  What we don’t know is the back-story.  Was Abraham just doing business with the Confederates because he needed the money?  Was he pressured?  Did the presence of Federals lead him to sell it all off, in hopes of getting at least something?  All good questions to which there are few clues in the records.

But one thing we can say, given that Abraham did sell off what he owned in October 1864, the Federals did have justification.  The case is clear: anything left behind in Abraham’s possession would – and did – end up in Confederate hands.

Now was it legal for the Federal troops to “take” what was Abraham’s?  Keep in mind there was no “Geneva Convention” in 1864.  There was instead General Orders No. 100, also known as the Lieber Code.  Article 15 of that order read:

Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war; it allows of the capturing of every armed enemy, and every enemy of importance to the hostile government, or of peculiar danger to the captor; it allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; of the appropriation of whatever an enemy’s country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the army, and of such deception as does not involve the breaking of good faith either positively pledged, regarding agreements entered into during the war, or supposed by the modern law of war to exist. Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God.

The logic – if Abraham’s hay, corn, fodder, and horses could be used by the Confederates, then the Federals could take it in order to deny those resources to their enemy.  It may not sound nice.  But such is the nature of “military necessity.”  The last line, of course, offers some words to caution against extremes.  Cited constraints were agreements made between combatants or other conventions of war.  Still, the object remained – Abraham’s property was a legitimate target.

You may ask if Abraham was reimbursed for his loss.  The board reviewing his claim had this to say in 1871:

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The claimant says he was a [non-contestant?].  He voted to ratify the ordnance of secession. He says he had actively opposed secession & was afraid not to vote, or to vote against it, as threats of violence had been made agt. Union men. He does not show any threats to him – nor any force used or threatened.  It all rests on his own statement.

So he hired a substitute & paid him $1000 & afterwards he paid a fine of $500…. We are not satisfied that he was loyal.

As I said with respect to the invoices, there’s more to the story (and a reminder that Robert Moore addressed the secession vote and coercion some time back).  There’s always more to the story.

Let me close by recommending to those who are looking for a fresh perspective on the Burning Raids, a recent post by Robert.  More than barns, mills, and grain were destroyed during those days of autumn.

“General M. Jeff. Thompson arrived in camp”: The “Confederacy’s Swamp Fox” joins Price

For September 29, 1864, the itinerary of Major-General Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri read:

September 29 (Camp No. 30). – Passed through Caledonia and Potosi.  At the latter place General Shelby fought and captured ____ Federals. The enemy, who left Pilot Knob under General Ewing, hearing of Shelby being in front, moved off to the west.  Marmaduke and Shelby started pursuit last night. General M. Jeff. Thompson arrived in camp. Rumors of Steele leaving Little Rock doubted; distance twenty-two miles.

A fair march of twenty-two miles, but not quite up to the “foot cavalry” standards perhaps.  Not mentioned in the itinerary, a force of Confederate cavalry ranged out to Cuba… Cuba, Missouri that is… and destroyed a portion of the Southwest Branch Railroad.


So on this day 150 years ago, M. Jeff Thompson arrived back at the “front” and in the midst of Major-General Sterling Price’s Missouri Campaign.  Perhaps it was fitting that Thompson should participate in the last great campaign in Missouri, as he had been an active part of the war in the Trans-Mississippi from the start.

He was born Meriwether Thompson in Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia, but the moniker “Jeff” came from a childhood association.  Thompson attended J.J. Sanbourn Military Academy in nearby Charlestown as a teen, but failed to receive an appointment to West Point.  Working as a store clerk in several communities, Thompson eventually took up residence in Liberty, Missouri.  There he transformed himself into an engineer, working for the city and helping to lay the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.  He’d presided over the ceremonies inaugurating the Pony Express in April 1860.  So he was a person of some prominence in pre-war Missouri.

Pre-war military activity included service in the Missouri State Guard with the rank of Colonel.  As with many throughout the south, Thompson reacted to John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid and began to advocate secession.  That advocacy transformed to direct action on May 12, 1861 when Thompson cut down the American flag from the St. Joseph post office and tossed it to a cheering crowd.  This, and his political connections, secured the command of the First Division, pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard.  His commission as “Brigadier-General” came from Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and not from the Confederate government.

Operating in the swampy bottom lands in southeastern part of the state, Thompson received the nickname “Swamp Fox.”  Though not as successful, by any measure, as the Revolutionary War “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, Thompson was able to make his presence known.  Among other things, his operations proved an obstacle to early Federal operations along the Mississippi River axis.  In particular he was a thorn in the side of one Brigadier-General U.S. Grant during those early days of the war.

In June 1862, he added “naval commander” to his resume.  He led a portion of the Confederate ram fleet, which included one warship named after him, in action at the Battle of Memphis on June 6.  After that defeat, without a command Thompson served in various staff capacities.  During Brigadier-General John S. Marmaduke’s April 1863 raid to Cape Girardeau, Thompson’s engineering skills enabled the Confederate force to escape over the St. Francis River at Chalk Bluff.

Later in August Thompson was captured in Kentucky.  Though still not a “Confederate general” by virtue of the state commission, Thompson was among the “generals” sent to Morris Island in June 1864 in response to the fifty Federal prisoners in Charleston. After exchange on August 3, Thompson returned to the west. But he did not make his way to Price’s command until very late in September.

With Price’s advance into Thompson’s old stomping (or dare we say “swamping”?) grounds, Thompson was a favorite for some command.  But all the seats were spoken for.  On October 2, Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby proposed combining one of his regiments and a separate battalion as a command for Thompson, using those formations as the nucleus to form a full brigade with the recruits.  But before that could take place, Colonel David Shanks, commanding Shelby’s old Iron Brigade, was wounded in action at Prince’s Ford.  On October 6, Thompson received orders to take over the famous Iron Brigade… OK, Phil Spaugy, not THE Iron Brigade, but Shelby’s Missouri Iron Brigade.

As Price’s raid into Missouri progressed through the fall, Thompson joined so many “returning” characters who would share the spotlight in one of the largest (particularly in terms of geography covered) campaigns of the war.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, page 644.)

September 28, 1864: Beauregard heading back to Charleston

On September 28, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton passed along two intercepted messages from the Confederate lines at Charleston.  The second of these, from Beach Inlet to Battery Bee, read:

Captain Smith requests that you will let us know when General Beauregard crossed the bridge.

With this bit of information, Saxton asked his superior, Major-General John Foster, for a special liberty:

I propose to give General Beauregard a salute in Charleston this evening from my 200-pounders.

Was General P.G.T. Beauregard returning to command at Charleston?  No, but in a round-about… sort of.  After serving through the summer months in command at Petersburg, Beauregard grew tired of living in General Robert E. Lee’s shadow. And at the same time, the creole’s performance in August left authorities in the War Department looking for a way to ease him out of Virginia.

The visit to Charleston was not, however, a move to resume his old command.  Rather he arrived to investigate the conduct of Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley and to handle some administrative tasks, as Beauregard related to Major-General Samuel Jones on September 25:

The president has ordered me (verbally) to repair to Charleston and await further orders, meanwhile to inquire into the difficulty between yourself and Brigadier-General Ripley, and to examine the condition of the defenses and troops at and about Charleston, assisted by my chief engineer, Col. D.B. Harris, and chief inspector, Lieut. Col. A. Roman.  The former is then to remain on duty with you until further orders as inspector of fortifications and adviser in that branch of the service.

The problems with Ripley came to a head during the long summer months.  And these problems came out of a bottle.  During one of the general alarms sounded in July, in response to Federal activity, aides suspected he was drunk.  Then on September 17, he had a loud argument with the department quartermaster, in which several witnesses claimed he was drunk.  After just a day investigating the matter, Beauregard reached a conclusion:

It is evident from the within communications that Brig. Gen. R.S. Ripley cannot be intrusted at this critical time with so important a command as the First Military District of this department (comprising of the city and harbor of Charleston), which offers such great temptations and facilities for indulging in his irregular habits.  The past efficient services of Brigadier-General Ripley may entitle him still to some consideration at your hands. I therefore respectfully recommend that he may be ordered to active service in the field where time, reflection, and a stricter discipline may have their favorable influences over him.

Everyone from Charleston to Richmond agreed that Ripley should be relieved.  But none outside of Beauregard felt Ripley needed a second chance, especially at Petersburg.  But with all the other concerns of the time, Ripley remained in command pending further deliberation, though reassigned to Sullivan’s Island by the end of the month.  On balance, perhaps the return of Harris to his engineering duties was a fair trade?

September 28 saw another Confederate general receive orders to make way to Charleston.  General John B. Hood’s Special Orders No. 5 as commander of the Department of Tennessee and Georgia:

By direction of the President, Lieut. Gen. W. J. Hardee is relieved from duty in the Army of Tennessee, and will proceed at once to Charleston, S.C., and assume command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

With this, Brigadier-General Samuel Jones stepped down from department command and assumed command of the District of South Carolina (the state minus the Third Military District).

For what it was worth, Beauregard was heading the opposite direction after his stay in Charleston.  He’d accepted a command in charge of the “west,” where his responsibilities were largely administrative, though including those areas where Hood and Hardee now operated.

Thus the Confederate command responsible for the defenses of Savannah and Charleston shuffled around in the early fall of 1864.  Before the winter season arrived, those commands would face a Federal threat unlike that seen earlier in the war.   A storm was coming to the coast.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Serial 66, pages 304, 630, 632-3, and 635.)