“Personal abuse of the people will be most severely punished….”: Behavior of the Seventeenth Corps on Port Royal Island

There is a narrative, that holds purchase in the view of some, that Major-General William T. Sherman led, for all practical purposes, an organized mob of thieves, arsonists, and thugs across Georgia and the Carolinas.  According to that narrative, Sherman’s men committed gross crimes against civilians as the military leaders simply turned a blind eye to the situation.  Yet, looking at the primary sources, the preponderance of evidence is the Federal troops were not simply a rabble given leave to inflict whole scale destruction without any constraints.  Did some Federal troops get out of control and cross the line?  Indeed.  But was that simply overlooked, ignored by the command?  Not at all.  More often than not, it received attention and punishment.

Starting on January 4, 1865, the Seventeenth Corps from the Right Wing of Sherman’s force began moving by boat from Savannah to Beaufort, South Carolina.  The move was slow due to the limited number of transports, taking well over a week.  The troops landed at Beaufort and moved from there to camps on Port Royal Island.  The area where they camped had been under Federal control since the first year of the war. Under Federal protection, the contraband camps had transformed into somewhat self-sustaining communities as former slaves lived and farmed on confiscated lands.  And when passing through those communities, the Seventeenth Corps had acted badly.  On January 10, Major-General Oliver O. Howard addressed this behavior in a message to Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr., the Seventeenth Corps commander:

I feel surprised, after the precautions that have been taken by yourself and officers, to find that many depredations have been committed near this place, and certain things done that would disgrace us even in the enemy’s country, e.g., the robbing of some negroes and abusing their women. Please ascertain, if possible, approximately, the amount of damage wantonly committed on the island, and have it assessed on the brigade or regiment guilty.

Howard followed that direct message with Field Orders No. 3, issued the next day:

The officers and soldiers of this army are reminded that all the land on this island (Port Royal) either belongs to the United States or is owned by people loyal to our Government and friendly disposed toward its soldiers, and it is therefore incumbent on them to afford the inhabitants of the district the kindest personal treatment and protection for their property. Personal abuse of the people will be most severely punished, and the amount of damage wantonly and unlawfully done to their property will be assessed to and collected from the individuals guilty, if they can be ascertained, and from companies, regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps, as the case may be, if the parties responsible are not found and reported.

This order will be read to every regiment, battery, and detachment of this command at parade for three successive days.

So should the guilty parties not step forward, Howard was willing to administer general punishment.  And soldiers of the entire command – Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps – would hear this order for three days straight, so there was no misunderstanding.

Field Order No. 3 reminds me of numerous daily orders issued during the Savannah Campaign (such as Howard’s orders that troops not enter private homes without justification, issued on the night of November 18, 1864). The fact that the orders, such as Field Order No. 3, existed does indicate the Federals had some problems keeping the rank and file from committing such acts – against friend or foe.  But the presence of such orders also indicates Federal authorities were not disposed to simply let things pass.

(Citations form OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 33 and 34-35.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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