“Many acts were committed that every right-minded officer deprecates.”: Howard’s statement on the conduct of his men

In his campaign report, Major-General Oliver O. Howard included this section among the details of activities which took place on February 4, 1865:

Great pains were taken to organize regular and efficient foraging parties for each brigade, battery, &c. They were permitted to mount themselves and required to bring in horses, mules, cattle, and all kinds of food for men and animals. They were, however, prohibited by the most stringent instructions from disturbing the private houses and taking such things as money, jewelry, watches, and other private property that the imperative necessity of the army did not demand. The inhabitants had cleared away nearly all the produce of the country west of the Salkehatchie. As soon as we had broken this line an abundant supply was open to us. The people were terrified at the extravagant reports regarding us, and buried everything that they could of value. The soldiers became very expert in discovering and exhuming these valuables, and always regarded them as their legitimate prize captures. In spite of every precaution to check it the system of foraging operated to loosen the restraints of discipline, and many acts were committed that every right-minded officer deprecates.

The common narrative handed down, 150 years to the day, is that Sherman’s men wanted to exact revenge on South Carolina for starting the war.  As with many wartime situations, I contend that is a simplistic way of looking at events.  There is, beyond all doubt, ample evidence of the hard war brought upon South Carolina in the winter of 1865.  But at the same time there are some myths and exaggerations to expose along the way.

Howard’s statement in his report, along with numerous orders posted (almost daily) at the wing, corps, and division level, would not be there if offenses had not occurred.  At the same time, the fact that these observations and orders exist argues that the officers did not just turn a blind eye to the activity and attempted to avoid indiscriminate pillage and plunder.  As was the case in Georgia, the focus of authorized forage parties was gathering supplies for the immediate use of the army.  And beyond that, what was authorized to be destroyed – be that public property, Confederate property, or supplies that could be used by the Confederates – was targeted as it could (and would) be used to support the war effort against the Federals.  The policy was not so much to say “resistance is futile” but to ensure “resistance is impossible.”

We often read of the pillaging of homes and farms from the perspective of the civilians of South Carolina.  If I had a dime for every “valuables stashed in the rose bushes” story, I’d have valuables myself to hide from the Yankees!  Howard alludes to soldiers efforts to find such stashes.  In some cases, that involved disturbing graves.  And the very act of hiding those foodstuffs, livestock, or valuables was a display of resistance.

But flip the story around to the perspective of the Federal soldier.  Since leaving Atlanta the previous fall, only rarely had he seen formed Confederate troops in the field, arrayed in what we would consider a battle line.  More often the encounters were fleeting contact with cavalry patrols and militia pickets.  Confederate resistance was more often seen and felt in the form of destroyed bridges, felled trees, and, most ghastly to the soldier, torpedoes.  As I mentioned earlier, activities in South Carolina took a different tempo compared to those in Georgia.  There were more of these skirmishes occurring along the march.  Resistance, either in the form of obstacles in the way or skirmishers exchanging shots, was more prevalent in the Palmetto State.

Continue to wear those brogans for a moment.  The soldiers had witnessed, first hand, the treatment of prisoners in the camps of Georgia.  And they knew many more prisons awaited in South Carolina.  They were moving through a land where forage abounded.  Yet, apparently from the scenes witnessed at Camp Lawton and other places, that abundance was not shared.  (With the hindsight of history, we know well there was a problem with Confederate acquisition and logistics which created much of the horrible situation… but that was, I would submit, beyond the knowledge of the average Federal soldier at the time.)

And stay in those brogans for a moment more. These troops engaged in the march were, on average, long serving veterans.  They’d seen every horror the battlefields of the 19th century had to offer.  They’d been through hell on earth and managed to survive.  And they knew somewhere along the march, at sometime the likelihood was great they’d be ordered into that hell again.  In the early years of the war, their progress was against Confederate strong-holds and transportation lines.  Since November 1864, their progress was directly against Confederate war-making capacity – if nothing else measured in pounds of salt pork and bread that would not be delivered to the Confederate armies in the field.  That progress sapped strength from the enemy and reduced the likelihood of some major battle.  Every pushed-in door through Georgia and South Carolina put distance between the soldier and that dreaded battlefield hell.

And while those brogans are walking about, consider the soldiers were passing through many large and opulent farms, plantations.  They saw, first hand, some of the ills and horrors of slavery.  They saw the contrast between “owner” and “enslaved.” The practical application of the large concepts of abolition and emancipation peered out from those slave quarters.

Perhaps a better way to consider behavior of the soldiers is not as “exacting revenge” but accumulating a grudge.  Every felled tree in the way… weight to that grudge.  A shot at the formation from behind a tree… weight to the grudge.  A burnt bridge … weight to the grudge. A torpedo in the roadway … lots of weight to the grudge.  Recaptured prisoners … lots of weight to the grudge.  Passing slave quarters… more weight to the grudge.  How heavy does that grudge accumulate before the soldier buckles to that grudge and goes looking for silverware?

And granted, as the soldiers relieved some of that grudge, the effect was for the civilian population to accumulate their own grudge… which would be carried well after the war (and generations later, some folks are still carrying around as some self-imposed encumbrance on their psyche).

What is a wonder to me is how Howard and other commanders prevented South Carolina from suffering much worse.  There, I say, is a study in leadership, waiting for a scribe.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 194-5.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on ““Many acts were committed that every right-minded officer deprecates.”: Howard’s statement on the conduct of his men

  1. Disturbing graves? Where did you see that?

    By the way, I’m thoroughly enjoying your posts and find myself very excited to see them show up every day. I’ve even filed away a few episodes that you’ve described to use as anecdotes when teaching supply chain management and logistics in the future.

    1. There are a score of accounts which feature Federals disturbing recently buried corpses in search of valuables. But I caution that for this post, and this comment, I’m not offering a detailed discussion or analysis of the particulars (begging brevity!). The one incident that stands out, ready at my finger tips as that reference is nearby as I respond, features the 154th New York. But.. in that particular case, the soldiers were persuaded not to dig up a fresh grave. I don’t think the practice was as commonplace as some “partisan” interpretations would have us believe. But the mention of such incidents is prevalent to convince me in a few cases it did happen.

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