“I merely assert our war right to forage and my resolve to protect my foragers”: Sherman and Hampton discuss prisoner murders

In the evening of February 24, 1865, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick sent the second status report of the day to Major-General William T. Sherman.  Where as the earlier report had focused on Kilpatrick’s issues with his fellow commanders, the second report provided more details of the forager, prisoner murders mentioned days earlier.

I have the honor to report that Private Charles Wright, Ninth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, General Atkins’ headquarters, came in last evening from scout near Feasterville, below and west of Chesterville. He reports having found twenty-one of our infantrymen in a ravine, about eighty rods from the main road and about three miles from Feasterville, with their throats cut and stripped of their clothing. The evidence that the enemy has resolved upon murdering our men is fast accumulating. Another report has just come in that a soldier belonging to the Ninety-second Illinois mounted Infantry was found hung to the limb of a tree near the roadside. I shall retaliate as far as my own people are concerned, as you have directed. Major-General Wade Hampton is now at Lancaster. I can forward for you any communication to or through him to any higher rebel authorities you may desire regarding the facts mentioned.

One of the hardest things to assess, from the historian’s chair, is how information like this stands up as “evidence” in light of the accusation of a crime or, in this case, a transgression of the rules of war.  We might say Kilpatrick, as he didn’t see the bodies himself, and therefore his statement is hearsay.  After all, this all came from PRIVATE Wright.  In the second instance offered as “evidence,” from the 92nd Illinois, Kilpatrick did not give a name.  So we might say “hearsay” again with less constraints.

On the other hand, there is a practical matter of the context and situation here.  Kilpatrick’s job was to report detailed, accurate information to Sherman on all matters.  While all officers in Sherman’s command had that charge, as the cavalry chief, Kilpatrick was more so required to ensure all information passed was dependable.  It would be out of character for the situation for Kilpatrick to pass along information which he did not verify, validate, and confirm himself.  Kilpatrick had to believe the information from Wright and the 92nd Illinois was accurate.  I feel we must establish such in the discussion of this issue, as in some forums you might hear that Kilpatrick “invented” much of this controversy. Though, I would caution that to say Kilpatrick believed the reports were accurate is not to say it was accurate.

Sherman acted on this report without delay.  Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton was close by and he was the authority in command of the forces accused of these murders.  So Sherman addressed Hampton that evening:

It is officially reported to me that our foraging parties are murdered after capture and labeled “Death to all foragers.” One instance of a lieutenant and seven men near Chesterville; and another of twenty “near a ravine eighty rods from the main road” about three miles from Feasterville. I have ordered a similar number of prisoners in our hands to be disposed of in like manner. I hold about 1,000 prisoners captured in various ways, and can stand it as long as you; but I hardly think these murders are committed with your knowledge, and would suggest that you give notice to the people at large that every life taken by them simply results in the death of one of your Confederates. Of course you cannot question my right to “forage on the country.” It is a war right as old as history. The manner of exercising it varies with circumstances, and if the civil authorities will supply my requisitions I will forbid all foraging. But I find no civil authorities who can respond to calls for forage or provisions, therefore must collect directly of the people. I have no doubt this is the occasion of much misbehavior on the part of our men, but I cannot permit an enemy to judge or punish with wholesale murder. Personally I regret the bitter feelings engendered by this war, but they were to be expected, and I simply allege that those who struck the first blow and made war inevitable ought not, in fairness, to reproach us for the natural consequences. I merely assert our war right to forage and my resolve to protect my foragers to the extent of life for life.

With his assertion of the “war right” to forage, offered the same logic Sherman voiced to his key subordinates earlier.  Interesting, as here Sherman pointed to the lack of civil authorities to process his demands as the basis for directly gathering supplies by force.

Sherman’s play was to threaten an escalation unless the murders ceased.  It would take three days for the message to reach Hampton.  And true to form, Hampton was not one to back down in the face of a threat.  I’ll turn to his response in a few days… as it happened 150 years ago.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 547, 554.)

3 thoughts on ““I merely assert our war right to forage and my resolve to protect my foragers”: Sherman and Hampton discuss prisoner murders

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