“I shall have executed at once two of yours…”: Hampton escalates the prisoner issue

Major-General William T. Sherman sent a message across the lines on February 24, 1865, addressed to Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, complaining about the execution of Federal foragers and relating a threat to retaliate in kind.  This message required a few days to transit the lines.  So on February 27, Hampton responded:

General: Your communication of the 24th instant reached me to-day. In it you state that it has been officially reported that your foraging parties are “murdered” after capture. You go on to say that you have “ordered a similar number of prisoners in our hands to be disposed of in like manner; that is to say, you have ordered a number of Confederate soldiers to be “murdered.” You characterize your order in proper terms, for the public voice, even in your own country, where it seldom dares to express itself in vindication of truth, honor, or justice, will surely agree with you in pronouncing you guilty of murder if your order is carried out. Before dismissing this portion of your letter, I beg to assure you that for every soldier of mine “murdered” by you, I shall have executed at once two of yours, giving in all cases preference to any officers who may be in my hands.

This introduction certainly set the tone for the rest of the letter.  Hampton went on to deny any knowledge of the alleged incidents, or at least insisting that any forager deaths were attributable to the defense of the state, civilians, and property:

In reference to the statement you make regarding the death of your foragers, I have only to say that I know nothing of it; that no orders given by me authorize the killing of prisoners after capture, and that do not believe my men killed any of yours, except under circumstances in which it was perfectly legitimate and proper that they should kill them. It is a part of the system of the thieves whom you designate as your foragers to fire the dwellings of those citizens whom they have robbed. To check this inhuman system, which is justly execrated by every civilized nation, I have directed my men to shoot down all of your men who are caught burning houses. This order shall remain in force so long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings.

Hampton spent two paragraphs debating Sherman over the claim of “war right” to forage:

You say that I cannot, of course, question your right to forage on the country–“It is a right as old as history.” I do not sir, question this right. But there is a right older, even, than this, and one more inalienable–the right that every man has to defend his home and to protect those who are dependent on him; and from my heart I wish that every old man and boy in my country who can fire a gun would shoot down, as he would a wild beast, the men who are desolating their land, burning their homes, and insulting their women.

So Hampton did agree that Sherman had the “war right” to forage.  Hampton himself had exercised such earlier in the war.  Where Hampton departed was insisting the Federals had exceeded that bounds.  Furthermore, Hampton insisted the citizens of South Carolina had the right to defend their property, and resist foraging.  Not addressed here is the problem noted by Colonel George G. Dibrell the day before, where “former property” was committing the transgressions.

Hampton drew several ready examples where he felt Sherman had exceeded this threshold of the “war rights.”

You are particular in defining and claiming “war rights.” May I ask if you enumerate among these the right to fire upon a defenseless city without notice; to burn that city to the ground after it had been surrendered by the inhabitants who claimed, though in vain, that protection which is always accorded in civilized warfare to non-combatants; to fire the dwelling houses of citizens after robbing them; and to perpetrate even darker crimes than these crimes too black to be mentioned?

You have permitted, if you have not ordered, the commission of these offenses against humanity and the rules of war; you fired into the city of Columbia without a word of warning; after its surrender by the mayor, who demanded protection to private property, you laid the whole city in ashes, leaving amidst its ruins thousands of old men and helpless women and children, who are likely to perish of starvation and exposure. Your line of march can be traced by the lurid light of burning houses, and in more than one household there is now an agony far more bitter than that of death. The Indian scalped his victim regardless of age or sex, but with all his barbarity he always respected the persons of his female captives. Your soldiers, more savage than the lndian, insult those whose natural protectors are absent.

I’ve seen some later-day discussions over this matter cite Hampton’s letter as the gospel truth on these facts.  We must remember the circumstances behind Captain Francis DeGress’ shots fired at Columbia on the morning of February 16, 1865. And not to belabor, or repeat, a post about the burning of Columbia, but there was a lot more at play than just Sherman’s bummers and matches. But in Hampton’s defense, we can look at both sides of the issue today with (hopefully) some impartiality.  He was, unfortunately, not aware of all the facts.

To close, Hampton reiterated his counter-threat:

In conclusion, I have only to request that whenever you have any of my men “murdered” or “disposed of,” for the terms appear to be synonymous with you, you will let me hear of it, that I may know what action to take in the matter. In the meantime I shall hold fifty-six of your men as hostages for those whom you have ordered to be executed.

The prisoner issue had reached an impasse… a very horrific impasse.   Neither commander was showing signs of backing down.

Hampton’s response went to the Federal lines by way of Major-General Joseph Wheeler.   That evening, Wheeler and Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick carried on an exchange of their own… an exchange of words and other things.  That exchange, carried out by a couple of “hot-natured” individuals, served to defuse the potentially explosive situation.  By the time Sherman would receive  Hampton’s counter, the entire matter seemed to be clearing.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 596-7.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on ““I shall have executed at once two of yours…”: Hampton escalates the prisoner issue

  1. It’s interesting–and revealing–Hampton avoided the word, “rape.” Victorian principles still held sway, but total war has a brutal way of mutilating noble concepts like civility, courtesy, and honor. (And on point, I do recall my Vietnam service. We didn’t much care about “winning” anybody’s hearts and minds.)

    On another topic, the phrase, “natural protectors,” would be hotly rejected by many today, but most men of my acquaintance still view ourselves as the natural protectors of our ladies. And we should never apologize for that instinct. I never will, and the ladies around me somehow don’t seem to mind.

    Greatly enjoyed this post, as with all others describing General Sherman’s momentous American invasion. Now, I understand the context (mostly), thanks to your superb research and analytical skills.

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