The Execution of James Miller and an end of “Death to all Foragers”?

As I mentioned in closing for the post earlier today, the execution of James Miller stands as one of the prominent events in the march through South Carolina.  As I thumb through the many histories of the campaign at my disposal, the only ones which fail to mention the execution are those works which only cover the activities up to the burning of Columbia.  And doing a little historiography shuffle here, we find that most historians reference the account given in the 30th Illinois regimental history.  This makes good sense, as the 30th was the unit from which the dead forager, Private Robert M. Woodruff, came and was the unit detailed to carry out the execution.  Let me be lengthy here and quote that passage almost in its entirety (The whole of the regimental history is on line should you wish to browse):

They would kill our foragers and pin a piece of paper on their uniforms with this notice: “Death to all Foragers”. General Sherman issued an order which was sent to the Confederate commander that he would take life for life. It was not very long until a member of Co. “H” of our regiment by the name of Woodrough was found dead.

We had a lot of prisoners in the corrall and arrangements were made for them to cast lots to determine who should be taken. Slips of paper were put in a hat and a drawing was conducted by an officer appointed for that purpose. One slip of paper had a black mark on it, and the man drawing it was to be shot. The slips of paper were put in a hat and held up so the men could not see it.

A man by the name of Small drew the slip with the black mark on it. He drew two, and was told to drop one back. He kept the one that was his death warrant. A detail of twelve men was made from the dead man’s company to do the shooting. They were furnished guns loaded for the occasion, six with blank and six with ball. The man was given in charge of Chaplain Cole of the 31 regiment. He talked and prayed with the man, and brought him to the place of execution and asked him if he had anything to say. He said: “I was forced into the army, never was in a battle, never wished the Yankees any harm. I have a large family, all girls. I have been a local Methodist preacher”. His home was about 40 miles from there. There was much feeling for the man, and tears were shed. The firing squad had taken their places, and after the man made his talk the Chaplain blindfolded him and placed him against a tree where he was to be shot. The man requested that he be allowed to lean against the tree without being tied. The request was granted. Major Rhoads, ex Captain of Co. “H”, commanded firing squad, and cautioned the men to take good aim so the man would not suffer from a wound. At the command of “Fire!”, the guns all cracked at once. The man stiffened and quivered a little, and fell dead. Five balls struck the body and one in the thigh. Co. “A” of the 30th, commanded by Capt. Candor was detailed to take charge of the grounds and see that the execution was properly conducted. The man of Co. “H” that was killed, was not well thought of and many regrets were heard that a good man was killed for him, but that put a stop to the kiling (sic) of our foragers. Still bear in mind Sherman’s saying.

When Maj. Rhoads received the order to execute the man he refused to obey. Gen. Sherman told him he would obey the order or be courtmarshaled. Maj. Rhoads was a good man and a good officer, and this act bore on his mind as long as he lived. …The man was buried where he was killed, and board was put at the head of his grave, on which was written how he came to his death. Soldiers become hardened to seeing men killed, but a scene like the killing of this man will be on their minds as long as they live. This execution toop (sic) place near Cherew, S. C. ….

First things first, we must excuse the regimental historian, G. B. McDonald, for getting two principal names wrong – Robert M. Woodruff’s name appears in the Official Records from Major-General Frank Blair’s orders.  And the executed soldier was Private James M. Miller, Company C, 5th (Brown’s) Battalion South Carolina Reserves.  But to confirm, we have this receipt from the 3rd Division, Seventeenth Corps’ provost, listing James Miller by name:

James Miller Page 7

I would also call out another particular mentioned by McDonald.  Lieutenant-Colonel William Rhoades, whom I’m pretty sure was at least breveted by this time, and not a Major, was not threatened with “courtmarshaled” by Major-General William T. Sherman.  Rather, Sherman was miles away at that time with Twentieth Corps near Chesterfield (Blair may have wished he’d been there that day, but another “what if” perhaps).  Perhaps it was Brigadier-General Manning Force, commanding Third Division at that time, who threatened Rhodes.

But, that is not to say we throw out the entire story due to three inaccurate points.  Miller was killed by the firing squad.  And enough men later wrote about how the episode shook them up, that I have no doubt of the emotional impact.

However, in our historiography we link the execution of Miller to the threats of reprisal exchanged between the cavalrymen starting on February 22 and leading up to threats of escalation between Sherman and Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton. But let us look at the details here.

First off, the death of Woodruff does not match the mode and manner of the earlier forager executions.  Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick alleged those men had their throats cut, bodies mutilated, or were shot in the back.  In the case of Woodruff, he was bludgeoned to death.

The location of Woodruff’s death was far away from the Texas cavalry units that Kilpatrick fingered in his allegations.  Blakeny’s Bridge was practically in the middle of the Federal concentration at that time.  Reports of the earlier forager executions had indicated those incidents occurred on the fringes of the Federal columns.  And recall that Blair had ordered only a day earlier that all foragers be constrained to the flanks of the column – as opposed to fore and rear.  Woodruff might have been where he shouldn’t have, if that made any difference.  But the location points to Woodruff’s killer being an irregular or person(s) detached from the formal Confederate forces.  ( I would not rule out a civilian defending property… but if the Federals who found Woodruff had suspected such, there would have been reprisals on suspected parties, or at least mention of such in reports to Blair.)

I think we should consider that in the context of the Woodruff-Miller incident.  There is, I’d argue, a separation from the earlier incidents.  If nothing else, we should recognize that Woodruff was probably not killed by the same hands as those who left “death to forager” notes.  After exchanging prisoners with Kilpatrick, Major-General Joseph Wheeler, and for that matter Hampton, seemed to let the matter drop.

Given the tone of Hampton’s last message to Sherman, one would think Miller’s death would prompt a recorded execution. But it didn’t.  Was that because Hampton cooled down?  I doubt it, as that was not the man’s nature.  Rather I think, if he was made fully aware of the incident, Hampton found it necessary to put Woodruff’s death in context – not willing to condone the death of that particular forager and possibly promote some lawless element in South Carolina.  But I’m speculating… and that’s not good.

The point remains, however, that Woodruff-Miller differed in particulars from the Kilpatrick-Wheeler affair over foragers and retaliation.  So to say that Miller’s execution somehow “chilled” the threats of retaliation is not well founded. Rather it seems the Kilpatrick-Wheeler prisoner exchange was the action that reduced pressures on that line.

Nor, for what it is worth, would the claim that Sherman gave verbal orders to restrain his foragers after Hampton’s threats.  Federal commanders had issued reminders in regard to foragers, and reformed their foraging policies almost from the start of marching out of Atlanta.  Sherman did, and would not have hesitated, issuing one more directive to clarify the practice.  On the other hand, one might well say that the “bummers” ceased pillaging so much as there was simply not much in that part of South Carolina to pillage.  From Camden to Chesterfield were some of the poorer districts of South Carolina (and the portion of North Carolina to which they passed over the next week was not that much richer).

At any rate, the short military career of James Miller came to a close on this day 150 years ago.  He’d enlisted on October 10, 1864 at Cheraw in Brown’s Battalion, which became the 5th Battalion South Carolina Reserves.  His unit was detailed to guard prisoners in Florence and picket various places west of Cheraw.  On February 28, 1865, Miller was captured by the Seventeenth Corps.  And as transcribed to his card, on March 2, 1865, he was “Sent to the 3rd Division by orders.”

James Miller Page 5

James Miller was simply a man who happened to be at the wrong place and was caught up in the greater atrocity that was the Civil War.

3 thoughts on “The Execution of James Miller and an end of “Death to all Foragers”?

  1. Family and local lore has Private Sidney Knight, an 18 year boy, also of Brown’s Battalion actually drawing the black mark. Miller who lived in the same community as Knight and was well acquainted with his father, a Methodist minister offered to exchange places. The local legend is that Miller said that he had lived his life and that the boy still had his to live.

    • I like back stories like that. It shows us that there is always more to the story than what is handed down in the books. Are there any records to substantiate this?

  2. I have researched the Miller story and unfortunately there is no hard evidence to verify the local story. Newspaper accounts appeared to be mostly variations on the same story. Cut & Paste in today’s world. I have talked to different families who tell similar stories but again these families are intermingled. I feel that the story is true but cannot confirm with solid documentation.

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