“… take sufficient measures to prevent such outrages….”: Howard issues orders to restrain foraging, pillaging

Major-General Oliver O. Howard recorded March 7, 1865 passed as “without special incident.”  In some ways, that was an understatement.  Circulating through the Right Wing that day was General Field Orders No. 12 from the Army of the Tennessee, issued two days earlier, which read:

The attention of officers and soldiers of this army is called to the gross and criminal practice of profane swearing which prevails and is increasing amongst us, so much that every sense of good principle and good taste is outraged. Have we forgotten that God is our kind Father and that He is helping us?  Every insult to Him is a scourge to ourselves and invites disaster to our noble cause.

Just one example of the “Christian General” urging his soldiers to walk a proper course. But late on the 7th, Howard received information that further pushed him to condemn the activities of some troops in his command.  Major-General Frank Blair, commanding Seventeenth Corps, reported to Howard’s adjutant in regard to some incidents on the march that day:

Every house that we pass is pillaged, and as we are about to enter the State of North Carolina, I think the people should be treated more considerably. The only way to prevent this state of affairs is to put a stop to foraging.  I have enough in my wagons to last to Goldsborough, and I suppose the rest of the army has also.  I respectfully suggest that an order be issued against foraging.

Not satisfied, Blair took the time to address Howard directly:

Every house we pass is pillaged precisely as the one you spoke of in your dispatch yesterday. There is no cure except the entire cessation of foraging. The system is vicious and its results utterly deplorable. As there is no longer a necessity for it I beg that an order may be issued to prohibit it.  General Sherman said that when we reached North Carolina he would pay for everything brought to us and forbid foraging.  I believe it would have an excellent effect upon the country to change our policy in this respect, and consider it my duty to submit the matter to your consideration.

To this, Howard responded, and further copied the Fifteenth Corps commander, Major-General John Logan:

… General Blair reports that every house on his line of march to-day was pillaged, trunks broken open, jewelry, silver, &c., taken.  An order on the subject will be issued to-morrow night.  In the meantime he asks you to take sufficient measures to prevent such outrages, and be sure that division commanders know the officers in charge of the foraging parties.  Unless these outrages are stopped an order will have to be issued discontinuing foraging entirely.

I cast Howard’s order of the 5th on a line with Blair’s observations on the 7th, and Howard’s response.  The common thread offered here was the “immoral” or at least improper behavior of the soldiers on the march.  Howard, we might joke, was far too pious for a general.  But what he was seeking here is what we might consider today “good optics.”  Yet, this was not a new theme from Howard, as you might have noticed from selected quotes from his correspondence I’ve used in earlier posts.

Now we must recall that from the start of the march through Georgia, commanders issued orders that reminded the men of the restraints placed on foraging (and I’ve included reference to many of them, seeded in posts here).  Repeatedly these commanders organized foraging parties in a manner aimed to formalize and control how the activity was done.  But, as will occur in such situations, the commanders could not be everywhere.  Unsanctioned foraging parties were common, often outnumbering those organized.  And once again, on March 8, Howard would issue orders to constrain and organize foraging:

Hereafter but one mounted foraging party, to consist of sixty men with the proper number of commissioned officers, will be allowed for each division.  The division commanders will be careful to select reliable officers for the command of these parties, who shall be held strictly accountable for the conduct of their men.  Whenever it may be necessary to send a party from the main body, a commissioned officer will be sent in charge, but in no case will it be allowed to go in advance of the infantry advance guard of the leading division, or more than five miles from either flank of the column.  All surplus animals will be disposed of by the corps quartermasters for the benefit of the artillery, bridge train, &c….

Again, I would point out that similar orders came from Howard and subordinate commanders during the days from mid-November right up to the crossing of the PeeDee.

Now there is one “interpretation” that holds Howard, Blair and others were reluctant to adopt Major-General William T. Sherman’s hard war policies, and in particular opposed the foraging.  We often see practitioners of that line of thought use the correspondence of March 7 as an exhibit, along with claims that other complaints concerning foraging, filed earlier in the campaign, were “covered up” or “redacted” by Sherman in an effort to keep his reputation clean.  Seriously?  Such would have to exceed the levels of subterfuge alleged to have occurred on July 8, 1947 at Roswell, New Mexico.  There is simply no way such opinions would have been, or could have been, suppressed.  Even if  during the war, into the post war many eager voices would have been all too happy to demonstrate their departure … had such been the case.

And there is some point of order we must acknowledge with March 7.  As mentioned earlier, the day was the last for which any significant portion of Sherman’s columns stayed in South Carolina.  But even before the first soldier crossed that political boundary, even the most partisan observer noticed changes in the environment, particularly the demographics.  One measure of this may be the map depicting the density of slavery by county in South Carolina:


Where might you suggest the more “plunderable” homes be located on that map?

Another, which I’d admit is far less reliable for statistical study, is the nature of post war Southern Claims.  Consider the Federals spent the better part of six days in Richland County (to include all that “hard war” activity in Columbia).  And that same force spent four days in Marlborough County.  Yet, the number of claims, counting both barred and disallowed, from the former place was one-tenth that from the latter.

Now Robert Moore will remind us that so many factors came into play with those claims that one is hard pressed to generalize with any substance.  However, I’d submit that, at least in this case, the claim submissions are telling us that people from Marlbourough County were more likely to feel comfortable with the notion of the Federal Union.  Not that such made much difference in the winter of 1865.  And not to say that Marlborough was a hot-bed of Southern Unionism.  But does that not fall in line with the statements made by the generals in regard to the population’s sentiments?

In my opinion, the Federal leadership was keenly aware of the demographic changes of the people who’s lands they marched through.  And it was much easier to restrain the men in these poorer, yet perhaps less ardently Confederate, sections of the country.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 686, 714-5, 717, 728


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