On May 29, 1861, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Union Department of Northeastern Virginia, dashed off a communication to the Assistant Adjutant General at Army headquarters in Washington City. He explained that "[t]here have been rumors of outrages committed by volunteers in Alexandria. Colonel Butterfield, of the Twelfth New York, has reported several cases of trespass, depredations, and attempts at burglary in his vicinity." Reacting to these transgressions, McDowell opined that "we are not, theoretically speaking, at war with the State of Virginia, and we are not, here, in an enemy's country." McDowell suggested that "[b]ecause the ordinary courts and officers of the State, against whose peace and dignity it is these acts have been committed, are not in the exercise of their functions, shall not these cases be punished, as similar ones were in Mexico, by military commission?"
|General Irvin McDowell (courtesy of Wikipedia)|
That same day, McDowell expressed concern over the economic losses being inflicted by the Union Army. He told the Assistant Adjutant General that "[t]he troops are occupying houses in some cases, and fields, and cutting wood for fuel." He asked, "[s]hall not rent and compensation be paid?" and recommended that "[i]f so, funds are needed for that purpose."
McDowell was particularly attentive to the sensitivities of at least one prominent local family. On May 30, McDowell promised Confederate General Robert E. Lee's wife that the Union occupation of the Lee home, Arlington House, "has been done . . . with every regard to the preservation of the place." He assured her that "it has been and will be my earnest endeavor to have all things so ordered that on your return you will find things as little disturbed as possible." (This last promise seems a bit naive in hindsight, given that Arlington National Cemetery was established on Lee's property during the war.)
|Arlington House with group of Union soldiers gathered out front (courtesy of Wikipedia)|
McDowell, ever mindful of residents' civil liberties, issued General Orders No. 5 on June 14, 1861. The general apparently operated under the assumption that at least some constitutional guarantees still applied to the inhabitants of a state in active rebellion against the United States. The order prohibited unlawful arrests:
Unless under the special orders in each case of a commander of brigade or superior authority, it is forbidden to any officer of soldier within this department to arrest or attempt to arrest any citizen or citizens under the plea of their being secessionists, or for any cause whatsoever save that of being at the time in arms against the United States.The order also sought to protect Northern Virginian civilians against unauthorized searches:
Nor will any officer or soldier without the like authority forcibly enter, search, or attempt to search any house or the premises of any peaceable resident or other persons not in arms against the United States. The military or police force will arrest any one found trespassing even on the premises of any citizen without the department.As McDowell would soon discover, ensuring respect for local residents was easier said than done. Not long after the announcement of General Orders No. 4, he was already reprimanding his subordinates for failure to enforce the order. As Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, concluded, "[a]gainst such measures the volunteers, with loose ideas of discipline, or of the rights of non-combatants, but with a vague desire to see Virginia punished and humbled by the sufferings of war, revolted." (Whitelaw Reid, Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals, and Soldiers, Vol. 1, pp. 664-65 (1895)). Things would not get an easier as the Union Army took to the field in the middle of July 1861.
A Note on Sources
The full text of McDowell's communications and orders can be found in the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, pp. 653-55, 659; Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p. 400.