Tuesday, July 12, 2011

McDowell and Civilians in Northern Virginia: Trying to Do the Right Thing (Part I)

Last month I examined Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard's June 1861 proclamation to Northern Virginians.  Attempting to rouse support among the local population, Beauregard accused Union soldiers of seeking "beauty and booty."  While Northern troops were undoubtedly stealing, expropriating, or otherwise destroying civilian property, the Union high command was all too aware that any such excesses would only antagonize the locals and make the Army's job that much more difficult.  The war was not likely going to last all that long, and when it came to Virginia's civilians, conciliation was preferred over vindictiveness.  This policy was put to the test in the days leading up to the Battle of First Bull Run.

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)
The commander soon adopted a policy to protect the pecuniary interests of civilians in his department.  On June 2, 1861, McDowell issued General Orders No. 4, in which he required brigade commanders and officers in charge of fortifications around Washington to send him as soon as practicable "[s]tatements of the amount, kind, and value of all private property taken and used for Government purposes, and of the damage done in any way to private property by reason of the occupation of this section of the country by the U. S. troops."  McDowell required that the statements, "as far as possible, give the value of the property taken or of the damage sustained, and the name or names of the owners thereof."  The order allowed citizens who suffered any such loss or damage to "make their claims upon the commanding officers of the troops by whom it was done, or in cases where these troops have moved away, upon the commander nearest them."  Brigade commanders were told to "make this order known to the inhabitants in their vicinity, to the end that all loss or damage may, as nearly as possible, be ascertained, whilst the troops are now here, and by whom or on whose account it has been occasioned, that justice may be done alike to the citizen and the Government."  Unlike the criteria for post-war compensation administered by the Southern Claims Commission, McDowell did not require proof that claimants were loyal to the Union.  The war was still too new, and a conciliationist policy would not allow the imposition of such legal hurdles.

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.


Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole said...

General McDowell always wanted to see the right thing done but never had had the staff or power to enforce such things. He was a visionary and a perfectionist and was constantly disappointed by his imperfect world. Yet he constantly strove to achieve perfection, His visionary dreams shaped the Western United States even if he did not win the Battle of Bull Run.

Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment. In Northern Virginia in the summer of 1861, at least, McDowell was hampered by raw recruits and new officers who just didn't see things his way when it came to conciliation. From what I have read, the Army brass supported such an overall policy at the time, but the problem came in the execution.