Thursday, July 14, 2011

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

As I discussed earlier this week, by the middle of July 1861 Federal commander Irvin McDowell had already taken several measures to protect civilians in Northern Virginia from the impact of war.  McDowell's orders reflected a conciliationist approach towards non-combatants, but not all men in the ranks shared his view.  As the Union Army prepared to move on the Confederate position near Manassas, the raw, undisciplined recruits would put McDowell's policy to the test.

The Union Army left camp in and around Washington on July 16, 1861 and headed into the heart of Northern Virginia.  During their march over the next couple of days, the Union soldiers grew increasingly unrestrained.  Colonel William T. Sherman commanded the men in his brigade to respect private property and refrain from foraging, but to no avail.  Volunteers ignored his orders, questioned his authority, and took whatever they pleased.  According to one account, Sherman reprimanded a Wisconsin solider for stealing mutton.  The solider countered that he was hungry and asserted that "it was rebel mutton, anyhow."  Sherman arrested the soldier; the mutton, however, was cooked and served to Sherman's staff at mealtime.  (William C. Davis, Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War, p. 96 (1981 ed.); Ethan S. Rafuse, A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas, p. 85 (2002).)

Meanwhile, some soldiers resorted to more drastic forms of pillage.  In Vienna, Federal troops in Brigadier General Daniel Tyler's division ransacked a grocery store that belonged to an alleged secessionist.  The ringleaders were Ohio boys who may have been motivated by a desire to avenge the Confederate attack on their fellow Ohioans in Vienna the month before.  Sergeant Dan Littlefield of the 3rd Michigan "did not think it was right to steal and destroy private property in that manner."  He worried that "if we go through the country that way, many would join the southern [sic] army that otherwise would not."  (excerpted in Steve Soper, The "Glorious Old Third": A History of the Third Michigan Infantry, 1855 to 1927, Ch. 9 (2007).)  McDowell would have agreed.

General William T. Sherman, later in the Civil War (courtesy of Library of Congress).  On the march to Manassas, Sherman tried in vain to keep his soldiers under control.
Around midday on July 17, Colonel David Hunter's division entered Fairfax Court House without a fight.  The soldiers found that the Confederates had abandoned the town and put a torch to a few buildings before retreating.  Some Union troops raised a flag over the courthouse, and then things rapidly deteriorated.  As an ashamed regimental chaplain wrote the following year:
I am sorry to say, that the occupation of Fairfax by our troops was marked, in some instances, by pillage and destruction. Several unoccupied houses were forcibly entered, their furniture injured or smashed to pieces, and many articles stolen and carried away. There was no reason for such wilful destruction of property, and there was no excuse for it. It left enemies behind us, when we might have secured friends. Men, who would have scorned to do such a thing at home, seemed eager and more than ready to lay their hands upon what was not their own. Many things were taken which could not possibly be carried upon the march, and which were thrown aside the next morning, and left upon the road. There was such an element of meanness and of cowardice in all this, that I could not help condemning it then, and I condemn it now. There is some glory in winning a trophy in a fair fight. But the appropriation of private property in a defenceless town, is nothing better than theft. It does not rise even to the dignity of burglary, for that requires a certain amount of courage. (Augustus Woodbury, A Narrative of the Campaign of the First Rhode Island Regiment, in the Spring and Summer of 1861, p. 82 (1862).)

Wartime photo of Fairfax Court House (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Advancing Union troops looted the county seat on July 17, 1861.
Around the same time, Federal soldiers under General Tyler, including Sherman's men, marched into the hamlet of Germantown.  As William Lusk of the 79th New York wrote to his mother, "soon the soldiers were ransacking the houses for food, destroying and burning what they could not use themselves."  However, he was "happy to say the boys in my company had little hand in these doings, as such paltry work finds little countenance from its officers." (William Thompson Lusk, War Letters of William Thompson Lusk, p. 52 (1911).)  A few bad seeds decided to burn down the village, and before long, Germantown was in flames.  

The 69th New York came upon one of the burning houses.  Major Thomas F. Meagher of the 69th, future leader of the Irish Brigade, disavowed any involvement by his men and condemned this spiteful act.  He wrote:
Whose was the scurvy and malignant hand that fired the deserted homestead? It is for the regiments of the Brigade, in advance of the 69th to answer. With them rests the responsibility of this savage riotousness and mischief. The house was doomed irrevocably when the 69th came up. The Irish regiment swept by the blazing ruin, cursing the ruffians who had played the barbarous prank, and maddened with the thought of the disgrace it would bring on the Federal Flag. (Thomas F. Meagher, "The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia," in Michael Cavanaugh, Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, p. 393 (1892).)
McDowell witnessed what his men had done at Fairfax Court House.  He was angered by the behavior of his men and their blatant disregard for his orders to respect civilian property in Northern Virginia. On July 18, McDowell dashed off General Orders No. 18 (OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, pp, 743-44), in which he began:
It is with the deepest mortification the general commanding finds it necessary to reiterate his orders for the preservation of the property of the inhabitant of the district occupied by the troops under his command.

Hardly had we arrived at this place when, to the horror of every right-minded person, several houses were broken open and others were in flames by the act of some of those who, it has been the boast of the loyal, came here to protect the oppressed and free the country from the domination of a hated party.
He followed with a dose of guilt and shame:

The property of this people is at the mercy of troops who we right-fully say are the most intelligent, best-educated, and most law-abiding of any that were ever under arms. But do not, therefore, the acts of yesterday cast the deeper stain upon them? 

It has been claimed by some that their particular corps were not disgraced. This is of but little moment; since the individuals are not found out, we are all alike disgraced.
McDowell adopted measures to stop further acts of plunder and destruction, and reiterated his previous order to protect the civil liberties of the local inhabitants:
Commanders of regiments will select a commissioned officer as regimental provost-marshal, and ten men as a permanent police force under him whose special and sole duty it shall be to preserve the property from depredation, and arrest all wag-doers, of whatever regiment or corps they may be. Any one found committing the slightest depredations, killing pigs or poultry, or trespassing on the property of the inhabitants, will be reported to headquarters, and the least that will be done to them will be to send them to the Alexandria jail. 
It is again ordered that no one shall arrest or attempt to arrest any citizen not in arms at this time, or search or attempt to search any house, or even to enter the same, without permission.
McDowell concluded:
The troops must behave themselves with as much forebearance and propriety as if they were at their own homes.  They are here to fight the enemies of the country, not to judge and punish the unarmed and helpless, however guilty they may be.  When necessary, that will be done by the proper persons.
The commander once again proved his commitment to a policy of conciliation, and we know that at least some Federal volunteers like Lusk, Meagher, and Woodbury were more than likely pleased with the renewed effort to impose discipline.  In any event, the army was soon on the march again, and within a few days it engaged the Confederates on the battlefield of Bull Run.  The war was going to be a long one after all, and as the months turned into years, McDowell's early attempts to restrain his troops and protect civilian property looked almost quaint. Unfortunately for the residents of Northern Virginia, the war and Union occupation would mar the countryside and transform everyday life, and the Bull Run Campaign was just the beginning.

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