August 1, 1862 (Friday)
Different people find differing ways to work through situations that aren’t necessarily going their way. The Southern reaction to the kind of war that the North was beginning to wage varied in extremes. The spark that suddenly ignited this conflagration was the series of orders flowing from the pen of Union General John Pope.
Recently arrived from the West, General Pope decided that Stonewall Jackson’s complete and utter victory in the Shenandoah Valley happened for two apparent reasons. First, the Union forces were not unified. And second, the citizens of the Shenandoah aided in his campaign. The first was quickly dealt with by establishing Pope’s Union Army of Virginia. The second was a decision, agreed to by President Lincoln, to take the war to the people.
From now on, any and all property of the Confederate citizenry could be commandeered (with a receipt payable at the end of the war). More importantly, slaves could be taken – and once taken, they were liberated. Hitting closer to home, however, was Pope’s inability to tell a Rebel partisan from a peaceful citizen. Pope decreed that if one of his men were fired upon from a house, the house would be destroyed, and whomever did the firing would be shot immediately.
Some, like Stonewall Jackson, saw it as brutal, but were prepared to fight a brutal war anyway. Others, like Confederate President Jefferson Davis, interpreted it as “a campaign of indiscriminate robbery and murder.”
Pope’s orders, spun Davis, direct “the murder of our peaceful inhabitants as spies, if found quietly tilling the farms in his rear, even outside of his lines.”1 Davis, in a July 31 open letter, also mentioned General Adolph von Steinwehr, who commanded one of Pope’s divisions. Before Pope issued his infamous orders, von Steinwehr took it upon himself to call for the arrest of the five most prominent citizens of Page County, Virginia. “They will share my table and be treated as friends,” declared von Steinwehr, “but, for every one of our soldiers who may be shot by ‘bushwhackers,’ one of these hostages will suffer death, unless the perpetrators of the deed are delivered to me.”2
The following day, the Confederate government officially addressed these concerns. Of von Steinwehr’s order, the term “bushwhackers” was defined not as unofficial Rebel partisans, but as “the citizens of this Confederacy who had taken up arms to defend their lives and families.” Taking a cue from Davis, Richmond accused the United States of transforming the conflict from a war waged between armed forces to “a campaign of robbery and murder against innocent citizens and peaceful tillers of soil.”
Recently, Richmond had signed an agreement with Washington to exchange prisoners. Had Richmond known that the Union command were about to change the rules in the middle of the game, they would not have agreed to an exchange. The orders by Pope and von Steinwehr allowed the Confederate government to take the higher ground.
They would not seek vengeance upon the people of the North, just as they would not seek retaliation “on the enlisted men of the army of the United States who may be unwilling instruments of the savage cruelty of their commanders.” Instead, they would seek out this compensation upon the commissioned officers serving under Pope, “who have the power to avoid guilty action by refusing service under a Government which seeks their aid in the perpetration of such infamous barbarities.”
If any of these officers were captured, they would not be eligible for exchange. They would be held in close confinement until the offending orders were repealed by the United States.
“In the event of the murder of any unarmed citizen or inhabitant of this Confederacy,” said Richmond in closing, “it shall be the duty of the commanding General of the forces of this Confederacy to cause immediately to be hung, out of the commissioned officers prisoners as aforesaid, a number equal to the number of our own citizens thus murdered by the enemy.”3
While all of this worried President Davis, there was also something else on his mind. Writing to General Robert E. Lee, he told how a northern newspaper made mention of a few Union Generals who were arming freed slaves.
“The newspapers received from the enemy’s country announce as a fact that Major-General Hunter has armed slaves for the murder of their masters,” wrote Davis, “and has thus done all in his power to inaugurate a servile war which is worse than that of the savage, inasmuch as it superadds other horrors to the indiscriminate slaughter of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” Apparently, Davis understood that arming freed slaves was an incredibly bad omen for the South. Davis either believed that the black population was so savage that they would ravenously slaughter all the first chance they got, or he believed that slavery was so brutal that, once armed, the slaves would seek revenge on their masters.
He asked Lee to check into these tales of armed black men, and to see if they were officially sanctioned by the United States government. Davis folded the arming of freed slaves in with the aforementioned “merciless atrocities which now characterize the war waged against us.”4
But the Confederate hierarchy weren’t the only ones complaining about the new war policies adopted by Pope and the Union forces. General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, also spoke out against them.
“It is my opinion that this contest should be conducted by us as a war, and as a war between civilized nations,” wrote McClellan to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, “that our efforts should be directed toward crushing the armed masses of the rebels, not against the people; but that the latter should, so far as military necessities permit, be protected in their constitutional, civil, and personal rights.”
When it came to the question of slavery, McClellan believed that the United States government “should avoid any proclamations of general emancipation, and should protect inoffensive citizens in the possession of that as well as of other kinds of property. If we do not actively protect them in this respect, we should at least avoid taking an active part on the other side, and let the negro take care of himself.”5
- Letter by Jefferson Davis, July 31, 1862. As found in Rebellion Record, Supplement – Vol. 1 edited by Frank Moore, 1864. [↩]
- Oddly, I can only find Confederate references to this order. This is taken from Life and Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee by James Dabney McCabe, National Publishing Company, 1866. It appears to have been reprinted in full. [↩]
- Rebel General Orders No. 54, August 1, 1862. As printed in Rebellion Record, Supplement – Vol. 1 edited by Frank Moore, 1864. [↩]
- Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee, August 1, 1862. As printed in Jefferson Davis: ex-President of the Confederate States of America by Varina Davis, 1890. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p346. [↩]