PoP's Southern American: Pure Wantonness - Sheridan and the Union in the Shenandoah by John S. Mosby


Pure Wantonness - Sheridan and the Union in the Shenandoah by John S. Mosby

A lengthy article appeared in the Richmond Times of February 10th, 1895, entitled “Sheridan’s Difficulties” in which, according to the paper, “Colonel John S. Mosby Tells of the Pure Wantonness of the Federal Commanders.

Much of the article includes communiqués among the federal high command regarding the various strategies employed (mostly against Mosby) especially with regard to the orders given Sheridan by Grant to rebuild the Manassas Gap railroad and use it as a supply line for Sheridan to move to Grant in his campaign against Lee. Of course, Mosby’s command prevented that from happening and the struggle by Sheridan, Halleck, Augur and the rest to neutralize Mosby was later used as an excuse for the destruction waged in the Shenandoah. Mosby begins his narrative with the statement:

“At that time Grant had heard nothing of Augur’s troubles on the Manassas road. To (a) dispatch from General Grant, Halleck on October 13th replied:

‘The substance of your dispatch of the 11th was immediately sent to General Sheridan. Numerous guerrilla parties in his rear frequently interrupt communication with him.’”

The author then goes on to show by the communications among the various Union commanders that the nature of his efforts against the rebuilding of the railroad—which efforts had been ordered by Gen. Lee—resulted in the adoption of “the Washburne plan;” that is, in July of 1864, General Cadwallader Washburn, commander of the Department of West Tennessee, announced his plans to deter Confederates from firing into his trains. Forty “of the most prominent and bitter secessionists” were to be arrested, and each day twenty would be placed on each of the trains that departed Memphis “in the most conspicuous positions, one being placed on each side of the engineer.” [General Washburne’s Plan for Protecting Railroads Against Guerrillas,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1864.] About this atrocity, Mosby simply recounts:

“Halleck, the same Halleck who wrote a book on the laws of war, replied:

‘Your plan of putting prominent citizens on trains is approved and you will carry it into effect. They should be so confined as to render escape impossible and yet be exposed to the fire of the enemy.’”

Mosby then quotes various communications among the federals culminating in that of General Lew Wallace (of Ben Hur fame) to Gen. Henry Lockwood:

“I have the honor to inform you that there is some danger of a raid by Mosby on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and General Halleck has ordered all General Tyler’s cavalry and artillery to Rockville, and directed that his infantry protect the road.”

Mosby goes on:

“In other words, his soldiers should be protected by putting non-combatant citizens between them and my men. In the fiercest heat of war, no enemy ever accused me of doing such a thing. It was just the same as if Grant had arrested a lot of Virginia men, women and children and placed them in front of his lines to keep the Confederates from firing at them. This was a purely military road; it was as legitimate war to prevent the rebuilding of it, or to pull up the track and destroy the trains as to fire artillery at the soldiers. These are the risks soldiers must run. I would be willing to submit, not only this question of the ethics of war, but of my military operations to the board of professors at West Point.

On October 29th, 1864, Mosby received the support of General Robert E. Lee for his war against the rebuilding of the Manassas Gap road and told him to

“…spare no pains to interrupt the work and use of the railroad.”

It is also at this time that Mosby sought—and received—permission from both Lee and Secretary of War James Seddon to retaliate against the shooting and hanging of seven of his men which had taken place while he was away from his command recuperating from a wound.

Meanwhile, in their rage over not being able to get the railroad “up and running” as ordered by Grant, Gen. Halleck writes to Superintendent McCallum:

“The Secretary of War directs that in retaliation for the murderous act of guerilla bands composed of and assisted by the inhabitants along the Manassas Gap Railroad, and as a measure necessary to keep that road in running order, you proceed to destroy every house within five miles of the road which is not required for our own purposes, and which is not occupied by persons known to be friendly. The women and children will be assisted in going north or south, as they may select.” To this, Mosby adds as a post script: “(The people whose houses were ordered to be burned were no more responsible for my acts than Mr. Lincoln. J. S. M.)”

Mosby goes on to speak of the Manassas Gap situation including throwing a train from the track and the firing into it by his men after which it was reported that “Mr. McCrickett, assistant superintendent of the railroad, and several others, (were) reported killed.” After several more communiqués, Mosby reported that Sheridan did go to see Gen. Augur then adding, “but they never built the road.” A movement of troops, even to stripping all of the guards on the Potomac and sending them to the Manassas Gap as well as the further movement of large bodies of cavalry in an effort to drive Mosby south resulted in just the opposite: he moved north. To this unexpected result of Union maneuvering, Mosby points out:

“Halleck had written a book on The Art of War, and as he had laid down no such rule in a case of that sort (that is, that Mosby should do the opposite of what his stratagems were designed to bring about), he considered it a violation of all the usages of war.

Obviously, much of the cry of “foul” raised by the Union army regarding John Mosby’s actions in the war were directed not at any atrocities he allegedly committed, but in his refusal to fight according their well conceived stratagems and thus frequently making them look like fools and defeating their plans.

The article proceeds to cover the rest of the abortive attempt by the Union military to rebuild the railroad along with Mosby’s clear and concise evaluation of Sheridan’s Valley campaign in which he points out with facts and figures that it did nothing to hasten the fall of Richmond and that Sheridan’s “reputation” was more a matter of good press than any actual military genius. Indeed, of the struggle between Sheridan and Early, Mosby points out:

“Not long after the battle of Cedar Creek Sheridan retired into winter quarters at Winchester, and sent the larger portion of his army by the Baltimore road back to Grant. Early’s corps also returned to General Lee, not greatly reduced in numbers. Under Gordon they constituted a large portion of the troops surrendered at Appomattox. If the battles in the Valley in any way accelerated that event, it is not perceptible. Grant’s plan for the capture of Richmond by the co-operation of the Army of the Shenandoah had been defeated . . . If Sheridan and Early had fought no battles in September and October the conditions would not have been materially changed from what they were in December. General Sheridan has described with much detail the devastation of the country he occupied, where he exhibited to the world the spectacle of “the strength of civilization without its mercy.” (Gen. David) Hunter had already damaged the Valley. He left before his work was complete. But he carried off the statue of Washington from the college he endowed, and showed less sensibility than Alaric when he confronted the image of Pallas Athene[*].

“It may be conceded that the destruction of provisions, and whatever immediately contributes to the support of an army, is allowable to an enemy. But it is a fundamental principle “that nothing is allowable against an enemy but what is necessary, and noting is necessary which does not tend to procure victory and bring the war to a conclusion.”

[*Mosby is speaking of a barbarian who refrained from destroying a statue of Athena, goddess of Wisdom because he perceived the intrinsic beauty and value of the image. On the other hand, “Black Dave” Hunter was not sufficiently elevated mentally or morally to refrain from stealing a statue of Washington from a center of learning. Hunter, a Virginian by birth, shows the character of most of those born in the South who chose to side with the Union. His reputation was evil and after the war, as Mosby points out elsewhere, he “closed his life a suicide.”]

It is at this point that Mosby makes his case against Sheridan and the Union army, accusing them of “pure wantonness” in the prosecution of the war:

“After destroying all the wheat and corn in a country, to burn mills where there is nothing to grind is pure wantonness. All the barns were burned no matter whether there was forage in them or they were empty. The destruction of implements of husbandry to prevent the planting of crops simply because there is a possibility of their being useful to an enemy, can no more be justified than killing defenseless women and children. It is true that there is a chance that the crops that are allowed to be sown may be useful to the enemy; and it is equally true that if the war lasts long enough, as did the Thirty Years’ War, children may grow up, and women may become the mothers of soldiers. The injury inflicted is certain and permanent. There is only a possibility of its weakening the resources of the enemy; the benefit is too remote and contingent. The war did in fact, close before another crop could have been reaped in the Shenandoah Valley. I am judging by the principles that I wish myself to be judged.

In his Memoirs General Sheridan repudiates the humane maxims of Grotius and Vattel, and lays down an ethical code for the government of armies in war that abolishes all distinctions heretofore recognized between combatant and noncombatant enemies. If the United States should adopt it, then Napoleon’s saying, “Scratch a Russian (and) you will find a Tarter,” will not apply alone to the subjects of the Czar. In contrast with these pitiless doctrines that suggest the picture of the Infernal Court and “The iron tears that rain down Pluto’s cheek,” are the humane rules of international law as expounded by Professor Twiss, of Oxford, in his work on Rights and Duties in Time of War.

“All damage, therefore, which is done to an enemy without any corresponding advantage accruing to the belligerent is an abuse of a natural right of the latter. Thus, indeed, a belligerent is entitled to capture all the property of an enemy which is calculated to enable him the better to carry on hostilities, and if he cannot carry it away conveniently, to destroy it. A belligerent, for example, may destroy all existing stores of provisions and forage, which he cannot conveniently carry away, and may even destroy the standing crops, in order to deprive his enemy of immediate subsistence, and so reduce him to surrender. But a belligerent will not be justified in cutting the olive trees and rooting up the vines; for that is to inflict desolation upon a country for many years to come, and the belligerent cannot derive any corresponding advantage therefrom. When the French armies desolated with fire and sword the Palatinate in 1674 and again in 1689, there was a general outcry throughout Europe against such a mode of carrying on war; and when the French Minister, Louvol, alleged that the object in view was to cover the French frontier against invasion from the enemy, the advantage which France derived from the act was universally held to be inadequate to the suffering inflicted, and the act itself to be, therefore, unjustifiable.

“A belligerent prince who should, in the present day, without necessity, ravage an enemy’s country with fire and sword, and render it uninhabitable, in order to make it serve as a barrier against the advance of the enemy, would be just regarded as a modern Attila.”

Thus did John Singleton Mosby clearly identify the atrocious methods of warfare conducted in his theater of war, northern Virginia. Even more to the point, he was not considering other atrocities committed by the Union forces in other parts of the South, nor was he considering such atrocities committed for no other reason than barbarism, revenge and plunder. In the article he wrote, he judged the actions of his enemies by the standards of what belligerents can and cannot do—in a civilized society—in making war. And, in fact, much of what Mosby dealt with in Virginia relates directly to that situation. However, all through the war, he witnessed—albeit to a much lesser degree than in other areas of the South—wantonness with regard to the treatment of civilians and even soldiers by the enemy. His own need to retaliate for the willful murder of seven of his men proves that the behavior of the Union army virtually from the first shots fired were altogether contrary to the carefully constructed “rules of warfare” that were in use by the modern state—at least in Europe.

It becomes even more ironic that efforts to hang Mosby during and even after the war were predicated on what the Union called his “crimes and depredations.” In other words, General Order 100—the so-called Lieber Code drawn up at the request of the Union high command which supposedly set “rules” for “civilized” warfare—was flouted continually by the Union without consequence. On the other hand, the armies of the South were held to a legal standard which, in Mosby’s case at least, would have rendered him at best ineffective, at worst dead or a prisoner while failing to adhere to those standards meant that he and other partisans found themselves condemned as outlaws.

Addendum: The “Lieber Code” (G. O. 100) reads well as a means of waging war in the most “civilized” sense—always supposing that war can ever be considered “civilized.” Indeed, according to Eric Wittenberg, an attorney and Civil War historian well knowledgeable in the field of Union cavalry, Mosby was considered a “partisan” under the code rather than a bushwhacker or outlaw. So, in fact, Grant’s order to hang him without trial and other Union efforts to do the same thing prior to Grant’s edict, clearly demonstrates that it was not Mosby’s method of warfare that was the problem, but his success. Indeed, so great was that success that Gen. Philip Sheridan admitted that his overwhelming numerical advantage over Jubal Early in the Shenandoah in 1864 was, for all intents and purposes, nullified by “the guerrillas in (his) rear.” Quite an astounding admission by Sheridan to Mosby’s efficacy.

However, with further regard to G. O. 100, it seems that if one reads it, almost every rule laid down by Professor Lieber is followed by a caveat which states that the law may be broken if the military authorities involved believe it is in their best interests to do so. In effect, this renders G. O. 100 dead on arrival, so to speak. However, one may be sure that had Mosby not met the criteria for a true “partisan,” he would not have been permitted any caveats vis a vie the Code. At the same time, at least during the war, Lieber’s bestowal of legitimacy upon Mosby had no force whatsoever and, indeed, would never have been mentioned even if Mosby had lived long enough after being captured to come to trial. It is fascinating to see the double standard that existed before, during and after the war right down to this very day.

SWR's Lady Val


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