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UWBTS — Chapter 25:


Chapter 25 – The Federal War Against Southern Civilians. 

By Karen Stokes of S. C., S. I. S. H.



During the first year of the Federal invasion of the Confederacy – largely following the subjugation of the Democrat states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri – the Federal army and navy focused on defeating the Confederate armies in the field and tearing up railroad tracks and destroying weaponry, ships and riverboats.  But the Confederate defense persisted and deaths among Federal troops mounted to alarming numbers.  President Lincoln therefore escalated the conflict through his Emancipation Proclamation, a “war measure” he expected would disrupt Confederate supportive relationships.  Even then defenses persisted.  His final escalation was the massive destruction of civilian property, a total war policy. South Carolina author Karen Stokes tells the story of these devastators – men attempting to return wayward Southerners to their rightful seat in the democratic central government at Washington, D. C.

History Relevant To Understanding the WBTS

When Americans think of the “Civil War,” they usually picture deadly struggles fought on battlefields between opposing armies – soldier against soldier – but in the conflict that raged in America from 1861 to 1865, another kind of warfare frequently occurred which has not been given enough attention in “mainstream” histories, perhaps because it reflects so badly on those who carried it out.  This other kind of warfare has been called total war, because it involves civilians.

When wrongs committed against civilians by the Federal armies are presented, some are quick to protest that there were “atrocities” committed by both sides.  However, from what we know, excesses perpetrated by the Federals were much more pervasive and systematic than those committed by the Confederate Army.  Thomas Bland Keys, who cataloged many of the Union Army’s outrages in his book The Uncivil War, noted: “Excesses by Confederates were limited in number and ferocity as contrasted with irregularities by Federals.  The majority of such Southern excesses occurred in Missouri, where fire was being fought with fire.”

Historian Walter Brian Cisco wrote that “warring against noncombatants came to be the stated and deliberate practice of the United States” during the war, adding, “Shelling and burning of cities, systematic destruction of entire districts, wholesale plundering of personal property, even murder became routine.”  Cisco also pointed out that “there was from the beginning a widespread conviction [among Federal authorities] that the crushing of secession justified the severest of measures.”

It would be understandable that a country might be forced to wage a fierce, even ruthless war against an aggressive, malevolent foe, resorting to any means necessary to prevail and thus save itself.  However, the United States had no such foe in the Confederacy.  The United States was in no danger, under no threat, from the Confederate States, whose citizens had only wished to peacefully and lawfully secede and govern themselves as they saw fit.  The invading North had no justification of self-defense, and therefore no just cause to go to war.  And what made all of this unjust and ruthless warfare by the United States even more terrible and, almost incomprehensibly, it was carried out, not against some foreign invader bent on conquest and slaughter, but against fellow Americans – fellow countrymen whose forefathers had fought in the Revolution for the cause of self-government.  Many Northern Radicals demonized the South, calling for harsh measures against the Confederacy with bloodthirsty and sometimes even genocidal rhetoric.  In his book When in the Course of Human Events, Charles Adams argued that the Radicals’ hatred “found expression in the devastation of civilians and civilian property by Sherman, Grant and Sheridan.”  The following examples of the “hard war” waged against the South by these and other Union generals are only a sampling.

In May 1861, the Federal Government instituted a military occupation and dictatorship in Missouri, where many of the state’s people were sympathetic to the Confederacy.  In what came to be known as the St. Louis massacre, 28 protesting civilians, including women and children, were shot in the streets by troops and militia under Federal command, more than half recent German immigrants.  Later, in 1863, there was a Federal decree that forced 20,000 Missouri civilians into exile, causing them immense suffering and hardship.

On December 11, 1862, after U.S. forces drove back the defending Confederate troops from Fredericksburg, Virginia, the town was thoroughly pillaged and vandalized.  Even churches were defaced and looted, and valuables were stolen from the Masonic lodge in which George Washington had once been a member.  Confederate soldiers contributed money for the relief of the destitute civilians of Fredericksburg, “pitiable refugees” whose homes and been plundered by the Federal soldiers who occupied the town.         

From May through early July 1863, Vicksburg, Mississippi, a strategically important city on the Mississippi River, was besieged by Federal forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, and by a flotilla of gunboats in the river commanded by Admiral David Porter.  The city was surrounded by outlying Confederate lines of defense, but the Union forces also shelled the city itself, which was full of civilians, who dug caves into the clay hills of Vicksburg for protection from the artillery bombardment.  The siege lasted 47 days, until the city and its Confederate defenders were at last starved into submission.  In his book Vicksburg 1863, Winston Groom noted the following: “From the river, Porter’s mortar boats kept up a regular bombardment of the city’s environs, while from landward Grant’s artillery relentlessly threw barrages of shells into the town.  The shocking part of it was that much of the naval firing was deliberately aimed at the civilians.” (emphasis added) Mary Longborough, a resident of Vicksburg, kept a diary (published as My Cave Life in Vicksburg) which recounts the deaths of some civilians resulting from the shelling.

Since 1861, the city of Charleston, South Carolina had been blockaded and besieged by the Federal navy and army, and in the third year of the war, the siege intensified when General Quincy A. Gillmore took command.  He demanded the immediate evacuation of Confederate troops from Morris Island and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, and when the Confederate commander General P.G.T. Beauregard refused, Gillmore opened fire on the city of Charleston in the middle of the night on August 22, 1863.  The bombardment of Charleston continued in varying degrees of intensity until the end of the war.  Confederate General Samuel Jones angrily protested to one of the Union generals that the indiscriminate shelling of houses, stores, churches and other buildings was not accomplishing any military purpose, but was simply being carried out to destroy the city.  Though most of the civilians had evacuated Charleston, some remained, and a number were killed or wounded by the shelling.

In Virginia, Federal infantry and cavalry under the command of General Philip Sheridan devastated the Shenandoah Valley beginning in September 1864, burning crops and other properties under orders of General Grant that the area “cease to be a granary and a sanctuary for the enemy.”  A Confederate cavalryman from Virginia described the expedition thus: “Sheridan . . . was disgracing the humanity of any age and visiting the Valley with a baptism of fire, in which was swept away the bread of the old men and women and children of that weeping land.  On every side, from mountain to mountain, the flames from all the barns, mills, grain and hay stacks, and in very many instances from dwellings, too, were blazing skyward, leaving a smoky trail of desolation.”

General William T. Sherman also employed a “total war” policy when his army ravaged the state of Georgia in 1864.  His strategy was to cruelly break the morale of the Confederate Army and Southern civilians, and to destroy military supplies and the railroad lines transporting them.  Contemporary official military correspondence and reports document the fact that Sherman shelled Atlanta without notice, deliberately aiming his guns over the Confederate lines of defense and firing into the residential and business areas of the city, killing civilians there.  Mrs. Robert Campbell, who fled her home in Bolton, Georgia to take refuge in Atlanta, recalled that during the shelling, “A shell killed a newborn baby and its mother in a house adjoining mine. I hastened into a bomb-proof, as fast as possible.  As I entered the door to this shelter a six-pounder fell almost at my feet.  Suppose it had burst, where would I have been?”  Sherman’s 62,000 troops, many of them recent German immigrants, devastated a region averaging 50 miles wide by 250 miles long.  During its so-called “March to the Sea,” his army left a path of misery “as great as it was unnecessary” as one historian described it – pillaging and impoverishing civilians (black and white), destroying their food supplies, crops, homes, and railways.  Historian John B. Walters wrote: “[H]ardened, undisciplined men were loosed on a country inhabited largely by women, children and old men.”  Sherman estimated the damage done by his army “at $100,000,000; at least $20,000,000 of which has inured to our advantage, and the remainder is simple waste and destruction.” 

Sherman took possession of Savannah, Georgia, in December 1864.  He then turned his eyes toward his next objective, South Carolina.  In his report concerning the fall of Savannah, General Sherman informed General Grant that he intended to “smash South Carolina—all to pieces.”  Sherman himself regarded secessionists as traitors, and wrote that the state “deserves all that seems in store for her.”  In a letter to Major R. M. Sawyer dated January 31, 1864, the general declared his belief that the war was the result of a “false political doctrine,” namely, “that any and every people have a right to self-government.”  In the same letter (published in The Rebellion Record in 1865), Sherman contended that the Federal government could rightfully take the property, and even the life, of anyone who did not submit to its authority, and he complained that it was the “political nonsense of slave rights, State rights, freedom of conscience, freedom of press, and other such trash” which had, as he untruthfully put it, “deluded the Southern people into war.”

In January 1865, many of Sherman’s forces gathered at Beaufort, South Carolina, and during that month a few of his brigades moved a little farther inland.  By the first of February, the main advance was underway.  Divided into two wings, the army began to cut a wide path of destruction across South Carolina from the coast to the North Carolina border, burning farms, plantations, and towns, demolishing railroad lines, destroying or confiscating crops and livestock, and plundering and abusing civilians, reducing them to hopelessness and destitution.  The soldiers sent out as foragers, usually in advance of the main army, were some of the worst offenders in terms of pillaging and other wrongdoing.  These men were called “bummers.”  In his book Merchant of Terror, author John B. Walters described them as “brigands and desperadoes,” who operated virtually free of any military discipline or restraint.

His army burned the capital city of Columbia, and many of Sherman’s soldiers admitted that they had.  The Columbia correspondent for the New York Herald newspaper reported in an article of June 21, 1865, “There can be but little doubt that the destruction of Columbia was the work of our army.”

Arson and plundering were not the only outrages committed against the civilian population in South Carolina.  Murders, rapes and other serious offenses also occurred.  African Americans, especially female ones, were often the victims of mistreatment by the Federal soldiers, black women being viewed by them as “the legitimate prey of lust” (as one of their own generals described it).  In addition to houses, churches, crops, railroads, farms and plantations, the irreplaceable public records of many South Carolina counties were destroyed.  Courthouses were burned, and many private libraries were also stolen or destroyed, as well as a large number of important collections of great artistic, scientific, and literary value. 


In the operations of the Union Army, the practices of wanton destruction, pillage and abuse of civilians were widespread and often systematic from beginning to end, increasing in ferocity each year, and carried out with a ruthlessness that was all the more monstrous because it was directed at fellow Americans.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Why is it that many popular histories of the war (in print and film) omit, minimize, or try to justify or excuse the Republican North’s “hard war” against the non-Republican South?

Recommended Reading

  • War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, by Walter Brian Cisco, pub. 2007.
  • Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War, by John B. Walters, pub. 1973.
  • South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path, by Karen Stokes, pub. 2012.