The Burning

“The Burning” is the name used for Philip H. Sheridan’s destructive operations in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.  Tired of the confederates using the Valley as an invasion highway, Ulysses S. Grant consolidated the Union commands in the area and placed Phil Sheridan in charge, giving him the Army of the Shenandoah consisting of the VI Corps under Horatio G. Wright, George Crook’s Army of West Virginia, and the XIX Corps under William Emory, along with three divisions of cavalry under Alfred T. A. Torbert.  The Valley was also a key source of food supply for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Grant’s orders to Sheridan read, “Give the enemy no rest, and if it is possible to follow the Virginia Central Railroad, follow that far.  Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can.  Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting.  If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” [Ulysses S. Grant to Philip H. Sheridan, 26 August 1864, OR Series I, Vol 43, Part 1, p. 917]  After his victory over Jubal Early at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill, for the next two weeks Sheridan implemented the destruction of the Valley’s agriculture so Lee’s men would be deprived of those supplies.

Of course, neoconfederates and their fellow travelers try to twist this aspect of hard war into an atrocity.  A case in point is this article from James Bovard that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  Bovard is a Libertarian windbag er, “commentator” with no particular expertise in history, as the article shows.  This error-ridden screed can help us in looking back at this episode of the war and also gain an insight into the deceitful tactics of people who would try to twist history to serve their own political agendas.

Bovard writes, “On July 15 Grant signed an order that the Shenandoah Valley should be made into a ‘desert’ and ‘all provisions and stock should be removed, and the people notified to move out.’ His troops would ‘eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.’ ”  Bovard conflates different items here.  The July 15 message was a letter to Major General Henry W. Halleck, his Chief of Staff in Washington, D.C.  Grant wrote, “If the enemy do not detach from here against Sherman, they will, in case Atlanta falls, bring most of Johnston’s army here with the expectation of driving us out, and then unite against Sherman. They will fail if they attempt this programme. My greatest fear is of their sending troops to Johnston first. Sherman ought to be notified of the possibility of a corps going from here, and should be prepared to take up a good defensive position in case one is sent–one which he could hole against such increase. If Hunter cannot get to Gordonsville and Charlottesville to cut the railroad, he should make all the Valley south of the Baltimore and Ohio Road a desert as high up as possible. I do not mean that houses should be burned, but all provisions and stock should be removed, and the people notified to move out. [OR Series I, Vol 37, Part 2, p. 329]  Notice how Bovard completely misstates what Grant was saying to Halleck.  Also, he left out Grant’s clarification that he didn’t mean houses should be burned.  The second part comes from a July 14 letter from Grant to Halleck in which Grant wrote, “If the enemy has left Maryland, as I suppose he has, he should have upon his heels, veterans, Militiamen, men on horseback and everything that can be got to follow, to eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that Crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.”  [Ulysses S. Grant to Henry W. Halleck, 14 July 1864, Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 11, pp. 242-243]

Bovard continues, “Before the summer of 1864, the Civil War was primarily fought on battlefields. After failing to decisively vanquish Confederate forces in pitched clashes, the  Union leadership widened the war, trying to destroy the South’s economy – with the civilian population increasingly a target. William Sherman, the commander of the Union forces menacing Atlanta in 1864, had sent a telegram to Washington saying that in the South ‘There is a class of people men, women, and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.’ ”  The war was fought on battlefields in and after the summer of 1864 as well, but Bovard doesn’t want his readers to know that.  The civilian population was not a target, as we know.  And let’s take a look at the message from Sherman Bovard quotes:

In the Field, Big Shanty, Ga., June 21, 1864.

Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:

SIR: I inclose you herewith copy of a letter this day addressed to General Burbridge, who commands the District of Kentucky, and I have furnished a copy to all department commanders subject to my orders. I doubt whether the President will sustain me, but if he don’t interfere is all I ask. I can get the malcontents on board ships at sea without traveling outside of my authority, but then the jurisdiction becomes doubtful. We will never have peace as long as we tolerate in our midst the class of men that we all know to be conspiring against the peace of the State, and yet who if tried by jury could not be convicted. Our civil powers at the South are ridiculously impotent, and it is as a ship sailing through sea–our armies traverse the land, and the waves of disaffection, sedition, and crime close in behind, and our track disappears. We must make a beginning, and I am willing to try it, but to be effectual it should be universal. The great difficulty will be in selecting a place for the malcontents Honduras, British or French Guiana, or San Domingo would be the best countries, but these might object to receive such a mass of restless democrats. Madagascar or Lower California would do. But one thing is certain, there is a class of people, men, women, and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order, even as far south as Tennessee. I would like to have your assent and to name the land to which I may send a few cargoes, but if you will not venture, but leave me to order, I will find some island where they will be safe as against the district of my command. It has now been raining nineteen days constantly, and taking the Flood as the only example in history, the rain squall is nearly half over. Fortunately we are at the apex of Georgia, which may prove the Ararat of our ark of safety against the flood.

I am, with respect, your obedient servant,

W. T. SHERMAN,Major-General, Commanding.

[OR Series I, Vol 39, Part 2, pp. 131-132]

In the referenced letter to Burbridge, Sherman wrote, “The recent raid of Morgan and the concurrent acts of men styling themselves Confederate partisans or guerrillas call for determined action on your part. Even on the southern “States Rights” theory Kentucky has not seceded. Her people by their vote and by their actions have adhered to their allegiance to the National Government, and the South would now coerce her out of our Union and into theirs, the very dogma of coercion upon which so much stress was laid at the outset of the war and which carried into rebellion the people of the middle or border slave States. But politics aside, these acts of the so-called partisans or guerrillas are nothing but simple murder, horse-stealing, arson, and other well defined crimes, which do not sound as well under their true names as the more agreeable ones of warlike meaning. Now, before starting on this campaign, I foresaw, as you remember, that this very case would arise, and I asked Governor Bramlette to at once organize in each county a small trustworthy band, under the sheriff, if possible, and at one dash arrest every man in the community who was dangerous to it, and also every fellow hanging about the towns, villages, and cross-roads, who had no honest calling, the material out of which guerrillas are made up, but this sweeping exhibition of power doubtless seemed to the Governor rather arbitrary. The fact is in our country personal liberty has been so well secured that public safety is lost sight of in our laws and constitutions, and the fact is we are thrown back a hundred years in civilization, law, and everything else, and will go right straight to anarchy and the devil if somebody don’t arrest our downward progress. We, the military, must do it, and we have right and law on our side. All Governments and communities have a right to guard against real or even supposed danger. The whole people of Kentucky must not be kept in a state of suspense and real danger lest a few innocent men should be wrongfully accused. First. You may order all your post and district commanders that guerrillas are not soldiers but wild beasts unknown to the usages of war. To be recognized as soldiers they must be enlisted, enrolled, officered, uniformed, armed, and equipped by some recognized belligerent power, and must, if detached from a main army, be of sufficient strength, with written orders from some army commander, to do some military thing. Of course we have recognized the Confederate Government as a belligerent power, but deny their right to our lands, territories, rivers, coasts, and nationality, admitting the right to rebel and move to some other country where laws and customs are more in accordance with their own ideas and prejudices. Second. The civil power being insufficient to protect life and property ex necessitate rei, to prevent anarchy, “which nature abhors,” the military steps in, and is rightful, constitutional, and lawful. Under this law everybody can be made to “stay at home and mind his and her own business,” and, if they won’t do that, can be sent away where they won’t keep their honest neighbors in fear of danger, robbery, and insult. Third. Your military commanders, provost-marshals, and other agents may arrest all males and females who have encouraged or harbored guerrillas and robbers, and you may cause them to be collected in Louisville, and when you have enough, say 300 or 400, I will cause them to be sent down the Mississippi through their guerrilla gauntlet, and by a sailing ship send them to a land where they may take their negroes and make a colony with laws and a future of their own. If they won’t live in peace in such a garden as Kentucky, why we will kindly send them to another, if not a better land, and surely this would be a kindness and a God’s blessing to Kentucky. I wish you to be careful that no personalities are mixed up in this, nor does a full and generous love of country, “of the South,” of their State or county form a cause of banishment, but that devilish spirit which will not be satisfied and that makes war the pretext for murder, arson, theft in all its grades, perjury, and all the crimes of human nature. My own preference was and is that the civil authorities of Kentucky would and could do this in that State, but if they will not, or cannot, then we must; for it must be done. There must be an “end to strife,” and the honest, industrious people of Kentucky, and the whole world, will be benefited and rejoiced at the conclusion, however arrived at. I use no concealment in saying that I do not object to men or women having what they call “Southern feelings,” if confined to love of country, and of peace, honor, and security, and even of little family pride, but these become “crime” when enlarged to mean love of murder, of war, desolation, famine, and all the horrid attendants of anarchy.”  [Ibid., pp. 135-136]

As we can see, Sherman was specifically talking about people in Kentucky, a state that had not seceded, who were acting as illegal combatants.  Bovard doesn’t want his readers to know that.

Bovard continues, “The destruction of the Shenandoah Valley was carried out by Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan. Along an almost 100-mile stretch, the sky was blackened with smoke as his troops burned crops, barns, mills and homes. Sheridan reported to Grant in October 1864 that he had ordered the torching of all houses within a five-mile radius of where a politically connected Union officer had been shot. Sheridan ordered his men to leave the valley a ‘barren waste’ and boasted that when his operation was complete, the Shenandoah Valley ‘from Winchester to Staunton will have but little in it for man or beast.’ ”  The officer who was killed was Lt. John Meigs.  He was not politically connected, but rather was the son of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and one of Sheridan’s staff officers.  The Union forces believed Meigs had been murdered by partisans after he had surrendered.  Bovard deceitfully leaves that out, because it means Sheridan’s retaliation was fully in accordance with the rules of war.  The orders to leave the Valley a “barren waste” was aimed at crops and livestock only:

Harrisonburg, September 28, 186410.30 p.m.

Brig. Gen. W. MERRITT,
Commanding First Cavalry Division:

GENERAL: The major-general commanding directs that you leave a small force at Swift Run and Brown’s Gaps, to watch said gaps, and with the balance of your own and Custer’s division swing around through or near Piedmont, extending toward and as near Staunton as possible. Destroy all mills, all grain and forage, you can, drive off or kill all stock, and otherwise carry out the instructions of Lieutenant-General Grant, an extract of which is sent you, and which means, “leave the Valley a barren waste.” In carrying out these instructions, no villages or private houses will be burned. Camp close to the left of the infantry at Mount Crawford to-morrow night. The Sixth and Nineteenth Army Corps will move to Mount Crawford to-morrow.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

JAS. W. FORSYTH, Lieutenant-Colonel and Chief of Staff.

[OR Series I, Vol. 43, Part 2, p. 202]

The “boast” [according to Bovard] comes from Sheridan’s report to Grant in which he wrote,“To-morrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage, &c., down to Fisher’s Hill. When this is completed the Valley, from Winchester up to Staunton, ninety-two miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.”

[OR Series I, Vol 43, Part 2, p. 308]  Notice that all of this is referring to the food the Valley provided to Lee’s army.

Bovard writes, “Because people lived in a state that had seceded from the Union, Sheridan acted as if they had automatically forfeited their property, if not their lives. Many who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, such as Mennonites, had opposed secession and refused to join the Confederate army, but their property was also looted and burned.”  Bovard doesn’t tell you the confederacy had a tax-in-kind wherein 10% of every farm’s yield, no matter how big or how small, was appropriated by the confederate government.  It didn’t matter if an individual was opposed to secession or not, and it didn’t matter if an individual refused to join the confederate army or not.  They were forced to contribute to the support of the confederacy by having a portion of their crops impressed to the confederate cause.  Sheridan’s men were perfectly within the rules of war to destroy these crops as well.  Bovard’s claiming they forfeited their lives is simply more of his bloviating.  As we can see from the orders given, no one was ordered killed as long as they weren’t bearing arms against American soldiers.  Bovard wants us to ignore that inconvenient fact.

According to Bovard, “One newspaper correspondent traveling with Sheridan’s army reported: ‘Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North . . . not half the inhabitants of the valley can subsist on it in its present condition.’ John Heatwole, author of ‘The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley’ (1998),  concluded: ‘The civilian population of the Valley was affected to a greater extent than was the populace of any other region during the war, including those in the path of Sherman’s infamous march to the sea in Georgia.’ ”  His quote from Heatwole is, of course, taken out of context.  In that same part of the introduction to the book, Heatwole wrote, “The destruction of private dwellings by Union forces in Georgia has been greatly exaggerated. Lee Kennett based Marching through Georgia on exhaustive research that made it clear that the main targets of Sherman’s columns were the railroads, telegraph lines, cotton gins, and mills. Rarely mentioned is the destruction of barns or farm structures, yet the opportunities were there, as livestock were driven away or destroyed on the spot.” [p. xi]  Later in the book, Heatwole writes, “With lurid descriptions like this, is it any wonder that the true story of the campaign to make the Valley untenable has been cloaked in myth for so many years? Obviously, for whatever purposes, there were those who would labor to fan the flames of resentment between the sections of the country indefinitely.”  And when he talks about an 1886 visit of Sheridan to the Valley where he was greeted as a friend, not a villain, Heatwole writes, “Perhaps the intervening years had softened the hard edge of war, and perhaps thoughtful individuals had come to realize that the Burning had, in its own way, helped to end the war and save the many lives that would have been lost had it continued into the summer of 1865.​”  And in concluding his book he quotes a confederate veteran.  “Captain Opie, perhaps trying to settle the question in his own mind, ended his reflections with a query: ‘Which is the worst in war, to burn a barn, or kill a fellow-man?’ “​  [pp. 231-232]

Bovard continues, “Shelby Foote, in his three-volume Civil War history, noted that an English traveler in 1865 ‘found the Valley standing empty as a moor.’ The population of Warren County, Virginia, where I grew up, fell by 11% during the 1860s thanks in part to Sheridan’s depredations.”  Let’s test that.  According to the US Census of 1860, Warren County had a total population of 6,442.  This consisted of 4,583 whites, 284 “free colored,” and 1,575 enslaved people.  According to the 1870 Census, Warren County had a total population of 5,716, consisting of 4,611 whites and 1,105 “colored persons.”  So the total population did indeed fall by about 11%, but the population of whites rose by .61% while the 40.55% decrease in population of “colored persons” was responsible for the drop in total population.  In other words, it was former slaves leaving the county that led to the drop.  If Mr. Bovard would like to call freeing slaves a “depredation,” he’s free to do so, but most civilized people wouldn’t do that.  Bovard also discounts the fact that after the war white terrorist groups drove out blacks who wanted to participate in the electoral process.  This may be another reason why the black population in Warren County fell so much.

Bovard concludes his article with “The U.S.’s targeting of civilians in the final episodes of the Civil War signified a radical change in the relation between citizens and the government  that endured long after the South’s surrender at Appomattox. An 1875 article in the American Law Review noted: ‘The late war left the average American politician with a powerful desire to acquire property from other people without  paying for it.’ Ironically, a war that stemmed in large part from the blunders and follies of politicians on both sides of the Potomac resulted in a vast expansion of the political class’s presumption of power.”  As we’ve seen, there was no targeting of civilians by the United States.  That’s simply a lie.  Food for Lee’s army was a legitimate military target.  He quotes an unnamed author of an unnamed article from 1875 and we have no idea how out of context the quote may be.  And his idea that the war “stemmed in large part from the blunders and follies of politicians on both sides of the Potomac” is simply untrue.  That bogus theory of the Revisionist school has been debunked solidly.  The “blundering generation” theory has been shown to be wrong.  The war came about because one side saw a threat to slavery and would fight a war to gain independence in order to protect slavery’s continued existence while the other side would accept a war in order to preserve the Union and the constitutional government it entailed.

Were there houses burned outside of retaliation for guerrilla activities?  Assuredly, but that would have been contrary to Sheridan’s and Grant’s orders.  In addition, empty barns were usually not burned.  The targets for burning were the crops and barns filled with harvested crops, which were legitimate targets of war.  Here is an article which sheds some light on the war in the Shenandoah Valley between the US Army and the guerrillas and partisans, and here is another to shed some light on guerrilla warfare in the Valley.

Maybe instead of dropping out of Virginia Tech Bovard should have continued his education.  But then, basic honesty isn’t something that is taught in school.

Those wishing to see an excellent takedown of Bovard’s screed by an actual historian can see Professor John McKee Barr’s post on his blog, “Loathing Lincoln.”  He and I had many of the same thoughts regarding Bovard’s piece.







  1. […] interesting post here on Philip Sheridan and the Shenandoah Valley (the article cites me at the end). This is relevant to […]

  2. In my opinion, your critique of Bovard’s article does not refute the central point that Sheridan’s forces clearly violated the rules of war. If an American commander today–in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan or Kosovo–did what Sheridan did, he would be relieved of command, court-martialed for war crimes, and justifiably condemned as a war criminal by civilized newspapers.

    Citing orders against targeting civilians and their property does not change the fact that Sheridan’s forces clearly did both, as did Sherman’s.

    In his personal letters to loved ones at home, Robert Gould Shaw, the subject of the movie “Glory,” expressed his shame and disgust over the tactics that were being used by federal forces in his area.

    I recommend two books: John Walters’ Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War, and Walter Brian Cisco’s War Crimes Against Southern Civilians.

    1. You commit the fallacy of the false comparison. You take strictly limited scenarios with highly prescribed rules of engagement and try to compare them with a scenario of a nation fighting a full war 150 years prior. What Sheridan did in the Valley did not violate any of the rules of war that existed at the time. The lack of historical knowledge among those who claim Sheridan violated the rules of war is astounding. One day, try to read about what happened during the Thirty Years War or other European wars to see what was regarded as acceptable practices. The Lieber Code did in fact take into account what was accepted military practice of the time and showed what was allowable and what wasn’t allowable. Try a comparison with the writings of Vattel.

      As is your wont, Mike, you mischaracterize the references you’re using. You refer to Shaw’s comments regarding what happened in Darien, Georgia, which was an anomaly ordered by one commander and not “the tactics that were being used by federal forces in his area.”

      I’m not surprised at your endorsement of Walters’ book, which doesn’t deal with Sheridan, or Cisco’s book. Review of Cisco here. For a balanced look at Sherman, see John Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order.

  3. First of all, Shaw **participated** in the destruction of Darien, Georgia, and he wrote the letter in question while he was still in Georgia. So I did not mischaracterize the reference.

    Furthermore, if you read all of what Shaw said, he was not just talking about what happened in Darien, Georgia, although that was his focus because he was so disgusted by it.

    And how can you say that what happened in Darien was an “anomaly” when Sheridan and Sherman’s forces did similar things on numerous occasions? Have you read Walters’ Merchant of Terror or Cisco’s War Crimes Against Southern Civilians?

    Sheridan’s torching of the Shenandoah Valley certainly violated the rules of war that had been taught at West Point and that are widely accepted in our day. Again, if an American commander in our day did what Sheridan did, he would be relived, court-martialed, and condemned by civilized nations as a war criminal.

    During the Revolutionary War, when some British forces used the same immoral tactics that Sherman and Sheridan employed, the Patriots accused them of barbarism and of violating the rules of war. When the Germans used the same tactics in WW I and WW II, the world rightly condemned them. And no American general in our day would dare engage in the wanton destruction of civilian property and animals and even farm tools. Yet, we’re supposed to believe that we should make an exception for Sherman and Sheridan.

    To say that what Sherman and Sheridan did was not in violation of the Lieber Code ignores the fact that the Lieber Code contained numerous loopholes to allow for immoral warfare. McClellan and Buell and other honorable Union officers knew that such tactics were wrong. I might add that when McClellan protested General Pope’s order that called for harsh measures against Southern civilians, even Halleck said he was troubled by Pope’s order–and he said that in writing.

    Finally, I think it would be worthwhile to quote some of what Robert Gould Shaw said:

    ‘The reasons he [Montgomery] gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old. . . . Then he says “We are outlawed, and, therefore, not bound by the rules of regular warfare.” But that makes it none the less revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenseless. . . .

    ‘Remember not to breathe a word of what I have written about this raid, for I have not yet made up my mind what I ought to do. Besides my distaste for this barbarous sort of warfare, I am not sure that it will not harm very much the reputation [of Shaw’s unit] and of those connected with them.

    ‘All I complain of is wanton destruction. After going through the hard campaigning and hard fighting in Virginia, this makes me very much ashamed of myself.'” (Commager, editor, The Civil War Archive, pp. 335-336)

    1. Yes, you did mischaracterize it because you claimed that one commander, who, by the way, admitted to Shaw that what he was doing was outside the normal practices of war, was all commanders by your use of the plural “federal forces.” What happened at Darien was an anomaly because it was against Federal policy. There was no military necessity to compel what was done. Your claim of “similar” actions is false because both Sherman and Sheridan adhered to what was allowed by the law. Your repeating erroneous statements doesn’t make them true. Sheridan’s actions were in complete accordance with the laws of war because the food in the Valley was to be used to sustain rebel forces in the field. The Lieber Code sanctioned his actions.

      Section I: Martial Law – Military jurisdiction – Military necessity – Retaliation
      Art. 15.
      Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war; it allows of the capturing of every armed enemy, and every enemy of importance to the hostile government, or of peculiar danger to the captor; it allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; of the appropriation of whatever an enemy’s country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the army, and of such deception as does not involve the breaking of good faith either positively pledged regarding agreements entered into during the war, or supposed by the modern law of war to exist. Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God.

      Art. 21.
      The citizen or native of a hostile country is thus an enemy, as one of the constituents of the hostile state or nation, and as such is subjected to the hardships of the war.

      Section X: Insurrection – Civil War – Rebellion.
      Insurrection is the rising of people in arms against their government, or a portion of it, or against one or more of its laws, or against an officer or officers of the government. It may be confined to mere armed resistance, or it may have greater ends in view.

      Art. 156.
      Common justice an plain expediency require that the military commander protect the manifestly loyal citizens, in revolted territories, against the hardships of the war as much as the common misfortune of all war admits.
      The commander will throw the burden of the war, as much as lies within his power, on the disloyal citizens, of the revolted portion or province, subjecting them to a stricter police than the noncombatant enemies have to suffer in regular war; and if he deems it appropriate, or if his government demands of him that every citizen shall, by oath of allegiance, or by some other manifest act, declare his fidelity to the legitimate government, he may expel, transfer, imprison, or fine the revolted citizens who refuse to pledge themselves anew as citizens obedient to the law and loyal to the government.
      Whether it is expedient to do so, and whether reliance can be placed upon such oaths, the commander or his government have the right to decide.

      As I said before, compare the Lieber Code with Vattel. Your ignorance of what was allowed in warfare doesn’t make the Lieber Code invalid. Food for the opposing army is a valid and legitimate military target.

      Vattel: “§ 73. Things belonging to the enemy. When once we have precisely determined who our enemies are, it is easy to know what are the things belonging to the enemy (res hostiles). We have shown that not only the sovereign with whom we are at war is an enemy, but also his whole nation, even the very women and children. Every thing, therefore, which belongs to that nation, — to the state, to the sovereign, to the subjects, of whatever age or sex, — everything of that kind, I say, falls under the description of things belonging to the enemy.”

      Vattel: “§ 138. The right to weaken an enemy by every justifiable method. Since the object of a just war is to repress injustice and violence, and forcibly to compel him who is deaf to the voice of justice, we have a right to put in practice, against the enemy, every measure that is necessary in order to weaken him, and disable him from resisting us and supporting his injustice; and we may choose such methods as are the most efficacious and best calculated to attain the end in view, provided they be not of an odious kind, nor unjustifiable in themselves, and prohibited by the law of nature.”

      Vattel: “§ 160. Principles of the right over things belonging to the enemy.(164) A STATE taking up arms in a just cause has a double right against her enemy, — 1. a right to obtain possession of her property withheld by the enemy; to which must be added the expenses incurred in the pursuit of that object, the charges of the war, and the reparation of damages: for, were she obliged to bear those expenses and losses, she would not fully recover her property, or obtain her due. 2. She has a right to weaken her enemy, in order to render him incapable of supporting his unjust violence (§ 138) — a right to deprive him of the means of resistance. Hence, as from their source, originate all the rights which war gives us over things belonging to the enemy. I speak of ordinary cases, and of what particularly relates to the enemy’s property. On certain occasions, the right of punishing him produces new rights over the things which belong to him, as it also does over his person.”

      Vattel: “§ 161. The right of seizing on them. We have a right to deprive our enemy of his possessions, of every thing which may augment his strength and enable him to make war. This every one endeavours to accomplish in the manner most suitable to him. Whenever we have an opportunity, we seize on the enemy’s property, and convert it to our own use: and thus, besides diminishing the enemy’s power, we augment our own, and obtain at least a partial indemnification or equivalent, either for what constitutes the subject of the war, or for the expenses and losses incurred in its prosecution: — in a word, we do ourselves justice.”

      Vattel: “§ 166. Waste and destruction. If it is lawful to take away the property of an unjust enemy in order to weaken or punish him, (§§ 161, 162), the same motives justify us in destroying what we cannot conveniently carry away. Thus, we waste a country, and destroy the provisions and forage, that the enemy may not find a subsistence there: we sink his ships when we cannot take them or bring them off. All this tends to promote the main object of the war: but such measures are only to be pursued with moderation, and according to the exigency of the case. Those who tear up the vines and cut down the fruit-trees are looked upon as savage barbarians, unless when they do it with a view to punish the enemy for some gross violation of the law of nations. They desolate a country for many years to come, and beyond what their own safety requires. Such conduct is not dictated by prudence, but by hatred and fury.”

      Vattel: “§ 167. Ravaging and burning. On certain occasions, however, matters are carried still farther: a country is totally ravaged, towns and villages are sacked, and delivered up a prey to fire and sword. Dreadful extremities, even when we are forced into them! Savage and monstrous excesses, when committed without necessity! There are two reasons, however, which may authorize them, — 1. the necessity of chastising an unjust and barbarous nation, of checking her brutality, and preserving ourselves from her depredations. Who can doubt that the king of Spain and the powers of Italy have a very good right utterly to destroy those maritime towns of Africa, those nests of pirates, that are continually molesting their commerce and ruining their subjects? But what nation will proceed to such extremities merely for the sake of punishing the hostile sovereign? It is but indirectly that he will feel the punishment: and how great the cruelty, to ruin an innocent people in order to reach him! The same prince whose firmness and just resentment was commended in the bombardment of Algiers, was, after that of Genoa, accused of pride and inhumanity. 2. We ravage a country and render it uninhabitable, in order to make it serve us as a barrier, and to cover our frontier against an enemy whose incursions we are unable to check by any other means. A cruel expedient, it is true: but why should we not be allowed to adopt it at the expense of the enemy, since, with the same view, we readily submit to lay waste our own provinces?

      “The czar Peter the Great, in his flight before the formidable Charles the Twelfth, ravaged an extent of above fourscore leagues of his own empire, in order to check the impetuosity of a torrent which he was unable to withstand. Thus, the Swedes were worn down with want and fatigue; and the Russian monarch reaped at Pultowa the fruits of his circumspection and sacrifices. But violent remedies are to be sparingly applied: there must be reasons of suitable importance to justify the use of them. A prince who should, without necessity, imitate the czar’s conduct, would be guilty of a crime against his people: and he who does the like in an enemy’s country, when impelled to it by no necessity, or induced by feeble reasons, becomes the scourge of mankind. In the last century, the French ravaged and burnt the Palatinate.2 All Europe resounded with invectives against such a mode of waging war. It was in vain that the court attempted to palliate their conduct, by alleging that this was done only with a view to cover their own frontier: — that was an end to which the ravaging of the Palatinate contributed but little: and the whole proceeding exhibited nothing to the eyes of mankind but the revenge and cruelty of a haughty and unfeeling minister.”

      All of Sheridan’s actions were within what was allowed even by Vatel.

      You continue to commit the fallacy of the false comparison. Today we are in an age of highly limited warfare with very strict rules of engagement. It is not at all comparable with the conditions existing in the Civil War. To compare what would be allowed today with what was done then is a fatuous exercise. It merely highlights the shortcomings in your own understanding.

  4. And for you to repeat your claims that I have mischaracterized Shaw’s letter and that I’m making false comparisons does not make those claims true either.

    You are simply ignoring the facts and implications of Shaw’s letter. Shaw’s unit was the “federal forces” in his area to which I referred, and, again, Shaw was not only talking about the destruction of Darien.

    I notice you said nothing about the fact that Sherman’s and Sheridan’s forces repeatedly did the same things that were done at Darien. If you are not aware of this, then I suggest you read Walters’ MERCHANT OF TERROR and Cisco’s WAR CRIMES AGAINST SOUTHERN CIVILIANS.

    If, as you claim, it was perfectly okay for Sherman and Sheridan to do what they did, then why isn’t it okay today? Why wasn’t it okay during the Revolutionary War. The Patriots certainly didn’t think it was acceptable warfare–on the contrary,, they called it barbaric, immoral, criminal, etc., etc.

    I also notice you said nothing about the point that honorable Union officers like McClellan and Buell, and others, condemned those brutal total-war tactics as immoral and contrary to the honorable type of warfare they had been taught.

    I further note that you said nothing about the fact that when McClellan objected to Pope’s order calling for harsh measures against civilians, Halleck replied, in writing, that he, too, was troubled by them. Why was that, if they were, as you claim, perfectly in line with the existing rules of war?

    And, pray tell, what “military necessity” was there to the burning of libraries, schools, and churches?

    1. The fact is, Mike, you are indeed mischaracterizing and making false comparisons. I’m not going to go back and forth on this with you. It’s a fact. If you can’t or refuse to realize it, then look to yourself for the fault. Shaw was not the “federal forces in his area.” That simply shows your ignorance of the order of battle. The 54th Massachusetts was one regiment in the Department of the South, commanded by David Hunter. The 54th Massachusetts arrived at Port Royal, which was commanded by Rufus Saxton, on June 3, 1863. Other units stationed there included the 11th Maine, the 52nd Pennsylvania, the 55th Pennsylvania, the 104th Pennsylvania, the 174th Pennsylvania, the 176th Pennsylvania, and some cavalry, artillery, and engineering units. See here. James Montgomery commanded the 2nd South Carolina. See here. On June 9, Hunter sent Montgomery a copy of the Lieber Code, General Orders 100. See here and here. The policy of Federal forces in the area, then, was the Lieber Code, which as I’ve shown conforms to the accepted practices of the time. Once again, compare it with Vattel.

      Your claim that Shaw was not talking just about Darien is patently false. Here’s the letter:

      St. Simons Island, Ga. [RGS]
      Tuesday, June 9, 1863

      My Dearest Annie,

      We arrived at the southern point of this island at six this morning. I went ashore to report to Colonel [James] Montgomery, and was ordered to proceed with my regiment to a place called “Pike’s Bluff,” on the inner coast of the island, and encamp. We came up here in another steamer, the “Sentinel,” as the “De Molay” is too large for the inner waters,—and took possession to-day of a plantation formerly owned by Mr. Gould. We have a very nice camping-ground for the regiment, and I have my quarters in “the house”; very pleasantly situated, and surrounded by fine large trees. The island is beautiful, as far as I have seen it. You would be enchanted with the scenery here; the foliage is wonderfully thick, and the trees covered with hanging moss, making beautiful avenues wherever there is a road or path; it is more like the tropics than anything I have seen. Mr. Butler King’s plantation, where I first went ashore, must have been a beautiful place, and well kept. It is entirely neglected now, of course; and as the growth is very rapid, two years’ neglect almost covers all traces of former care.

      Christ Church June 12th—If I could have gone on describing to you the beauties of this region, who knows but I might have made a fine addition to the literature of our age? But since I wrote the above, I have been looking at something very different.

      On Wednesday, a steamboat appeared off our wharf, and Colonel Montgomery hailed me from the deck with, “How soon can you get ready to start on an expedition?” I said, “In half an hour,” and it was not long before we were on board with eight companies, leaving two for camp-guard.

      We steamed down by his camp, where two other steamers with five companies from his regiment, and two sections of Rhode Island artillery, joined us. A little below there we ran aground, and had to wait until midnight for flood-tide, when we got away once more.

      At 8 A.M., we were at the mouth of the Altamaha River, and immediately made for Darien. We wound in and out through the creeks, twisting and turning continually, often heading in directly the opposite direction from that which we intended to go, and often running aground, thereby losing much time. Besides our three vessels, we were followed by the gunboat “Paul Jones.”

      On the way up, Montgomery threw several shells among the plantation buildings, in what seemed to me a very brutal way; for he didn’t know how many women and children there might be.

      About noon we came in sight of Darien, a beautiful little town. Our artillery peppered it a little, as we came up, and then our three boats made fast to the wharves, and we landed the troops. The town was deserted, with the exception of two white women and two negroes.

      Montgomery ordered all the furniture and movable property to be taken on board the boats. This occupied some time; and after the town was pretty thoroughly disembowelled, he said to me, “I shall burn this town.” He speaks always in a very low tone, and has quite a sweet smile when addressing you. I told him, “I did not want the responsibility of it,” and he was only too happy to take it all on his shoulders; so the pretty little place was burnt to the ground, and not a shed remains standing; Montgomery firing the last buildings with his own hand. One of my companies assisted in it, because he ordered them out, and I had to obey. You must bear in mind, that not a shot had been fired at us from this place, and that there were evidently very few men left in it. All the inhabitants (principally women and children) had fled on our approach, and were no doubt watching the scene from a distance. Some of our grape-shot tore the skirt of one of the women whom I saw. Montgomery told her that her house and property should be spared; but it went down with the rest.

      The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old. In theory it may seem all right to some, but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance, I myself don’t like it. Then he says, “We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare” but that makes it none the less revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenceless.

      By the time we had finished this dirty piece of business, it was too dark to go far down the narrow river, where our boat sometimes touched both banks at once; so we lay at anchor until daylight, occasionally dropping a shell at a stray house. The “Paul Jones” fired a few guns as well as we.

      I reached camp at about 2 P.M. to-day, after as abominable a job as I ever had a share in.

      We found a mail waiting for us, and I received your dear letter, and several from Father, Mother, Effie, and some business correspondence. This is the first news we have had since our departure, and I rather regained my good spirits.

      Now, dear Annie, remember not to breathe a word of what I have written about this raid, to any one out of our two families, for I have not yet made up my mind what I ought to do. Besides my own distaste for this barbarous sort of warfare, I am not sure that it will not harm very much the reputation of black troops and of those connected with them. For myself, I have gone through the war so far without dishonour, and I do not like to degenerate into a plunderer and robber,—and the same applies to every officer in my regiment. There was not a deed performed, from beginning to end, which required any pluck or courage. If we had fought for possession of the place, and it had been found necessary to hold or destroy it, or if the inhabitants had done anything which deserved such punishment, or if it were a place of refuge for the enemy, there might have been some reason for Montgomery’s acting as he did; but as the case stands, I can’t see any justification. If it were the order of our government to overrun the South with fire and sword, I might look at it in a different light; for then we should be carrying out what had been decided upon as a necessary policy. As the case stands, we are no better than “Semmes,” who attacks and destroys defenceless vessels, and haven’t even the poor excuse of gaining anything by it; for the property is of no use to us, excepting that we can now sit on chairs instead of camp-stools.

      But all I complain of; is wanton destruction. After going through the hard campaigning and hard fighting in Virginia, this makes me very much ashamed of myself.

      Montgomery, from what I have seen of him, is a conscientious man, and really believes what he says,—”that he is doing his duty to the best of his knowledge and ability.”

      …There are two courses only for me to pursue: to obey orders and say nothing; or to refuse to go on any more such expeditions, and be put under arrest, probably court-martialled, which is a serious thing.

      June 13th.—This letter I am afraid will be behindhand, for a boat went to Hilton Head this morning from the lower end of the island, and I knew nothing about it. Colonel Montgomery has gone up himself; and will not be back until Tuesday probably.

      …To-day I rode over to Pierce Butler’s plantation. It is an immense place, and parts of it very beautiful. The house is small, and badly built, like almost all I have seen here. There are about ten of his slaves left there, all of them sixty or seventy years old. He sold three hundred slaves about three years ago.

      I talked with some, whose children and grandchildren were sold then, and though they said that was a “weeping day,” they maintained that “Massa Butler was a good massa,” and they would give anything to see him again. When I told them I had known Miss Fanny, they looked very much pleased, and one named John wanted me to tell her I had seen him. They said all the house-servants had been taken inland by the overseer at the beginning of the war; and they asked if we couldn’t get their children back to the island again. These were all born and bred on the place, and even selling away their families could not entirely efface their love for their master. Isn’t it horrible to think of a man being able to treat such faithful creatures in such a manner?

      The island is traversed from end to end by what they call a shell-road; which is hard and flat, excellent for driving. On each side there are either very large and overhanging trees, with thick underbrush, or open country covered with sago-palm, the sharp-pointed leaves making the country impassable. Occasionally we meet with a few fields of very poor grass; when there is no swamp, the soil is very sandy.

      There are a good many of these oyster-shell roads, for in many places there are great beds of them, deposited nobody knows when, I suppose. The walls of many of the buildings are built of cement mixed with oyster-shells, which make it very durable.

      I forgot to tell you that the negroes at Mr. Butler’s remembered Mrs. Kemble very well, and said she was a very fine lady. They hadn’t seen her since the young ladies were very small, they said. My visit there was very interesting and touching.

      A deserted homestead is always a sad sight, but here in the South we must look a little deeper than the surface, and then we see that every such overgrown plantation, and empty house, is a harbinger of freedom to the slaves, and every lover of his country, even if he have no feeling for the slaves themselves, should rejoice.

      Next to Mr. Butler’s is the house of Mr. James E. Cooper. It must have been a lovely spot; the garden is well laid out, and the perfume of the flowers is delicious. The house is the finest on the island. The men from our gunboats have been there, and all the floors are strewed with books and magazines of every kind. There is no furniture in any of these houses.

      Please send this to Father, for I want him and Mother to read it, and I don’t care about writing it over.

      Colonel Montgomery’s original plan, on this last expedition, was to land about fifteen miles above Darien, and march down on two different roads to the town, taking all the negroes to be found, and burning every planter’s house on the passage. I should have commanded our detachment, in that case. The above are the orders he gave me.

      Good bye for to-day, dearest Annie.
      Your loving Rob

      It’s quite obvious from the letter that he’s talking about the one and only action he and his regiment have been in, and that’s Darien. You really should stop making things up on the fly like that.

      You must have missed it but I denied and still deny your claim that Sheridan and Sherman repeatedly did similar things. Once again your claims are at odds with the facts. Citing propaganda pieces doesn’t make false claims true.

      You still can’t grasp the fact that you’re making a false comparison. That’s your problem, not mine. I’ve explained why the situations are different and not comparable. If you can’t or refuse to comprehend that, then me explaining it again isn’t going to do any good.

      McClellan and Buell operated on a false assumption that the Southern people could be coaxed back to loyalty. Such was not the case. Their blindness to the situation doesn’t confer any honor on them.

      If you want to read some books by actual scholars on this, then you can read Mark Grimsley’s ground-breaking book, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians 1861-1865, in which he shows the failings of McClellan and Buell, and he also shows how your idea of what the Union forces did is mere fantasy. Read Burrus M. Carnahan’s Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War, in which he writes of Sheridan, “In terms of Emmerich de Vattel’s distinction between committing ‘waste’ on an enemy’s land and the more brutal ‘ravaging’ of it, Sheridan’s 1864 campaign fits the former category more neatly than the latter. In the end, Sheridan did little in the Shenandoah Valley that went beyond President Lincoln’s orders on enemy property issued two years earlier.” [pp. 87-88]. Read John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History, in which he traces the full history of American legal thought on warfare, not just the out-of-context snippets you try to throw out. These are actual histories by real scholars, not the propaganda pieces you’re used to reading.

      I’ve posted Sheridan’s orders. Please show me where Sheridan ordered the burning of churches, libraries, and schools.

      As most of this is off topic with regards to this post, and since you’ve had your foray this far, I’m going to rein it in. The topic of this post is The Burning, which includes all of Sheridan’s actions in the Valley in 1864. Further comments on this post need to be confined to Sheridan in the Valley in 1864. An example or comment on a subject outside that is okay provided you can tie it to Sheridan in the Valley in 1864. Pope, therefore, is not a part of this post. Maybe there will be a post on Pope in the future that will allow you to bring it up. I’m not going to allow this post to be hijacked any further afield. Thanks in advance for your cooperation.

  5. “Please show me where Sheridan ordered the burning of churches, libraries, and schools.”
    Really? That’s your argument? One would not expect to find explicit written orders of that nature. [off topic edited]

    When you say “real scholars” you mean only scholars who support your attempt to excuse the immoral kind of warfare that some Union officers waged in the South, the same type of warfare that the Patriots condemned when British officers waged it, and the same kind of warfare that the civilized world condemned when German officers waged it in WW I and WW II.

    [off topic edited]

    The fact of the matter is that Sherman’s and Sheridan’s forces, and some other Union forces, destroyed private property, forcefully relocated Southern citizens, engaged in widespread theft, killed farm animals and household pets, abused civilians, burned churches and schools and libraries, etc., etc., and did so in cases where there was no credible or rational basis of “military necessity.” They brutalized and robbed civilians and destroyed numerous buildings in areas where they knew the Confederate army had no plausible hope of reestablishing control.

    [off topic edited]

    Two, Dr. John Avery Emison’s chapter on Union war crimes in his book LINCOLN UBER ALLES, which deals with the Lieber Code vs. honorable rules of war, etc. (chapter 7, which is 55 pages long).

    1. Mike, if you’re going to accuse Sheridan of burning schools, churches, and libraries, then you’re going to have to show where he ordered it. If you can’t, then your accusation is worthless. In fact, you’re going to have to show where it was done by his troops at all. So far you’ve provided precious little in the way of actual support for your claims. And you should learn that Sheridan isn’t Sherman. You can make your false claims about Sherman on a post about Sherman and I’ll deal with them there. As I told you last time, this post is about Sheridan in the Valley in 1864. That’s why I edited out your comments regarding Sherman and McClellan. I have several posts on both of these men. Feel free to add your comments there, but I’m not going to let this go off topic anymore.

      When I say real scholars I mean exactly what I said. Real scholars. People who have credibility because they study the subject in a scholarly manner and publish the results of their study. They don’t start with the conclusion and then find things to take out of context to pretend to support that conclusion the way your sources do.

      Were some private dwellings in the Valley burnt? Absolutely, but that was done against Sheridan’s orders, with the exception of reprisals for guerrilla operations. Most often, the troops followed their orders and confined the burnings to barns that had harvested crops in them, or mills that could be used to help produce food for Lee’s army. In some cases, they didn’t do that. For example, “The Confederate burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, made such severities more palatable to many Northern soldiers. As they passed through Winchester, Virginia, some of Sheridan’s men tried to set it afire in retaliation for Chambersburg, but the flames were extinguished before they could do any damage. Another soldier who witnessed the razing of the Shenandoah Valley confessed that his unit had burned some sixty houses as well as grain-laden barns. ‘[I]t was a hard looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year,’ he wrote home, ‘but no worse than for those of chambersburg.’

      “Yet despite the provocation of Chambersburg, most Union troops adhered to orders and destroyed only barns. Some found the work actively distasteful. Instructed to assist in the barn-burning and seizures of livestock in the Shenandoah Valley, Major James M. Comly of the 23rd Ohio demanded written orders. ‘We executed the orders as carefully and tenderly as possible,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘burning and destroying only what we were imperatively commanded to do.’ Although Comly conceded that it was proper to destroy the enemy’s supplies, he hated it. ‘It does not seem real soldierly work. We ought to enlist a force of scoundrels for such work.’

      “Sometimes even the barn-burning did not occur. Hoping to drive John S. Mosby’s partisans from the area, in November 1864 Sheridan ordered the destruction of barns and mills in Loudoun County, Virginia. The region contained many Unionists. Aware of Sheridan’s intent, some of them bore the ordeal stoically. ‘Burn away, burn away, if it will prevent Mosby from coming here,’ two young women sang out gaily. It still struck some Union soldiers as unjust. Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin went to the residence of a known Unionist with orders to destroy his flour mill. The owner invited him to take some refreshments, but Devin declined. ‘No, sir, the food would choke me.’ He then instructed his adjutant to fire the mill, told the owner advisedly that he should have some buckets of water ready ‘in case your house should catch fire,’ and promptly spurred away. The adjutant dutifully piled wood against the side of the barn, ignited it, and rejoined the general. The owner promptly took the buckets of water and extinguished the flames.” [Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, pp. 183-184] Such were the exceptions, not the rule for sure, but things like that happened more than once. At a Shenandoah at War conference this past summer, one of the historians told of soldiers throwing a torch just inside the open door of a barn and then leaving, allowing the farmer to stamp out the torch and save his barn and harvest.

      Rather than take an environmental scientist’s word on history, I’ll stick with actual historians, and instead of taking his word on the law, I’ll stick with actual law professors. Emison has no expertise to be able to tell anyone anything about the Lieber Code or about the rules of war. Instead of reading propagandists, you would be well served to read what actual scholars have to say.

  6. Here we go again with censoring replies–deleting content deemed “off topic.” It is truly amazing how often Lincoln apologists must resort to censorship. If you’re not going to post my replies as I write them, and since I don’t get to edit your replies,then I’m not going to waste anymore time posting replies. When you get to decide what your opponent gets to say, it’s easy to declare yourself the winner. Have a nice time in your echo chamber.

    1. Quite obviously, Mike, you lack the ability to distinguish between actual censorship and keeping a comment on the topic of the post. You’ll note I did not edit out any of your content that dealt with the topic of the post, which was Sheridan in the Valley. You’re perfectly free to post comments about Sherman to posts dealing with Sherman, and I have a number of them, as well as posting comments dealing with McClellan on posts dealing with McClellan. Again, I have a number of those as well. I suppose it’s easier for you to cry “censorship” than it is for you to actually post things dealing with the topic. The claim is just as false as the rest of your claims. I allowed you to go a bit off the field at first, and then I brought us back to the topic of the post after giving you fair warning. You ignored the warning. That’s on you, not me.

  7. I think anyone who read my reply before you edited it would agree that the points that you deleted as “off topic” most certainly were not “off topic” at all. On my blog, I never, ever edit anyone’s replies, unless they use profanity. Otherwise, I let them make the points they want to make. You might try it some time: It’s called being objective and open-minded enough not to start censoring your opponent’s replies.

    Again, I see no point in posting any more replies to your blog now that you’ve started deleting content from them.

    1. Your comment is at variance with the facts, Mike. What you had to say about Sherman and McClellan were not related to Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. You can do what you want with your own site. It doesn’t affect anyone else’s site one iota. I don’t want comments here going off topic so that we’re discussing things that aren’t related to the post. Once again, you’re perfectly free to make those comments on posts dealing with Sherman and McClellan. There are plenty of them here. Your melodramatic cries of censorship only serve to show you don’t know what censorship is.

  8. Judicious comments from this & other blogs spurred me to do more research. The result is published today at

    1. I’ll have more to say about this tonight in another post.

    1. Best of luck with your blog, Mike.

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