“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:
HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
In the Field, Big Shanty, Ga., June 21, 1864.
Hon. E. M, STANTON,
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.
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:
HEADQUARTERS MIDDLE MILITARY DIVISION,
Harrisonburg, September 28, 1864—10.30 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.
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.