Scorched Earth and Hatred of Rebels in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Rebels’ Striking Back
On October 9, 1864, Corporal George Howard of Mount Holly, Vermont, then in Strausburg, Virginia, began a letter to his wife. He wrote of the Union army’s destroying anything in the Shenandoah Valley that might sustain the rebel army and of the death of some Union soldiers:
“. . . We have done a buisness for the confederacy during this campaign th[r]ough the Valley of Va that ‘I Recon’ wont be forgotten very soon Upon our advance, and when near Charlestown after a skirmish near that place in which corpl Jackman of Co K of this regt was killed and partially buried by the Rebls during the night time; leaving his head above ground; and inserting a head board into his mouth in which cond[it]ion his remains were found . . . . soon after
While in camp near Berryville I am told by members of the 11th Rgt Vt Vols that two men belonging to that regt were found murdered a short distance out of camp . . . One of them was lieing upon the ground lifeless with his throat cut from ear to ear
Another was found also lifeless hanging from a tree by his feet head downwards his mouth filled with pulled wool While we were lieing a short time in camp at Harrisonburg; Captain Meigs Chief engineer of Genl Sheridans staff was on the fourth day of this month while engaged in the duties of his position a short distance out of the infantry picket line; surprised captured and brutally murdered by a party of citizens in open day light . . .”
[In fact “Lieutenant John Meigs and two others were surprised by a Confederate cavalry patrol on the night of October 3 and Meigs was killed. Northerners believed he was murdered by civilians. General Sheridan ordered some houses burned in retaliation.” Ed.]
. . . And now when I tell you that we have burned; by fire from Staunton to Strausburg, the principal property of those persons who are engaged in this rebellion (and that includes every available male from the ages of 11 years (eleven) to nearly seventy years of age) and all such property as might be of immediate use to the Revel government I think you can hardly call us very bad names in view of the atrocities committed by these infernal traitors . . .”
“. . .Some few dwelling houses burned by design; others caught fire by accident lit by sparks escaping from the general confligration around, . . . all commingling in one grand, vast and gigantic confligration which can be better understood when I state that its area comprised . . . a distance of 75 miles with a breadth of about five miles on an average across The time of the burning principally commenced on the 4th after the foul murder of Capt Meigs. The angry flames illumed high up the dark heavens of that moonless night . . .
“But little distruction was perpetrated on the 5th preparatory to our greater work which began on the sixth ending on the 9th The work of those three days will long be remembered by us as well . . .The history of the distruction of [Moscow] and Jerusalem as recorded in our early school book and the later r[e]cords of distructive confligrations occurring in London & New York and elsewhere; but as grand and awful as they were they pale into insignifficance and littleness before the burning of the fifty miles of this Valley . . .
“[Perfect weather and] a cloudless sky . . . was mocked by those tall, thick volums of carbon which rapidly ascended from the burning masses to thicken and gather, and combine oer head . . .”
“. . . Ah! those three hundred thousand fresh soldiers graves in these slave states call for redress at our hands; and as true as God has a principal they shall have it, and woe to those unhappy people of this wicked rebellions conspiracy if they do not soon return to their allegiance . . .”
A War of the People, Vermont Civil War Letters, Jeffrey D. Marshall, ed., pp. 264-266.
Black Troops Suffer Ridicule from White Troops, Fight with Great Courage
From Lexington, Kentucky, James S. Brisbin, the Superintendent of the Organization of Kentucky Black Troops, reported on the treatment and conduct of the black troops in that region. On October 20 he wrote in part:
“. . . On the march the Colored Soldiers as well as their white Officers were made the subject of much ridicule and many insulting remarks by the White Troops and in some instances petty outrages such as the pulling off the Caps of Colored Soldiers, stealing their horses etc was practiced by the White Soldiers. These insults as well as the jeers and taunts that they would not fight were borne by the Colored Soldiers patiently or punished with dignity by their Officers but in no instance did I hear Colored soldiers make any reply to insulting language used toward [them] by the White Troops.
“On the 2d of October the forces reached the vicinity of the Salt Works and finding the enemy in force preparations were made for battle. . . .The point to be attacked was the side of a high mountain, the Rebels being posted about half way up behind rifle pits made of logs and stones to the height of three feet. All being in readiness the Brigade moved to the attack. The Rebels opened upon them a terrific fire but the line pressed steadily forward up the steep side of the mountain until they found themselves within fifty years of the Enemy. Here Col. Wade ordered his force to charge and the Negroes rushed upon the works with a yell and after a desperate struggle carried the entire line killing and wounding a large number of the enemy and capturing some prisoners There were four hundred black soldiers engaged in the battle . . . one hundred and fourteen men and four officers fell killed or wounded. Of this fight I can only say that men could not have behaved more bravely. I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles and I never saw any fight better. At dusk the Colored Troops were withdrawn from the enemies works, which they had held for over two hours, with scarcely a round of ammunition in their Cartridge Boxes.
“On the return of the forces those who had scoffed at the Colored Troops on the march out were silent.
“Nearly all the wounded were brought off though we had not an Ambulance in the command. The negro soldiers preferred present suffering to being murdered at the hands of a cruel enemy. I saw one man riding with his arm off another shot through the lungs and another shot through both hips.
“Such of the Colored Soldiers as fell into the hands of the Enemy during the battle were brutally murdered. The Negroes did not retaliate but treated the Rebel wounded with great kindness, carrying them water in their canteens and doing all they could to alleviate the sufferings of those whom the fortunes of war had placed in their hands. . . .”
Edward L. Ayers, ed. America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on their 150th Anniversaries, pp. 239-41.
– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert.