Reprimanded – Custer, Meade, Humphreys and ‘Bushwhackers’

The editors of the Official Records assumed a staggering task when they began gathering and organizing the thousands of battle reports, telegrams, letters and other documents held by the War Department following the Civil War. The work was actually authorized before the final guns went silent in the spring of 1865. The task took decades, and resulted in the 128 volumes, including a one volume index,) so familiar to any student of the war. These volumes cover only the land war. An additional 31 volumes cover the naval actions. The combined 159 volumes, nearly 150,000 pages, have stood the test of time, being reprinted, in both paper format and, more recently, electronic and digital formats, several times. About twenty years ago, Broadfoot Publishing published an additional ten volumes of reports and correspondence, along with a two-volume index, as a Supplement to the Official Records.

Any student of the war makes a serious mistake, however, if they assume these volumes include all of the documents held by the War Department at the cessation of hostilities. Over the life of the project, several men were charged with overseeing the task, and each was governed by a budget approved by Congress. Each brought his own view as to what should be included and what would be excluded. Each volume of correspondence contains examples of an officer or official asking a question or seeking advice for which no response is included. The opposite is also true, answers to questions not found.   In other cases, it is a matter of documents being excluded which would provide necessary context for documents which were included.

Surely the harried clerks, sifting millions of pieces of tattered paper, can be forgiven these omissions. But it also seems likely that, from time to time, the editors allowed their own thoughts, opinions and prejudices to govern what they allowed to be printed and what they cast aside. The extent to which editorial decisions have governed and shaped our knowledge of events, or personalities will never be known, but in many cases the unprinted inquiries, responses or contextual documents still reside in the National Archives.

Volume 29, Part II, the correspondence volume of the two volumes covering the Bristoe Station and Mine Run campaigns, provides an example. This volume includes numerous communications addressed to Brig. Gen. George Custer, but only one piece of correspondence from Custer to another party. That one communication is intriguing because of the angry response Custer received from his superiors at army headquarters. But was this just the upstart Custer shooting from the hip in anger, and being rightly reprimanded by Maj. Gen. George Meade’s crusty chief-of-staff Andrew Humphreys, or did the young general have a right to be frustrated and angry.

Custer’s communication, written to Cavalry Corps commander Alfred Pleasonton on August 13, 1863, appears on page 38-39. It is rather long and need not be copied here in its entirety. The pertinent section is the last paragraph.

“Citizens whom I arrested several days ago and forwarded to the headquarters Cavalry Corps, have been paroled and returned to their homes. They regard their paroles no more than they do so much blank paper, and are as able to injure us by bushwhacking, & C., as they were before, if not more so. They are bolder and more defiant. They come into my camp among the men and boast of their paroles, and say they are for the Confederate Government, but will wait and see who comes off victor. Complaints have been made to me, and in some cases arrests have been made, but I am powerless to act in consequence of their paroles from the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. I can suppress bushwhacking, and render every man within the limits of my command practically loyal, if allowed to deal with them as I choose.”

On August 8, Humphreys had written with Pleasonton (page 17 of same volume), in regards to his cavalry officers arresting civilians without proper supporting evidence.

“I am instructed by the major-general commanding (Meade) to inquire by what authority the several cavalry commands arrest citizens, living within our lines, against whom there is no evidence of having been engaged in committing depredations or aiding those engaged in such practices, but who merely decline to take the oath of allegiance.

The general commanding directs that for the present such arrests will not be made, but will be limited to those engaged in the practice just referred to, and such others against whom there is suspicion of having been engaged in them, or of having been guilty of any disloyal act.”

When Custer penned his letter he had been a general for less than two months. His rise from captain to brigadier in late June would have turned the head of most any young man of 23, then or now. The promotion, asked for by Pleasonton and approved and forwarded by Meade, likewise turned the heads of many older officers in the army as well, but not in the same way young Custer’s may have been turned. Hard-bitten veterans, who had toiled years for every single grade promotion, must have been both flabbergasted and resentful. Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, 52 years of age, West Point Class of 1831, may have been one of those men. His personal battle to gain the rank of major-general had been long, vexing and bitter, though ultimately successful.

Having issued the directive quoted above on August 8, Humphreys, and presumably Meade, must have been infuriated by the tone of Custer’s missive, which may have been viewed as insubordinate. As Custer had vented his frustration to Pleasonton, who had forwarded the letter to Meade, Humphreys responded to Pleasonton (page 63).

“In reference to the report of Brigadier-General Custer of the 13th instant, I am directed by the major-general commanding to request that you will transmit to these headquarters a copy of the instructions sent to that officer, and to say that it is the manifest duty of every officer engaged in the duty General Custer is intrusted with to arrest every one who disregards a parole or pledge; that paroles or accepted pledges from these headquarters to residents can form no proper excuse for not arresting those paroled or pledged, when they commit any act whatever of disloyalty; that the instructions from these headquarters do not render him, or any other officer, powerless to act whenever any good reason exists for arrest, but on the contrary, gives ample power when there is reason to suspect any act directly or indirectly disloyal. Authority could not be wider than this, unless it extended beyond the limits possessed even by the commander of this army. But if the power existed, the loose statements upon this subject contained in the letter of General Custer do not impress the major-general commanding with the suitableness of intrusting to that officer the discretion he suggests, of dealing with those within the limits of his command as he might choose.” This is the story as presented by the editors of the Official Records.

Custer’s many critics may certainly see this exchange as proof of the arrogance and immaturity which they see as the young officer’s greatest faults. Custer’s critics may also find additional fuels with which to stoke their fires when it is noted that the young officer was in temporary command of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division at the time – the power had gone to his head! When the equally brash Kilpatrick returned to the army he must have learned of the dispute, which did little to ease the growing discord between the two young lions.

The question worth pondering is whether these events and documents were presented by the editors and compilers with some purpose. In other words, did they try to shape our view of Custer and these events by deliberately leaving other documents that might provide explanation and context out of the narrative? Volume 29 is believed to have been completed about 1889, 13 years after Custer’s death at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s arrogance was seen by many as the cause of his death, and the deaths of several hundred of his men. Undoubtedly, some readers will shake their heads that I even contemplate this notion, but the exchange, as printed, could surely be seen as additional proof of Custer’s conceit. The question as to the intent, if any, of the editors will probably never be answered, but another question can be answered – is there more to the story? Indeed there is.

The guerrilla war had vexed many Union officers, most of whom were older and more experienced than Custer, men who may have been seen by Custer critics as more level-headed than the younger officer. But many of these older and, presumably, wiser men had also proposed taking extreme measures as a means of eradicating the guerrillas.

Meade, Humphreys and Custer were Democrats and probably all McClellanites. Pleasonton was probably a McClellan Democrat as well. As such the four men could be seen as desiring to fight the war with a view toward reconciliation rather than retribution, but cavalrymen almost certainly took a harsher view of guerrillas than did infantrymen. The cavalry dealt with guerrillas on a more constant basis than did the infantry. The guerrilla war was more personal to a cavalryman. Thus, cavalry officers, like Pleasonton and Custer, may have broken away from infantry officers, like Meade and Humphreys, on the guerrilla question. All of which begs a more in-depth study, but to do so here would divert from the question at hand – the context behind Custer’s communication of August 13, 1863.

First, I believe it is safe to assume that Custer had been advised of Meade’s directive of August 8, concerning the arrest of civilians. Pleasonton disseminated Meade’s instructions to his commanders the same day, as follows:

“The Major General Commanding the Army directs that for the present such citizens who merely decline taking the oath of allegiance and against whom there is no evidence of having been engaged in committing depredations, or aiding those engaged in such practices, will not be arrested, but will be limited to those engaged in such practices just referenced, or of having aided those engaged in them, or of having been guilty of any disloyal acts.

The mere fact of residence within the lines of this army, and an indisposition to take the oath of allegiance in a region ultimately held by our troops and those of the enemy, should not in itself cause the arrest of an individual unless there is some reason to believe that directly or indirectly the person is engaged in aiding those in arms against us.”

Then, on August 13, Meade received the following report from his intelligence chief, Col. George Sharpe:

“A scout (Lowton) sent in by Maj. Gen. Slocum reports that he left Falmouth at eight o’clock yesterday morning. He learned that Gen’l. Hood had superseded Gen’l. [Stuart] in command of the rebel cavalry & that Genl’s Hood, Anderson and another general officer had their quarters at Fredericksburg.

He reports a rebel camp one mile long on the [heights] back of Fredericksburg and large trains of wagons in the fields above and to the left of the town and 3 or 4000 horses grazing in the vicinity. He says that Maj. [Charles Collins’s] battalion of the 15th Va. Cavalry which he thought to be 250 men strong was crossing to Falmouth yesterday morning and that squads of dismounted cavalry are sent on this side of the river to assist the rebel officers with the conscription in Stafford County.

He says that Gen’l Hood has issued an order that the dismounted Va. Cavalry must go into the infantry or remount themselves and that they have a depot now near Stafford Store for the latter purpose.

The following named citizens residing near Stafford Store are said to be prominent in their service to the conscripting officers and in harboring rebel scouts – He also reports a gap in our line of pickets between Hartwood Church and Stafford Court House of about 3 miles…

Names of citizens aiding conscription officers in Stafford Store mentioned in enclosed report, [William] Tollson, Ben Tollson, Benet Cooper, John Cooper [and] Tyler Garrison.”

This information was forwarded to Pleasonton, who passed it to Kilpatrick, but as Kilpatrick was absent it went directly to Custer. It was received by Custer on August 13. Pleasonton’s orders read as follows:

“I have the honor of enclosing a copy of a report sent from Head Quarters Army of the Potomac.

The General Commanding desires that you will forward a copy to General Custer and to direct General Custer to find out if there is any truth of the 13th Va. Cavy crossing over to Falmouth yesterday. Also notify him to send a party to Stafford Store to arrest the citizens accused in the report.

The General desires me to say to you that there is [a report] that their cavalry is going to make a raid through Dumfries and thence around our army.

He wishes Gen’l Custer to see that his pickets are strong and vigilant in that direction and if his brigade is not strong enough to reinforce him from the Brigade in camp now.”

Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division secured the left flank of the army, from a point above Hartwood Church, where he had his headquarters, to a point just below Falmouth. Custer’s brigade held the extreme end of this line, from a point near Berea Church, Custer’s headquarters, to the end of the Union line below Falmouth. Thus, every significant piece of intelligence provided by Colonel Sharpe directly impacted Custer. For the first time the young general may have truly felt the weight of the responsibility resting upon his shoulders.

Here then is the context for the letter Custer wrote to Pleasonton later that day. Notwithstanding the fact that Custer was provided with a clear reason for the orders to arrest the civilians, the reader can, I believe, understand his frustration, especially if we harken back to the early years of our own second decade.

Custer was soon consumed with other more pressing matters, the official evidence of which also escaped the editors of the Official Records. No official report of his success in locating and arresting the civilians mentioned in the report has been found, but one of his troopers adds some clarity.

On August 17, “…We march two miles east of Stafford Store to take John Cooper prisoner. Then counter march 4 miles & are fired at by bushwhackers. Try to catch the dogs but the small pines are so thick that they make good their escape.”

The following day the same soldier recorded, “Have to try the Bushwhackers again. Get up at 2 o’clock this morn to walk 2 miles to surround a house before light, expecting to find some of the sneaks in it, but they seem to like the pines better. Fail to find any game so we start for camp by sunrise…”

Like Custer, the soldier’s frustration is clear, but guerrilla warfare bred frustration by design. One may argue that these civilians were not guerrillas, but I feel certain that few men in the ranks of Pleasonton’s cavalry made such fine distinctions. It is unclear if any of the men named in Colonel Sharpe’s report were ever arrested.

The area referred to as Stafford Store was an absolute nest of guerrillas, bushwhackers and other staunch Southern sympathizers. It was an extremely dangerous area for small Union patrols during the winter of 1862-63 and through the latter half of 1863 and early 1864. The area is today part of the Quantico Marine Corps Base, however it is not under the waters of a man-made lake, as I mentioned here initially.  While the road network remains similar to that of the Civil War years, none of the homes or buildings survive, and the area is closed to public access.  I thank Charles Siegel for correcting my error and for generously sharing his sources.


Sources –

The Official Records

Alan and Barbara Aimone’s A User’s Guide to the Official Records of the American Civil War

Waldon Raymond Diary, accessible at

Numerous unpublished documents from the National Archives

2 thoughts on “Reprimanded – Custer, Meade, Humphreys and ‘Bushwhackers’

  1. Bob, as to the larger question whether certain documents were consciously left out of the communications thread in this specific issue (or others), the rest of us can conclude, as you do, that it certainly seems possible, if not probable. This human condition acknowledged, I have closely read over Gen’l Custer’s missive of August 13 and must say that even though one can easily appreciate his frustration with civilians of dubious intent, I think it was supremely ill-advised (and impolitic) to assert, “I am powerless to act in consequence of their paroles from the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac.”
    In other words, General Custer is herein directly attacking his ultimate superiors, and if he would have thought carefully about that declaration before “hitting send,” then he would had realized he was leveling a charge against folks who functioned at grades several notches above an acting division commander..
    It is of course never a good idea to “publicly” attack one’s bosses, especially in writing, and I would now be with those who would seriously question General Custer’s judgment in letting this thing fly. There could indeed be only one reply from army HQ, and when it came back, it was certainly not pretty:

    A.A. Humphreys, in fact, let him have it right between the eyes: “…the loose statements …contained in the letter of General Custer do not impress the major-general commanding with the suitableness of intrusting to that officer the discretion he suggests…”


    (In this case, George Custer got what he deserved.)


    • Venting his frustration in writing was certainly not wise, though he may have felt a bit more comfortable in doing so with Pleasonton. I suspect Pleasonton was seeking some clarification on the matter, as he was just as vexed by the guerrillas as Custer. Instead his young star did indeed receive a ‘beat down.’ Others will see only Pleasonton’s darker side at work. Still, we look at Custer’s action as men of some maturity and wisdom in our autumn years. Might we have viewed the matter differently in years long past?


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