“Many of these families are suffering”

One of the themes I plan to examine from time to time is the inter-action between the Union cavalry and Southern civilians.  This relationship was, understandably, fractious at best and frequently fraught with danger, for soldier and civilian alike.  All too often the soldiers and non-combatants were verbally and physically abusive toward each other.  Confrontations of this nature commonly resulted in wanton destruction of private property.  Still, there are examples of compassion and concern on the part of the soldiers, as highlighted below.

On December 8, 1863, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, then in temporary command of the 1st Cavalry Division, wrote the following letter to Col. C. Ross Smith.

“I respectfully call the attention of the proper authorities to the condition of the citizens of Culpeper and its environs.  Almost all of them are suffering for the necessaries of life, and some will starve soon if their condition is not bettered by issues from commissaries.  Very few, if any, will take the oath of allegiance to the United States Government; some refuse from prejudice, others from fear of their neighbors, who, they say, would persecute them for the action.  Nor would administering the oath of allegiance to such people do any good, for they would not probably consider themselves bound by it, as they reason that it is forced upon them.  I do not allow these people to go out of the town limits, as they steal through the lines, and, being rabid female rebels, give the enemy information.  Something must be given them to eat though.”

Two years earlier, almost to the day, Joseph Halsey, a resident of Culpeper County, and a captain in the 6th Virginia Cavalry, had complained that Southern “cavalry are so completely stripping [Culpeper County] of supplies that there will be no inducement for any army to stay long in this section.”  Halsey drew the wrong conclusion; the armies would return again and again, spending months at a time in Stafford, Fauquier and Culpeper Counties, along the line of the Rappahannock River.

In August 1863, while posted near Hartwood Church, in Stafford County, a Union officer observed, “This is the desert wilderness country one can imagine; the people are on the verge of starvation.” Again, the following month, the officer noted, “the country from the vicinity of Port Conway [on the Rappahannock River, south of Fredericksburg, in King George County]…is a barren, desert country, as far as water and vegetation is concerned…. A great many people are fleeing north to escape starvation, and many more must go ere long…. Women, young and old, walk five, six and eight miles to beg or buy something of our commissary department to eat.”

Just two months later, in late November, the entire Army of the Potomac established winter quarters around Brandy Station, in Culpeper County, and Wesley Merritt quickly saw just how tenuous the situation was for the local populace.  Hardened though he was by two and a half years of war, and bound by the demands of his military duty to protect his men and the army, Merritt could not ignore the plight of the civilians struggling to survive around him.

Col. C. Ross Smith, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s Chief of Staff, forwarded Merritt’s letter to army headquarters, requesting, “What instructions had better be sent to General Merritt?”  Though Merritt’s letter appears in the Official Records, no immediate response from army headquarters has been found.

On December 10, Pleasonton instructed Brig. Gen. David Gregg, commanding the 2nd Cavalry Division, to station an entire brigade at Warrenton, the county seat of Fauquier County.  At the time the town was held by the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry.  Gregg sent Col. John Taylor’s 1st Brigade.  A week later, Col. John Taylor, now in temporary command of the 2nd Cavalry Division, ordered two additional cavalry regiments to bolster the cordon around Warrenton, in response to Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser’s Sangster’s Station raid.

Rosser’s raid may have driven Taylor to make the most recent changes to the defensive line around Warrenton, but raids of this nature presented a sporadic threat at best.  Hit and run attacks by Confederate guerrillas, however, were a constant concern.  Guerrilla incursions, rather than cavalry raids, necessitated the heavy cavalry cordon around the army.

Though Maj. John Mosby stood most prominent in Union minds, both by deed and reputation, his men were not the only ones conducting guerrilla warfare in the region.  The Iron Scouts from South Carolina and William Kincheloe’s Virginians were also roaming throughout the region.  Rumors of guerrilla atrocities also served to heighten the tension along the Union picket lines.  For example, on Christmas Eve, a story took hold that four Union pickets had recently been captured by guerrillas near Flint Hill, in Fairfax County, “their bodies stripped & they hung by the neck to limbs of trees.”

Shortly after returning to the army, and resuming command of the 2nd Cavalry Division, General Gregg was struck by the plight facing the citizens of Warrenton that winter.  On January 8, 1864, Gregg wrote a letter to Pleasonton, echoing the concerns voiced the previous month by General Merritt.  Like Merritt, Gregg felt sympathy and compassion for the non-combatants, yet the continuing guerrilla war left him frustrated, as he sought to ease the plight of the populace while insuring the protection of his men and the army.

“I have the honor to submit the following for the consideration of the Major General Commanding the Cavalry Corps.  In compliance with orders …the commanding officer of the 1st Brigade of this Division established his brigade at Warrenton.  The continued presence of Mosby’s command in the immediate vicinity of the town made it necessary to picket strongly all the approaches. To give security to his command the commanding officer of the brigade found it necessary to confine the citizens of Warrenton to within the limits of his lines of pickets and to prevent citizens without from entering the town. This system is still adhered to and no other can be adopted with safety to the brigade in its present position at Warrenton. There is in Warrenton a large population of women and children and old men.  Cut off from all markets very many of these families are suffering for the necessaries of life, all are impoverished.  I am constantly importuned by women to be allowed to purchase from the Subsistence Department.  By existing orders this is not permitted.  The mills which supplied the citizens with flour and meal are at considerable distance from the town.  If the citizens of Warrenton are to secure their necessary supplies by commerce with the surrounding country, then will the security of the brigade be constantly threatened – if on the contrary the proper and ordinary precautions are observed for the security of the command and the people of Warrenton kept within our lines, then will it become absolutely necessary to assist them in procuring the very necessaries of life.  These necessaries can be procured in no other way but from the Subsistence Department.  If a correct census of the number of persons in each family [be taken], under proper restrictions sales might be made without abuse. I respectfully request the action of proper authority on this matter.”

Gregg’s request was not the first time a soldier had sought to alleviate the crisis facing Warrenton’s civilians.  In mid-December, a lieutenant, whose name may have been Wagner, had sought to provide army rations for the citizens.  His request was denied on the nineteenth by David Gregg’s subsistence officer.  “Sales or issues of subsistence stores to citizens of the country…are positively forbidden, except when made by a commissary designated by the commanding officer of a corps.”  Gregg’s hands had been tied by army headquarters.  But now, just two weeks later, Gregg could ignore the problem no longer.  His letter to Pleasonton sought the permission required by the standing order.

Gregg’s letter, which was apparently accompanied by a personal plea from several citizens, was forwarded to Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick, Provost Marshal General of the Army, on January 22. The delay may have been with Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, who was in temporary command of the army.  The day before the letter reached his desk Patrick noted, “Sedgwick does not run the Army with much vim!”

Patrick responded to Gregg four days later.  “During the absence of General Meade, General Sedgwick approves of the application insomuch that you are authorized to make such temporary arrangements for the daily supplies of the people at Warrenton as will afford the best security to your command and at the same time answer their requests.”

The restrictions were apparently relaxed along the length of the Union line that winter, though as will be seen, with the proviso that the citizens take the Oath of Allegiance.  One problem remained, however, the guerrillas.  In the communications cited below, the enemy soldiers referred to are Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Iron Scouts, rather than Mosby’s Rangers.

On April 11, 1864, the officer commanding the cavalry outpost at Grove Church, south of Warrenton, alerted his superiors to the increasing activity of the Iron Scouts, led by Sgt. George Shadborne.  The officer closed his report by noting, “I would call attention to the fact that citizens, who have taken the oath of allegiance, are drawing rations at Rappahannock Station and feeding the Bushwackers and scouts that infest this country…. While the oath of allegiance enables these [parties] to live better than they have ever lived before, it also enables them to give aid and comfort to the enemy with perfect impunity.”

Four days later the officer broached the same concern.  “We learn that citizens who are drawing commissary supplies are instructed by the [Confederate] authorities over the river to take the oath of allegiance and draw all the supplies possible.  We observe that in many instances, while they draw from the commissary to the fullest extent allowed, they also load their wagons with every description of sutler stores.  While stopping the issuing of supplies to their people would doubtless cause suffering in some instances, it would at the same time shut the door upon sources of information and supplies that are of great value to the enemy.”

Guerrilla warfare is designed, in part, to frustrate the enemy.  Mosby’s Rangers, the Iron Scouts and other bands were indeed frustrating their enemy, but the civilians who were caught in the midst of the guerrilla conflict paid a steep price for their loyalty.


Sources –

Jeremiah Mortan/J. J. Halsey Papers, University of Virginia

Col. John Hammond Memorial Volume

David Sparks, Inside Lincoln’s Army

The Official Records

Unpublished Documents from the National Archives


2 thoughts on ““Many of these families are suffering”

  1. The built-in tension between occupying forces and local inhabitants–especially those encampments occurring for months on end, as during the winter of 63-64 in Fauquier and Culpeper–offer the worst challenges of all, for “both sides.” My own study of this particular encampment reveals limited wanton criminal action by soldiers against civilians, but one case of a soldier being murdered by a civilian whose remote house he entered, absent permission. And there were numerous instances of compassion extended by soldiers, and the one I like most to dwell upon involves the fact that Christmas toys for many Culpeper children were purchased and distributed by Northern soldiers. And the home wherein they were happily distributed still stands today: “Greenwood.”


  2. Thanks for this Bud. The positive interaction between the troops and civilians is, I believe, under appreciated. The interaction as a whole, amidst, as you say, the built-in tension, is worthy of continued study.


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