On January 15, 1863, Lt. Col. Rufus Ingalls, Quartermaster General, Army of the Potomac, replied to an earlier letter from his superior, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, in which Meigs had asked about “securing the supplies that may be in the Peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers.”
“The matter has frequently engaged my attention,” Ingalls acknowledged. “The country for twenty miles below is known to have been ravaged of everything. All the negroes have either deserted north, or have been run off south by their masters. Most of the whites have left except a few families, and they have to subsist on our charities. The war has devastated the whole country. Beyond, in lower King George and Westmoreland, some 40 miles below there were many slaves and much corn, cattle etc., but it is reported, that the region is now barren of reserves. The rebels have stripped it of all its slaves (who did not desert to the North), corn, forage and cattle. We might have obtained a great deal at first, had no other operations prevented.”
Troopers from the 8th Illinois Cavalry first saw King George County on Christmas Day 1862. Writing just six days later, one trooper marveled at the “fine rolling farm land, on which the fences were in good order, and showed but few traces of the hand of war.” Another, writing on January 3, admired the “rich plantations.” These letters appeared in hometown newspapers in mid-January, just as Colonel Ingalls wrote his letter citing the devastation found in King George County. The contrast between the three letters speaks to just how quickly an army could despoil an area.
Confirming the colonel’s observation regarding the slave population, one of the soldiers noted the county had, “until recently [been] rich in slaves; unfortunately for the planters, this… chattel has nearly disappeared since our army occupied the territory, and for a week the road has been thronged with contrabands going north. They are poor ignorant specimens of humanity, and he must possess a heart of stone who could not pity their helpless condition.” President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, announced just one week after the 8th Illinois arrived in the county, certainly precipitated the flight of the local slaves. Still, each soldier had to decide for himself exactly how he would personally advance the process of emancipation. When approached by a black man seeking to aid the escape of nineteen other slaves, one soldier determined, “I could do nothing for him. I have never urged a contraband to leave his master, and never shall till we have some better provision for them… I would chuckle over the idea of a rebel losing twenty thousand dollars in a single night and my disposition would naturally incline to showing them the nearest road to a place of security; yet I am sure their condition will not be bettered by leaving their masters, for several years at least.” As he stated, the soldier had little sympathy for the slave-owners. “One young Mademoiselle of ‘sweet sixteen’ awoke yesterday morning, found her servants all vamoosed, and had to dress herself for the first time in her life. Her father,” the soldier reported, “said none of the family had even cooked a meal” before. “If emancipation affects the Virginians thus,” the soldier pondered, “how will it be farther south where the aristocrats are perfect strangers to labor?”
Lt. William Hazelton, however, had no qualms about convincing a young man named Robert to leave Mr. Carolinus Turner’s plantation at Port Conway. Hazelton offered Robert ten dollars a month to “take care of my horses,” and, after checking with his family, Robert agreed. “[Believing] that God created Robert with certain inalienable rights as well as his master, I shall not hesitate to take him along. The slaves,” Hazelton observed, “are continually leaving for our camps… They are hoping and praying that 1863 may prove to them the ‘Year of Jubilee.’” Hazelton wrote this letter on December 28, 1862, mere days before the Emancipation Proclamation became official.
In his next letter, dated January 9, Hazelton answered a question from his future wife. “You ask if on the 1st of January the ‘shackles’ will begin to fall. I should think so. The slaves are beginning to leave these parts by the cart-load! What is to be done with them is a question which I fancy will trouble our government not a little.”
While the Federals employed escaped slaves, or contrabands, as laborers in and around Washington, and had erected some facilities for housing them, many were housed at Fort Monroe, at the end of the Virginia Peninsula, as well as at New Bern, North Carolina. In the spring and summer of 1863, as the housing situation improved and as demands on the labor force at the quartermaster depots in Washington and Alexandria increased, the government chartered vessels to bring many of them back to the capital.
In his letter of January 15, Ingalls had told Meigs, “You may rely on my word, that I will avail myself of every chance to obtain forage and other supplies from the country we may be in.” The Lincoln administration had continued to advance a tougher policy regarding the manner in which the armies prosecuted the war, including the degree to which the soldiers subsisted or foraged upon the land. The local populace resented what they saw as thievery, and small skirmishes erupted from time to time between foraging details and local guerrillas. No official accounts of these affairs have been found, but several soldiers mentioned the conflicts in their letters.
On January 31, according to a trooper in the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, “a foraging party belonging to the 8th Illinois Cavalry was attacked by guerrillas four miles below” Port Conway, on the Rappahannock River. “The guerrillas we find on this peninsula…are citizens, who appear before our officers in lamb-like innocence in the daytime asking guards to protect their property, while at night they saunter forth to bushwhack our men and perhaps betray the guard furnished them. In the case above,” the soldier continued, “individuals whose property was guarded were found to be engaged in the attack on our foragers. But…many of our patriotic officers are found blindly pursuing their old policy of giving aid and comfort to traitors by protecting their property.”
Indeed, every man in the army held a different view as to the manner in which the war should be prosecuted. Lt. Colonel Ingalls believed in foraging heavily upon the land to relieve the over-burdened supply system, while army commander Ambrose Burnside held to the early view of protecting civilian property as much as possible. The Indianan quoted above sided with Ingalls. “The cavalry brigade now doing duty here is under the strictest orders not to interfere with private property,” the trooper wrote. “Certainly the time has come for a change in the treatment of disloyal citizens. Justice too highly tempered with mercy is injustice to the country and those sustaining the war.”
In all likelihood, winter weather, rather than developing government policy, led to the letters passed between Meigs and Ingalls, and I will examine the effect of winter weather on the supply situation in the near future.
The 8th Illinois left King George in mid-February. “A pleasant time we had in King George,” one wrote. “The citizens who looked upon us as ruthless vandals and monsters at first, were, they said, greatly disappointed [at our leaving], treated us with due respect, and expressed [their] regret we should leave them in the hands of strangers.” Indeed, the greatest stress felt by the civilians may have been occasioned by the rotation of Union troops and the necessity of learning the whims and policies of the men in each regiment to occupy the county.
Not all of the inter-actions between soldiers and civilians had been unpleasant. DeGrass Dean, Company K, 8th Illinois, had been stationed at Berry Plain, the home of John and Virginia Dickinson. As he prepared to depart, Dean left a note for Mrs. Dickinson. “We have just received orders that we were to be relieved from duty here and I have no time to bid you adieu only by note. I am thankful to you for your kindness to me while I have been doing picket duty on your farm, I hope you will receive my thanks and though an enemy to your country yet remember me as a friend.”
Documents from the National Archives
Documents provided by Joan Poland
Peter G. Beidler, The Civil War Letters of William Cross Hazelton of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry Regiment