Was Gen. David Hunter the same man in ’64 as in ’63?

Posted on June 10, 2013 by

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Blogging pal Craig Swain’s post today caught my eye… well, actually, all it probably took was to see “Shenandoah Valley” in the title. :)

Gen. David Hunter

Gen. David Hunter

Anyway, after another excellent post about Gen. David Hunter’s activities on the Georgia coast (since, we are right there, time-wise, in the Sesqui of those events) he asks an excellent question…

This comes from the same man who would, almost to a year later to the day, also order the burning of the Virginia Military Institute. And a whole lot more. Did Hunter’s interpretation of the Lieber Code change in the span of a year? Or was the destruction at VMI just a continuation of the practice he set on the coast? Likewise did Hunter legitimize the “rice bowl” and the “bread basket” as targets in the same manner? And how do we reconcile the differing perceptions of Lay and Hunter with respect to the conventions of war?

Why do I find this a particularly good question? Well, from a Shenandoah Valley-centric point of view, and knowing how Hunter is seen in “memory” in the Valley, I think those who get wrapped-up in Hunter’s activities consider him “in a vacuum”. He didn’t simply touch-down in the Valley and reap a whirlwind of destruction. I even think that some folks merge “memory” of Hunter with that of Phil Sheridan. The point is… take a look at what Hunter did along the Georgia coast, in 1863… and then in the Shenandoah Valley, in 1864.

As opposed to ’63, I think Hunter gave fair warning… and with guerillas nipping at his heels, for good reason. I think it is best illustrated beginning with Newtown… aka Stephens City. I think it shows that Hunter was thinking more along the lines as an “eye for an eye” type of guy. William H. Beach, from the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, recalled…

At 8:30 the next morning [May 26, 1864] the march began. the entire force was about fifteen thousand. An empty wagon train was started back. Some houses from which a wagon train had been fired upon were burned. Notice was given that if wagon trains should be attacked, the town nearest the scene of such attack would be burned.

Well, if you know the circumstances, of course you know I have to bring this in… David Hunter Strother also recalled the episode [though, dating the event as May 25]. Strother remembered that, not only that guerillas had fired on the Federals, but that he gave a committee from Newtown a copy of Hunter’s orders, “and told them that vengeance would surely fall upon the country if these robberies and murders continued and that the only way to protect themselves and their innocent neighbors was to indicate to us the guilty persons.”

I’m cutting this story short considerably (I’m sure I’ll go into a lot more depth next year), but… the point is, what I’m seeing is that Hunter didn’t do what he did the spring/summer before, on the Georgia coast… even if we consider his march on Staunton and Lexington. If he still considered himself acting under the Lieber Code, I’d say… he no longer saw it as he had a year before. Additionally, I don’t see the burning of VMI as an extension of his actions in Georgia.

Craig gives us something quite worthwhile to consider when we think of just how bad Hunter’s “burning terror” in the Shenandoah could have actually been. As I mention in the comments over at To the Sound of the Guns… by comparison with Hunter edition 1863, the Hunter of ’64 was restrained. 

 

*This is also timely for another reason. While we are in the middle of the 1863 Sesqui… tomorrow marks 149 years since Hunter reached Lexington. 

 

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