If the shoe was on the other foot… Confederate troops in the North

Posted on July 18, 2008 by


When I read about the “horrors of war” inflicted upon Southerners (most especially civilians) by Union troops, I wonder what stories would have come out of the war if the Confederate army spent more time on “Northern soil.” But then, why wonder when what little time they spent there was documented… with atrocities.

Yes, I’m well aware of the orders issued by Gen. Robert E. Lee to his troops as they crossed into Maryland in September 1862 and Pennsylvania in June and July 1863. However, because Lee issued the orders doesn’t mean that all soldiers complied (and so it goes regarding Union troops in the South).

However, I think the one story that strikes me the most on this issue is the one about the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Just as in the South, there are stories about atrocities inflicted upon the civilian population. Some bear merit and some are exagerated. As an example, there is the story about the burning as related by A.K. McClure (available on the Valley of the Shadow site). McClure relates some facts, but when writing the story he was clearly unaware of the facts regarding Gen. Bradley T. Johnson’s intent (or maybe McClure was simply expressing his anger, even years after the event, as a civilian having been witness to the destruction of his town). In fact, Johnson was not at all vindictive in carrying out the burning of Chambersburg, but was appalled at the conduct of the Confederate soldiers (despite the fact that the act was in retaliation for the burning of Lexington, Virginia, Johnson still saw the necessity of maintaining order and discipline; a professional military action as opposed to a disorderly mob).

In Johnson’s report of August 10, 1864 , he wrote, “It is due to myself and the cause I serve to remark on the outrageous conduct of the troops on this expedition. This duty I informed Gen. McCausland I should perform during the expedition itself. Every crime in the catalogue of infamy has been committed, I believe, except murder and rape. Highway robbery of watches and pocket-books was of ordinary occurrence; the taking of breast-pins, finger-rings, and earrings frequently happened. Pillage and sack of private dwellings took place hourly. A soldier of an advance guard robbed of his gold watch the Catholic clergyman of Hancock on his way from church on Sunday, July 31, in the publish steeds.”

Chambersburg in ruins after the burning by Confederate soldiersYou can read the rest of the report for more details about the “crimes” (remember, Johnson himself identified these actions in exactly this manner) comitted against civilians… to include atrocities against Northern women and children. I have to also note here that, while Johnson had a lot to say about the darker actions of Confederate soldiers in this event, not all soldiers were zealous in their actions. In fact, one Chambersburg resident (Jacob Hoke) recalled that while some Confederate soldiers “seemed to be as Demons from the infernal pit” other Confederate soldiers “were sorely distressed by what they had been ordered to do…” Indeed, the same could be said of Union soldiers operating in the South. Some carried-out crimes with zeal and passion fueled with hate, while others were reluctant to partner in said activities. Even more importantly, we have a substantial number of stories about the kindness of civilians, North and South, to soldiers from the other side… as well as kind acts from soldiers to civilians.

So, in short, if some Confederate soldiers, acting not in the “bummer-style” of some of Sherman’s men, but as a commanded body of men, were capable of atrocities such as this in a fraction of the war, what would have happened had the Confederate army acted for greater periods of time in the North? Really, it’s a rhetorical question, but worthy of academic discussion… examining the actions of soldiers with a sustained presence on “enemy soil.” The point of this is, however, to show once again that many continue to retain imbalanced “memories of the war.” There are those who remain incapable of believing that a Confederate soldier could, by his actions, be compared to a Union soldier.

*For more to consider in regard to Confederate activities in the North, continue reading here.