Rationalizing Destruction, December 1862

From John Hennessy:        I have been working through sources related to the bombardment and looting of Fredericksburg. It’s been an interesting journey that’s carried me to some surprising conclusions (none flattering to anyone). I have come across many accounts that offer explanations or justifications for the looting of the town, and I wanted to share one of the most vivid of those. For those who think the Civil War was a war devoid of bitterness, read this. And imagine too the reaction of Southern civilians to such destruction.
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This letter is from Chaplain John Morris of the 8th Connecticut. Most importantly, it was written on December 12, 1862, as the looters did their work.

The scene at the intersection of Caroline and William Streets.

“Just retribution has really been meted out to Fredericksburg. The property of notorious and pernicious rebels has really been destroyed or used up for the advantage of the Union. Rebel houses from which white flags have been displayed one week and the next have been freely thrown open to shelter rebels for the murder of pickets, have really been demolished and burned….I do not regret that the rebels lose, but that value so immense has been wasted….I trust that this punishment will prove salutary to [the] people of Fredericksburg and of many other places where equal duplicity, treachery and barbarity have been displayed—so salutary that it will not need to be repeated.”
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Chaplain Morris’s outstanding letter appeared in the December 20, 1862 issue of the New Haven Palladium. If  you are interested in reading the whole thing, you can find it here.

7 thoughts on “Rationalizing Destruction, December 1862

  1. I am reminded of an episode, three years and 400 miles removed, in Columbia, SC. From the 1st Missouri Engineer’s history, writing of the burning of Colubmia: “It was at this time that some of our First Missouri Engineers, who had their homes and families despoiled in the region of Rolla, Missouri, gathered in bunches of this burning cotton and flung it down in various houses, as a slight revenge on the Confederates for their cruelty. ”

    As the war progressed, the soldiers saw less and less of the boundaries in this regard.

  2. It’s interesting that five years later when Morris published his history of Connecticut during the Civil War he included a segment of his letter but also referred to (although I think it was actually his co-author writing here) that the event was “atrocious and brutal” and added that it represented “inevitable vandalism that marches with the conqueror.”

  3. Mr Hennessy- why would you describe the chaplain’s letter as outstanding ? This is only a piece of documentary evidence of crimes against civilians in war before the laws of warfare were codified.

    Jim Garrett

    • Jim: I have looked at literally hundreds of sources that relate to the looting of Fredericksburg. Many provide important details that make clear the nature of those days–probably the worst days in Fredericksburg’s history. Others tell us very little indeed about the event, which was unusual, and perhaps unique, in the history of our nation. Very few of them speak to the motivations of those who looted or stole or provide some sense of moral judgment on what happened. Those sources that do are particularly valuable in our efforts to understand that event. Morris’s letter is one, and particularly descriptive and clear. When measured against other primary sources available to us, it is indeed outstanding.

      Other Union soldiers saw the looting in decidedly different terms. Here, for example, is another source I would consider “outstanding”–a letter from Col. John Wilkins of the 3d US Infantry, who found the looting to be a horror. He wrote this letter on December 18:

      “I am ashamed to be considered an officer belonging to it. Such wholesale, unnecessary destruction, I have never seen….My heart felt sick when I thought that in these very places a few weeks before families were living happily and will return to find their homes and hearths desolated beyond recovery. Its effect on the enemy will be still greater, for if they were not embittered before, the sight of that city, is enough to make them fight like tigers in defense of their own homes, now threatened with a similar fate. How it happened and who are responsible I know not but somebody did it for I saw it.”

      Here is another outstanding couple of sources that speak to the bitterness engendered by the war and the presence of the Union army. https://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/the-other-side-of-swisshelms-rage-confederate-women-and-the-hated-yankees-and-calculations-to-preserve-home/

      As for the question of whether the laws of war had been codified: Certainly that was true on an international level, but in fact the conventions of war were largely understood by both sides, embodied (in the US) in both the Articles of War (adopted by Congress in 1806) and in a treatise by General-in-Chief of the US Army, Henry Halleck, International Law: Rules Regulating the Intercourse of States in Peace and War (published 1861). Just months after Fredericksburg, the Federal government would issue general orders embodying the “Lieber Code,” which formally institutionalized rules of war. All of those documents addressed the issue of pillage and looting, and both Lieber and Halleck recognized that intensified bitterness and resistance would be the likely outcome of the sort of behavior that took place at Fredericksburg. They were both right.

      John H.

      • I have no idea what the primary source for this might be, but in the description provided with John Paul Strain’s “After the Storm,” a depiction of Stonewall Jackson and some of his staff on horseback standing in the intersection of today’s William and Princess Anne Streets, surveying the damage left by the Union soldiers, the undesired reaction described by Mr. Hennessy above is presented again:

        “By the 16th, Confederate troops reoccupied Fredericksburg. Later as Jackson and his staff rode through the city their anger was aroused by the extent of the ruthless vandalism. A staff officer commented on how thoroughly the Federals had taken the town apart and asked, “What can we do?” “Do?” replied Jackson, “Why, shoot them!””


  4. Theron: the source of the quote cited for the Strain painting is Hunter McGuire, who recounted the conversation in a couple of his writings. The conversation did not take place on Princess Anne Street in front of Town Hall, but rather in Jackson’s camp. Here is the full version:

    “A sad incident of the battle of Fredericksburg stirred him very deeply. As we stood that night at our camp, waiting for some one to take our horses, he looked up at the sky for a moment and said, “How horrible is war!” I replied, ” Yes, horrible, but what can we do? These people at the North, without any warrant of law, have invaded our country, stolen our property, insulted our defenceless women, hung and imprisoned our helpless old men, behaved in many cases like an organized band of cutthroats and robbers. What can we do?” “Do,” he answered, and his voice was ringing, “Do; why shoot them.””

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