Hard War in Virginia during the Civil War


Hard war describes the systematic and widespread destruction of Confederate civilians’ property at the hands of Union soldiers in the final two years of the American Civil War (1861–1865). At the war’s beginning, the dominant thinking of Union generals Winfield Scott and George B. McClellan had emphasized conciliation. They believed that the war should be fought in a way that encouraged Unionism in the South and did not preclude a peace short of overwhelming casualties. Repeated Union military failures in Virginia in 1861 and 1862, however, led to hard-war policies aimed at crushing civilians’ will to resist, as well as their ability to deliver services and supplies to the Confederate armies. In Virginia, hard war was practiced by Union generals David Hunter and Philip H. Sheridan during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. Although Union soldiers practiced more restraint than legend or the Lost Cause credits them for, the Valley was largely burned and many of its residents made refugees. Confederate generals Jubal A. Early and John A. McCausland retaliated that same year during raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania, but opportunities for a Confederate hard war were few.

Strategy of Conciliation

The term “hard war” was popularized by the historian Mark Grimsley in The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865 (1995); it was not a term popular during the Civil War. In fact, early in the war, the emphasis was on hard war’s opposite: conciliation. United States president Abraham Lincoln and other Northern politicians were not convinced that secessionist sentiment was widespread in the South. Instead, they believed that the secession of Virginia and the other Confederate states had been driven by elite slave owners, or what they called the “slave-power conspiracy.” These powerful and vocal secessionists distracted from what some Northerners believed to be a widespread but dormant Southern Unionism. A war strategy that resulted in unnecessary casualties or destruction of property would only alienate these Unionists and make peace more difficult to achieve. While politics were a concern behind the Union’s initial “mild-war” strategy, so were legal complications provoked by the war. Confederate officials saw the conflict as being waged between two independent nations, but Union officials defined it as an internal insurrection. As such, they felt bound to treat Confederates as U.S. citizens and therefore deserving of certain rights under the U.S. Constitution, including the protection of their private property.

A strategy of conciliation only made sense in the context of Union battlefield victories. Winfield Scott, the Union general-in-chief at the war’s beginning, devised his so-called Anaconda Plan with conciliation in mind. Union troops would take all necessary time to train and equip, and then mass in such numbers against Confederates that a full-scale battle would probably be unnecessary. “The South must be made to feel full respect for the power and honor of the North,” a letter writer in the New York Times explained in 1861; “she must be humbled, but not debased by a forfeiture of self-respect.” The problem was that this deliberative approach to the war clashed with a public sentiment that demanded that the Union army march on Richmond immediately.

The result was disaster at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, followed by the failure of the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days’ Battles in the spring of 1862. Despite Union success in western Virginia, which motivated Unionists there, the strategy of conciliation was called into question. Meanwhile, guerrilla warfare in many areas—particularly Missouri—threatened the prevailing assumption that Confederate civilians would remain passive in the face of Union armies. For the time being, however, Union retaliation was limited.

Move toward Hard War

General John Pope

The commander of the Army of the Potomac, Union general George B. McClellan, fought with restraint on the Peninsula and in the Seven Days’ Battles, mindful of the possibilities of conciliation. But Lincoln wanted a more aggressive approach and brought John Pope east to Virginia and put him in charge of the new Army of Virginia. On July 18, 1862, he issued his General Orders No. 5, which directed his men to “subsist upon the country.” His General Orders No. 7, issued later in the same month, held civilians who lived in vicinity of guerrilla attacks responsible for the damages those attacks incurred. This marked a clear shift away from McClellan and toward a new, hard-war strategy, provoking Confederate general Robert E. Lee famously to call Pope a “miscreant.”

Ironically, it was a McClellan victory that sounded the death-knell for a conciliatory war strategy. Pope was trounced by Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at the Second Battle of Manassas late in August 1862, and McClellan was restored to the primary command in the East. On September 17, he defeated Lee at the Battle of Antietam, forcing Lee out of Maryland and back into Virginia. Soon after, Lincoln released the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on January 1, 1863, enslaved African Americans in the Confederate states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” By striking at the heart of the Confederate economy while seeming to confirm Confederate fears that he had always wanted to destroy their “peculiar institution,” Lincoln ended any real opportunity for conciliation. The war would now need to be won by brute force.

In the meantime, Union officials were taking steps to articulate the legal boundaries of their armies’ conduct. In 1862, Union general Henry W. Halleck, working in the War Department, consulted with Francis Lieber on issues ranging from how to handle guerrillas to how to treat prisoners of war. Lieber was a German-born political scientist at Columbia College in New York. Although critical of secession, he had lived and taught in South Carolina for two decades, and had even owned slaves. Lieber published Guerrilla Parties Considered with Reference to the Laws and Usages of War (1862) before working on a full-fledged code of war—the first of its kind in the world—published first as A Code for the Government of Armies (1863), and then revised the same year as Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field, issued by the War Department as General Orders No. 100. (Lieber referred to the work as the “old hundred.”)

Lieber’s code was adopted by Germany in 1870 and influenced the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. It did not, however, prove adequate for the needs of Union troops in Virginia during the Civil War. Lieber argued for important restraints on armies in the field. For instance, officers must be held responsible for their actions, even when following orders, and armies should be prohibited from the “wanton destruction” of nonmilitary resources. Lieber’s insistence that “military necessity” might excuse the very actions his code prohibited, however, made it a sometimes frustrating and ambiguous blueprint for military behavior.

Military necessity, Lieber wrote, “allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; [and] of the appropriation of whatever an enemy’s country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the army.” Rather than constrain hard war, such language helped to make it possible.

Hard War in the Shenandoah Valley

In 1864, Union hard-war policies in Virginia focused on the Shenandoah Valley. Union officials hoped to destroy the ability of Confederate forces to use the Valley as a corridor of invasion and a source of food and supplies. They also hoped to cause a negative impact on Confederate morale by attacking such a potent symbol as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” Early in June 1864, as Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant battled Lee around Cold Harbor, the Army of the Shenandoah under Union general David Hunter arrived in the Valley. Its main target was the railroad junction at Lynchburg, but as the Union troops marched south, they burned whatever lay in their path.

Virginia Military Institute After Hunter's Raid

On June 11, Hunter shelled Lexington and, against the objections of his own officers, ordered the Virginia Military Institute burned. Hunter’s men also ransacked Washington College and burned the home of former governor John Letcher, who had issued a proclamation encouraging citizens to embrace guerrilla warfare. Lexington residents were outraged and condemned “Black Dave” Hunter and his men. “Our community has suffered greatly,” one of the town’s residents wrote in her diary. “Many were robbed of almost every mouthful of food and every piece of apparel.” The worst was yet to come, however.

Lee dispatched Jubal Early and the newly created Army of the Valley to defend the Valley, while Grant charged Philip Sheridan with battling Early. More than that, however, Sheridan operated under Grant’s previous orders to Hunter “to eat out Virginia clear and clean … so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.” What resulted has come to be called “The Burning.” For nearly two weeks Sheridan’s cavalry, numbering approximately 5,000 horsemen, laid waste to Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Page counties in one of the war’s most notorious examples of hard-war practices. A later message from Grant solemnly reinforced Sheridan’s mission: “If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” He specified, however, that the private homes and properties of widows, single women, and orphans were not to be damaged, and Sheridan generally complied. His primary goal, after all, was to defeat Early. Hard war served as a means to that end by demoralizing Confederate civilians in the Valley, as well as denying Early’s forces the ability to live off the land.

Sheridan’s men did not always exercise restraint. On October 3, 1864, as Union forces moved through Harrisonburg, Confederate scouts shot and killed Union lieutenant John Meigs. Believing that local residents, and not Confederate partisans, were responsible for the killing, Sheridan ordered the small village of Dayton, along with every house within a five-mile radius, burned. The following day, on October 4, Sheridan rescinded the order to burn Dayton, but directed the 5th New York Cavalry to burn the surrounding area as originally instructed. This was the sort of small-scale destruction that tended to accompany guerrilla warfare, and indiscriminate destruction in Virginia never surpassed this scale.

By mid-October Sheridan had largely accomplished his mission of destroying the Valley. He reported the destruction of more than 2,000 barns, 70 mills, 3 iron furnaces, and several railroad buildings. Union troops had systematically destroyed thousands of bushels of wheat, oats, corn, and various other plantings and had herded away thousands of sheep and cattle. An area newspaper, the Staunton Vindicator, proclaimed that Sheridan’s troops had “behaved with their characteristic vandalism, insulting women, stealing, plundering, and burning.”

With the onset of winter weather, Valley residents struggled to survive. Many became refugees, loading themselves and what was left of their belongings onto wagons and riding north from Harrisonburg. To what extent Sheridan’s raid caused Valley residents and Virginians more generally to lose faith in the war effort is a matter of debate. Considerable evidence suggests that Sheridan’s hard-war tactics failed to cause Valley residents to lose hope, but instead increased their loyalty to the Confederacy and the effort to defeat “barbarian Yankees.”

Sherman’s March

As Sheridan left Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley ablaze, Union general William T. Sherman implemented hard-war policies in the Deep South with his “March to the Sea.” On November 14, 1864, after the surrender of Atlanta, Georgia, Sherman promised Grant that he could “make Georgia howl.” With the general-in-chief’s permission, Sherman’s army of 60,000 marched to Savannah, Georgia, and then turned north toward South Carolina, leaving behind a 60-mile-wide path of destruction. Union soldiers burned thousands of miles of railroad track—they tore them up and bent them into “Sherman neckties”—and confiscated or destroyed millions of pounds of corn, cotton, and other food stuffs.

Confederate Hard War

Confederate forces found few opportunities to strike at Union civilians and property. On July 11–12, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign, Jubal Early ordered his men to sack an ironworks at New Caledonia, Pennsylvania, owned by the Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens. The following summer, Early’s Army of the Valley invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania and demanded ransoms from the towns of Hagerstown and Frederick in Maryland. After demonstrating outside of Washington, D.C., Early’s cavalry, commanded by John McCausland, entered Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. There the Confederates demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in United States currency. On July 30, when residents failed to produce the funds, McCausland’s men burned the town.

In this case, Early saw hard war not as a specific means to defeat the enemy, but as a kind of just desserts. “A number of towns in the South, as well as private country houses, had been burned by the Federal troops” in the Shenandoah Valley, he remarked. “I now came to the conclusion that … it was time to open the eyes of the people of the North to its enormity, by an example in the way of retaliation.”

In the end, Union hard-war policies were far removed from the more conciliatory strategy that began the war. They were developed as a means to bring the war to Confederates more aggressively by attempting to deny them the products of the land and the benefits of good morale. Still, as the historian Mark Grimsley has noted, Grant and Halleck did not see hard war as an innovative policy but simply as an exaggeration and intensification of the foraging and destruction that naturally followed in the wake of armies. And for the most part Union troops exercised restraint and targeted property rather than people. Postwar stories of “Yankees” committing murder and rape were largely untrue, serving to demonize the North and justify defeat.

May 19, 1864
Union general David Hunter assumes command of the Army of the Shenandoah.
June 11, 1864
Union troops under the command of David Hunter shell the Shenandoah Valley town of Lexington.
June 12, 1864
At Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley, Union general David Hunter orders the burning of the Virginia Military Institute, former governor John Letcher's house, and parts of Washington College.
July 30, 1864
When the citizens of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, cannot produce the demanded ransom, Confederate general John A. McCausland burns the town.
August 7, 1864
Union general Philip H. Sheridan arrives at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to assume command of the Army of the Shenandoah.
September 25, 1864
Union troops under Philip H. Sheridan arrive in Harrisonburg, in the Shenandoah Valley.
September 26, 1864
Union forces begin "The Burning," destroying crops, barns, and mills in Augusta County, which lasts for nearly two weeks.
October 3, 1864
Union lieutenant John Meigs is shot by Confederate scouts near Dayton, in the Shenandoah Valley. To retaliate, Union general Philip H. Sheridan orders the town and surrounding area burned.
October 4, 1864
Union general Philip H. Sheridan reconsiders his order to burn the Shenandoah Valley town of Dayton, but instructs the 5th New York Cavalry to burn the surrounding area as originally ordered.
October 9, 1864
Union troops under Philip H. Sheridan end their campaign of destruction throughout the Shenandoah Valley—what has come to be called "The Burning"—by defeating Confederate forces under Jubal A. Early at the Battle of Tom's Brook.
November 15, 1864
Union general William T. Sherman captures Atlanta, Georgia. Union forces now prepare for their "March to the Sea."
December 21, 1864
Union troops under William T. Sherman occupy Savannah, Georgia, and Sherman presents the city as a Christmas gift to President Abraham Lincoln.
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  • Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865. Cambridge: University Press, 1995.
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
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  • Royster, Charles. The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Sutherland, Daniel. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
APA Citation:
Murray, Jennifer. Hard War in Virginia during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/hard-war-in-virginia-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Murray, Jennifer. "Hard War in Virginia during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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