War crimes in the Shenandoah
Published in the June 15th,1890 issue of the Helena [Montana] Independent.This is part of a much longer article pulled out by me because it contained reference to Colonel John S. Mosby whom the doctor does his best to “blame” for the “necessity” of burning the Shenandoah. I left that reference out, including only what is written about that atrocity.
At last General Grant got tired of the scandal of the Shenandoah Valley. It was then that he issued his famous order to Sheridan here published for the first time: “Burn the valley and leave it in such a condition that a crow flying over and wanting to live must carry his rations with him.” This order, said the surgeon, was repeated to me word for word by the surgeon in the Maryland Heights hospital, who heard Grant give the order to Sheridan. I give it literally, just as it came from his mouth, just as he said it came from the mouth of Grant, word for word. Some people in the south have foolishly supposed that the burning of the valley was Phil Sheridan’s doings. It is utterly without foundation in fact. Sheridan would not have taken upon himself the responsibility of such an act. It was the act of Grant.
Preparations were immediately made to carry out this terrible order. I was one of the burning party. I had met Mosby three times. Once at Snicker’s gap. Once about twelve miles above Snicker’s gap and once near Hallstown, where John Brown was hung.
I know all that took place at that time along the line of march. It was a scene that no man who saw ever forgot. We began at Harper's Ferry and we burnt the valley clean down to Lynchburg. The night before the order from Grant to Sheridan actually reached us, although we were ordered to be ready to begin the burning early next morning and knew that it was on the way, the boys got on a grand spree. Some whiskey had got into the camp somehow, and contrary to orders they had got hold of it. That night at midnight they burned Gov. Letcher’s fine mansion. It was the first house burned in the valley. There was no one in the house. The servants, negroes, horses and most of the costly furniture had gone, but there were still some things of value left. The people about the place had taken the warning given to them and precipitately fled. They set fire to the stately edifice with torches.
The flames as they rose up to the roof shed a fierce, strange, nocturnal splendor on the tops of the tall palmettos and threw living gleams or portent light on the ample lawn. The Shenandoah Rangers, for such we still were, then formed a circle from a part of their number about the fated house, and the “blue devils” danced and shouted and sung in the yellow light, as they took hold of hands, with hoarse, wild voices until, at last, the splendid old mansion toppled and crashed down into a mass of charred, unsightly ruins. I took no part in that transaction, thank Heaven! The burning of that valley had begun. For days and days we swept slowly down the trend of the lovely valley, waving with its white Tascarora dint corn, every stalk eighteen feet high, and every ear twenty-five inches long and twelve inches around. We burned every hut, every cabin, every working man’s house, every splendid manor, every tobacco factory, every shop, every building of any kind from mountain range to mountain rage. We burned away the trees, the shrubberies, the beautiful landscape gardens and groves, and left that lovely valley a charred waste of blighted scenes and blackened stumps.
If there was a single thing overlooked by the soldiers on the way down, it was burned on the way back. The valley was shrouded in gloom, For weeks a black, heavy pall of smoke hung over it so thick you could see the sun through it.
One of the most pathetic natural results of the burning of the valley was the varied sound of the bird-songs in the burnt district. The nests of these birds had all been burned up in the trees and shrubbery where they had built and brooded. Their songs, once so happy and cheerful were now notably sad, querulous and dejected. Human being could not have keened more sorrowfully a wake for the dead. Their broods were burned up. Formerly in the valley when the bugle sounded its different calls, as for example: “Boots and saddles,” the “reveille,” there were birds who in [illegible] tones seemed to mock back mirthfully the sound of the sergeant bugler. The Virginia cardinal with his military air, his fierce pointed crest, his aristocratic step and his bloodstained regimentals, a true F. F. V., mocked back the roll call with measured count. The mocking bird was all about and said a good many things over after the soldiers. The red thrush along the edge of the wood was facetious at every turn. But on the way back after the burning the songs of these birds, such of them as were left or lingered about still looking for their dead, had changed to inexpressible sadness. The notes of one bird in particular show name I do not know, who formerly imitated very cleverly the silver songs of the bugle in its joyous calls, now repeated over and over again in a soft summoning tone a strain of minor music which sounded not unlike the “sick call” of the bugle. The birds were as human as those people of the valley in bewailing their loss. These birds hung about the fringes of the mountain sides and rivers.
One morning, while I was dressing a wound a surgeon came to me and said: “if you want to see something you’ll never forget, come with me.”
I rose and went out of the building with him. Suddenly I stopped as a scene stretched before me that was simply appalling. In a space that spread out over an area of probably eighty or a hundred acres were huddled together in every posture, condition, phase of abject human misery, the refugees from the charred district. They had been burned out of house and home, and in their utter helplessness they had turned their steps toward the north, and sought succor from the very men who had lit their ruins with their own hands. It was an autumn day. A flurry of snow was falling. Soon it fell in sleet and froze as it fell, crusting the hands and faces of the crowd and sealing misery with the coldness of the sepulcher. There, side by side, huddled in indiscriminate promiscuity of condition, were negroes of all ages, from the little black child at its mother’s breast to the buxom mulatto or the aged trembling slave with both hands clasped in prayer. There, seated on the ground, under the open firmament, were young girls who had never washed a handkerchief, and delicate ladies who were the first daughters of the south. They had there all kinds of vehicles from the mud-spattered old carryall to the elegant drag with its gaunt horse and lank coach-dogs. Some were crying, some were praying, some wailing, some moaning, some sleeping, some staring wildly about as if in the dementia of an ill-starred dream, some sick and some dying, and nothing over them but the roof of the firmament. But all of them were hungry, all were cold, all were homeless.
And yet there was pride in all that misery, and none moved about so quietly, so resolutely, so defiantly under that leaden sky as those delicate, high-born southern ladies. The northern ladies did all they could for them. They lent them their tents. They started cook houses. They spread cots and mattresses on the ground for them to sleep on. They brought them the best fare they could on which they themselves had to subsist, but at best it was poor enough. Raw port, hard tack and hominy on tin plates. This was the bill of fare. The only courses on that broad table at that banquet of doom were the water courses of the rain. At last these people were all given a free pass on the Baltimore & Ohio railroad to go as far as they chose east or west and a few dollars in money and three days’ rations in the haversack for each. Slowly that vast and strange crowd thinned out and faded away. But the scenes and the savings beggar description. One elegant lady on being handed her pass and begged to go as she moved toward the train with her little child clasped in her arms said: “Go? Where shall I go? I may go to the end of the road, but what then? My home was in the valley. My people are all gone.”