Foraging and Looting

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Foraging and Looting

The practice of foraging by military personnel increased exponentially during the course of the American Civil War. At the outset of the conflict, Rebel and Yankee soldiers alike mostly viewed the civilian populations in North and South—and the property they owned—as firmly outside the sphere of military action. As the war progressed, however, these restrictions on contact with civlians—some self-imposed on moral grounds, others in adherence to explicit military rules prohibiting foraging and looting—became frayed and in many cases were discarded altogether.

There are very important differences between foraging and looting. Foraging was sanctioned by the laws and customs of war, although it was approached with some squeamishness at the beginning of the war. Looting involved taking non-food items for non-military uses, and was sanctioned neither by the laws and customs of war nor by officers on either side. This gradual turn to foraging and looting was especially true of Union soldiers operating in the Confederate states, where most of the war was fought. This is not to say that Union soldiers were the only culpable party; Confederates were no less likely to forage and loot, given the opportunity. In the South, however, the Union army faced shifting attitudes about war strategy and increased frustration about perceived civilian culpability in guerrilla activity that prompted an outright embrace of looting and foraging.

Foraging in the Countryside

Food was the first area in which soldiers engaged in large-scale theft from civilians. In its earliest stages, the practice of "living off the land" as a way of supplementing meager and unvaried commissary rations was done lightly and with an almost quaint concern for propriety and ethics. For example, soldiers in both armies freely picked apples, pears, cherries, and other fruit from trees they passed while on the march, but they were less sanguine about consuming field crops because they knew that production of the latter was directly due to the exertions of farmers and farmhands. The same ethical issues confronted soldiers who came across cellars and smokehouses containing private food stores. Because many soldiers came from rural circumstances themselves, they knew the long, hot hours that went into raising field crops and filling storage cellars and smokehouses, and the thought of absconding with the fruits of those labors troubled many a conscience.

Over time, however, the attitudes of many soldiers toward supplementing their diet with food found on the march changed markedly. Food rations from the military commissaries of both armies were notoriously meager, of limited variety, and wretched in taste, and soldiers who had been choking down hardtack and salt pork for weeks at a time understandably were tempted by the livestock, fruit, and vegetables that they came across in enemy territory. Once individual members of a company or regiment crossed an ethical line by taking food from civilians for their own consumption, the behavior almost inevitably spread to other members of the company or regiment, like a fast-spreading virus.

Another one of the key elements in the institutionalization of foraging within military units was gaining approval—or at least tacit acceptance—of the practice from officers. Many enlisted men accomplished this by implicating officers as beneficiaries of their predation. Officers who received and kept a portion of the bounty from foraging expeditions were in no position to rein in the practice. As accomplices, their main concern was to maintain appearances. As a result, some officers who were "on the take" engaged in elaborate charades in which they publicly exhorted troops in their charge to kept their hands off private property, then waited in their tents for soldiers to bring them their share of the spoils.

Lee in the North

The two major occasions on which Confederate forces had the opportunity to forage at length came in 1862 and 1863, when General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) led invasions into Maryland and Pennsylvania. During both these campaigns, some Southern voices urged Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to be an apocalyptic force laying bare Northern hearths and fields. The Richmond Dispatch, for instance, expressed a fervent wish that Rebel "troops will turn the whole country into a desert" (Royster 1991, p. 37).

Some Confederate forces refrained from foraging, and Lee himself took pains to use Confederate currency to procure salt and other important supplies. But proud Rebel declarations that all private property in the North was treated with the utmost respect were demonstrably false. Many prosperous farmers across Pennsylvania—as well as some who were not so prosperous—were raided by Rebel parties in 1862 and 1863, and Lee was forced to issue a formal injunction against foraging after it became clear to him and his lieutenants that plundering of civilian property was threatening to get out of hand. Despite his order, seizure and destruction of Northern food and property continued. As scholar Edwin B. Cod-dington wrote in The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, "writing confidentially in their letters or diaries and later in memoirs, Southerners mentioned not only thefts of horses but of other kinds of property as well…. One soldier noted in his diary that nearly half the men in his regiment were out foraging" (Codding-ton 1997, p. 177).

Yankees in the South

Early Union campaigns into Confederate territory likewise were marked by unauthorized foraging, but these transgressions were initially carried out by only a minority of soldiers. Many Federal regiments and companies actively enforced rules against foraging with systems of fines and other punishments, and a number of them actually assigned soldiers to guard Rebel property from foragers. Some Union officers actively worked to stamp out foraging as late as the summer of 1864. And of course many Yankee soldiers refused to engage in foraging at any time during the war despite their comrades' actions, usually because they found the practice to be both morally indefensible and personally degrading.

Formal rules and moral qualms about foraging began to erode in some parts of the Union Army as early as mid-1862, however. The lifting of restrictions on foraging gladdened the hearts of many Yankee soldiers. In July 1862, for example, a Union soldier in the Army of Virginia expressed delight when the army's new commander, General John Pope (1822–1892), issued orders permitting foraging and ending guarding of Rebel property.

Guarding of the property of the rebels has been the greatest Curse to us in this army that could have been thought of for the men had got so mad about it that a good many of them did not care whether they did anything or not…. The soldiers begin to think that we are going to have war in earnest and that we are to be supported by the Government and that no false notions of mercy are to save the scoundrels that have caused this war. (Mitchell 1988, p. 139)

Indeed, rank-and-file Yankees realized early on that destruction of food and other provisions far behind enemy lines had the potential to be deeply injurious to supply-starved Rebel armies in the field.

Union foraging, though, quickly took on a darker hue, deteriorating into outright looting, vandalism, and destruction of Confederate property. In some cases, military considerations merely served as a pretext for engaging in vicious or heartless behavior. Factors driving this turn by Union troops toward wanton theft of jewelry and other valuables and indiscriminate arson against homes and fields included mounting frustration and disillusionment with the war, heightened anger and concern about guerrilla activity by Southern civilians, and rationalizations that soldiers deserved some spoils of war, given the hardships and dangers that they were enduring. In numerous cases, Union troops attacked Confederate property with implacable fury. One Union soldier with the Army of the Potomac recalled the pillaging of a stately plantation in December 1862: "What the troops could not use they demolished; the men smashed mirrors, fine china and alabaster vases; mutilated books, paintings and embroidered draperies; and chopped up antique furniture for firewood" (Thomas 1990, p. 194).

Such ceremonies of demolition—sometimes conducted in a strangely festive, carnival-like atmosphere— were not carried out exclusively or even primarily by hardened criminals in uniform. Some of the vandals were God-fearing men from good homes who took pains to explain their behavior in letters to loved ones and personal diaries. "If any of your readers should think that there was too much Vandalism in any of these acts," wrote one Union soldier in an August 1863 letter home,

[L]et them think of the necessity which requires our army to be down here, of the danger to Life and Limb, each one is subject to, besides doing as our brave fellows did, march and fight under a hot sun upon seven or eight hard crackers for two weeks, and do as some of our men actually did, rifle the haversacks of the Dead for food, and give from half a dollar to a dollar for a single cracker! (Mitchell 1988, p. 140)

Defending Home and Hearth

Even the Yankee regiments that most flagrantly marauded the countryside generally followed a set of guidelines governing their behavior. Reported incidents of rape, for instance, were relatively rare. Myriad accounts from both Yankee soldiers and Southern civilians indicate that because abandonment was taken as evidence of treasonous sympathies, abandoned homes and property were treated much more harshly than the homes and property of homeowners who stood fast. Indeed, many Southern homeowners—and especially women whose fathers and husbands were off at war—convinced would-be looters to spare their homes, usually by appealing to their sense of fair play and chivalry.

Southern civilians were usually cognizant of the impending arrival of enemy troops. Some had days to weigh whether to flee or stay and hope for the best. No matter what the decision proved to be, many affluent planters and other homeowners tried to hide their valuables—money, livestock, jewelry, valued heirlooms—from the approaching Yankees. On sizable plantations, elaborate preparations were taken. As one scholar explains:

What supplies were movable were carried off and hidden. When the master did not feel he could trust his slaves, or felt they might be frightened into revealing hiding places, he had to do this work himself, and probably at night. The women decided what to do with jewelry and household valuables and sometimes put on an extra dress and clothed their children with a superfluity of garments—in case the house was burned or garments carried off they would have a change of clothing. The master or the overseer had the stock driven off and horses and mules hidden, and then stood ready to depart himself on short notice…. When there was no white man on the plantation, the woman would try to carry out these measures herself. (Kennett 1995, p. 298)

Sometimes these desperate measures worked. On other occasions, suspicious soldiers relied on intimidation or violence to find out where valuables had been placed or livestock had been taken. Few Southerners subjected to outright terrorism at the hands of enemy soldiers were capable of holding out for long. Moreover, many slaves happily informed Union troops about where their masters' valuables and livestock could be found. In addition, their accounts of deprivation and heartbreak at the hands of slave owners elicited greater levels of destruction from some Yankee units, who cast their acts of arson and other demolition as righteous blows against an ungodly and disloyal people.

Sherman's Hard War

One of the most notorious Union military commanders to officially sanction foraging and destruction of enemy private property was General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888). As chief of cavalry of the Army of the Potomac in the summer and fall of 1864, Sheridan oversaw the annihilation of large swaths of crops in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the so-called "breadbasket of the Confederacy." Sheridan's men destroyed crops, burned houses and barns, and drove off or captured livestock with ruthless efficiency. "The people [of the Shenandoah Valley] must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war," Sheridan famously declared (Hutton 1999, p. 204).

General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891) is another infamously aggresive general who battled through Georgia and the Carolinas in late 1864 and early 1865. During the course of this "March to the Sea," which began in earnest with the burning of Atlanta, Sherman made a reputation for himself as the embodiment of the most ruthless and brutal side of war.

Earlier in the war, Sherman had indicated a profound distaste for visiting war's horrors on civilians. "War at best is barbarism, but to involve all—children, women, old and helpless—is more than can be justified," he stated. "Our men will become absolutely lawless unless they can be checked" (Nevin 1986, p. 117). By the time he arrived on the doorstep of Atlanta in September 1864 with 60,000 troops behind him, his views had changed. "War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it" he wrote in a letter to Atlanta's city leaders:

Those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country…. You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated by pride. We don't want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your lands, or any thing you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and, if it involved the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it. (Simpson 1999, p. 708)

In the same letter, Sherman also made pointed reference to Confederate incidents of foraging and looting in the border states that remained loyal to the Union:

I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands upon thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. (Simpson 1999, p. 708)

Looting and Destruction during the March to the Sea

After leaving Atlanta's factories and public buildings in smoking ruins, Sherman fed and supplied his army by taking whatever he needed from Georgia's farms and towns on his way to the coastal city of Savannah. He also directed his troops to destroy whatever they could not use themselves. "Evidently it is a material element in this campaign to produce among the people of Georgia a thorough conviction of the personal misery which attends war, and of the utter helplessness and inability of their 'rulers,' State or Confederate, to protect them," wrote Major Henry Hitchcock, a member of Sherman's staff. "And I am bound to say that I believe more and more that only by this means can the war be ended" (Nevin 1986, p. 163).

Sherman's own instructions regarding foraging made it clear that Union soldiers had a lot of latitude in terms of what they could take for themselves. The army did establish a basic framework for foraging: Parties were to be organized by brigade commanders and they were to keep on hand a ten-days' supply of meat, vegetables, and other food for soldiers and a three-day ration of forage for horses and mules. But whereas some units followed these guidelines fairly faithfully, others departed from it in sometimes dramatic fashion. For example, Sherman instructed foraging parties to leave some basic foodstuffs and other necessities for civilian families, but these instructions were skirted or ignored in some cases.

When Sherman's army took control of Savannah in December 1864, the city was largely spared from violence and destruction. But when the Union army passed over the Savannah River and into South Carolina—the first state that had seceded from the Union—looting, vandalism, and arson reached new heights. This level of violence and destruction was due in no small measure to soldiers' desire to punish South Carolinians for their rebellious ways. Each night, the skies surrounding the army were alight with homes and fields burning into cinders. Chimneys were often the only thing left standing in the morning, and these charred remains came to be known as "Sherman's sentinels." The residents of the state capital of Columbia suffered particularly harsh treatment at the hands of the Yankees. "That is the way we carry on the war now," wrote one Wisconsin soldier in Sherman's army. "Raze, burn, and destroy everything we come to" (Bropst 1960, p. 103).

Bandits, Bummers and other Camp Followers

Much of the worst violence and predation visited upon Georgians and South Carolinians during Sherman's March to the Sea was actually not carried out by Union troops. Many of the most deplorable and vicious excesses were committed by bandits—civilian criminals and army deserters who trailed behind the marching army and fed on the remains of plantations and communities they passed. These lawless pillagers seldom displayed any restraint based on moral considerations, and some of these bands committed brazen atrocities. In many cases the bandits operated with impunity, as Union officers could do very little to counter them. Bummers, on the other hand, had not left the army but engaged individually in freelance foraging before returning to the ranks. Later, the term came to encompass all of Sherman's soldiers. Any bummer who committed an atrocity and was found out was liable to the severest of punishment by his officers.

To the great shame of Southerners, some Confederate cavalry units shadowing Sherman's movements also became notorious for preying on helpless civilians. "Impressment" of civilian food, clothing, and other provisions became standard operating procedure with units such as the First Alabama Cavalry, one of the many regiments commanded by General Joseph Wheeler (1836–1906). Earlier in the war this unit had distinguished itself, but by the time Sherman exited Georgia, many Georgians considered Wheeler's cavalry to be even worse than the Yankees.

Scarred Land and Defeated People

Increased incidence of foraging, looting, and destruction in the war's latter stages left many landowners and communities utterly bereft and emotionally devastated. Fields that had once teemed with cotton and other lucrative crops and stately plantations that had once been festooned with lace and finery now lay in ruins. These sights were utterly demoralizing to battered and disillusioned Confederate troops. As one Rebel soldier wrote after traveling through a war-ravaged section of Tennessee, "it almost steels a man's heart against mercy to see the fair habitations of this once proud and prosperous State smouldering in desolation" (Mitchell 1988, p. 175).

The stunned and heartsick citizens victimized by foraging soldiers also struggled to come to terms with the new reality of their lives. One Southerner wrote that after her household had been terrorized by a mob of foragers and bummers, "we could hardly believe it was our home. One week before it was one of the most beautiful places in the state. Now it was a vast wreck. Gin-houses, packing screws, granary—all lay in ashes. Not a fence was to be seen for miles… the army had turned their stock into the fields and destroyed what they had not carried off. Burning cotton and grain filled the air with smoke, and even the sun seemed to hide its face" (Davis 1988 [1980], p. 86). Another Southern women offered a similarly mournful account of a grim visit from Union cavalry. "They fed their horses at M's barn, ripping off the planks that the corn might roll out," she recalled.

The door was opened by the overseer, but that was too slow a way for thieves and robbers. While they were filling the wagons, four officers went over every part of the house, even the drawers and trunks. These men wore the trappings of officers! While I write, I have six wagons in view at my brother's barn, taking off his corn, and the choice spirits accompanying them are catching the sheep and carrying them off. This robbery now goes on every day. (Davis 2007, p. 204)

Whatever the moral implications of this predation on civilian resources, however, the practice of foraging and looting undoubtedly accelerated the South's reluctant course toward surrender. This fact alone convinced many Union commanders and privates alike that "hard war" played an important and ultimately beneficial role in bringing the destructive war to a close.


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Kevin Hillstrom