Worse Than That of a Savage

On August 1, President Jefferson Davis approved a general order authorizing all Confederate military commanders to treat Federals who violated the rules of civilized warfare as criminals if captured, subject to imprisonment or death. This was a direct response to Major General John Pope’s orders waging war on civilians in northern Virginia. Davis accused Pope of endorsing “the murder of our peaceful inhabitants as spies, if found quietly tilling the farms in his rear, even outside of his lines.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Davis also singled out Brigadier General Adolph von Steinwehr of Pope’s Army of Virginia. Steinwehr had seized five prominent citizens in Page County, Virginia, and proclaimed, “They will share my table and be treated as friends, but, for every one of our soldiers who may be shot by ‘bushwhackers,’ one of these hostages will suffer death, unless the perpetrators of the deed are delivered to me.” Even Pope had reprimanded Steinwehr for his extremism.

What the Federals called “bushwhackers” the Confederate order called “citizens of this Confederacy who had taken up arms to defend their lives and families.” The order accused the Federals of launching “a campaign of robbery and murder against innocent citizens and peaceful tillers of soil.” Had Confederate officials known the Federals would violate the rules of civilized warfare, they would not have agreed to the recent prisoner exchange cartel.

The general order declared that the Confederacy would not retaliate against northern civilians or “the enlisted men of the army of the United States who may be unwilling instruments of the savage cruelty of their commanders.” Rather, the Confederates would target the commanders who violated the rules of war, as they “have the power to avoid guilty action by refusing service under a Government which seeks their aid in the perpetration of such infamous barbarities.”

Captured officers would be imprisoned until the Federal government renounced its harsh policies, and, “In the event of the murder of any unarmed citizen or inhabitant of this Confederacy, it shall be the duty of the commanding General of the forces of this Confederacy to cause immediately to be hung, out of the commissioned officers prisoners as aforesaid, a number equal to the number of our own citizens thus murdered by the enemy.”

President Davis addressed another issue troubling him on the 1st, writing to General Robert E. Lee, “The newspapers received from the enemy’s country announce as a fact that Major-General (David) Hunter (commanding the Federal Department of the South) has armed slaves for the murder of their masters, and has thus done all in his power to inaugurate a servile war which is worse than that of the savage, inasmuch as it superadds other horrors to the indiscriminate slaughter of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

Davis asked Lee to seek confirmation from the Lincoln administration on whether it officially endorsed this policy. Davis feared that arming slaves would add to the “merciless atrocities which now characterize the war waged against us.”

Lee sent a letter to Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck inquiring about:

  • The alleged murder of William B. Mumford by Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal occupation forces in New Orleans;
  • The alleged murder of Colonel John Owens by Pope’s Federals in Missouri (before Pope was transferred east);
  • Whether Hunter and Brigadier General John W. Phelps were arming slaves to murder their masters.

Davis directed Lee to inform the Lincoln administration that if no response was received within 15 days, the Confederacy would assume the allegations were true and retaliate accordingly. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck replied on August 20, “Your two communications of the 2d inst., with inclosures, are received. As these papers are couched in language exceedingly insulting to the Government of the United States, I must respectfully decline to receive them. They are returned herewith.”

The next day, Davis issued an order branding Hunter and Phelps as “outlaws” for encouraging servile insurrection by recruiting slaves into the military. Davis decreed that any commissioned Federal officer “employed in drilling, organizing, or instructing slaves with a view to their armed service in this war… shall not be regarded as a prisoner of war but held in close confinement for execution as a felon at such time and place as the President shall order.”

The Lincoln administration had stopped Hunter’s and Phelps’s efforts to turn slaves into soldiers (prompting Phelps to resign), but four days later, the War Department granted Brigadier General Rufus Saxton’s request to recruit 5,000 slaves to serve as combat soldiers on South Carolina’s Sea Islands.

The ideas of waging war against civilians and recruiting blacks into the military were not supported by most Federal commanders. The most vocal opponent was Major General George B. McClellan, who wrote Halleck, “It is my opinion that this contest should be conducted by us as a war, and as a war between civilized nations, that our efforts should be directed toward crushing the armed masses of the rebels, not against the people; but that the latter should, so far as military necessities permit, be protected in their constitutional, civil, and personal rights.”

Regarding slavery, McClellan lectured that the administration “should avoid any proclamations of general emancipation, and should protect inoffensive citizens in the possession of that as well as of other kinds of property. If we do not actively protect them in this respect, we should at least avoid taking an active part on the other side, and let the negro take care of himself.”


  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.

Leave a Reply