One might think that the title of this column is a contradiction of words, but it is not. During the Civil War there was a certain civility in the correspondence that described the “barbarous warfare” that was conducted by both the Union and Confederate forces. This and the command of the English language were especially evident in the letters between the Union and Confederate “generals.”
The following letter from “Union” Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck to Confederate Gen. Sterling Price, although very civil in nature, clearly states exactly what Gen. Halleck will do and why he is doing it.
The letter is located in Series I, Volume 8 of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion on pages 514 and 515.
“St. Louis, Mo., Jan. 22, 1862.
Gen. Sterling Price, Commanding:
General: Your letter, dated Springfield, Jan. 12, is received. The troops of which you complain on the Kansas frontier and at Fort Leavenworth are not under my command. In regard to them, I respectfully refer you to Maj. Gen. David Hunter, commanding the Department of Kansas, headquarters at Fort Leavenworth.
You also complain that “individuals and parties of men specially appointed and instructed by you to destroy railroads, culverts and bridges, by tearing them up and burning, and have been arrested and subjected to a general court-martial for alleged crimes.”
This statement is, in the main, correct. When “individuals and parties of men” violate the “laws of war,” they will be tried, and if found guilty, will certainly be punished, whether acting under your “special appointment and instructions” or not. You must be aware, general, that no orders of yours can save you from punishment spies, marauders, robbers, incendiaries, guerrilla bands and those who violate the “laws of war.”
You cannot give immunity to crime. But let us fully understand each other on this point.
If you send armed forces, wearing the garb (uniforms) of soldiers and duly organized and enrolled as legitimate belligerents to destroy railroads and bridges as a military act, we shall kill them, if possible, in open warefare, or if we capture them, we shall treat them as prisoners of war.
But it is well understood that you have sent numbers of your adherents, in the garb (clothes) of peaceful citizens and under false pretenses, through our lines into northern Missouri to rob and destroy the property of “Union” men and to burn and destroy railroad bridges, thus endangering the lives of thousands and this, too, without any military necessity or possible military advantage.
Moreover, peaceful citizens of Missouri, quietly working on their farms, have been instigated by your emissaries to take up arms as insurgents and to rob and plunder and to commit arson and murder. They do not even act under the garb of soldiers but under false pretenses and in the guise of peaceful citizens.
You certainly will not pretend that men guilty of such crimes, although “specially appointed and instructed by you,” are entitled to the rights and immunities of ordinary prisoners of war. If you do, will you refer me to a single authority on the laws of war which recognizes such a claim?
You may rest assured, general, that all prisoners of war not guilty of a crime will be treated with proper consideration and kindness. With the exception of being properly confined, they will be lodged and fed and, where necessary, clothed, the same as our own troops.
I am sorry to say that our prisoners who have come from your camps do not report such treatment on your part. They say that you gave them no rations, no clothing, no blankets, but left them to perish with want and cold. Moreover, it is believed that you subsist your troops by robbing and plundering the non-combatant “Union” inhabitants of the southwestern counties of this state. Thousands of poor families have fled to us for protection and support. They say that your troops robbed them of their provisions and clothing, carrying away their shoes and bedding and even cutting cloth from their looms, and that you have driven women and children from their homes to starve and perish in the cold.
I have not retaliated with such conduct upon your adherents here, as I have no intention of waging such a “barbarous warfare;” but I shall, whenever I can, punish such crimes, by whomsoever they may be committed.
I am daily expecting instructions respecting an exchange of prisoners of war. I will communicate with you on that subject as soon as they are received.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Maj. Gen., Commanding the Department of the Missouri.
Now then, did Gen. Price ever respond to Gen. Halleck’s letter? If he did, it did not survive the passage of time or has not been discovered to date. Did this letter change the “barbarous warfare” that was conducted in Missouri and eastern Kansas for the duration of the war to a more civilized way of waging war? Of course, it did not; and, of course, the war went on!