Rebel Barbarities

23 04 2012

As part of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War’s (JCCW) investigation, testimony was taken and a report issued with regard to the barbarous treatment by the rebels, at Manassas, of the remains of officers and soldiers of the United States killed in battle there. The report and testimony can be found in Volume III of the Committee’s reports beginning on page 449. An exchange of messages with Frank June Ruiz – host of The Red Legged Devil, a blog on the 14th Brooklyn – reminded me of this and I will commence posting the transcripts in the resources section, starting with the report.



8 responses

23 04 2012

Harry–Thanks for posting this item. In my recent research on the Pennsylvania Reserves at Manassas in spring 1862, I came across accounts of the soldiers finding human bones in the abandoned Confederate winter encampments. I can pass along those references to you if you would like. It seems that this congressional report likely covers stories of such mistreatment of human remains from First Bull Run.


23 04 2012
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Ron – I’m always game for any Bull Run references…


23 04 2012

I will go ahead and shoot them to you. I was shocked to read about the Confederates collecting bones of war dead, and even making rings with them. It seemed moribidly fantastical, but this congressional report makes me think there is something to the story beyond what I read in the post-war memoirs of the Reserves.


24 04 2012
Bob Huddleston

We all heard in the Ken Burns’ _Civil War_ the haunting letter allegedly written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island, written as he rode towards his death at First Manassas. What Burns left out were the stories that the Rebel troops mutilated his body. When I first read of the mutilation of Sullivan Ballou I assumed it was Yankee propaganda.

Atrocity stories are old hat in war: they are often used to drum up support to protect society against the inhuman enemy. Indeed, false atrocity stories about the World War I Germans, exposed in the 1920s and 1930s, made the World War II generation suspicious of atrocities claimed by the allies. The early reports of the Holocaust were brushed aside as simply a repeat of similar stories from the Great War.

Making up atrocity stories, and reporting them to the assembled troops or to a Congressional committee is nothing new – during the First Gulf War a supposed nurse testified to Congress that the Iraqis had murdered babies in incubators. It came out later that the “nurse” was in reality the daughter of the ambassador and was no where near any alleged atrocities.

However, the desecration of Sullivan Ballou’s grave is well-authenticated.

When the Army of the Potomac occupied Manassas in 1862, a party of Rhode Islanders, led by Gov. Sprague, went out to recover the bodies of Col. Slocum, Maj. Ballou and the other Rhode Islanders killed at First Manassas. A private had been left behind as a hospital attendant and had buried both Slocum and Ballou. On March 21, 1862, he was able to identify the graves.

The party discovered that members of the 21st Georgia had opened Ballou’s grave, thinking that it was Slocum’s, and had burned the body. All the Rhode Islanders found were some ashes, bones and a few pieces of cloth. Slocum’s grave was located untouched and the two sets of remains were sent back to Rhode Island. What was left of Sullivan is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI under an elaborate obelisk with the quote, “I wait for You There, Come to Me and Lead Thither My Children.”

Virgil Carrington Jones devotes a chapter (“The Dead Behead Easily”) in _Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders_ to the search for the bodies of the 2nd RI men. In addition to beheading poor Sullivan, the Georgians buried others face down, interpreted as a sign of disrespect. In his notes, Jones quotes from the Committee to Investigate the War, without giving specific references. He goes on to state that when he was investigating the site (identified by a Manassas Park historian as being three tenths of a mile south of Sudley Church, a short distance east of the Sudley Road, just north of the Newman house.

But the point is well taken that one should be cautious about accepting atrocity stories based on what the victims had to say. Jones is a Virginia author, and writes from a pro-South viewpoint (he does include a quote from someone living near Sudley Church that it was done by Georgians – “no Virginian did it. Virginians wouldn’t do such a thing”

Grady McWhiney, in his _Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South_, talked about Confederates mutilating enemy bodies, cutting off heads, etc., and relates the mutilation to the Scotch Celtic background of the typical Southern soldier (p. 157-158). And Bell Wiley also mentions, in _Billy Yank_ (p.23), accounts of Confederate mutilation of the dead enemy.

However, a better source is a letter included in a catalog put out by Gettysburg rare book and artifact dealer, Len Rosa, War Between the States Memorabilia, catalog 44 [n.d., circa 1996]


136. MANASSAS JUNCTION, [VA.], NOV. 25TH, 1861: 4 pages in pencil written by James Kent Lewis, [Co. I, 16th Regiment North Carolina infantry, killed in action at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863] “I wrote you several times about the clothes you Sent me. They came all right. The boots suited exactly and if it hadn’t been for the woolen under clothes, I should have frozen before this. I was on the battleground a day or so ago and it presents one of the most horrible sights I ever saw. The dead Yankees who were buried there have nearly all been dug up by our men. Nearly all of them have a bone of some sort hung to his watch chain & they have sent home any number of skulls! Some of them took the rib bones for pipe stems. I saw one body deprived of its head and the limbs lying in a branch. The flesh seemed to be perfectly sound.

(Additional Sources: CSR and Pension Records of Sullivan and Sarah Ballou; Augusts Woodbury, The Second Rhode Island Regiment, Providence, 1875)


25 04 2012
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Bob – see subsequent posts re: testimony on Ballou/Slocum recovery. Thanks for the info on the 16th NC letter. Friend Ron Baumgartner also sent along some later references of a similar vein from the PA reserves.


11 06 2012
Ed Halloran

General Secretary of the US Sanitary Commission, Frederick Law Olmsted, wrote to his USSC President, Rev. H.W. Bellows on August 15, 1861 of his concerns about ‘acts of savage brutality on the part of our enemies toward prisoners and wounded’. Said Olmsted:
A statement was some time since published in the newspapers, to the effect that evidence had been presented to the Sanitary Commission of acts of savage brutality on the part of our enemies toward prisoners and wounded left on the field of battle. This statement was not authorized from this office. It is true that evidence of the nature referred to was presented to the Commission, but it is also true that a careful examination of the circumstances under which the outrages were alleged to have been witnessed, and of other evidence, led to the conclusion, that these statements were greatly exaggerated, and that in the few instances where wounded men were known to have been attacked, it was under circumstances of great excitement by individual soldiers; without the approval of the officers. There is some reason to think also that in these cases the wounded in view had been firing with revolvers upon the approaching enemy, making it necessary for the latter to dispatch them for their own safety.
There are two reasons why if possible all misrepresentation on this subject should be corrected.
First: We recognize in the conduct of General Beauregard most conclusive evidence of a consciousness of the desperate chances of an essentially weak cause, when he seeks to vindicate and stimulate the fanaticism of his army by scandalous misrepresentations of our own. We are under no necessity of resorting to similar temporary and fallacious means of strengthening our cause. The time will come when we shall be the stronger for having avoided all false grounds of martial ardor, and the enemy will be the weaker for having had to resort to them.
Secondly, the belief that the enemy uses a savage method of warfare is calculated to foster a spirit of retaliation in our men, and this is not favorable to habits of order, calmness, and discipline in the battle field. According to the degree in which our soldiers are established in such habits, they will be successful. Whatever interferes with these habits, prolongs the war; whatever tends to strengthen them, tends to lessen the cost and shorten the period of rebellion.
In this view, it may be thought best that reports which I have just received from several of the surgeons, who in the gallant performance of their duty, were taken prisoners after the battle of Bull’s run, should immediately be made public.
It is not of course possible for these gentlemen to say how the wounded were treated in parts of the field, which did not come under their observation, but their opportunities for observation were so extended, that their evidence to conclusively establish the custom of the enemy. Except that the wounded of our forces were at first mainly left to the care of our own surgeons (who surrendered with them) while their surgeons were chiefly occupied with their own wounded, no difference was known between friend and enemy. Our wounded men were as tenderly treated as was practicable under the circumstances. Prisoners were subjected to no more inconvenience or discomfort than prisoners of war must expect with any civilized people. Whatever might be considered an unnecessary hardship in their experience was to be accounted for, by attributing it, not to a vindictive spirit, but to the necessities of policy, which is so thoroughly and successfully carried out in the strategy of Beauregard, of not letting his right hand know what his left hand doeth.
Fred. Law Olmsted. Secy

Olmsted had sent a few Sanitary Inspectors to visit camps of soldiers who had returned from the battle of Bull Run. They used a seventy-five item questionnaire to ascertain the condition of the troops before, during and after the engagement. The data they gathered augmented information from inspections the Sanitary Commission began in June and his September 5, 1861, Report on the Demoralization of the Volunteers, employed reasoning from sanitary science to explain the defeat. Results of the inspections formed the stimulus for over 900 subsequent Union regimental examinations designed to help teach volunteer officers how to protect the health of their men. Statistics gathered by the sanitary inspectors and from official reports concluded the disease mortality rate experienced by the British in the Crimea [20%] could be held in check [5%] if the troops were properly led in the adherence of sanitary laws. While recent research on disease mortality in the Civil War has increased the numbers markedly, most of the increases were among Confederate troops. Confederates had little exposure to the teaching of preventive measures so systematically provided to Union volunteers by the United States Sanitary Commission after the battle of Bull Run and before the Peninsular campaign. Olmsted believed the preventive work of the Sanitary Commission was its greatest contribution and comparisons of disease rates in other armies would bear him out.
References: Censer, J.T., Editor (1986) The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume IV, Defending the Union. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 145-8.


11 06 2012
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Ed – if you don’t have a problem with it, may I post your transcription to the resources section?


12 06 2012
Ed Halloran

No problem, Harry. Thanks, ED


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