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Forage Liberally: Union Raiding Strategy During the Civil War


Joseph T. Glatthaar
Joseph T. Glatthaar

Although the United States remained intact after the Civil War, animosity between northerners and southerners has never fully dissipated. Joseph Glatthaar, the Stephenson Distinguished Professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, believes this can be largely attributed to the “raiding strategy” employed by the Union during the latter half of the Civil War. Glatthaar travelled to the Hill on Nov. 11 for a lecture and book-signing sponsored by the History Department and the Dean of Faculty.

Glatthaar began by explaining that although war in inherently destructive, there are nevertheless limitations on what is acceptable. Moral upbringing, combined with personal experiences in the war, determined precisely where these limitations were, yet some acts remained extremely taboo. For example, women and children civilians were not to be harmed, and hospitals and infirmaries remained untouched.

Throughout the war, soldiers on both sides suffered poor conditions. Soldiers received food that was low quality and also did not know how to prepare it, medical care for the wounded was rudimentary, and the movement of troops spread illnesses to unaccustomed populations. Additionally, many men considered killing an extreme taboo and were uncertain how they would react when they eventually saw combat.

After Lincoln passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, the Union reserved the right to seize any property used for, or by, the confederates. This act also applied to slaves, which opened the door for emancipation and abolition by obstructing southerners from recapturing runaways, referred to as “contraband” of war.

This decision agitated confederates, escalating violence and forcing the Union to reevaluate its tactics and plans. General McClellan, a personal friend of Lincoln’s, called for a “restrained war” in the well-known Harrison’s Landing Letter. Lincoln did not follow this advice, and passed the Militia Act of 1862, allowing blacks to serve in the Union Army. That same year, he passed the Second Confiscation Act, which allowed the president to seize all confederate property, not just that used for the war, including slaves.

This prompted a mass exodus of enslaved individuals, who abandoned their plantations in order to live freely in the North. This rocked the foundation of many Confederates, who believed that slaves were loyal to their masters and happy in their subordinate position, said Glathaar.  Following the Second Confiscation Act, the Confederacy exercised no restraint when it came to black soldiers. This was exemplified in the Fort Pillow Massacre, during which Confederate soldiers broke into a Union hospital and killed the wounded black soldiers sleeping on their cots.

Although the Union was sending supplies to its troops at the beginning of the war, by the end the soldiers resorted to their infamous raiding strategy. General Sherman reportedly told his troops to “forage liberally” when they had the opportunity; this included stealing crops, livestock, clothing and medicine from civilians and prisoners. The raiding strategy also included trampling fields, uprooting railroad tracks, intimidating civilians, and freeing slaves, Glathaar explained. This ravaged the “property class” Southerners, whose lives were built around acquiring property.

This strategy utterly decimated the South by demoralizing confederate soldiers, limiting available supplies and promoting desertion. This caused a downward spiral for the Confederacy, who was crippled without munitions and foodstuffs delivered by the railroads. By the end of the war, General Lee was losing 120 men per day to desertion; 1200 soldiers, or a whole brigade, every 10 days.

Glatthaar concluded by explaining how this left a lasting hostility between Northerners and Southerners that is still felt today. “Every town from Tennessee to Texas swears that Sherman’s army marched through it,” Glatthaar said, “showing just how thoroughly [Sherman’s army] terrorized the South.

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