General David Hunter and Scorched Earth

This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

General David HunterMaj. Gen. David Hunter was a true believer in the abolition of slavery. With his strong relationship with President Lincoln, Hunter had a meteoric rise from colonel to major general in four short months in 1861. By November he was appointed as commander of the Western Department. And in March 1862, he was transferred to the command of the Department of the South and the X Corps.

Hunter was a strong advocate of arming blacks as soldiers for the Union cause. After the Battle of Fort Pulaski in April 1862, Hunter enlisted free d slaves in the occupied districts of South Carolina. He formed the first such Union Army regiment, the 1st South Carolina (African Descent) but was almost immediately ordered to disband. The authorities in Washington were concerned with the reaction from the border states. Eventually, Hunter received Congressional approval for his action.

Hunter followed up this controversy with a second one, that of issuing an order emancipating the slaves in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. 

General Order No. 11 – HDQRS Dept. of the South, Hilton Head, Port Royal, S.C.

“The three States of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, comprising the military department of the south, having deliberately declared themselves no longer under the protection of the United States of America, and having taken up arms against the said United States, it becomes a military necessity to declare them under martial law. This was accordingly done on the 25th day of April, 1862. Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States — Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina— heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.”

Maj, General David Hunter

President Lincoln  rescinded this order for the same reason: the border states’ reaction. Hunter’s order raised the ire of Confederates to the point where Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued orders to the Confederate States Army that Hunter was to be considered a “felon to be executed if captured”.

Hunter was reassigned to the Shenandoah Valley where he replaced Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel in command of the Army of the Shenandoah and the Department of West Virginia on May 21, 1864. The Valley was the base of supply for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Hunter to cut off the Confederate’s supplies.

Grant ordered Hunter to employ scorched earth tactics similar to those that would be used later in that year during Sherman’s March to the Sea; he was to move through Staunton to Charlottesville and Lynchburg, “living off the country” and destroying the Virginia Central Railroad “beyond possibility of repair for weeks.” Lee was so concerned about Hunter that he dispatched Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early with a corps to deal with him.

On June 5, Hunter defeated Maj. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones at the Battle of Piedmont. Following orders, he moved up the Valley (southward) through Staunton to Lexington, destroying military targets and other industries (such as blacksmiths and stables) that could be used to support the Confederacy.

After reaching Lexington, his troops burned down the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on June 11 in retaliation of that institution sending cadets to fight in at New Market. Hunter ordered the home of former Governor John Letcher burned in retaliation for its absent owner’s having issued “a violent and inflammatory proclamation … inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerrilla warfare on my troops.”

Hunter’s depredations came to an end when he was defeated by Early at the Battle of Lynchburg on June 19th. Grant brought in Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan as Hunter’s subordinate. However, Grant made it clear that Hunter would only have an administrative role and Sheridan would command the military formations. With that, Hunter promptly resigned. He would have no further combat commands.

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