January 31, 2020

IT'S NOT TERRORISM WHEN WE DO IT:

Union gunboats didn't just attack rebel military sites - they went after civilian property, too (Robert Gudmestad, 1/30/20, The Conversation)

[C]ombat between Union gunboats and southerners occurred across the Civil War's western theater but was also clustered in a few important areas. My research also reframes our understanding of the Civil War away from well-known battles to a constant, grinding war that sucked in thousands of civilians. [...]

Union commanders realized that their ironclads clustered their men into a few boats, so they improvised and created a fleet of tinclads, also known as "mosquitoes." These boats were lightly armored, had a crew of about 70 men, carried six to eight light cannons and could go just about anywhere because they had a draft of 30 inches of water.

By the end of 1862, the Union put 17 tinclads into action and fitted out 74 by the time Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865.

The crews of the tinclads and the other gunboats waged a deadly game of whack-a-mole along the western rivers. Whenever rebels popped up and attacked a boat, the fleet tried to smite it.

This reactive strategy failed because rebels could quickly retreat into the southern countryside, so Admiral David Dixon Porter devised a new strategy.

He gave Union commanders the authority to confiscate or destroy civilian property, including food, animals, cotton, buildings and personal property. Porter intended to starve rebels by depriving the men and their horses of food. He also hoped to inflict enough punishment on civilians that they would withdraw their support from the insurgents.

Punishment turns to plunder

Union sailors were quick to carry out Porter's orders. For instance, when Confederate-aligned guerrillas near Helena, Arkansas, killed one sailor from the USS Cairo and nearly captured another, revenge was swift. Union sailor George Yost, who was a 14-year-old cabin boy, reported that 40 sailors from the boat landed at a nearby plantation and burned "up all the houses barns and everything combustible near the scene of the assassination."

But such punitive attacks often became plundering sprees. When the USS Cincinnati stopped at a plantation on the Mississippi River in March 1863, sailors went ashore and, after chasing away the owner, took 150 chickens, 600 pounds of bacon, a bull, some geese and a couple of guinea hens.

According to a sailor whose letters are in the Buffalo History Museum, they also helped themselves to bed clothes, pictures, crockery, "&c. &c. &c. &c. &c. &c." - a clear implication that they took all kinds of personal possessions.

Posted by at January 31, 2020 12:00 AM

  

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