An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Crimes During the Civil War

Mar 21, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, occasionally books come across my desk which I investigate to ascertain the truthfulness as to what they profess. A recent book for Civil War buffs (I include myself in this august group of readers) is by Tobin Buhk. Obviously, during any war there is chaos and confusion, but apparently, there was a good deal of criminal behavior going on. Any first reactions?

I came across this book two weeks ago, and I couldn’t stop reading it. I was familiar with a number of the episodes of criminal behavior detailed by Mr. Buhk, but others I learned of for the first time through his book. It is in my opinion a very useful addition to the body of scholarship devoted to the American Civil War.

  1. Now, General Earl Van Dorn was apparently murdered- was this in a battle or some subterfuge?

Confederate General Earl Van Dorn had a reputation (apparently well deserved) as a ladies’ man. Unfortunately for him, he paid far too much attention to the attractive wife of a doctor named Peters. The enraged husband sought out Van Dorn at his headquarters, shot him in cold blood, and then rode to Union lines and found sanctuary there.

  1. What was this counterfeiting scheme of Sam Upham ? Any truth to this?

Buhk is absolutely correct: Samuel C. Upham was indeed a person who produced replicas of Confederate currency during the Civil War. He sold them as curiosity items to the Northern public, but it turned out that they were such good facsimiles that people bought them (they cost a fraction of the face value of the currency) and then used them to make purchases in the seceded states. He may have slightly exaggerated the effect of these bogus bills on the Confederate economy, but it certainly helped to undermine the value of Confederate currency during the first two years of the war.

  1. Andersonville Prison- how bad were the conditions there?

Andersonville (the actual facility was named Camp Sumter, but is popularly known by the name of the closest town) may not have been the worst prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War, but because of the large numbers of captives who died there it has become synonymous with horrific misery. In its short existence, it housed 45,000 Union captives, 13,000 of whom died. Many more were in such bad shape after their incarceration that they would not live long after their release.

  1. I understand there was a rebel plot to burn New York City. Any truth to this or is it rumor mill stuff?

There was indeed a plot to burn New York City in November of 1864. Confederate agents had originally planned to burn targets with a connection to the military or the government, but security measures taken by the US Army officer assigned to defend New York City made this unfeasible. The Confederates then decided to simply wreak havoc by targeting hotels. Fortunately for the residents, only half of the 24 fires planned by the Confederate agents were successfully ignited, and the 12 fires that did get started were extinguished fairly quickly.

  1. Was there such a person as “Bloody Bill” Anderson and is he just a footnote in a history book or was he really responsible for some skullduggery?

Unfortunately, Bloody Bill Anderson was indeed a real person. Originally part of a guerilla band lead by William Quantrill, Anderson struck off on his own in 1864 and terrorized the loyal population of Missouri for much of that year. His men murdered unarmed Union loyalists, and in a number of instances mutilated the corpses.

  1. Gen. Benjamin Butler- who was it and does his name live on in infamy?

During the Civil War, Lincoln appointed many politicians to positions of high rank in the Union Army. Once such individual was Benjamin Butler, who before the war had been Speaker of the House in the U.S. House of Representatives. He commanded the ground forces assigned to the capture of New Orleans in the spring of 1862, and when the Confederates surrender the city in April of that year Butler became the military commander of the city. Many of the females in New Orleans did not look kindly upon the army of occupation, and were verbally abusive of Union soldiers that they passed on the streets of the city. Some would go further by dumping the contents of chamber pots from balconies onto the heads of Union soldiers passing below. Enraged by their attitude, Butler issued an order that any woman openly disrespecting a Union soldier would be considered a woman plying the trade of a prostitute and could be treated as such. This, plus allegations (never proven) that Butler was stealing silverware from known Confederate sympathizers earned him the opprobrium of the rest of the Confederacy. If Butler had ever been captured by the Confederates, he would have been executed by them.

  1. Who was this William Quantrill and what was he responsible for?

William Quantrill was a person living in Kansas prior to the Civil War. He originally seemed to have had anti-slavery attitudes, but for reasons that are still unclear by the time of the war he had become pro-slavery and wound up serving in the Confederate Army for the first major battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi (Wilson’s Creek in August of 1861). After that battle he left the regular army to form a guerilla band that operated in Missouri throughout much of the war. His most infamous act came in August of 1863 when he raided Lawrence, Kansas and killed in cold blood every male inhabitant.

  1. I guess in any war, we tend to immortalize our heroes and vilify our villains. As a historian, what would you say in this regard?

You are absolutely correct, and the bigger the stakes involved are the more the elevation or denigration of the participants. In this fashion, Quantrill was regarded by a hero to many Southerners after the Civil War, but to Northerners he was a reprehensible scoundrel who got his just desserts when he was gunned down in an ambush in May of 1865.

  1. Stonewall Jackson continues to live on in our history books- was he larger than life or just charismatic?

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was clearly one of the best military leaders our country has ever seen. From his stand at the Battle of Bull Run to his devastating flank attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson proved an inspiration to the Confederates and a scourge to the Union. While not infallible (his record in the Seven Days’ Battle in June of 1862 was very spotty), he usually proved to be able to get his men to launch devastating attacks.

  1. And U.S. Grant seemed to be a winning general- was it his personality his strategies or something else?

Here again, Grant was not without his faults. His assault on the fortified Confederate position at Cold Harbor in 1864, for example, seems almost criminally negligent in hindsight. But Grant possessed an inner resolve that allowed him to carry on in spite of setbacks, and he usually had a keen mind for how best to employ forces under his command. I regard him as the best American general of all time. He captured one Confederate army in February of 1862 at Ft. Donelson, another Confederate army at Vicksburg in July of 1863, and finally in April of 1865 he forced the capitulation of the most formidable opponent the US has ever faced—Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about this time period and the travails that occurred?

As always, your questions were all good ones!

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