The Bitter Fruit of Secession: Union Army Occupation and Reconstruction on the Virginia Peninsula

Stephen Sledge

Major Professor: Jane Turner Censer, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Christopher Hamner, Paula Petrik

The Hub (SUB II), #5
April 27, 2012, 03:30 PM to 12:30 PM


The Department of Virginia fulfilled its mission to occupy and govern southeastern Virginia, albeit with significant failings. Although the department was plagued by guerilla operations and irregular warfare for most of the war, it suppressed civilian-upon-civilian violence and avoided the unrest that exploded in nearby North Carolina. Commanders in the department achieved two of the Lincoln Administration’s critical political goals. They restored southeastern Virginia to federal authority, and they set conditions that enabled local elections of loyal civilian leaders. Despite these successes, the department never created conditions that generated a broad basis of support for Unionism.

The department’s reputation was tarnished by its poor treatment of black refugees throughout war, but its refugee operations achieved the political aims of the Lincoln Administration by maintaining the existing social order and preserving stability. The department’s Negro Superintendents, particularly Captain Charles B. Wilder, and American Missionary Association missionaries constantly pressed for measures of relief, education, and uplift with success. Department commanders John E. Wool, John A. Dix, John G. Foster, and Edward O.C. Ord implemented limited policies that emphasized economy, control, and labor management. In stark contrast, General Benjamin F. Butler established an innovative program that challenged the social order in Virginia. Though short-lived his programs provided a large-scale model for other Army occupation commands and provided a prototype for Freedmen’s Bureau activities during Reconstruction. Though promising, the department’s refugee operations emphasized black incompetence and deferred to the white-dominated social order by the end of the Civil War.

The most egregious failing of the department was its mishandling of trade in 1863 and 1864, which ultimately prolonged the war. Department commanders failed to eradicate the endemic corruption that flowed from confusing and contradictory federal policies regarding cross-the-lines trading and cotton procurement. Whereas General John A. Dix opened trade in the region to prevent a humanitarian disaster and instill a sense of Unionism, his command only opened the region to illicit trade networks and corruption exploited by General Butler and his cronies. Southeastern Virginia served as a significant illicit trade entrepôt that may have sustained the Confederacy in the last year of the war. The illicit trade was curtailed only when Generals Ulysses. S. Grant, Edward O.C. Ord, and George Gordon curtailed the practices in early 1865.