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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Retribution in a Total War

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

by Gordon Thorsby

On February 28, 1865, in Chesterfield County near the SC/NC state line, the body of Pvt. Robert M. Woodruff, Co. H of the 30th Illinois was found dead in the woods with his head bashed in. That was all anybody knew for the moment.

The two wings of the Sherman’s army were streaming toward Cheraw on the state line. They left the state Capitol of Columbia mostly in ashes. Foraging had been the order and groups of men robbed farms along the way to supply food and animals for the men. Sherman wanted the South to feel war more intensely and South Carolina was experiencing it intimately. Right wing Corps commander, Gen. O.O. Howard understood foraging but detested the pillaging and burning of homes.

Robert M. Woodruff was from Salem, IL when he and eight other comrades from the area enlisted August 19, 1861. Five were still in the regiment when they re-enlisted in Jan. 14, 1864 and they were part of the Army of the Tennessee.

As the blue columns marched north, one James Madison Miller (born 4/17/1816) was on his farm with his oldest son in Pageland, SC near the state line. At 48 he joined the Brown’s 5th Battalion Co. C, State Guards from 9/15-10/31, 1864 as a private. The battalion was made mostly of men born as old as 56 and a smattering of boys of 16-17 years of age. There were few in between. Their function was to serve as guards at Florence prison camp east of Columbia.

The pillaging worsened and got out of control. “Confederate citizens and soldiers were outraged that Union soldiers pillaged and burned private houses. “ If Union authorities would not control abuses on innocent people, Confederate cavalry and local guerilla bands would took action and they did. Foragers that strayed too far from their columns where pillaging occurred, were captured and later found found with their throats slit. Sherman retaliated by hanging captured guerillas. It escalated from there.

When Woodruff's body was found it was attested to by his commanding 1st. Lieutenant Simeon Hornbuckle that he was “killed Feb 28, 1865 by Guerillas.” On March 2, a group of Woodruff’s comrades (it is possible those who enlisted with Woodruff in August, 1861) "rounded up several convalescent soldiers and old men in the area" and one of the old men was Miller. He was near Big Lynch Creek, near his home the time of his capture. The Union soldiers drew lots to see who would be executed in retaliation for their buddies’ death and Miller lost. A pistol was immediately drawn, the hammer was cocked and James Madison Miller was executed. The rest were freed, and the Union soldiers disappeared into the chaos of the war.

Miller had nothing to do with Woodruff’s death and the retaliation did not resolve the death of Woodruff because Confederate cavalry or guerillas had no involvement. A slave had happened upon Woodruff, and the report was the slave was not happy about his owner’s home having been burned and stock taken. There was an apparent argument and the slave admitted to the deed. Woodruff may not have been involved in any pillaging, only in foraging to feed his regiment.

Robert Woodruff left his wife Emily at home a widow at at least one child, a son. They received a pension beginning in August 29, 1865. James Madison Miller left a wife, Frances, three boys and three girls ages 20, 19, 17, 13, 10, and 7. Their deaths accomplished nothing.

Miller returned home in the back of a wagon for his family to bury. Today, he is buried near his home. He was one month shy of his 49th birthday. Robert Woodruff was probably in his twenties and his grave is unknown.

In war, retaliation only begets more retaliation and in 1865, it became personal.


Roll Call 1st Div, XVII Corps, Report documents, Robert M. Woodruff, Marion County, IL.

Civil War Archives, Washington, D.C.

The Monroe Journal, May 2, 1905, Union County, NC. Remembrance of James Madison Miller.

Photo above" by Jason Cockfield.

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