On July 26, author James Bovard published a piece in the Wall Street Journal that piqued my interest in that it argued that “the final episodes of the Civil War signified a radical change in the relation between citizens and the government that endured long after the South’s surrender at Appomattox.” He maintained that the war “stemmed in large part from the blunders and follies of politicians on both sides of the Potomac [which] resulted in a vast expansion of the political class’s presumption of power.” I think Bovard (I need to add here that I have not read his books, nor do I have any idea regarding his attitude toward Abraham Lincoln) is right, but not in the sense that he intended. Rather, in his op-ed he ignores some recent scholarship on the Civil War’s inevitability, its destructiveness, and therefore, perhaps unwittingly, advances the anti-Lincoln agenda in popular discourse.
Bovard was particularly hard on General Philip Sheridan’s “destruction of the Shenandoah Valley” in the fall of 1864. To wit:
“The destruction of the Shenandoah Valley was carried out by Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan. Along an almost 100-mile stretch, the sky was blackened with smoke as his troops burned crops, barns, mills and homes. Sheridan reported to Grant in October 1864 that he had ordered the torching of all houses within a five-mile radius of where a politically connected Union officer had been shot. Sheridan ordered his men to leave the valley a ‘barren waste’ and boasted that when his operation was complete, the Shenandoah Valley ‘from Winchester to Staunton will have but little in it for man or beast.’
Because people lived in a state that had seceded from the Union, Sheridan acted as if they had automatically forfeited their property, if not their lives. Many who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, such as Mennonites, had opposed secession and refused to join the Confederate army, but their property was also looted and burned.
One newspaper correspondent traveling with Sheridan’s army reported: ‘Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North . . . not half the inhabitants of the valley can subsist on it in its present condition.” John Heatwole, author of “The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley’ (1998), concluded: “The civilian population of the Valley was affected to a greater extent than was the populace of any other region during the war, including those in the path of Sherman’s infamous march to the sea in Georgia.'”
But, in his 2007 book, The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, historian Mark Neely conceded that Sheridan did indeed, as Bovard claimed, tell Grant “that the valley should be made a barren waste.” But, Sheridan also added (something that Bovard omits) in that very same report that “the most positive orders were given, however, not to burn dwellings” (Neely, page 116) And as Neely also shows, Grant “had told Sheridan, ‘It is not desirable that buildings should be destroyed.’ In other words, no one was serious about making the valley literally a ‘barren waste,’ thought Grant tried to sound as fierce as possible and did sound more so than Sheridan or his subordinates” (Neely, page 116). Thus, “such fierce language that was used out of spleen and for the sake of public consumption, especially for the ears of the enemy” (Neely, page 117). Neely concluded that “the valley was not scorched” (page 115) Thus, Bovard’s characterization of the Shenandoah campaign needs serious modification if not outright dismissal.
Likewise in need of exposure to recent scholarship on the Civil War is Bovard’s claim that the politicians blundered into a needless war. This view of the war’s causes has a long pedigree stemming back to J.G. Randall’s essay “The Blundering Generation.” This view held sway for a time among historians, but nowadays there is more and more examination of the war’s inevitability and a discounting of the idea that war was caused by inept politicians. All Bovard had to do was read James Oakes’s (full disclosure: Jim was on my dissertation committee and provided me invaluable advice for Loathing Lincoln, including the book’s title) magnificent 2012 book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, which concluded that Lincoln’s election in 1860 “signaled the overthrow of the Slave Power and with it the inevitable destruction of slavery” (Oakes, page 64). Thus, the white slaveholding South seceded to protect and expand its peculiar and profitable institution, an institution they fought hard to preserve. In fact, related to this point, all the violence that Bovard laments could have been avoided in 1864: all the Confederacy had to do was rejoin the Union with their slaves emancipated. This they would not do, and therefore the violence they suffered at the hands of the Union army was entirely avoidable (a fact Bovard fails to mention). This very year, Oakes followed Freedom National with another book available to Bovard, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War. Sadly, Bovard did not avail himself of either of Oakes’s work.
Finally, in addition to getting wrong the destructiveness of Sheridan’s campaign and the causes of the war, Bovard gets entirely wrong its results. Notice that he said in his piece that “the final episodes of the Civil War signified a radical change in the relation between citizens and the government that endured long after the South’s surrender at Appomattox.” Indeed it did. For the first time in American history, there was no slavery within the borders of the United States of America and ex-slaves, through the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, won for themselves citizenship and all the rights and duties that entailed. I would also imagine that the slaves were quite thrilled that the white South surrendered at Appomattox. Less thrilling was the violent and homicidal denial of the freedmen’s human rights over the ensuing decades. Lastly, if the war “resulted in a vast expansion of the political class’s presumption of power,” as he puts it, then Bovard is in disagreement with some pretty serious historians. Allen Guelzo (a conservative, it needs to be noted), has shown – in a speech to the Heritage Foundation no less – that the war did not result in the expansion of the federal government, at least not on any long-term basis:
“There is nothing obtuse about seeking long-term causes for the emergence of a federal government that has grown to such a gargantuan size that the entire American system seems to have become a relentless, interfering bureaucracy rather than an of-by-and-for-the-people democracy. But the effort to hang this around Lincoln’s neck [or Grant’s or Sheridan’s?] is both naïve and ill-informed, and what is worse, it obscures the importance of the Lincoln image for the defense and promotion of democratic government.
There is no doubt that the wartime emergency of 1861 to 1865 called out a significant increase in the size and scope of the federal government; what is important to notice, however, is that:
- This increase was in response to a threat to the very life of the republic,
- It bears no proportional resemblance to the scope of modern “big government,” and
- The increase shrank back to its prewar proportions with no sense of having established a permanent precedent, much less a government-knows-best philosophy.
This increase was the creature of an emergency and was never seen by Abraham Lincoln as anything but that. Moreover, emergencies are emergencies: ‘I can no more be persuaded that the government can constitutionally take no strong measure in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not be lawfully taken in time of peace,’ wrote Lincoln in 1863, ‘than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown to not be good food for a well one.’
If anything, what Lincoln demonstrates is that democratic government, when assailed, is both strong enough to take the measures required for its defense and strong enough to lay them down again when the danger has passed. It is a mark of confidence in our own principles, not the decay of their purity, that Americans are able both to do what an emergency requires for the survival of their republic and to put those measures by when peace is restored. There will always be legitimate alarm, even in an emergency, about the use of ‘a particular drug.’ What Lincoln’s example means is that we neither allow the alarm to paralyze us nor become necessarily addicted to the ‘drug.’”
So, instead of informing the public about the intractability of the war’s causes, the limits, as Neely put it, of its destructiveness, or its temporarily freedom broadening results, Bovard’s piece reinforces the idea that cynical politicians can’t do anything right and that the Civil War was a needless conflict that gave us a “vast expansion of the political class’s presumption of power” instead of the emancipation of 4 million human beings from Inhuman Bondage. The Wall Street Journal is one of the world’s greatest newspapers (and one I enjoy reading every day). In this instance, however, it failed its readers.