Author James Bovard recently published an op-ed in the Washington Times which seemed, at least in part, a reply to one of the points I raised in my response to his piece in the Wall Street Journal. He graciously sent me the link to the piece, which has prompted this response.
The basic thrust of both of his articles, it seems to me, is contained in these passages from the Times:
Some defenders of the Union tactics insist that there was no intent to harshly punish civilians. However, after three years of a bloody stalemate, the Lincoln administration had adapted a total-war mindset to scourge the South into submission. As Sheridan was finishing his fiery campaign, Gen. William Sherman wrote to Grant that “Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and people will cripple their military resources.” Sherman had previously telegrammed Washington that “[t]here is a class of people — men, women and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.” President Lincoln congratulated both Sheridan and Sherman for campaigns that sowed devastation far and wide.
After the Civil War, politicians and many historians consecrated the conflict as a moral crusade and its sometimes-grisly tactics were consigned to oblivion. The habit of sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil War policy toward the Indians (Sheridan famously declared, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”) and the suppression of Filipino insurgents after the Spanish-American War. Later, historians sometimes ignored U.S. military tactics in World War II and Vietnam that resulted in heavy civilian casualties.
The failure to recognize how wars routinely spawn pervasive brutality and collateral deaths lowers Americans’ resistance to new conflicts that promise to make the world safe for democracy, or rid the world of evil, or achieve other lofty sounding goals. For instance, the Obama administration sold its bombing of Libya as a self-evident triumph of good over a vile despot. Instead, chaos reigns in Tripoli. As the administration ramps up bombing in Syria and Iraq, both its rhetoric and its tactics echo prior U.S. misfires.
Since 1864, no prudent American should have expected this nation’s wars to have happy or uplifting endings. Unfortunately, as long as the spotlight is kept off atrocities, most citizens will continue to underestimate the odds that wars will spawn debacles and injustices that return to haunt us.
In addressing some of these points, there are a few of my own that I’d like to make – and a few important ones that Bovard has omitted.
First, in my original response to Bovard here, I did not (or at least I don’t think I did) deny that atrocities took place. My point was and still is that there are historians (e.g. Mark Grimsley and Mark Neely, Jr., to name only two) who argue – with evidence – that the level of destruction did not rise to the level of a total war. To be sure, other historians would disagree, but this is not an entirely settled matter, at least in my view. In addition, even if total war occurred, as I have previously said, this destruction was entirely avoidable. Leaving aside certain facts, namely the Republican Party’s prewar plan to end slavery peacefully (please, please, read Timothy Sandefur too, on this point) and that the Confederacy began the war at Fort Sumter when Lincoln sent in food – not weapons – to hungry soldiers inside the fort, before the Sheridan Campaign took place it was public knowledge across North America that all the Lincoln Administration required of the Confederacy was that they rejoin the Union (I think Lincoln called it “submit to the national authority”) and give up slavery forever:
“To whom it may concern: Washington, July 8 , 1864.
Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points; and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways.
This the Confederacy would not do, and so the destruction in the Shenandoah Valley, ghastly as it surely was for many, was, because of Confederate recalcitrance, perhaps necessary to bring the war to a speedier conclusion. Furthermore, after the Sheridan Campaign, in Annual Message to Congress (December 1864), Lincoln said the following:
The national resources, then, are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible. The public purpose to re-establish and maintain the national authority is unchanged, and, as we believe, unchangeable. The manner of continuing the effort remains to choose. On careful consideration of all the evidence accessible it seems to me that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union—precisely what we will not and cannot give. His declarations to this effect are explicit and oft-repeated. He does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory. If we yield, we are beaten; if the Southern people fail him, he is beaten. Either way, it would be the victory and defeat following war. What is true, however, of him who heads the insurgent cause, is not necessarily true of those who follow. Although he cannot reaccept the Union, they can. Some of them, we know, already desire peace and reunion. The number of such may increase. They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution. After so much, the government could not, if it would, maintain war against them. The loyal people would not sustain or allow it. If questions should remain, we would adjust them by the peaceful means of legislation, conference, courts, and votes, operating only in constitutional and lawful channels. Some certain, and other possible, questions are, and would be, beyond the Executive power to adjust; as, for instance, the admission of members into Congress, and whatever might require the appropriation of money. The Executive power itself would be greatly diminished by the cessation of actual war. Pardons and remissions of forfeitures, however, would still be within Executive control. In what spirit and temper this control would be exercised can be fairly judged of by the past.
Two months after his message to Congress Lincoln met with Confederate leaders at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865 seeking a way to end the conflict. There are of course conflicting accounts of what happened at this meeting, but one thing is clear: all the Confederacy had to do was acknowledge the authority of the national government and end slavery and the war would be over. Again, they refused. I ask, are Lincoln’s actions here the actions of someone conducting “total war,” or are they those of a leader attempting to end the conflict as quickly as possible?
So, to be clear: it is terrible that atrocities took place during the Civil War. On that point Bovard and I agree. But the origins of the conflict lay in another atrocity: American slavery, and had that stain upon America been peacefully removed, as the Republicans advocated, then perhaps the military devastation Bovard rightly laments would never have taken place.
Now, once the war was over (when, in another example of just how far from a total war the Civil War seems to be, Confederate leaders were glorified across the white South), Bovard says that “sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil War policy toward the Indians.” Really, the Civil War caused American injustice toward the natives? I always thought that the cruelty toward the Indians, sadly, went back a bit further than that. As for Americans forgetting wartime cruelties causing atrocities overseas, well, if that is so then why have the former states of the Confederacy, like the rest of America, so often been enthusiastic participants in such ventures? One would think they would have been particularly sensitive to “wars [that] routinely spawn pervasive brutality and collateral deaths.”
I applaud James Bovard’s critique of what he calls “wartime brutality.” He is right that it is an important and necessary job for all Americans to remember the tragedies of war so that we can avoid such suffering in the future, and he has done us a service in reminding us of this fact (I would be pleased to see Bovard publish another op-ed, with this year being the 150th anniversary of the Fort Pillow Massacre). But we also must be very clear on the causes of such conflict and do all that we reasonably can to remove the sources of hostility that might lead to violence. And on this point, in the 1860s it was the United States government, representing millions of Americans, that wanted the country to remain unified, with the Republicans favoring a national policy to remove the stain of slavery from the country by peaceful methods, while the Confederacy and its leaders desired that the country be split apart so that they could continue to violently hold African Americans in bondage forever. That, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, is why the war came, and why the terrible violence that followed, thankfully resulting in the end of inhuman bondage, occurred.