Does the end justify the means?
That eternal question came to mind as I perused a light, little historic piece in the Sunday Las Vegas newspaper on the 150th anniversary of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s sacking of Atlanta and March to the Sea. (The Review-Journal does not post all AP stories on its website, but a version can be found at the Washington Post site.)
Here is a snippet:
Sherman remains a rare Civil War figure still readily remembered.
Many Southerners quote family stories about “the devil incarnate.” Confederate-interest websites brand him “a war criminal” and worse.
But the passage of time has allowed a more nuanced view.
At a re-enactment in Atlanta, David French, portraying one of Sherman’s troops, said, “He took the chivalry out of war, and frankly it’s why he won. He was really one of the first modern generals.”
Many military historians agree, saying he influenced a broadened view of what’s acceptable war-making.
The story recounts how Sherman’s army “lived off the land” by taking civilians’ food and a few sundry items of some intrinsic value for later, and how the army burned “cotton gins, barns, factories, Confederate leaders’ homes,” as well as tearing up railroad tracks.
But the presence of historic facts allow a less nuanced view of the deeds of Lincoln’s general’s behavior at the same time the first Geneva Convention was being drafted.
Then of course Lincoln had his own bit of sophistry in the form of General Orders No. 100, which among other things dictated:
All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, all destruction of property not commanded by the authorized officer, all robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense. (emphasis added, of course)
While the AP story makes no mention of it — historian Thomas J. DiLorenzo, author of “The Real Lincoln” and “Lincoln Unmasked” — points out that rape by Sherman’s troops was quite common. Whether it was ordered by an authorized officer is not so well documented.
“Although it is rarely mentioned by ‘mainstream’ historians, many acts of rape were committed by these federal soldiers,” DiLorenzo writes. “The University of South Carolina’s library contains a large collection of thousands diaries and letters of Southern women that mention these unspeakable atrocities.”
Nor do most mainstream stories mention Sherman’s troops sacked the slave cabins as well as the plantation houses. Nor that is was routine for Union soldiers to hang slaves by the neck until they told where the plantation owners’ valuables were hidden.
Perhaps Sherman was just following orders.
DiLorenzo notes that from the beginning Lincoln set out to make the civilians of the South suffer for their states’ attempt to secede. The “Anaconda Plan” was to blockade all Southern ports and starve the economy and the people. Medicine was a contraban.
Sherman’s artillery bombardment destroyed 90 percent of Atlanta and its civilian population was scattered into the already desolated countryside in winter.
Not everyone agreed with such scorched earth tactics. Shortly after Gen. George McClellan wrote Lincoln asking that the war be conducted according to “the highest principles known to Christian civilization,” Lincoln sacked him.
Occasionally one can find Sherman quoted as to his disdain for the citizens of the South:
To the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. Satan and the rebellious saints of Heaven were allowed a continuous existence in hell merely to swell their punishment. To such as would rebel against a Government so mild and just as ours was in peace, a punishment equal would not be unjustified.
The victor is the one who gets to write the history.
If the South had won the war, would Sherman have told a tribunal he was just following orders?