American Enterprise magazine, a slick-paper, coffee-table
arm of the neocon publishing empire, has recognized the premiere
of the Civil War film epic “Gods and Generals” by devoting
its March issue to the Late Unpleasantness. TAE brings
out some deep thinkers to examine American history 1861 — 1865
under the rubric “Just War.” (Shouldn’t there be a question
mark in that title? Just for the sake of suspense, if nothing
proverbial put-down of historical works which presume to be original
and important goes like this: the part that is original
is not accurate and the part that is accurate is not original.
The reverse is nearer true for TAE. What is new is the
only accurate and interesting part: that is Bill Kauffman’s review
of the movie along with his informative interview with the film’s
creator, Ronald Maxwell. But then, Bill Kauffman is not a neocon
but a Western New York populist stranded far from home.
Jay Winik contributes a piece on the current Lincoln criticism
which makes the standard, respectable case of historians
who actually know something about the subject but are loath to
disturb the Lincolnian nationalist mythology: Yes, some bad things
happened under Abe, but they were unavoidable necessities, and
after all the end justifies the means.
contributes a sermon on Lincoln as “A True Philosophical Statesman” that
is also standard fare. D’Sousa actually knows less about the
real history, the real lived human experience, of his adopted
country than I do about Paraguay.
But in ignorance
is strength, because by the Straussian cult ritual, which
D’Sousa here popularizes, you are not supposed to know any history.
In fact, knowing history and giving it any weight is prima facie
evidence of fascist tendencies. It demonstrates that you are
incapable of seeing the universal principles by which proper
interpretations are made. That is, the universal and eternal
meaning of history is only to be obtained by Straussian exegesis
of a few sentences which Straussians select, from a few documents
which they select, written by a few men they select.
is perfection when one wants to sacralize Lincoln and what he
wrought. All one need do is quote a few pretty phrases that evoke
nationalist and egalitarian sentimentality. Though the methodology
does tend to break down when challenged by the well-informed,
as when Professor Harry Jaffa, in his debate with Professor Thomas
DiLorenzo, was reduced to irritable denials of plain historical
the rest of TAE’s “Just War”contribution to understanding
the central event of American history is fluff designed to catch
Civil War hobbyists, including a pointless and less-than-coherent
exposition of Mr. Robert Duvall’s historical wisdom.
now we come to TAE’s piece de resistance, as they say, “A
Class War,” by the military historian Victor Davis Hanson, who
has had quite a bit of attention lately among all the Usual Suspects.
came to notice by pointing out how Greek democracy was a product,
not of theory, but of the importance to the state of the body
of armed citizen-soldiers. There was not much really original
about this — it is the old story of the Anglo-American yeoman — but
it was useful to point it out.
then, Professor Hanson has gone on to writings about modern history
that appear to glorify war, at least war as carried out by the
armed forces of what he regards as democratic societies. This
celebration (not too strong a word, I think), of the allegedly
wholesome benefits of war has obviously provided comfort to the “democratic” global
imperialists with which America is cursed today — and has thus
made Hanson something of a celebrity.
In “A Class
War” Hanson glorifies the great democratic achievements
of General Sherman’s notorious March through Georgia and South
Carolina in the winter of 1864-1865. Let us quote the blurb: "How
60,000 armed Midwestern men, in a 300-mile march taking less
than 40 days, squashed aristocracy in America, and changed the
entire psychological and material course of our national history.”
ask where, exactly, General Sherman got the moral and constitutional
authority to change the psychological and material course of
American history, but such questions do not occur to those
who are preaching crusades. This is not a new story. It is the
same old stamping-out-the-grapes-of-wrath rationalization: Northerners
rising in righteous might to put down the treason of Southerners
who, corrupted by slavery, harbored an evil desire not to
want to belong to The Greatest Nation on Earth. It’s the same
familiar story, but the old girl has had a make-over. She has
a new hair-do and different cosmetics.
a fair summary of Hanson’s description of Sherman’s March:
a brave and democratic army of sturdy, idealistic Midwesterners
performed a great military feat. In the process their democratic
spirit was outraged by haughty Southern aristocracy and by the
oppression of black people, whom they heartily embraced. As
a result they resolved to destroy Southern society once
and for all, and thereby bestowed on the universe a new birth
are so many things wrong about this paean to Sherman’s March
it amounts to a fantasy. Historians, before the era of PC, were
expected to study primary sources, documents of the time, before
they expounded on the meaning of historical events.
has spent some time with the primary sources knows what a dubious
characterization Hanson has made. That war was an immense event,
occupying a huge area and involving several million people, and
one can snip quotations to provide examples of anything one wants
to find. I am referring here to the bulk and weight of the evidence
and only the evidence left by Northern soldiers.
You do not
have to pay heed to a single Southern testimony to understand
what happened on Sherman’s March and why. It is all in the letters
and diaries of the participants. I urge anyone who lives above
the Ohio and Potomac to go to your local historical society or
state library and read some of those letters and diaries for
yourself. You will see how “A Class War” creates a fantasy of
righteous virtue and intention that badly distorts the weight
of the evidence.
anyone who wanted to celebrate American military prowess pick
out one of the US military’s most inglorious episodes, and one
which involved brutality against other Americans? When there
are a hundred more edifying examples?
with, the march was not a military feat. What was left of the
main Confederate army, after self-inflicted wounds at Atlanta,
was in Tennessee trying to attack Sherman’s supply lines and
deal with two huge federal armies that were holding down the
people of Tennessee and Kentucky. Sherman’s advance from Chattanooga
to Atlanta, opposed by a small but seasoned Confederate army,
had not been so easy. The March through Georgia and Carolina
was contested only by a few thousand cavalry and old men and
boys of the home guard. When Sherman got to North Carolina he
was met by the remnants of a genuine Southern army and was defeated
by a small force at Bentonville.
miles in 40 days against slight opposition is no feat of arms.
It is rather slow progress — unless you allow for the time consumed
by looting and burning out civilians. There was never any
doubt as to the purpose of the March. It was to bring as much
destruction as possible to the civilian population of an area
of the South not previously invaded and occupied. And there
is no doubt that Sherman was not acting against “aristocracy” but
against the entire population. And no doubt that his motive was
not “democracy, democracy, democracy,” but “authority, authority,
authority,” that is, enforced obedience to government.
Sherman’s men were veterans who had been occupying (and burning
and looting) parts of the South for over three years. Yet we
are supposed to believe that their experiences on the March suddenly
opened their eyes to the evil of “Southern aristocracy” and drove
them to relish its destruction. Charges of domination by “Southern
aristocracy” were a part of Republican party propaganda before
and during the war, but seldom a main theme. Lincoln himself
never spoke of class conflict, tended to blame Northern and Southern
Democratic politicians, and said: “The Southern people are exactly
what we would be in their situation.” The real complaint
against the “Southern aristocracy” was not elitism but the fact
that they kept a brake on surrendering the federal government
completely to mercantilism.
about Southern society and the Confederate army, Hanson, alas,
is in a numerous company of historians who feel free, on this
subject if no other, to declaim grand interpretations on “knowledge” that
consists mostly of the propaganda of one side of a conflict.
(The righteous side, which is their side, of course.)
heart of this allegedly class-ridden Southern society marched
the great democratic army of Midwesterners, where officers and
men were seen strolling arm and arm and pitching in to do the
chores together. We are supposed to assume such never happened
in the Confederate army, where units were all from the same neighborhood
and officers were elected in the first part of the war? The clandestine
insinuation is false, and egregiously so.
war, many Union generals, even subordinate ones, went about with
a squadron of cavalry for personal escort, lavish ceremonial
uniforms, and elaborate staffs and headquarters. Robert E. Lee
fought the war in a colonel’s field jacket with a tent, two staff
officers, and a few couriers. (Many of the Union generals were,
after all, not soldiers but Lincoln’s political patronage appointees.)
A foreign military observer who dined with Joseph E. Johnston’s
Confederate army headquarters staff found that there was a scarcity of
tableware, so that its use had to be rotated among the officers,
including the commanding general.
If one wants
to declare that the Union fought against “aristocracy,” then
accept the obvious corrollory: the Union fought not for democracy
but for plutocracy. One wonders if those sturdy Midwesterners
didn’t feel a little class resentment of their draft-exempt factory
owners who paid them large bonuses to enlist. Or of the Wall
Streeters who dined every day at Delmonico’s, lit their cigars
with $50 greenbacks, and grew rich off government war contracts
and loans, the tariff, and national bank charters. If Northern
soldiers didn’t notice this, they were a little naive, and perhaps
even deluded by propaganda.
however, at least one significant difference between the top
echelon of the North and the South. General Sherman complained
explicitly that rich men who had sacrificed everything were fighting
as private soldiers in the Confederate army, while Northern men
of property showed no such willingness.
operating with the old propaganda claim that since only a quarter
of the white population was involved in slave owning, the South
must have been dominated by a minority. Even worse, it was dominated
by the 5 per cent of large slave-owners. (A fourth is a bigger
percentage than Northerners who owned industrial or national
the richest planters were opponents of secession, nor did the
greater part of Sherman’s March pass through the areas where
they were concentrated. The South had universal white male suffrage.
If Hanson really believes that the men who carried out the
feats of Confederate soldiers were bossed around by a few snobs,
then I invite him to spend an evening discussing the question
with their descendants in a blue-collar bar anywhere from Southern
Maryland to West Texas.
would have us believe that the Union army was concentrating its
destruction only on wealthy estates. This is not true, and to
the extent that it happened, it was because the bigger farms
had more valuable loot.
a Union soldier to the home folks in Indiana, one of hundreds
of a similar import:
It is a shocking
sight to see how the soldiers sarve the farmers[.] Tha take everything before
them[.] I saw them today go into a hous and take everything tha
cood lay their hands on and then went for the chickens out adoors
and the worst of all it was a poor widow woman with fore little
children. I was mity sorry for her.
them not to take her things for her little children would starve
. . . . I have saw a heepe such cases as that tell (sic) I am
tired out of such doings. . . . if I was at home I cood tell
you a heepe such things as I hav seen . . . .
It is true that Sherman’s force contained many good Midwestern
Americans who were doing what they believed was right. It also had
larger contingents of mercenaries, criminals, and foreigners than
any American army before or since. Why would such good Americans
want to destroy the statue of Washington at the South Carolina capital
and burn up William Gilmore Simms’s library with its hundreds of
irreplaceable manuscripts of Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Francis
Marion, and other Revolutionary
destroy churches and schools and convents? Put pistols to the heads
of women and black servants to frighten them into disclosing
the whereabouts of the valuables? Open fresh graves (of which
there were a great many in the South) as possible hiding places
for silver and jewelry. Or, like the foreign-born, syphilitic
Union general Kilpatrick, force women to dance to gay tunes with
his men while their homes and their town was being forever wiped
off the map by fire. Or tear up little girls’ dolls and nail
the family pet to a door? One Georgia lady was visited by several
wives of Union officers who choosily selected and divided
up her possessions. When she protested she was called a spy
and sent without ceremony to a brutal prison in Tennessee.
simple and ought-to-be-obvious truth is that the Confederate
extended network of kinsmen, neighbors, and friends fighting
the invaders of their country and the threateners of their
freedom, much more resembled Hanson’s ideal citizen
soldiers than did the forces of the federal government.
soldiers fighting to destroy aristocracy? In letters by the
in the midst of campaigns and nearly to the end of the war,
Northern soldiers blamed the war on abolitionists and Lincoln!
these men greatly outnumbered Hanson’s starry-eyed idealists
Sherman writes General Grant:
of plundering, burning, and stealing done by our own army makes
me ashamed of it. I would quit the service if I could for I fear
we are drifting toward vandalism . . . .thus you and I and every
commander must go through the war justly chargeable of crimes
at which we blush.
Hanson is certain that after Sherman had passed on his way, “every
child of the South knew that the will of the Confederate people,
as well as their army had been crushed.” This is not strictly
true, but more to the point, we are assured, that ” Sherman killed
very few, and with genuine reluctance. Rapes during the march
were almost unknown.”
Professor Hanson wished to tell us that Sherman’s March was a
compared to the Rape of Nanking or to the Nazis and Communists
in Poland, and that not all Union soldiers were guilty of atrocities
and many were shamed by what they did or saw, then he would have
a point. But the statement as it stands, by the standards of
the time, is absurd.
officers were shocked by the accounts of Union campaigns, and
indeed, in the Franco-Prussian war which followed a few years
later, there was no deliberate war on private persons and property.
Thirty years after the war the American public was outraged by
the newspaper accounts of of the methods of the Spanish General “Butcher” Weyler
in Cuba. But Weyler was merely applying what he had learned as
an observer with the US army during the Civil War.
seems to occur to Sherman apologists, that when a plantation,
or a whole agricultural area, is devastated, not only the white
women and children but the much more numerous blacks are left
without food and shelter. It is true the Union army fed some
refugee slaves, but no one knows to this day how many more thousands
of the uprooted died in the wake of the devastation. Just the
masses of wantonly killed livestock left a disastrous ecological
and public health situation.
for the next twenty years newspapers will be reporting that: “Distinguished
military historian Victor Davis Hanson has proved that Union
army atrocities were negligible and largely the creation of frantic
Southern propaganda.” Such is the reign of PC.
know for certain that our that our historian is working from
his active imagination rather than from historical sources by
his treatment of the subject of cotton:
Sherman scoffed at these paternalistic rationalizations. [Huh?]
He demonstrated how much he thought cotton was really worth to
the United States when one head of local Confederate forces in
South Carolina offered to cease burning cotton if Sherman’s men
would in turn stop torching estates. Sherman replied: “I hope
you will burn all the cotton and save us the trouble. We don’t
want it; it has proven a curse to our country. All you don’t
burn, I will.
wants us to learn from this quote is sheer unfounded silliness
from beginning to end. The Confederate officer offered to stop
burning cotton, which he knew the Northerners lusted after, if
Sherman would stop burning houses, not “estates.” Cotton was
the most valuable commodity in North America and had made up
the bulk of American exports for decades previously. Sherman’s
statement was merely one of his frequent attempts at dark-humor
hyperbole. Northerners wanted cotton very much. This is why federal
generals and officials stole literally millions of bales of it
during and after the war. At that very moment, some of Lincoln’s
biggest industrial supporters were buying cotton illegally from
the Confederates in exchange for materiel.
come at last to the worst but also the hoariest part of the Hansonian
history. We are told that the Union army on this expedition was
characterized by “revulsion” against Southern aristocracy and
that we are to rejoice in “the Union army’s embrace of the slaves.” False,
on the overwhelming weight of evidence.
Sherman’s soldiers did
not feel a lot of revulsion at Southern whites, except for some
of the most backward and isolated people perhaps, though they
often found them unfamiliar. Mostly they felt irritation at the
continued stubborn recalcitrance of all classes of the population
to being conquered and governed by Northerners.
To say that
Sherman’s army “embraced” the slaves is to propose a proposition
that is laughable to any body who will spend half a day with
the primary sources. When Northern soldiers felt “revulsion” it
was for the slaves. Amidst the flames of Columbia, federal soldiers
were seen often driving away blacks with blows: “We are Western
men and we don’t want your damned black faces among us.” This
is far more representative of what happened than a happy tale
of friendly GIs in blue handing out candy bars to children.
easily compile a volume of Union soldiers’ unfriendly and unflattering
comments on the black people of the South that would rival the
collected works of Joseph Goebels for racist invective. This
sentiment was stronger and more widespread than what genuine
compassion there was.
robbed and killed as readily as whites, and could be beaten without
reserve. Black women were more vulnerable to rape and rape-murder
than white. The army, it is true, absorbed part of the black
refugee population, while raising their status to that of camp
laborers, and servants and concubines of Union officers. And,
of course, each able-bodied black man enlisted in an
all-black regiment saved one Massachusetts or Connecticut Republican
from having to dirty his hands in the service.
Sherman is just a crusty old Walter Brennan, tough on the outside
but with a heart of gold within. He sometimes complained
about the masses of refugee blacks interfering with army operations,
but really he “embraced” them and fed them.
Not at all
a fair characterization of Sherman’s well-documented attitude,
which was a desire to eliminate Africans out of the pure white
man’s country he was fighting for, and in the meanwhile to keep
them hard at work.
we should not blame TAE and its writers too much.
They are giving the customers what they want, and they will find
many takers. A more basic question is why do so many
Americans, or at least American “spokespersons,” feel compelled
to force our history into a pattern of collective self-glorification?
All peoples tend to mythologize their important experiences,
but it would be hard to find one more self-righteous and uncritical
and so much in need of cosmetology as triumphal American exceptionalism.
History, after all, is the remembrance of the usually ambivalent
and complicated struggles of us poor fallen creatures in
a fallen world. As two of Faulkner’s characters say to each other,
in contemplating the human race: “the poor sons of bitches.”
the sanitizing of evil comes from the deformed Christianity
of Puritanism, which was planted in Boston in the 17th century
and has been a cancerous growth in America ever since. (Though,
of course, material interests always play a part as well.) I
am of the elect, so it goes, and therefore my will is righteousness,
and undoubted righteousness is my license to annihilate the unelect.
Or in the public form: America = Democracy = God. That’s my hypothesis,
though I’ll gladly listen to yours.
this kind of thing is stronger at some times than others, and
sometimes it sweeps all before it. And clearly it is a rising
curve in the United States today, which Professor Hanson has
caught and is riding. And even more basic question is what does
this kind of militant self-righteousness portend for us, both
concretely and morally?