Part 6: Of War and Devastation
Although I have primarily been focusing most of my attention upon Abraham Lincoln, he was not alone in the events which led up to the Civil War, his predecessors had played their parts too, going back to at least Andrew Jackson, and probably even earlier. Yet it was Lincoln who was president during the Civil War, therefore he was the one who history lays all the laurels, while I lay much of the blame for what was about to happen.
Abraham Lincoln won the presidency only because the Democratic Party had split in two before the election, giving the Republican Party enough votes to take a majority and give Lincoln the presidency. He had won the election but had, as of yet, not been sworn in when the opening battle of the Civil War took place.
Before I go any further I need to say something about war. I know this may not seem appropriate, or even relevant to this discussion of the Civil War, but in 1991 the rock group Guns n Roses released their fourth studio album entitled Use Your Illusion II. On it there is a song entitled Civil War. At the end of the song singer Axl Rose poses the question, “What’s so civil about war anyways?”
In answer to that question I would say…NOTHING. The old saying war is hell aptly fits as war is cruel, it is brutal, and it leaves scars both mentally and physically upon the people who participate in it, as well as those who witness it.
War is nothing but the massed killing of one group by another. It matters not whether it be fought over territorial acquisition/defense, religious beliefs, political disagreements, war is mass murder on a scale that would be inconceivable were it to happen in society.
When people are called upon, either by their belief systems, or by their government, to go out and kill other human beings it does something to a person. It unleashes a side of man that is normally kept locked away inside him, (except for mass murderers and psychopaths who do not fit into typical societal beliefs). When this happens it is often difficult, if not impossible, for that baser side of human nature to take over. When that happen atrocities will occur…there is no preventing that.
For as long as man has existed on this planet in numbers, wars have existed as well. As long as wars continue to exist atrocities will occur as well. It is unfair for those of us who have never experienced war to condemn those who have participated in one for the actions they took during a conflict. We have not undergone the emotional trauma of seeing friends violently killed in front of their eyes and had to take the life of another human being to save our own, or simply to inflict as much loss upon an enemy as possible.
I say this now because I am do not wish to condemn those who fought against each other during the Civil War. I will mention atrocities that happened, but I am not laying blame. I do so only to show that the war did more than divide the country in two based on different political beliefs, but it also inflicted wounds upon the country, particularly the South, that have never really healed…not even to this day.
Prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln Union Army Major Robert Anderson moved the 85 men under his command from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor South Carolina. Isolated and without a supply chain the Union forces were quickly running out of food and supplies. Meanwhile South Carolina had grown tired of Union troops being positioned on what they now considered to be soil independent from the Union.
On a Thursday in April of 1861 Confederate General P. T. Beauregard sent aides to the Union forces demanding that they give up the fort, to which they replied…NO. The following morning at 4:30 a.m. the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter. The shelling lasted for a day and a half and on Saturday April 13th Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to the Confederates.
Not a single Union soldier was hurt during the battle, and upon surrendering the Confederate’s allowed the Union soldiers to peaceably leave, AND fire a 100-gun salute. It was a gracious move on the part of the Confederates showing that they wished no ill will upon the Union soldiers, but still they took the first shot, they had started the war.
Yet, even in the North there were those who believed that the government had forced the hand of those in South Carolina. Newspapers in the North abounded with commentaries regarding the South’s firing upon Fort Sumter. On April 17, 1861 the New York Evening Day Book wrote that the event at Fort Sumter “…was a cunningly devised scheme to arouse, and, if possible exasperate the northern people against the South.”
On April 13, 1861 the Providence Daily Post had written, “For three weeks the administration newspapers have been assuring us that Fort Sumter would be abandoned, but “Mr. Lincoln saw an opportunity to inaugurate civil war without appearing in the character of an aggressor.” Whatever the case may be, the war had started, just as it had 3/4 a century ago at Lexington and Concord.
Over the course of the next four years at least 237 major battles took place at the cost of around 620,000 lives, with many more injured or crippled for life. If you think about that number, that would be close to wiping the entire city of Boston Massachusetts off the map. That is a lot of death and destruction over the issue of whether a people are allowed to determine if they can secede and form a system of government that best suits their need, or if they are to be in bondage to a system of government that holds them to the Union at gunpoint with the threat of violence and destruction.
Upon ending of hostilities at Fort Sumter President Lincoln must have realized that the South was not going to return to the Union peacefully so he sent out the call for 75,000 recruits. During this time Virginia had not yet seceded from the Union. It was during this opening period that Robert E. Lee was called upon by Francis Blair, a close associate of Abraham Lincoln, and offered the opportunity to lead Union Forces against what the North was calling open rebellion against the government. Lee declined saying he could not see himself fighting against fellow Virginians. A few days later Lee is placed in charge of the Confederate Army while the Union Army was placed under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant.
As stated, there were close to 250 battles that took place during the Civil War. Some of them small, but others much larger, with accompanying larger body counts for both sides. For instance, the first battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, was a Confederate victory with the Union losing 2,950 and the Confederates losing 1,750.
Then there was the Battle of Fort Donelson, a lesser known battle, but a costly loss to the Confederates. At this battle the Union lost 2,331 while the Confederates lost over 15,000 men. The battle of Shiloh was more equally divided with the victor going to the Confederate Army. Thirteen thousand Union soldiers died during this battle, and 10,000 Confederate soldiers lost their lives. The second battle of Bull Run/Manassas was also a Confederate victory with them losing 8,350 and the Union losing 13,830.
During the battle of Battle of Antietam 23,100 lost their lives. Almost 18,000 died at the battle of Fredericksburg, 23,000 at the battle of Stone River, 19,000 during the siege of Vicksburg, and in incredible 51,000 at Gettysburg.
Those are just a few of the battles that took place during the four years the Civil War raged on. With such a horrific loss of life suffered by both sides and the horrible things those men must have witnessed it is amazing that there were not more atrocities committed by both sides during that terrible period in our nation’s history.
Yet atrocities did happen. Both sides had guerilla fighters who often fought independent of the traditional armies of the North and South. They were given many names, Red Legs, Jayhawks and others. These fighters often raped, pillaged, and burnt dwellings and towns down to the ground in their fight for their sides. That is not to say that these type things did not also occur under the commands of both Union and Confederate officers, because it did. I am just saying that the atrocities happened.
However, there is a big difference between strategies and ideologies of the Northern and Southern commanders during this conflict. The Southern commanders, particularly Robert E. Lee, only wanted to force the Union out of the Southern States, to leave them in peace to live as an independent nation of Confederate States. His intent was not to invade and occupy the North, although Stonewall Jackson is known for his view that the only way to bring the war to a speedy end was to invade the North and show them as little mercy as they had to the South. Jackson felt that if the Northerners were witness to the horrors the South had witnessed the people would pressure Lincoln to end the war.
Although the Confederates fought with equal ferocity as the North, and atrocities were committed by both sides, for the most part the South only wanted to end the war as quickly as possible and return home. It has been said that General Robert E. Lee is said something along the lines of “It is good that war is so terrible, lest we come to like it too much.” Yet the Northern commanders, two men in particular, seemed to almost take pleasure in the destruction they wrought upon the South. These men were General William Tecumseh Sherman and General Philip Sheridan.
During the war President Lincoln spent as much of his free time as possible at the War Department, monitoring the war and sending messages to the commanders in the field. It is inconceivable that he could remain in total darkness as to what was happening under the commands of his generals.
Some records do exist and they shed light on the fact that it appears that Lincoln, and his generals, not only wanted to win the war, they wanted to punish the South for dividing the Union and causing the war.
In 1864, Sherman wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, stating, “There is a class of people, men, women, and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.
“Sherman is quoted as writing, “The government of the U.S. has any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war – to take their lives, their homes, their land, their everything…war is simply unrestrained by the Constitution…to the persistent secessionist, why, death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better.”
Sherman, however, is probably best known for his march to the sea in which he marched from Atlanta Georgia, all the way to the port of Savannah, destroying almost everything in between. Over the course of this march, which lasted from November 15- December 21, 1864, Sherman’s troops left a 60 mile wide, 300 mile long path of destruction, the path, it is said, can still be seen from the air today. Sherman also must have witnessed firsthand the raping and pillaging that occurred as his men destroyed everything in his path, yet he did nothing to prevent it.
A Union soldier, serving under General Sherman, once wrote home that, “I tell you the truth when I say that we are about as mean a mob as ever walked the face of the earth, it is perfectly frightful. If I lived in this country I would never lay down my arms while a Yankee remained on the soil. I do not blame Southerners for being secessionists now. I can relate many things that would be laughable if they were not so horribly disgraceful.”
But, Sherman was not alone in his campaign against unarmed civilians. General Phillip Sheridan is equally guilty of war crimes against civilians. Under direct orders from General Ulysses S. Grant, General Sheridan took 35,000 infantry troops and literally burned the entire Shenandoah Valley to the ground. In a letter to Ulysses S. Grant, Sheridan wrote, “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat, and have driven in front of the Army over 4,000 head of stock and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep. Tomorrow I will continue the destruction down to Fisher’s Mill. When this is completed, the Valley from Winchester to Staunton, 92 miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.”
Now these could be the acts of a few Generals, operating outside the humane parameters of war. But the question needs be asked, did they meet with President Lincolns approval, and even his endorsement. Lincoln must have known of these events, yet he kept Sheridan and Sherman in command. Yet on the other hand he relieved General George McClellan for his lack of aggressive tactics. Lincoln, it appeared, would do anything to win the war, including allowing his generals to reduce 40% of the nation’s economy to a shambles, and killing untold numbers of innocent civilians.
As I stated earlier in this segment, I am not condemning the actions of men in combat. I do, however, condemn the justification of such actions by those in command, especially if that justification and authorization comes from the president of the United States.
I know some will take sides in regards to the Civil War over the issue of who held the moral high ground. It is not my point to try and sway your views in that regard. I do however hope to show you that the North, possibly under direct order from a president of the United States, used brutal tactics to win this war and devastate their opponents.
While the war was primarily fought on battlefields, and in cities and towns across the country, there was more going on than simply fighting. The North was trying to maintain support for the war, and punishing those who spoke out openly against it.
Part 7: On a Political Level
While the war raged on across the land, and the waterways of America, there was not universal support for it in the North. So Abraham Lincoln was not only fighting against those he felt were in rebellion against the United States, he was also fighting a political battle to maintain support for the war as well. This was not an easy thing for him to do, especially with the horrific loss of lives, especially those lives lost by Union soldiers in the early stages of the war.
Lincoln never really cared one way about fighting a war to free slaves. He may have found slavery revolting, but his intent was to force the South to return to the Union, not to end slavery. Yet in 1863 he issued a proclamation emancipating slaves in certain states. The proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, in part states, “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” Read that very carefully, as it is quite telling. Lincoln only freed slaves living in states, or parts of states, which had not been reclaimed by Union forces, and which were still in a state of, as Lincoln declared, rebellion.
It was immediately seen for what it was, a political, or military ploy, by many in the North, and abroad. The New York World wrote, “The President has purposely made the proclamation inoperative in all the places where we have gained a military footing which makes the slaves accessible. He has proclaimed emancipation only where he has notoriously no power to execute it.”
Even Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Seward, made fun of the proclamation by saying, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
What Lincoln was attempting to do, was to incite a slave rebellion where there were only women and children left to hold down the plantations. In this, he hoped to weaken the South, and cause them to accept defeat sooner. It was merely a political and military ploy which had no effect, other than to ensure Lincoln a place in history as a great humanitarian.
Lincoln also had to deal with an antagonistic press whose constant barrage of anti-war writings were playing heavily upon public support for the war. Lincolns response was to suspend Habeas Corpus and have them put in jail without formal charges being brought against them.
If you are aware of your history, then you will know that in 1798, President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts to squelch opposition to a war that Adams feared was about to break out between the U.S. and France. Opponents of these acts included Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response.
On September 4, 1862, President Lincoln issued a similar declaration, which in part stated, “Whereas, it has become necessary to call into service not only volunteers but also portions of the militia of the States by draft in order to suppress the insurrection existing in the United States, and disloyal persons are not adequately restrained by the ordinary processes of law from hindering this measure and from giving aid and comfort in various ways to the insurrection;
Now, therefore, be it ordered, first, that during the existing insurrection and as a necessary measure for suppressing the same, all Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of the United States, shall be subject to martial law and liable to trial and punishment by Courts Martial or Military Commission:
Second. That the Writ of Habeas Corpus is suspended in respect to all persons arrested, or who are now, or hereafter during the rebellion shall be, imprisoned in any fort, camp, arsenal, military prison, or other place of confinement by any military authority of by the sentence or any Court Martial or Military Commission.”
This went against Supreme Court Justice John Marshall’s opinion that, “if…the public safety should require the suspension [of habeas corpus] it is for the legislature to say so.” Yet Lincoln did an end run around this ruling and took it upon himself to do so under the powers granted him as commander in chief of a nation at war. Lincoln even had an arrest warrant issued for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court because he had ruled Lincolns actions unconstitutional.
So, Lincoln was not the hero and great man that he is made out to be. But I will admit that he did one thing that I admire and he is due credit for it. As with all wars, they cost a lot of money to maintain. With the revenues from the tariffs upon the South no longer coming into the Treasury, Lincoln was running up a huge debt to fund the war. Bankers were charging him ridiculous interest rates, sometimes as high as 35%. At one point Lincoln declared, “I have two great enemies, the Southern Army in front of me and the Bankers in the rear.”
Lincoln found a solution for his problem via a friend Colonel Dick Taylor, who told Lincoln, “Just get Congress to pass a bill authorising the printing of full legal tender treasury notes… and pay your soldiers with them and go ahead and win your war with them also.” Although Lincoln would be using this minted money to finance a war I do not personally agree was justified, it is one of the powers the Constitution grants Congress, so why not do it? For that I will give Lincoln credit, for everything else he did I hold him to blame for forever ripping the balance of powers between the people, the states, and the federal government apart. The damage done during the Civil War, and after, has never healed fully. I have been to the South and I has witnessed the deep seated animosity many Southerners hold for the North, and for the government. Sure, due to the Northern victory Lincoln kept the Union intact, but it was never the same and the wound that was left festering at the Constitutional Convention still exists and, in fact, was exacerbated after the conclusion of the war itself.