The statements of Union officers in their official reports reveal
attitudes far different from how the war is presented in American
The longer the American Civil War lasted, the more Union generals
acted as if they were conducting a crusade to crush infidels. In
a September 17, 1863, letter to Henry W. Halleck, the general in
chief of the Union armies, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
"The United States has the right, and ... the ... power,
to penetrate to every part of the national domain
. We will
remove and destroy every obstacle - if need be, take every life,
every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that
to us seems proper."
Halleck liked Sherman's letter so much that he passed it on to
President Lincoln, who declared that it should be published. Sherman,
in a follow-up to Halleck on October 10, 1863, declared:
"I have your telegram saying the President had read my letter
and thought it should be published
. I profess ... to fight
for but one single purpose, viz, to sustain a Government capable
of vindicating its just and rightful authority, independent of
niggers, cotton, money, or any earthly interest."
On June 21, 1864, before his bloody March to the Sea, Sherman
wrote to the secretary of war: "There is a class of people
[in the South]
men, women, and children, who must be killed
or banished before you can hope for peace and order." A few
months later, Sherman informed one of his subordinate commanders:
"I am satisfied ... that the problem of this war consists
in the awful fact that the present class of men who rule the South
must be killed outright rather than in the conquest of territory,
so that hard, bull-dog fighting, and a great deal of it, yet remains
to be done
. Therefore, I shall expect you on any and all
occasions to make bloody results."
On September 27, 1864, Sherman wrote to Gen. John Hood, the Confederate
commander of the Army of Tennessee, and announced, "I have
deemed it to the interest of the United States that the citizens
now residing in Atlanta should remove, those who prefer it to go
south and the rest north."
On October 9, 1864, Sherman wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant: "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
. I can make the march, and make
Sherman lived up to his boast - and left a swath of devastation
and misery that helped plunge the South into decades of poverty.
Scorched-earth tactics were also used in the Shenandoah Valley
in 1864-65. On September 28, 1864, Gen. Phil Sheridan ordered one
of his commanders to "leave the valley a barren waste." General
Grant ordered Union troops to "make all the valleys south
of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad a desert as high up as possible
... eat out Virginia clear and clean ... so that crows flying over
it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender
with them." Union Gen. Wesley Merritt proudly reported to
Sheridan on December 3, 1864, that "the destruction in the
valley, and in the mountains bounding it, was most complete."
Such tactics were typical towards the end of the war. On December
19, 1864, a Union colonel reported that he had followed orders "to
desolate the country from the Arkansas River to Fort Scott, and
burn every house on the route." In the same month, a major
general with the Army of the Potomac noted the success of a Union
expedition south of Petersburg, Virginia: "Many houses were
contained only helpless women and children ...
almost every house was set on fire."
Many Union officers were horrified at the wanton destruction their
armies inflicted on the South. On March 8, 1865, Gen. Cyrus Bussey
"There are several thousand families within the limits of
this command who are related to and dependent on the Arkansas soldiers
in our service. These people have nearly all been robbed of everything
they had by the troops of this command, and are now left destitute
and compelled to leave their homes to avoid starvation.... In most
instances everything has been taken and no receipts given, the
people turned out to starve, and their effects loaded into trains
and sent to Kansas."
The source of the preceding quotes is The War of the Rebellion:
A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate
Armies (128 volumes published by the Government Printing Office).
Thomas Bland Keys compiled some of the most shocking comments in
his excellent 1991 book, Uncivil War: Union Army and Navy Excesses
in the Official Records, published by the Beauvoir Press in Biloxi,
Mississippi. For a masterful examination of the broad issues surrounding
the war, check out Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's Emancipating Slaves,
Enslaving Free Men (Chicago: Open Court, 1996).
Some Northern leaders claimed to be deeply concerned about the
well-being of slaves liberated by the Northern armies. However,
Union tactics intentionally devastated the economies of much of
the South - leaving people to struggle for years to avert starvation.
This destruction made the South's recovery far slower than it otherwise
would have been - and greatly increased the misery of both white
and black survivors.
The more ruthless the Northern armies acted, the more exalted
federal power became. For many, the greatness and sanctity of the
federal government was confirmed by the fact that the government
possessed the power to burn Southern cities, destroy Southern crops,
and starve Southern families.
The more the politicians used government power to destroy, the
more government power itself was exalted as the greatest curative.
Lord Acton, writing in England in 1862, observed of the American
war: "Whether the Northern Government succeeds or fails, its
character is altered, and its power permanently and enormously
increased." An 1875 article in the American Law Review noted: "The
late war left the average American politician with a powerful desire
to acquire property from other people without paying for it." The
tragic mistakes, blunders, and crimes of politicians led to a war
that resulted in a vast expansion of the power of the political
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