book response: The Destructive War by Royster (1993)

I borrowed The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans by Charles Royster from my public library for my Kindle. I learned many things from the book about the Civil War and two of its generals which I will share below. If only Royster's compelling prose filled more of the books pages than the dry, academic and philosophically meandering that predominates. I will also air out my one other grievance before getting to the historical meat of this book. The editor should have asked Royster to avoid the overuse of the two words "repudiate" and "apotheosis" in the book. I forgot to search "repudiate" on the Kindle before I had to return the book, but it seemed like he used the word or it's cognates a hundred times. Of course he wrote this book over 18 years before Sarah Palin brought "refudiate" to our common lexicon, which makes its progenitor grate on my ears.


Confederate sympathizers like to trumpet the wickedness of Sherman's March to the Sea and the destructive swath he cut from Atlanta to Savannah. So if one chooses to forget the genocide on the Africans the Confederacy committed, then it does seem pretty bad, but before Sherman's march there was the raid on Chambersburg,
On the way out of town they set fire to the home of the county superintendent of public schools, telling his family that they did so because “he had taught negroes.” Unlike Atlanta and Columbia, Chambersburg was neither a fortified, defended city nor the site of munitions plants and other military manufacturing. It was just a city the Confederates could reach. Its destruction, for which Early continued to claim credit long after the war, was an act of revenge preceded by an attempt at terror. In Richmond, General Josiah Gorgas noted: “The burning of Chambersburgh by Early gives intense satisfaction.” p. 37
So it seems the Confederate army set a precedent, which they received back in spades from Sherman years later. I believe Royster was trying to develop this theme early on the book, showing the disposition of the Confederate army and Jackson, the devout Presbyterian, in particular. But this "godly" man seemed less merciful than the agnostic Sherman. "He would have preferred that Confederates take no prisoners but kill every Yankee soldier they could reach. In January 1861 he wrote that, if Virginia were invaded, its people should “defend it with a terrific resistance—even to taking no prisoners." p.38 Jackson seems awfully brutal, "He favorably endorsed John D. Imboden’s proposal to form a regiment of rangers to fight a guerrilla war in western Virginia, where, Imboden said, “I shall expect to hunt Yankees as I would wild beasts.” Jackson cautioned Robert L. Dabney [his racist chaplain - JPU] about this partisan warfare: 'The difficulty consists in finding sufficient patriotic nerve in men to join in such service.'” p.39 Royster provides plenty of examples to show Jackson's more human and less angelic side, from his sister's claim that he cheated to get into West Point, p. 45, to repeated observations from those around him with his self-absorption both socially and in the press, 
General Lafayette McLaws believed that Richmond newspapers, with the widest distribution in the South, only grudgingly praised generals from other states, while inflating the deeds of Virginians. He privately complained that Virginia generals engaged in shameless self-promotion. Without naming him, McLaws said that Jackson “panders to the religious zeal of a puritanical Church, and has numerous scribes writing fancy anecdotes of his peculiarities, which never existed. p.67
 A typical general, certainly, but a model for Christian boys even today? American Christians tend to put this man on a platform as a model for Christian men. But I don't get what a slave-owning, humanity denying, war criminal has to offer. Sherman was no saint either, in fact he appreciated Jackson's views, but he was not and never became a Christian. Regarding Sherman's approval of Jackson, Royster writes, 
This emphasis on the primacy of public duty, which could make a soldier execute disarmed prisoners and risk the same fate if he did not die in combat, found some support from William Tecumseh Sherman. In March 1865 a staff officer told Sherman “what Stonewall Jackson said as to not taking prisoners. ‘Perhaps he was right,’ said the General. ‘It seems cruel; but if there were no quarter given, most men would keep out of war. Rebellions would be few and short.’ ” Many Northerners besides Sherman saw in Jackson’s version of patriotic war a model for defeating Jackson’s cause.  p.40



Sherman believed he was merely demanding an eye for an eye in his campaign through Georgia. "Sherman instructed one of his subordinates in November 1863: “It is none of our business to protect a people that has sent all its youth, and arms and horses, and all that is of any account to war against us.… The people have done all the harm they can, so let them reap the consequences.” (p.116) Not a mature Christian sentiment at all, but he was not a Christian. "Sherman was not a Christian and did not have a simple faith in the nation’s success." (p. 139) If the South thought they were the new Israel then Sherman was Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan scourge from God to punish them for their sins. 


Many of the officers on both sides of the Civil War had served together in the Mexican War and saw up close the political machinations in that country, and were not impressed. But only some remembered what they learned.
The Civil War, however, suggested to Northerners a more ominous meaning in the Mexican experience: the United States might soon become as pitiable a failure as Americans held Mexico to be. Losing an election or disliking the government in office, partisans in Mexico resorted to armed resistance and grasped for power in violation of constitutional forms. Governments compromised with revolutionaries; presidents were deposed; and, in the words of one American congressman, “Civil war became the normal condition of the people.” Americans who did not share Sherman’s pessimistic view of democratic politics nevertheless gave signs, in their mentions of Mexico, that they thought their own republic in danger of lapsing into a mockery of their pretensions to have solved the problem of liberty and government. p. 123
The unionists did not want civil war to become the normal condition, which would result in a great weakness and vulnerability to the other world powers. Secession happened almost right away with West Virginia breaking off from Virginia and Jones County in Mississippi acting like a free county within the confederacy. Contrary to some, like the trendy libertarian philosophy of today, the weak federal government resulted in a genocidal society that treated humans as animals in the name of freedom and commerce. The Civil War strengthened the federal government to a good effect for millions of enslaved Africans. In 1887 E. L. Godkin, departing from the contention that war for the union merely enforced the founding fathers’ design, argued, as many historians have done since, that the North’s military victory transformed the Constitution from the founders’ provisional, experimental, ambiguous document to the basis for a nation whose government was for the first time the ultimate authority. (p. 152) But the Confederacy was not at all a libertine utopia, The government of the Confederate States of America had become or would have become as oppressive as that of the United States of America, with the extra disadvantage that things did not work so well in the South. The authorities grew increasingly dictatorial, yet the populace more frequently defied them with impunity. (p. 184)


The straw that broke the camel's back for secession was the victory of a president who promised to prevent any more slave states from entering the union. The writing on the wall told that eventually, democratically, more free states would out-vote slave states and bring a peaceful end to slavery. As soon as Lincoln won the election, Senator Joseph Lane, the Southern Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate, said in private conversation that, if the South failed to resist, “she would have to make up her mind to give up first her honor & then her slaves.” p.172 For some reason, today's Confederate defenders continually try to avoid this fact, out of the mouths and pens of Southerners in 1860 and 1861. The abolitionists had a gradual means of a peaceful end to slavery, to which the South responded in war. Peaceful methods had now come to an end. 
Sherman did not contend that war necessarily would or should grow as violent as the participants could make it. Rather, he meant that in war one side could not rely on peacetime methods and rules—appeals to public opinion, to humanitarianism, to the fundamental law of civil government—as a binding restraint on the other side’s use of force. The belligerents might not do all the harm within their power, usually did not, but they had no guarantee against the possible use of the maximum extremity of violence. p.367
Sherman was not going to resort to halved efforts. Either he would make war or not. “General Sherman does not play at war. ‘War is cruelty,’ he says, ‘and you can not refine it,’ and he believes that they who have brought war upon the country will justly feel its sharpest edge.” (p.373) 


Slavery is nearly the vilest form of greed. And greed was such a cultural milieu, that it helped undo the South. Depending on whom one believed, Richmond or Wilmington or Charleston or Atlanta or Mobile or Vicksburg was the most corrupt city in the Confederacy, its inhabitants given over to profiteering. Looking back on Southerners’ extortion of high prices in order to come out ahead of their currency’s rapid depreciation... (p.181)


Jackson believed personal piety would influence the outcome of the war. But the Confederate army was nowhere near as devout as Jackson was, Devout soldiers often complained that they were surrounded by the irreligious. Revivals in the Confederate army did not touch the great majority of men. And the spread of revivals, especially in the two years after Jackson’s death, did not portend victory for the growing number of the righteous, as Jackson had hoped, but coincided with the Confederate army’s reverses and impending defeat. Jackson, however, believed that revivals presaged and hastened victory. (p. 283) Sherman merely believed that God, in the abstract and not personal sense, did what he wanted to do. 
“Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world.” In this comment he [Sherman- JPU] implied, as he had done in the address, that the war, viewed solely as the work of human minds and deeds, had grown incomprehensible. Because the war had thwarted the designs, confuted the explanations, and absorbed rather than obeyed the efforts of those who had made it, to say that it acted out men’s purposes alone was to say that human activity had no ultimate moral meaning, that there was no God, no cosmic design to events. If, instead, the course of the war were God’s doing, He could reconcile its contradictions, explain its surprises, and validate its bloodshed in some cosmic logic or divinely weighed justice whose clarity and consistency were inaccessible to human minds. There was no other way to believe that what had happened made sense. p.306
Were Sherman and Grant butchers? More likely they were realists, who saw the battles were of attrition and the North needed to use the more that they had in materiel as well as men.
Sherman had concluded during the war that “the South would never give up as long as it had an army of any size worth mentioning.” The South contained a certain number of men—he twice mentioned the figure 300,000—who would not stop fighting. If the North wanted to reunite the nation under the federal government, these men would have to be killed. Killing them would unavoidably entail the deaths of many Northerners. The war consisted of this “awful fact,” as Sherman called it. The people who believed that the war could have been won differently were trying to escape this fact, which Grant had faced. p. 352
Sherman's logic was also brutally honest in his response to Southerner's whose property was destroyed under his the wheels of his war machine. In short, one needs a strong government to enforce laws that protect property, welcome to your weak government.
Yet their wealth and security depended more than they had admitted on “the protection and impetus to prosperity given by our hitherto moderate and magnanimous Government.” They had not created the land; they were a tiny, weak, ephemeral proportion of the earth’s population. Their only title to the “use and usufruct” of the land was “the deed of the United States.” If they preferred to base their claim on their strength in war, “they hold their all by a very insecure tenure.” When Southerners protested against destruction of their property, Sherman lectured them: “You must first make a government before you can have property. There is no such thing as property without a government.” By secession and war, Southerners had abjured government and thus cast themselves adrift in a world of power through violence. All that they had was forfeit to anyone stronger than they. The soldiers’ depredations put this doctrine into practice, face to face. Southerners could not secure their property by an appeal to the Confederate government; nor could they secure their property by a claim of rights under the United States government, which they had disavowed.  p.355
Although Sherman seemed to have no sympathy for slaves, in fact, before the war he owned some house slaves, he brought their freedom and restored their human dignity. As soldiers tore up the Georgia Railroad, an old black man said: “Many a dark population has worked on dat R. Rd—contractor for dis section whipped some of ‘em to death—buried one in dose woods.” (p.358) Someone who ends genocide can be forgiven a multitude of sins in my reckoning. Eventually, he had a change of heart, though politically motivated, towards equality of blacks and whites. Belatedly, in the 1880s, Sherman became an advocate of black men’s right to vote. He saw that the ending of slavery had increased Southern power in Congress and in the electoral college by counting blacks fully in apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives while the increasing curtailment of blacks’ voting enabled Democrats to strengthen their control. (p.366) But what to make of the genocide Sherman continued?


I was worried that Royster, who toward the end of the book let his admiration for Sherman flow, would ignore Sherman's post war career as the general of the Indian Wars, a continuation of an earlier genocide, but Royster does not flinch. General Pope tried to defend the Indians when they sought to protect themselves from the privations of white bandits and treaty breakers, 
Pope wrote: “What the white man does to the Indian is never known. It is only what the Indian does to the white man, (nine times out of ten, in the way of retaliation,) which reaches the public. The Indian in truth, has no longer a country. His lands are every where pervaded by white men, his means of subsistence destroyed, and the homes of his tribe violently taken from him. Himself and his family reduced to starvation, or to the necessity of warring to the death upon the white man whose inevitable and destructive progress threatens the total extermination of his race.” p.408
But Sherman was unmoved. He shifted the blame of his army's slaughters on his country.


Sherman told an audience in Connecticut that the extermination of the Pequots in 1637 had been right because it had made possible the Connecticut of 1881. He admonished the crowd to “remember above all things when you criticise sharply and flippantly the Indian policy of the nation, and condemn the army that it was you who first set the example for the Indian policy now pursued, when you drove the Pequots from these very lands almost 250 years ago.” Thus he made his listeners the destroyers of the Pequots. By conflating early colonists and modern residents Sherman meant to link people in the east with western settlers for whom other tribes were being driven aside and decimated. There were only two sides—civilization and barbarism: “The process begun in Massachusetts Pennsylvania and Virginia remains in operation today, and it needs no prophet to foretell the end.” p. 410 
Perhaps if there were a political benefit to seeking the rights of Native Americans Sherman might have had another change of heart. But there wasn't and he didn't. I think Sherman was wickedly wrong in his treatment of the Native Americans. He refused compassion and mercy, continuing in the sins of his ancestors instead of breaking from them. But he wasn't a religious man, but a practical man, to whom respecting the dignity of all people was not practical. 


As an aside, America's boom and bust cycles with the corresponding love and hatred for banks was part of Sherman's experience with a bank in San Francisco shortly after the 1849 gold rush. State-chartered banks, by their high-risk loans and speculative issuing of notes, expanded the credit available for growth of commerce and industry. Many people denounced all banks for profiting from manipulation of the proceeds of productive labor and for facilitating concentration of wealth in fewer hands. (p.128) Sounds like something in today's paper concerning Occupy Wall Street. Greed grips our entire country throughout it's entire history and leads to wickedness over and over again. The Bible warns us that the love of money is the root of all evil. 1 Timothy 6:10 I wonder what a Christian nation would look like that lived by this principle from Hebrews 13? 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you. " 6 So we can confidently say,"The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?" 
St. James goes a little deeper, so he gets the last word on this long reflction on the U.S. Civil War. If only the self-proclaimed pious South had learned from their Bibles...
What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? 2 You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. 3 And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. 4 You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. 5 What do you think the Scriptures mean when they say that the spirit God has placed within us is filled with envy? 6 But he gives us even more grace to stand against such evil desires. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.” 7 So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. 9 Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. James 4

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