Kershaw of Memphis, Tennessee, wants to file a class-action lawsuit
against the US government for reparations. Not on behalf of the
descendants of slaves but on behalf of Southerners of all races
whose ancestors were the victims of the US government’s rampage
of pillaging, plundering, burning, and raping of Southern civilians
during the War for Southern Independence.
1860 international law – and the US government’s own military
code – prohibited the intentional targeting of civilians in war,
although it was recognized that civilian casualties are always
inevitable. "Foraging" to feed an army was acceptable,
but compensation was also called for. The kind of wanton looting
and destruction of private property that was practiced by the
Union army for the entire duration of the war was forbidden,
and perpetrators were to be imprisoned or hanged. This was all
described in great detail in the book, authored by San Francisco
attorney Henry Halleck, who was appointed by Lincoln as general
in chief of the Union armies in July 1862.
law, the US army’s own military code, and common rules of morality
and decency that existed at the time were abandoned by the Union
army from the very beginning. A special kind of soldier was used
to pillage and plunder private property in the South during the
war. In The Hard Hand of War Mark Grimsley writes that
the federal Army of the Potomac "possessed its full quotient
of thieves, freelance foragers, and officers willing to look
the other way," and that "as early as October 1861" General
Louis Blenker’s division "was already burning houses and
public buildings along its line of march" in Virginia. Prior
to the Battle of First Manassas in the early summer of 1861 the
Army of the Potomac was marked by "robbing hen roosts, killing
hogs, slaughtering beef cattle, cows, the burning of a house
or two and the plundering of others."
Marching through Georgia Sherman biographer Lee Kennett
noted that Sherman’s New York regiments "were filled with
big city criminals and foreigners fresh from the jails of the
to subdue their enemy combatants, many Union officers waged war
on civilians instead, with Lincoln’s full knowledge and approval.
Grimsley describes how Union Colonel John Beatty warned the residents
of Paint Rock, Alabama, that "Every time the telegraph wire
was cut we would burn a house; every time a train was fired upon
we would hang a man; and we would continue to do this until every
house was burned and every man hanged between Decatur and Bridgeport." Beatty
ended up burning the entire town of Paint Rock to the ground.
Union army did not merely gather food for itself; it pillaged,
plundered, burned, and raped its way through the South for four
years. Grimsley recounts a first hand account of the sacking
of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December of 1862:
houses furnished magnificently were broken into and their contents
scattered over the floors and trampled on by the muddy feet
of the soldiers. Splendid alabaster vases and pieces of statuary
were thrown at 6 and 700 dollar mirrors. Closets of the very
finest china were broken into and their contents smashed .
. . rosewood pianos piled in the street and burned . . . Identical
events occurred in dozens of other Southern cities and towns
for four years.
was the plunder-in-chief, and he had three solid years of practice
for his March to the Sea. In the autumn of 1862 Confederate snipers
were firing at Union gunboats on the Mississippi River. Unable
to apprehend the combatants, Sherman took revenge on the civilian
population by burning the entire town of Randolph, Tennessee,
to the ground. In a July 31, 1862 letter to his wife Sherman
explained that his purpose in the war was "extermination,
not of the soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble,
but the people."
the spring of 1863, after the Confederate Army had evacuated,
Sherman ordered his army to destroy the town of Jackson, Mississippi.
They did, and in a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant Sherman
boasted that "The inhabitants [of Jackson] are subjugated.
They cry aloud for mercy. The land is devastated for 30 miles
Mississippi was also destroyed after the Confederate Army had
evacuated, after which Sherman wrote to Grant: "For five
days, ten thousand of our men worked hard and with a will, in
that work of destruction, with axes, sledges, crowbars, clawbars,
and with fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work
well done. Meridian . . . no longer exists."
Citizen Sherman Michael Fellman describes how Sherman’s
chief engineer, Captain O.M. Poe, advised that the bombing of
Atlanta was of no military significance (the Confederates had
already abandoned the city) and implored Sherman to stop the
bombardment after viewing the carcasses of dead women and children
in the streets. Sherman coldly told him the dead bodies were "a
beautiful sight" and commenced the destruction of 90 percent
of all the buildings in Atlanta. After that, the remaining 2,000
residents were evicted from their homes just as winter was approaching.
October of 1864 Sherman even ordered the murder of randomly chosen
citizens in retaliation for Confederate Army attacks. He wrote
to General Louis D. Watkins: "Cannot you send over about
Fairmount and Adairsville, burn ten or twelve houses . . ., kill
a few at random, and let them know that it will be repeated every
time a train is fired upon . . ." (See John Bennett Walters,
Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War, p.
indiscriminate bombing of Southern cities, which was outlawed
by international law at the time, killed hundreds, if not thousands
of slaves. The slaves were targeted by Union Army plunderers
as much as anyone. As Grimsley writes, "With the utter disregard
for blacks that was the norm among Union troops, the soldiers
ransacked the slave cabins, taking whatever they liked." A
typical practice was to put a hangman’s noose around a slave’s
neck and threaten to hang him unless he revealed where the household’s
jewelry and silverware were hidden. Some slaves were beaten to
death by Union soldiers.
Phillip Sheridan engaged in the same kind of cowardly, criminal
behavior in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the autumn of
1864, after the Confederates had finally evacuated the valley.
General Grant ordered him to turn the valley into a "desert," and
he and his army did. A sergeant in Sheridan’s army, William T.
Patterson, described the pillaging, plundering, and burning of
Harrisonburg, Bridgewater, and Dayton Virginia:
of destruction is commencing in the suburbs of the town . .
. The whole country around is wrapped in flames, the heavens
are aglow with the light thereof . . . such mourning, such
lamentations, such crying and pleading for mercy I never saw
nor never want to see again, some were wild, crazy, mad, some
cry for help while others throw their arms around yankee soldiers
necks and implore mercy. (See Roy Morris, Jr., p. 184.)
is important to recognize that at the time the Valley was populated
only by women, children, and old men who were too feeble to be
in the army. In letters home some of Sheridan’s soldiers described
themselves as "barn burners" and "destroyers of
homes." One soldier wrote that he had personally burned
more than 60 private homes to the ground, as Grimsley recounts.
After Sheridan’s work of destruction and theft was finished Lincoln
grandly conveyed to him his personal thanks and "the thanks
of a nation."
Lee Kennett, author of Marching through Georgia: The Story
of Soldiers and Civilians during Sherman’s Campaign, wrote
an article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution last
year in which he argued that Southerners had been too critical
of Sherman. His book is very favorable to Sherman and Lincoln,
but he nevertheless wrote on page 286 that:
Confederates somehow won, had their victory put them in position
to bring their chief opponents before some sort of tribunal,
they would have found themselves justified (as victors generally
do) in stringing up President Lincoln and the entire Union
high command for violation of the laws of war, specifically
for waging war against noncombatants.
Mr. Kershaw’s lawsuit goes to trial, Lincoln and his high command
will finally be put before a tribunal, of sorts. He probably
has little if any hope of winning such a case (in federal court!),
but the trial record would go a long way toward combating the
whitewashing of history that has occurred for the past 140 years.
J. DiLorenzo is a professor
of economics at Loyola College in Maryland
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