13 March 2008

Total War

I’ve just read an excellent article by Michael R. Bradley in the most recent issue of North & South Magazine. The piece is titled, In the Crosshairs – Southern Civilians Targeted by the US Army and provides details of crimes committed against southern civilians by Federal troops. Bradley details numerous incidents that took place in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama.

This is a subject not often discussed and one which, being a Southerner, has interest for me personally. My own family has been in the Shenandoah Valley for many generations and some of my ancestors witnessed Sheridan’s burning of the Valley in 1864. Growing up in the Valley and hearing many of the stories that have been passed down through the generations about Sheridan’s “Burning”, Bradley’s well-written and interesting article brought back memories of some of those stories told to me by my father and grandfather. The Union introduced the concept of “total war” during the War Between the States and Sheridan was careful to document his “accomplishments” regarding this concept. Just a partial inventory of buildings, materials, and livestock that were either destroyed or seized include: 1,200 barns, 71 flour mills, 8 sawmills, 974 miles of rail, 15,000 swine, 12,000 sheep, 10,918 cattle, 3,772 horses, 545 mules, 250 calves, 435,802 bushels of wheat, 77,176 bushels of corn, 20,397 tons of hay, 500 tons of fodder, 450 tons of straw, 12,000 lbs. of bacon, 10,000 lbs. of tobacco, and 874 barrels of flour.

One personal anecdote I recall is from an elderly lady who lives in New Hope, near where the Battle of Piedmont took place in June of 1864. My great-great grandfather was wounded there and taken prisoner. He eventually ended up at the infamous yankee prison, Camp Morton. I was visiting with this lady one day several years ago and brought up the battle. Her jaw clinched, her eyes squinted, and she leaned forward to say, “That’s a sore subject in this family.” She then went on to state that, according to what her grandfather had told her as a young girl, George Custer had gotten very drunk one night and burned down one of their barns. She then added, with an extra dose of disgust, “full of hay and just for the fun of it.”

While I know that Custer’s division was involved in Sheridan’s Valley campaign of 1864, I’ve never been able to confirm whether or not this story is true. I do remember discussing it with John Heatwole one day on his radio show and I believe he had heard the same story, had done some investigation on his own, and was convinced of its merit. Nonetheless, these stories are still told around the supper tables and firesides of Shenandoah Valley homesteads, though not as much as they once were.

Some of Bradley’s closing words in the piece are most fitting:

“The neglect of the topic by Civil War historians has led to a widely-held assumption that such targeting of southern civilians did not occur; indeed, some argue that the war aims of the United States were so honorable and noble that such things could not possibly have been done. This has created a myth as misleading as that of the ‘Lost Cause’—the myth of the ‘Holy Cause.’”

Thanks to Keith Poulter and Mr. Bradley for reminding us of one of the lesser known aspects of the Civil War.

(This sketch by Alfred Waud is of Custer's division retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley on 7 October 1864.)

1 comment:

Lawrence Underwood said...

Yep, the destruction of the South during and after the war is one of those conveniently forgotten facts of history. We are still paying its price today.