Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reality Check

"The law is one thing, the execution of the law another. God himself has commanded: 'Thou shalt not kill,' thou shalt not steal,' 'thou shalt not covet another's goods,' etc. Will any one say these things are not done now as well as before these laws were announced at Sinai? I admit the law to be that 'no officer or soldier of the United States shall commit waste or destruction of cornfields, orchards, potato-patches, or any kind of pillage on the property of friend or foe near Memphis,' and I stand prepared to execute the law as far as possible... I cannot punish my whole command, or a whole battalion, because one or two bad soldiers do wrong... we must bear this in mind, that however peaceful things look, we are really at war..." General William T. Sherman, letter to the Editor of the Memphis, TN "Bulletin," September 21, 1862.


The Archer of the Forest said...

Thus says the man who instituted Total War theory a few years later and would have, by modern definitions, been conflicted of crimes against humanity in his "March to the Sea."

Many Southern Episcopal Churches to this day to not sing the doxology in the liturgy because that was what Sherman's soldiers often were singing as they marched away from burning fields and houses during his Southern campaign.

TLF+ said...

An under-discussed reality is that he was highly placed in the military administration that handled the Plains war, using the same total war devastation of the infrastructure (buffalo herds) to defeat a military foe that was winning most of the battles. What was done to the Plains tribes was essentially developed on the March to the Sea.

I find the quote intriguing at a number of levels - as you point out, at some point the effort to maintain human some semblance of civility even in war gave way to a more ruthless approach. Also, you have the recognition that no amount of force or institutional power is going to contain every evil. The step from "there is no perfection" to "let's just stop trying and do whatever" isn't very long, it seems.

Keith said...

I find it interesting that Sherman's March killed less people than Grant but since Sherman's war was against property and a way of life he is the war criminal. As long as the Southern Infrastructure was in place, the brutal campaigns in Virginia would continue. Grant and Lee's style of warfare led to the slaughter that was WWI. As far as the Plains Indian campaign, they were doomed the minute the US government decided not arrest the prospectors and land developers that were breaking the treaties that we made with the Native Americans. Custer finding gold in the Black Hills did not help either.

TLF+ said...

Keith - history is a bear, isn't it? Just when we think we've found "the point," more complexity is revealed! Thanks for sharing more good perspective on the amazing, interconnected events of the later 19th century... events that still strain our thinking and civic life today.