Disenthralling Ourselves

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Charles Royster’s provocative new study, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (Alfred A. Knopf), argues otherwise. His case is too complex and subtle to set forth in detail here, but no one who cares about the Civil War should miss it. Long before Bull Run, he writes, leaders on both sides were calling for the burning of enemy cities, arguing that no limits should be put on the punishment meted out to those who had only recently been their fellow citizens. “From the first, the prevalent public voices calling for victory defined no clear break in the continuum of revenge, no categorical distinction between firing on Fort Sumter and burning Chambersburg or Columbia.”

It was that sort of supercharged rhetoric, Royster believes, combined with the campaign of terror and devastation inaugurated in 1862 by Stonewall Jackson (whose celebrated piety masked a visceral pleasure in killing), that began the descent into the kind of brutal anarchy that finally accompanied the Federal March to the Sea.

It is unusual these days for a historian to be able to tell a story as well as he or she can make an argument. Charles Royster can. The meticulously detailed re-creation of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, for example, with which Royster begins his book is a chilling evocation of the horrors the war had routinely loosed by 1865. Most memorable, perhaps, is the vignette with which he ends that chapter. A Rebel soldier, prodding a captured Federal straggler through all that is left of the city where the Confederacy began after Sherman’s men have finished with it, stops to ask a genteel young white woman what she thinks should be done with him. To her own astonishment, she finds herself answering, “Kill him.” Later, her father recalled, she would be relieved to learn the culprit had not been killed, but “in that moment all she had to suffer seemed to burn out every feeling of pity and she knew what war was.”

Even Lee’s dogged determination to fight on against increasingly hopeless odds comes in for tough criticism in this biography.

The people of the trans-Mississippi West knew what war was, too, though too many of us still remember the Civil War as an exclusively Eastern conflict. Shelby Foote has suggested that historians and tourists alike share the blame for that misapprehension—historians, because they have concentrated most of their fire upon the fighting in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and tourists, because most of them live in the East and are happy enough to visit the battlefields closest to home. I would offer a third possible explanation. Few cameramen went West to capture the fighting there, so we have little idea of the look of the Western war, none of the shared images that keep the Eastern war so grimly alive in our consciousness.

The Civil War in the American West (Alfred A. Knopf), by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., should help right the record. It is an all-inclusive, fast-moving account of savage fighting spread across more than half a continent, involving not only the blue-and gray-clad armies that clashed at Glorieta Pass and elsewhere in the Southwest, western Louisiana, and Texas, but also encounters between Indians and whites in Minnesota, on the Great Plains, and elsewhere; guerrilla warfare in Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri; and combat between Union and Confederate factions of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. (The last Rebel general to stop fighting was a slave-owning, mixed-blood Cherokee planter, Stand Waitie.)

The war may have been the most bitter and most personal beyond the Mississippi, and Josephy is especially good at showing how scattered Western violence, which seems upon first examination to have erupted independently of the Eastern conflict, actually grew directly from it. Neighbor slaughtered neighbor over slavery in the Border States, and the West saw three of the worst atrocities of the war years: William C. Quantrill’s murder of 150 unarmed civilians at Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863; the massacre of about the same number of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory by gleeful white volunteers in November of the following year; and perhaps the worst, and certainly the least known, the killing by California volunteers of some 250 Northwestern Shoshonis in the snow at Bear River in Idaho Territory on January 29, 1863—just one day before U. S. Grant, the Union’s most dogged exponent of destructive war, took immediate command of the Vicksburg campaign that would forever cut off the Confederacy from its supporters in the West.