Who Is a Victim of History?

Update: A must read post by Robert Moore at Cenantua’s Blog.

This morning one of my readers asked me to clarify my thoughts about a recent post on Sherman and those who claim to be victims of his army’s actions in Georgia and the Carolinas.  This reader’s email reflects not only the post itself but some of the comments that followed it:

Why are there victims from the slavery system, but it would be impossible for there to be any from Sherman’s march? The question is not over whether Sherman’s army’s actions actually caused the damage to create victims. It is because it seems you are saying the southern people must disconnect from what they see as the sufferings of their ancestors, but it is fine for the descendants of slavery to do so.

First, let me be clear that no one is talking about “disconnecting” from the suffering of one’s ancestors.  My early education as a Jew was built on the importance of not forgetting what happened to fellow Jews during the Holocaust.  Such an identification often functions as the glue that holds a community/society together.  At no time, however, did I ever claim to be a victim of that event or that my life had been directly impacted by it even though members of one side of my family did fall victim to the Nazi’s Final Solution.

I don’t accept that all historical events have the same weight in terms of their continued effect on the present.  That, of course, would be silly.  Any answer must be qualified by the individual or community’s connection to the event and a host of empirical factors.  In the end, whether you are a victim of the past or in some sense suffering as a result of that past action/event has everything to do with how that event continues to impact you economically, politically, socially, and even psychologically.

The question of whether the history of slavery has left us with victims in 2012 came up in the comments section, but apart from my very brief comment, I don’t quite know how to respond.  I don’t know too many African Americans who claim to be victims of slavery, though the question of the long-term consequences of institutionalized racism has certainly been debated.  The question of whether some Native Americans can claim to be victims or casualties of federal policy also seems to me to be worth considering.  On the other hand, you don’t hear much from those Japanese-Americans who claim to be victims of the policies of the federal government during WWII and I suspect that even if you did those people who have the biggest problem with my post would no doubt voice their disagreement.  In each of these cases the long term economic, social, political and psychological would be measured differently by different people.

So, where does all of this scrambling leave us in regard to Southerners and Sherman’s March?  [Oh, and let’s remember that we are talking about white Southerners.]  It leads us right back to where we started.  Let’s hear from those people who claim to be victims of Sherman’s March just how their lives have been impacted.  How have they suffered economically, politically, socially, or even psychologically as a result of United States policy in Georgia in 1864-65?

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9 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Aug 3, 2012 @ 3:13

    Here in Beaufort county SC, there is one family that believes they were touched by Sherman..  Talking to one member, seems like he is related to everyone who was anyone in Colonial and Antebellum SC..  During the war, One owned a  charleston newspaper, another , whose painting is displayed over his fathers fireplace was the commander of Fort Sumter  etc.. I took a couple of prints, of Lee and Sherman, to his shop to be framed.
    He said that frameing Sherman would be really hard.. he Could do a black frame.. Asked him why. Sherman burned 18 of the families plantations..  I really think he felt a personal loss..

  • Dudley Bokoski Jul 31, 2012 @ 16:53

    Part of the problem is that of language. The term “war crimes” became much more loaded with the coming of the Nazis and World War II. You could look at the actions of particular commanders and their troops in the Civil War and determine they had violated the certain of the Articles of War and apply the term “war crime” to those actions. Perhaps modern readers consider the term in the more recent context and are reluctant to apply the term to the Civil War. It would probably be easier to discuss the topic if there was a more neutral vocabulary.

    Another factor which is sometimes overlooked is geography in demographic terms. Sherman came from the west and conducted his war in a manner which was not uncommon in Missouri in 1861, where you had a much more rural and divided population. Warfare in the east (the early western armies were essentially large, armed, civilian mobs) was different in terms of the level of organization of the forces (more traditionally commanded and better disciplined) and the relatively unified civilian population. Sherman was the same Sherman of 1861, but in the east (and I know I’m stretching a bit to regard Georgia and SC as strictly eastern) he was in a different part of the country with different expectations of war and warriors.

    All that said, Sherman himself was a different breed of cat. After Bull Run Lincoln was visiting the army at Alexandria and a captain reported to the President Sherman had threatened to shoot him. Supposedly Lincoln drew the man aside and, enjoying the moment, told him to be careful because from what he knew of Sherman he just might do it.

    • Margaret D. Blough Aug 1, 2012 @ 18:37

      Actually, if one compares Sherman’s army to conditions in Arkansas and Missouri, Sherman was much more controlled. Also, there have been some excellent studies comparing the myths of Sherman’s campaigns to the damage that can be documented.

      I keep wondering where these wars were held that had no impact on civilians prior to the American Civil War? I see very little evidence of it. Did anyone every see Goya’s drawings of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain? I saw them on special exhibition in NYC many years ago. Even now, they send chills down your spine. http://www.napoleonguide.com/goyaind.htm.

      Also, once nations started resorting to mass conscription and the involvement of civilians in growing foodstuffs and working in factories to support war efforts, the line between civilian and military became increasingly blurred.

  • Alan Skerrett Jul 31, 2012 @ 16:31

    When soldiers are at war with each other, and one soldier shoots another dead, is the dead soldier a “victim?” Most would say no.

    When a military campaign causes civilians in the immediate area to lose food, belongings, etc, are they victims? Hmm…

    Is there a distinction to be made between victims of war, and victims of war crimes? If Sherman’s forces committed acts that can “objectively” be determined to be war crimes, I think it is fair to talk about that. But oft times, actions of warring parties have negative effects on civilians, and this is a consequence of those parties being at war.

    Such negative effects on Georgians could have been avoided by the military surrender of the Confederacy. But that did not happen until spring 1865. Until that time, there was always the risk that war might come to the front door of civilians in one way or the other. Does that mean those civilians were the victims of Sherman, per se? Could we not also blame the Confederacy for engaging in war and putting its citizens at risk?

    These are rhetorical questions only. Just something to think about.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jul 30, 2012 @ 16:32

    Just out of curiosity, what percentage of the Southerners who criticize Sherman do you believe are doing so out of some feeling of personal loss from his actions?

    I’m not saying that critically of your point, it’s just living in the South I’m surprised to find people believe Southerners are all that emotionally invested in Sherman. He’s a part of the cultural landscape, for sure, and views here tend to reflect what was handed down in the generations following his wartime actions. Let’s just say among our ancestors he didn’t win many friends while passing through.

    But I also believe enough time has passed where many of the people interested in, or critical of, Sherman are just people interested in history who have formed judgments of his actions based on what they’ve read in more contemporary accounts. I suspect Vietnam inspired some of the questions about the proper use of force in regard to military forces in occupied territories and it may be that informs those questions to some significant degree as well.

    The point which seldom is raised about Sherman is that he and is men reflected the intensity of anger both sides felt toward the other. The war didn’t just spring up in 1861 unexpectedly. This was a population which had split emotionally and built a bonfire of hatreds over decades onto which they threw their fortunes. This doesn’t excuse bad acts during the war, but it has to be considered as the context in which those events occurred.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2012 @ 16:42

      You make a number of really good points here. I have no idea what percentage of white Southerners feel that strongly about Sherman. At no point in my post was I suggesting that such a stance characterizes even a significant minority of Southerners. The post was simply based on one experience in Charleston as well as some things that I’ve seen around the Internet.

      • J. L. Bell Jul 30, 2012 @ 17:10

        I recall about twenty years ago hearing a colleague from Georgia talk about how shocked she was to see a bust of Sherman in a northerner’s house. She didn’t try to speak as a victim of Sherman, but she had certainly been raised to feel that Sherman had been more monstrous than other generals. She also marveled at her own immediate response and how it had forced her to think.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2012 @ 17:15

          Hi John,

          She didn’t try to speak as a victim of Sherman, but she had certainly been raised to feel that Sherman had been more monstrous than other generals.

          I don’t doubt it regardless of whether she had any family in the war and her own knowledge of the period.

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