A Time to Remember the Suffering of all Americans During the Civil War

Andersonville National Historic Site

Andersonville National Historic Site

We should not be surprised by the irrational response by a select few to the selection of William T. Sherman as 1864s’ Man of the Year by an audience at the Museum of the Confederacy this past weekend. I applaud the MOC for maintaining an open Facebook page to facilitate responses and the very limited positive give and take that can be found. The most extreme comments come from people who see themselves as victims of Sherman’s actions in Georgia in 1864. They are most definitely not victims.

It might be helpful to place the destruction wrought by Sherman alongside the suffering of United States soldiers at Andersonville Prison, which commenced with its sesquicentennial commemoration today. One of my readers reminded me that there was likely much more suffering within the walls of the prison than that caused by Sherman throughout Georgia in 1864. On the one hand it’s a perspective that I never considered while at the same time it means very little to me.

One hundred and fifty years later we should be able to distance ourselves and consider the suffering of all Americans during the war as worthy of our attention. It was a war that made victims of everyone it touched from the slaves who endured hardships in the many contraband camps throughout the South to Richmonders and Charlestonians who lived among ruins by the end of the war to the tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides who lived with painful physical and psychological wounds for the remainder of their lives.

This doesn’t mean that we put aside questions of interpretation that address cause, context, and consequences; rather, it to acknowledge that the challenges and suffering experienced by all these people can bring meaning to our own lives regardless of where we live or the color of our skin.

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22 comments… add one
  • Lee Feb 25, 2014 @ 19:54

    Let’s please not get into a discussion of the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki–that topic has been discussed to death and no one’s mind ever changes about it anyway.

    • Chris Evans Feb 26, 2014 @ 7:05



  • Bob Huddleston Feb 25, 2014 @ 13:12

    My uncle was a B-17 pilot in World War II. Was he wrong to bomb defenseless cities? My father was a medic on a troop ship heading for Okinawa in August 1945, to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Was dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima wrong? And periodically the US sends a drone to a “suspected” terrorist gathering and bombs a wedding party. Is that wrong?

  • Chris Evans Feb 25, 2014 @ 11:55

    I always liked the tagline used in the trailer for TNT’s great Civil War movie ‘Andersonville’: “They say you can judge a society by the condition of its prisons.”.


  • Bob Huddleston Feb 25, 2014 @ 8:21

    I read a year or so ago a comment that among the victors of the Civil War were the South Carolinians. I bristled — typical neo-Confederate nonsense. And then I read on: the majority of the people of South Carolina were slaves and they truly were winners.

  • John Tucker Feb 25, 2014 @ 6:43

    I am proud to say the the MOC came to my rescue and removed and blocked many of the hate mongers who attacked me personally for my views on Sherman.

    Again I would have chosen him but that does not mean I liked him for as a commander he is responsible for his troops BUT!!!! He did what needed to be done and shortened this bloody war. The same can be said of the bombing of Japan in 1945. Honorable yes but it saved 1000’s if not millions of young American boys.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2014 @ 7:35

      Hi John,

      Great news, but remember that you are not a victim. You chose to engage others on their Facebook page. That you were attacked ought not to be a surprise. I’ve been dealing with it in various forms for eight years.

  • James F. Epperson Feb 25, 2014 @ 5:11

    I believe that the “rules of war” in effect at the time of Sherman’s campaign (the Lieber Code, more formally known as GO 100) allowed for the bombardment of a defended city. I’m sure this led to a lot of suffering and misery in Atlanta, as well as Vicksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg. But then war tends to cause a lot of suffering.

    • Chris Evans Feb 25, 2014 @ 12:01

      Stephen Davis in his book ‘What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta’ and Russell Bonds in his chapter on the bombardment in his book ‘War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta’ make some good arguments against the bombardment being very effective. They also argue that it was against the rules of war. They also bring some effective counterpoint to Grimley’s arguments on the war in his book.


      • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2014 @ 12:10

        I’ve been meaning to pick up Davis’s book. Thanks for the reminder.

      • Bob Huddleston Feb 25, 2014 @ 13:08

        John Fabian Witt argues to the contrary in his _Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History_ (NY: 2012). What Sherman did was consistent with both GO 100 and the general understanding of what was acceptable. He points out that Hood had fortified Atlanta, making it a military target. The casualties were minimal: about 20 noncombatants killed and between 100 and 200 wounded. On September 4, 1864, Sherman responded to criticism with a typical letter to Stanton:

        “I propose to remove all the inhabitants of Atlanta, sending those committed to our cause to the Rear, & the Rebel families to the front. I will allow no trade, manufactories, or any citizens there at all, so that we will have the entire use of Railroad back as also such corn and forage as may be reached by our troops.

        “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity & cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want Peace they & their Relatives must stop War.”

        John Marzelak had some thoughts on this:

        “Sherman’s perceived brutality lay not in his destruction of Confederate property, but in the fact that he, more than any Union general, demonstrated the hopelessness of the Confederate cause. Once he purposefully marched through the interior letting neither Johnston’s nor Hood’s armies, distance, logistics, mud or swamps hinder him it was all over. The trail of destruction, though not nearly as complete as some claim, was shocking enough to sear the Southern soul. Sherman did not save Southern sensibilities, and this was his real crime.”
        John F Marszalek, _Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order_, New York: The Free Press, 1993, 333

        • Patrick Young Feb 26, 2014 @ 3:14

          From the Crimes of War Project:

          Under international humanitarian law (IHL), siege is not prohibited per se. The capture of an enemy-controlled city is a legitimate military aim, and army commanders have often seen siege as less costly than the alternative—fighting house to house, street by street. Historically, a key element of siege warfare has been to reduce a town’s defenses and force its surrender by cutting off its vital supplies and leaving the population, civilian and military alike, to starve. Cruel as this tactic is, the laws of war permitted it at least until the end of World War II, under the rationale of military necessity.

          The last revision of the U.S. Army field manual on the law of land warfare, for example, informed commanders that civilians who are fleeing a besieged city can, as an “extreme measure,” be turned around and forced back into the city for the specific purpose of “hastening its surrender.” Implicitly, this principle permitted the deliberate starvation of the civilian population, if only as a means of demoralizing the city’s armed defenders. Under pre-World War II Hague Regulations, “undefended” cities could not be bombarded, but siege tactics are normally used against defended places, so this prohibition did not exclude sieges.

          The laws pertaining to siege warfare, however, have changed radically in the post-World War II era. Though the word “siege” is never mentioned as a term of law, the Additional Protocols of 1977 impose restrictions on warfare that, if enforced, would effectively make siege illegal. Besieging forces are not allowed to target civilians or starve them “as a method of warfare,” and relief agencies are authorized to provide aid to needy populations.

          The most important limitations are the rules regarding “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” including food and water supplies. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 upheld the traditional view that an army may legally block food or other relief shipments into a besieged city if the aid would result in more goods becoming available to the local military forces. But Article 54 of the First Additional Protocol contains an absolute ban on the starvation of civilians as well as forbidding the destruction of foodstuffs, crops, livestock and drinking water supplies that a civilian population relies on for sustenance. This provision may require a besieging force to allow relief supplies to enter a besieged city, even if some of the supplies will inevitably be shared with the defenders. A besieging army is also forbidden, for example, from destroying a city’s drinking water supply.

          Comparable rules are found in the Second Additional Protocol, applicable in internal conflict. Even when the protocols do not apply, prohibitions on the starvation of civilians are now widely seen as part of customary law. In addition, rules against the deliberate targeting of civilians would apply during sieges as at other times.
          – See more at: http://www.crimesofwar.org/a-z-guide/siege/#sthash.CxcTc9gg.dpuf

  • Jacob Dinkelaker Feb 25, 2014 @ 4:17

    I agree, we should “consider the suffering of all Americans during the war as worthy of our attention.” I think the point that is missing in this post is that *we* collectively as an academic community and as a nation have not properly come to terms with the amount of human suffering that occurred at Andersonville. Case in point, you admitted you have never considered the comparison between suffering of Union soldiers vs citizens of Georgia in 1864. The comparison isn’t meant to be a “gotcha,” it’s meant to point out where our history, remembrance, and memory is lacking…

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2014 @ 4:20

      Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for the comment. I should have clarified that point further. I was thinking about Andersonville v. civilians from the neo-Confederate perspective, which is constantly pointing the finger at the latter with almost no awareness of the former. At this point we ought to be able to acknowledge suffering across racial and regional lines. Hope that helps.

  • Chris Coleman Feb 25, 2014 @ 3:52

    I will confess that I too was taken aback by the Museum of the Confederacy’s choice of General Sherman as “Man of the Year” for 1864, when I first heard about it. Then on reading further, I realized that, like Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” it does not mean “all around nice guy of the year” or “person whom I agree with the most,” but rather, who was the most important or influential person of this year. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and a number of other horrible persons were “Man of the Year” at one time or another on Time’s cover.

    So, from that perspective, yes, William Tecumseh Sherman was definitely the most important person of 1864. The capture of Atlanta and then the famous (or infamous) march to the sea were the most decisive events of 1864 hands down and Sherman, for good or ill was the man responsible for them. I do believe that his violation of human rights during the March to the Sea was far worse than history has recorded, simply because much of the abuse was in the countryside and went largely unrecorded. I have read comments by other Union officers criticizing his scorched earth policies and likening him to Attila the Hun, so not everyone in the western theatre was an enthusiastic supporter of him or his policies. Nevertheless, on cannot gainsay his pivotal role in ending the war in 1864.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2014 @ 4:09

      I do believe that his violation of human rights during the March to the Sea was far worse than history has recorded, simply because much of the abuse was in the countryside and went largely unrecorded.

      I am not sure what “human rights” is intended to mean in the context of the 1860s. And “far worse” compared to what? Again, I highly recommend Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War on these matters. What historical framework are you utilizing in rendering these judgments?

  • Patrick Young Feb 25, 2014 @ 2:40

    As a lawyer who cut his teeth doing war-related humanitarian law, the suffering of prisoners of war of one side is not some kind of an offset to the targeting of non-combatants by the other side. Each may independently be grave humanitarian violations. My training is entirely in modern humanitarian law, which I realize was not in effect in 1864, however it is a guide to how this subject is thought about today. Article 52 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions allows attacks on civilian property, but only on “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.” In other words, destruction of civilian property is not allowed for the purpose of “breaking the will” of a foreign people to resist.

    I am not at all certain why people who bring up civilian suffering at the hands of Sherman’s troops seem to be so reviled by some of the commenters here.

    I am not an expert on Sherman’s March and so I offer no judgement on whether he or the soldiers under his command engaged in the actions alleged, but I don’t think that pointing to Andersonville alters the evaluation of Sherman’s actions.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2014 @ 3:35

      I am not suggesting that civilian suffering ought to be seen as “offsetting” anything. What I am suggesting is that 150 years later we have much to learn from the challenges of war that Americans North and South endured.

      • Patrick Young Feb 25, 2014 @ 3:49

        Kevin, I was responding to the suggestion of your reader. I understand that you said that the comparison “means very little to me.”

        • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2014 @ 4:05

          Should have looked more closely. Thanks for the comment, Patrick.

  • Ben Allen Feb 24, 2014 @ 18:17

    This is one of your best, most eloquent posts you have written.

    As somebody whose great-great-great grandfather and namesake fought against Sherman (Company B, 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles), particularly at Jonesborough (modern-day Jonesboro) and the other battles closer to Atlanta, I am more of a victim, albeit very indirectly, of this sectional strife than any of those extremists howling over the Museum of the Confederacy’s recent choice for 1864’s Man of the Year. Yet I stand by the museum’s decision. The Person of the Year Symposium is an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one, so the selection of Sherman is not without merit. Just because he is now Man of the Year doesn’t mean his praises are going to be extolled.

    “One of my readers reminded me that there was likely much more suffering within the walls of the prison than that caused by Sherman throughout Georgia in 1864.” What about Atlanta? The Federals’ bombardment of that city’s civilian population entailed much adversity on the part of her citizenry.

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