I caught a snatch of news the other day that, even with all that is happening in our time, stunned me. It seems that Hollywood is gearing up its machinery to produce entertainment about “Confederate War Crimes.” This so contradicts the historical record that it can represent nothing but willful ignorance, dishonesty, and malice.  For Hollywood, anything they don’t like or find alien must be Nazi and atrocious. 

The Confederacy was fighting against an invader. It had no opportunity, even if it had wanted, to commit crimes against an enemy civilian population which it seldom saw. The war was on such a vast scale that you may find a few incidents of anything you want along the Border, but that is to mistake the odd for the usual. The Missourians who raided Lawrence, Kansas, did not harm a single woman, although they were hard on the men. And they had ample grievances about harm, including death, that had been done to their womenfolk by Federals to justify retaliation. 

President Davis was quick to condemn excesses the few times they happened, unlike Lincoln, who praised and promoted the perpetrators of atrocities against civilians. General Lee told his men on the way to Pennsylvania that although they had ample justification in what had been done to their homes, they should not imitate the enemy but preserve their honour as representatives of the civilised side of the conflict.

Southerners saw the war as a contest between armed men, conducted by rules that had arisen from the slow development of Christian civilisation. The ruling element of the North saw the war as a crusade to crush a people (fellow Americans) that they had long been taught to hate or disdain and who stood in the way of their power, progress, and profit.

Crimes?  The simple truth about the war, which Americans deliberately refuse to see because its recognition would subvert their self-righteous belief that they are heirs of a benevolent war to “preserve the Union” and free the suffering slaves. The plain factual explanation of the war is that Lincoln formed the biggest army ever seen in the Western Hemisphere in order to invade and conquer the Southern States and deprive their people of the self-government which they had enjoyed since the War of Independence. Lincoln and his supporters solemnly declared they were not acting against slavery. Pressed to give a justification beyond the amorphous one of “preserving the Union,” they confessed that the people, labour, and resources of the South were needed for their profit.

Now if you want to talk about “war crimes” that was a big one. Every honoured American statesman and thinker before 1860 had said that the Union could not be preserved by force. That would violate the nature of the Union, destroy the Union, and substitute, in violation of liberty, a despotism.

The crimes committed by federal soldiers against Southern civilians are as abundantly documented as anything in history.  From the first day the troops passed over the Potomac and Ohio rivers private property was fair game.  And the hatred and destruction increased with the difficulty of conquering the brave and skillful opposition of the invaded people.

Sherman’s systematic war crimes in Georgia and the Carolinas were deliberate and intended, not an unfortunate “collateral damage.”  His celebrated military campaign was primarily directed not at armed enemies but at noncombatants.  But that is only the biggest example of a policy carried out every day everywhere. Sherman and Grant had already practiced in Mississippi.

Simple facts. Hundreds of Southern women had had pistols put to their heads by officers demanding valuables or had their earrings torn off.  Many more, including the sick, aged, and pregnant were made homeless. Fresh graves were dug up on the hope that they might contain hidden valuables. Think about it. Houses were robbed and ransacked and then burned—after furniture, portraits, art works, pianos, keepsakes had been destroyed or stolen. One Yankee officer’s wife furnished her house by theft from a Georgia home, and this is an example not an oddity.

Thousands of times in almost every State, homes were destroyed.  Houses, barns, and essential farm equipment burned; food carried away or ruined; livestock carried away or destroyed, often including children’s pets. Churches, schools, colleges, libraries, even a convent did not escape the deliberately set flames.  A number of South Carolina towns were literally wiped off the map.

The Feds also took civilian hostages and sometimes executed them.  A standard Nazi proceeding.  And, against all the laws of war, used prisoners as shields.

Not all Union soldiers participated in the war crimes.  Some were shamed by them.  But the malefactors included officers and were deliberate.  You have to remember that the Union Army was made up of largely people who had been paid to enlist. In fact, Lincoln and his supporters, in something rare in history, spent more money paying people to enlist than they did on food and ammunition.

Remember that no respectable Northerner had to serve in the Yankee army unless he wanted to. So, the federal forces were full of the riffraff of the big cities and impoverished rural regions and brutal German immigrants who had no idea of American institutions and no connection to their victims.

The victims were by no means only the rich as is now being claimed.  And black people suffered as well as white from being robbed and from lack of food and shelter.  Recent studies have steadily been showing an increase in the count of Southerners, black and white, who died indirectly from the invasion.  The “war cimes,” are abundant although they are not “Confederate.”

It is a bad cause that has to be sustained by lies.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.

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