The Incivility of Lincoln’s War

The following is taken from Richard M. Weaver’s classic The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought, first published in 1968.


4. The Character of the Enemy

Thus the majority of Confederate officers looked upon themselves as Christian gentlemen, and in the recognized calling of war they sought to maintain that character, often to the point of nicety. The style and spirit of their warfare was a source of great pride to them, but that of the enemy provoked criticism and condemnation, on what grounds we must see. It is well to proceed cautiously here, for as an early English poem says, “In broyles the bag of lyes is ever open,” and the enemy is likely to be represented as barbarous in proportion as he proves stubborn and difficult to conquer. But after all precautions have been taken and all corrections have been made, there remains considerable foundation for the assertion that the United States is the first government in modern times to commit itself to the policy of unlimited aggression. This was one of the many innovations which came out of the American Civil War. It is true, of course, that no war is wholly free from atrocities, but a distinction must be drawn between those excesses committed by soldiers who have broken discipline and those which are a part of the determined policy of commanders. Generals Hunter, Sheridan, and Sherman put themselves on record, both by utterance and practice, as believing in the war of unlimited aggression, in the prosecution of which they received at least the tacit endorsement of the Lincoln administration.

This is a matter of prime importance in the history of the American past, because the real significance of the war of unlimited aggression is that it strikes at one of the bases of civilization. As long as each side plays according to the rules of the “game,” with no more infraction than is to be expected in any heated contest, the door is left open for reconciliation and the eventual restoration of amity. But when one side drops the restraints built up over a long period and commits itself to the total destruction of the other by any means, no longer distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants, then the demoralization is complete, and the difficulty of putting relationships back on a moral basis is perhaps too great to be overcome. In war, as in peace, people remain civilized by acknowledging bounds beyond which they must not go. Even in military combat there must be a supreme sanction, uniting those who in all else are in opposition, and if this is disregarded, then the long and painful business of laying the foundations of understanding must be recommenced from the very beginning. The expression “Christian civilization,” when examined, denotes just this body of fundamental concepts and allegiances, which one may not drop without becoming “un-Christian” and so, in the meaningful sense of the word, excommunicated. When this is understood the term “Christian soldier” ceases to be paradoxical. The Christian soldier must seek the verdict of battle always remembering that there is a higher law by which both he and his opponent will be judged, and which enjoins against fighting as the barbarian.

It is not unusual to read in Southern accounts of the rejection of some procedure as “unworthy of a Christian soldiery.” Indeed, by the standard of modern practice, which represents a revolt against all civilized restraints, the matter of regard for rule was carried far.78 Exceptions were found, naturally, among the disorderly elements which made up parts of the Western armies, but few outrages can be ascribed to the armies of Johnston, Lee, and Bragg, and none of them was condoned.

Great indignation followed the discovery that these observances were not going to be reciprocated by the North. Though few Confederate commanders attempted to reason the matter out in terms of philosophy and history, there was conviction that those violating the code were guilty of an enormity whose consequences would not be limited to immediate acts. Most of them considered it unprofessional to display anger, and we have from Lee only a few passing remarks about the cruelty of war. But the more impetuous members of the fraternity were not unwilling to declare themselves. Jubal Early was bitter against Sherman, and the pages of Semmes are crowded with citations of Yankee knavery. One reads of “the mad fanatics of the North,”79 and of “the coarse and rude Vandal.”80 Semmes explained to the captain of a foreign ship that “we are only defending ourselves against robbers, with knives at our throats.”81 In almost every chapter the reader encounters “the Northern Demos” and “the barbarians of the North.” Semmes shared the view of Edward Pollard that the Northern government was the instrument of a coarse and unruly mob, and that the Northern armies were recruited from riffraff, whose outstanding penchant was thievery. “Unfortunately for the Great Republic,” he wrote, “political power has descended so low, that the public officer, however high his station, must of necessity be little better than the b’hoy from whom he receives his power of attorney. When mobs rule, gentlemen must retire to private life.”82 This government was “with a barbarity unknown in civilized war, laying waste our plantations and corn-fields.”83

President Lincoln had originally proposed to execute all captured Confederate sea raiders as pirates, but the promise of retaliation by President Davis compelled him to abandon the intention. Semmes used this incident to sharpen his moral. “This recantation of an attempted barbarism,” he said,

had not been honestly made. It was not the generous taking back of a wrong principle, by a high-minded people. The tiger, which had come out of the jungle, in quest of blood, had only been driven back by fear; his feline, and bloodthirsty disposition would, of course, crop out again as soon as he ceased to dread the huntsman’s rifle.84

Semmes had destroyed Northern property on a scale far beyond anything other Confederate commanders had an opportunity to do, and it was natural that in the Northern press he should be singled out for special abuse. He therefore took delight in announcing that he had observed the laws of war more faithfully than the enemy. In connection with his capture of the Golden Rocket from the “Black Republican State of Maine” he wrote:

We were making war upon the enemy’s commerce, but not upon unarmed seamen. It gave me as much pleasure to treat these with humanity, as it did to destroy his ships, and one of the most cherished recollections which I have brought out of the war, which, in some sense may be said to have been a civil war, is, that the “pirate,” whom the enemy denounced, with a pen dipped in gall, and with a vocabulary of which decent people should be ashamed, set that same enemy the example, which he failed to follow, of treating prisoners of war, according to the laws of war.85

Semmes never abandoned his saeva indignatio against the North, and at the end of his long work he recorded his belief that the killing of Abraham Lincoln was

just retribution for destruction and ruin brought on twelve millions of people. Without any warrant for his conduct he made a war of rapine and lust against eleven sovereign states, whose only provocation had been that they had made an effort to preserve the liberties which had been handed down to them by their fathers. These states had not sought war, but peace, and they had found, at the hands of Abraham Lincoln, destruction. As a Christian, it was my duty to say, “Lord have mercy upon his soul! but the d–l will surely take care of his memory.”86

The most execrated name in Southern annals is, of course, that of W.T. Sherman. Joe Johnston, who opposed him in the campaign from Dalton to Atlanta, wrote nothing in censure of his methods, and in 1891 served as pallbearer at his funeral. But Johnston was of cold temperament; John B. Hood, on the other hand, who took over command with the Confederate army backed up against Atlanta, considered the policies of his adversary barbarous and addressed to him several communications in rebuke. Hearing of the forcible evacuation of civilians from Atlanta – a measure mild enough in comparison with the brutalities of both sides in World War II – Hood found it impossible to suppress feeling. He accordingly sent Sherman a heated message: “And now, sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.”86 He followed this with quotations from Vattel, Grotius, and Halleck to show that Sherman’s conduct violated the universally recognized rules, and cited instances from the Peninsular War, in which both Wellington and Soult had taken vigorous steps to restrain their troops from acts of revenge. At first Sherman gave as good as he received, but growing impatient with what he called “hypocritical appeals to God and humanity,”88 he advised Hood that it would be better for them to fight it out like men. Both seem to have concluded that such discussion was “out of place and profitless” for soldiers, and the exchange was soon terminated.

Even E. Porter Alexander, Chief of Artillery of Longstreet’s Corps, who became thoroughly reconciled to the issue of the war, and who produced one of the most impartial and judicious of the military histories, could not refrain from an observation on the methods of Sherman. In the closing pages of his valuable Military Memoirs of a Confederate he wrote with reference to the devastation of Georgia: “This was excused on the ground that ‘War is Hell.’ It depends somewhat upon the warrior.”89 This may be taken as expressing the general opinion of the Confederate military fraternity.

Charles C. Jones, Jr., in his Historical Sketch of the Chatham Artillery recorded the bitter opinion that “A liberal and dignified consideration of the feelings, necessities and welfare of the vanquished and impoverished apparently belongs to a contemned period of Roman virtue, the dead chivalry of a heroic age, now numbered with the neglected past, and the despised teaching of the New Testament dispensation.”90

Criticism of Northern military methods naturally led to a criticism of the whole of Northern civilization, which unfortunately was presented to the South in the form of the Abolitionist, representing hypocrisy; the plundering soldier, representing among other things Yankee cupidity; and the carpet-bagger, representing political unscrupulousness. The more partisan Southerners looked upon these as natural outgrowths of the Yankee heritage and the Yankee way of life. Raphael Semmes was particularly severe in his estimate of the Northerners as people. A Catholic gentleman from Maryland, he had a deep-seated antipathy toward the Puritan, and few chapters of A Memoir of Service Afloat are free from acid comments on this type. Virginia and Massachusetts he viewed as two incompatible yoke-fellows:

Virginia and Massachusetts were the two original germs, from which the great majority of the American population has sprung; and no two peoples, speaking the same language and coming from the same country, could have been more dissimilar, in education, taste, and habits, and even in natural instincts, than the adventurers who settled these two colonies. Those who sought a new field of adventure for themselves, and affluence for their posterity, in the more congenial clime of the Chesapeake, were the gay, and dashing cavaliers, who, as a class, afterward adhered to the fortunes of the Charleses, whilst the first settlers of Massachusetts were composed of the same materials, that formed the “Praise-God-Barebones” Parliament of Cromwell. These two peoples seemed to have an instinctive repugnance, the one to another.91

In broad outline the victory of the Yankee was viewed by the South as a triumph of the forces of materialism, equalitarianism, and irreligion. Richard Taylor, who spent much of his time after the war in the North interceding for Confederates in distress, was appalled by the saturnalia he witnessed there. It appeared to him that the masses had “lost all power of discrimination.” The new men of influence were those who had just acquired fortunes, and who showed themselves “destitute of manners, taste, or principles.” The great moral crusade had ended in a mockery:

The vulgar insolence of wealth held complete possession of public places and carried by storm the citadels of society. Indeed, society disappeared. As in the middle ages, to escape pollution, honorable men and refined women (and there are many such in the North) fled to sanctuary and desert, or, like the early Christians in the Catacombs, met secretly and in fear.98

Among the voices deploring the new Yankee civilization was that of the Southern Bivouac, which now and then indulged in mild political skirmishing. In a plaintive editorial it declared that Southern youths were now better acquainted with the exploits of Jay Gould and Jesse James than with those of their sires in the late war. It found the current feeling running strongly towards a “continental nationality,” with an element in the North willing to bury the memory of the war entirely for the sake of getting trade with the South. This was interpreted as a further sign that money had become the ultimate aim in life.99 If these are the days of money, those were the days of glory, it was constantly affirmed, and suspicion was strong that the new motivation was not going to produce all that its champions imagined. The issue of September, 1883, noted that the South was winning much praise for its business activity. This was pleasant, but reservations had to be made:

It is well to be up and doing, but there are some things more essential to national health than full barns and stupendous factories.

Let us not forget the breed of noble blood. Many say, “We have turned our backs on the past. Opinions and sentiments are false friends. Nothing is real but property and money.”

The war, indeed, was a curse, if it brought us to this. Time was when gold could not purchase rank in society, politics, and religion. It is so no longer.100

With reference to the airs which freedmen were giving themselves, it stated that if these constituted progress, “we would like to see a little retrograde movement now and then, for the sake of variety.”101

Such remarks tell plainly enough that the French Revolution had not come to the South by 1860. Southerners of the postbellum epoch were men of the eighteenth century suddenly transported into a nineteenth-century world. The source of their bafflement is a familiar story to the cultural historian. The old formulations were gone, and a previously well defined structure of society was giving way before the parvenu, whose title to place rested upon some special – and not always praiseworthy – achievement. The old idea of rewards was vanishing, and instead of receiving a station dictated by a theory of the whole society, men were winning their stations through a competition in which human considerations were ruled out. Carlyle had bitterly indicted it in England as the age of the “cash-nexus”. Everything betokened the breaking-up of the old synthesis in a general movement toward abstraction in human relationships. The individual was becoming a unit in the formless democratic mass; economics was usurping the right to determine both political and moral policies; and standards supposed to be unalterable were being affected by the new standards of relativism. Topping it all was the growing spirit of skepticism, which was destroying the religious sanctions of conduct and leaving only the criterion of utility.

War is a destroyer of patterns, and those who have grown up in one order, familiar with its assumptions and customs, and feeling that the rules of its collective life somehow emanate from themselves, are likely to be seized with nostalgia when struggling with a new pattern. The alteration which came over the whole country after the triumph of the nationalist party was part of a worldwide tendency. It was modernism, with its urgency, impatience, truculence, and its determination to strip aside all concealing veils and see what is behind them. When the men of the new order did strip aside these veils and found that there was nothing behind them, but that the reality had existed somehow in the willed belief, or the myth, they marked the beginning of modern frustration.

To those who believe in the cyclical theory of cultures, growth and decay are real, and hence there is an absolute point of view from which one generation can assert that the next is a step nearer perdition, if by that we understand a failing sense of moral values, a loss of belief in self, and the spiritual debility which flows from these. It is a problem to determine whether the Confederate captains were aware of the deeper implications of the conflict, which seldom got into the catchwords used to rally either side. It seems that they heard the warning voice, but lacked the insight, or perhaps the vocabulary, to make a full demonstration of the danger. It was generally recognized that two opposed systems were struggling for the mastery. The passing of the code of chivalry, the refusal any longer to see war as a game, the rampant spirit of commercialism, brought it home even to the least perceptive that there was something new in the world, that the “unbought grace of life” was being destroyed by forces beyond a soldier’s power to combat. There was a stubborn notion that there existed some necessary relationship between the old way of life, with its emphasis upon sentimental values and personal integrity, so that the modernism ushered in by the Northern victory looked to some like the the knowledge of evil, which ends man’s state of innocence.

The Eden was the agrarian South, whose existence was challenged in 1861. The serpent had brought with him the twin temptations of science and relativism. Among the outcasts of the Garden who did not cease to sigh for their once happy condition was General Basil Duke. … He had a tempting subject, for all contemporaries have testified that the people of central kentucky, from the period of its settlement around 1800 to the tragedy of the internecine war sixty years later, lived an idyllic existence. Man and nature, it would seem, had arrived at terms. The settlers had come into possession of one of the finest regions of earth, and they had achieved a decorous and stable society which permitted singularly satisfying lives.

The Southern people as a group were unspoiled in the sense that they were content with simple habits and primitive tastes. Like any other people of this kind, they were distrustful of commercial and intellectual pursuits, regarding both as ultimately demoralizing. The North, on the other hand, had been caught up in the full tide of nineteenth-century progress; science and a money-economy were completely transforming its life, and it was impatient of the social conservatism of a country cousin like the South. Between the two there was a widening gap. Yet if in either case the path is predestined and the end is the same, it seems as idle to reproach the North for making haste as to reproach the South for delaying. But if we abandon the concept of the fixed cycle and say rather that man lives by his myth, by a projection of ideals, sentiments, and loyalties, which constitute the world of truth – not the world of nature – then the conservation of the pattern becomes obligatory, and the underminers of the faith and the mockers of the vision deserve the obloquy which has traditionally been theirs.

Thus a part of the tragedy which brought about the moral collapse of the twentieth century was acted on the stage of America. It required the dislocation of the First World War to show how extensive the internal ravages had grown, and how thin the security of civilization had worn. When the Second World War brought the barbarian into open conflict with civilization, it could no longer be doubted that the systematic destruction of ancient ideals and sentiments leads to the revolution of nihilism.

This post was originally intended as a response to Spielberg’s 2012 propaganda flick, but the copy then had too many errors. And I grew busy.

Weaver, Richard M. The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989. 198-214. Print.

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