Lincoln’s Departure from Civilized Warfare
Lincoln’s military policy of total war not only influenced Grant and Sherman, but also Sheridan who devastated Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The latter told Bismarck during the Franco-Prussian War that “You know how to hit an enemy as no other army does, but you have not learnt how to annihilate him.” The author does not mention that the burning of Washington was in retaliation for New York militiamen under General McClure looting and burning the Canadian town of Newton (now Niagara on the Lake) in 1814.
Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman
North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
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Lincoln’s Departure from Civilized Warfare
“In North America, European influence had always been predominant and one would therefore expect to find warfare conducted there more or less in accordance with European standards. The facts, however, do not confirm this reasonable expectation. Thus, the crowning episode of the war of 1812-14 between Britain and the United States was when a British column . . . marched inland to Washington and there burnt the Capitol, the White House and various other public buildings.
Most of the wars in which the white settlers in North America had been involved before 1861 were with the Red Indians . . . classic examples of harsh and rudimentary primary warfare
Hence it is not surprising that the first great historic break with European practice should have taken place in the sanguinary American Civil War (or “The War Between the States,” as the Southerners still prefer to designate it). The military precedents in the United States were nearly all in the pattern of primary warfare. Even President Lincoln himself had fought briefly in his youth against the Red Indians and he exerted a dominant influence on Northern military policy and strategy.
It was the Northern or Federal armies which produced this historic reversion to primary or total warfare. The North had endured much bellicose contact with the Red Indians and was much less influenced by Europe than the South. The latter was culturally a European colony until after the Civil War, Southern children were educated in Europe, and the Southern aristocracy travelled widely in Europe. Southern soldiers were very familiar with European military ideals.
General Robert E. Lee . . . was the perfect example of Southern military chivalry in complete accord with the European ideals of civilized warfare. It is for this reason Professor T. Harry Williams accurately calls Lee “the last of the great old-fashioned generals.” His “old-fashioned” trait was his fidelity to the European code of civilized warfare.
There has been a traditional habit of saddling the responsibility for the Northern departure from civilized warfare on . . . Sherman . . . This is quite unjust. Sherman only conducted the most dramatic and devastating example of the strategy which was laid down by President Lincoln himself and was faithfully followed by General Ulysses S. Grant as commander in chief of the Northern armies. That Lincoln determined the basic lines of Northern military strategy has been well established . . . [and] Grant only efficiently applied Lincoln’s military policy in the field. Hence it is apparent that Sherman was only carrying out effectively the military policy which Lincoln and Grant had adopted.
[After expelling the inhabitants of Atlanta and destroying homes, factories and mills, Sherman laid] waste the country as he went. “Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it,” he wrote to headquarters . . . [and] turned northwards along the Atlantic coast to Charleston. He made no secret of his intentions.
“I sincerely believe,” he wrote General Halleck in Washington, “that whole United States would rejoice to have my army turned loose on South Carolina, to devastate that State in the manner we have done in Georgia.” To which Halleck replied with admiring approval and the expression of a hope that “should you capture Charleston, by some accident the place may be destroyed.”
[Sherman replied] “The truth is, the whole army is burning with insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina.”
To do him justice, Sherman was no simple-minded barbarian carried away by the heat of the moment; nor was he vindictive against a people who practiced Negro slavery. On the eve of the War he wrote his brother that: “I would recoil from a war when the Negro is the only question.”
The Federal methods of total warfare and the arguments which were used to justify them aroused curiously little interest at the time in Europe. But, after all, they reasoned, what better could be expected of colonials led by militia officers whose only training had been wars with Red Indians. No lesson was to be learnt by European professional soldiers from such disorderly proceedings, least of all the hoary truth that one way of winning a war was to terrorize the enemy civilian population.”
(Advance to Barbarism, The Development of Total Warfare, F.J.P. Veale, Appleton, 1953, pp. 120-125)