George Orwell wrote in 1945 that “the nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” The same moral myopia has carried over to most Americans’ understanding of the Civil War. While popular historians have recently canonized the war as a practically holy crusade to free the slaves, in reality civilians were intentionally targeted and brutalized in the final year of the war.
The most dramatic forgotten atrocity in the Civil War occurred 150 years ago when Union Gen. Philip Sheridan unleashed a hundred-mile swath of flames in the Shenandoah Valley that left vast numbers of women and children tottering towards starvation. Unfortunately, the burning of the Shenandoah Valley has been largely forgotten, foreshadowing how subsequent brutal military operations would also vanish into the Memory Hole.
In August 1864, supreme Union commander Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sheridan to “do all the damage to railroads and crops you can…. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” Grant said that Sheridan’s troops should “eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.” Sheridan set to the task with vehemence, declaring that “the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war” and promised that when he was finished, the valley “from Winchester to Staunton will have but little in it for man or beast.”
Because people lived in a state that had seceded from the Union, Sheridan acted as if they had automatically forfeited their property, if not their lives. Along an almost 100-mile stretch the sky was blackened with smoke as his troops burned crops, barns, mills and homes.
War against civilians
Some Union soldiers were aghast at their marching orders. A Pennsylvania cavalryman lamented at the end of the fiery spree, “We burnt some sixty houses and all most of the barns, hay, grain and corn in the shocks for fifty miles [south of] Strasburg…. It was a hard-looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year.” An Ohio major wrote in his diary that the burning “does not seem real soldierly work. We ought to enlist a force of scoundrels for such work.” A newspaper correspondent embedded with Sheridan’s army reported, “Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North … not half the inhabitants of the valley can subsist on it in its present condition.”
After one of Sheridan’s favorite aides was shot by Confederate soldiers, Sheridan ordered his troops to burn all houses within a five-mile radius. After many outlying houses had been torched, the small town at the center — Dayton — was spared after a federal officer disobeyed Sheridan’s order. The homes and barns of Mennonites — a peaceful sect that opposed slavery and secession — were especially hard hit by that crackdown, according to a 1909 history of Mennonites in America.
By the end of Sheridan’s campaign the former “breadbasket of the Confederacy” could no longer even feed the women and children remaining there. In his three-volume Civil War history, Shelby Foote noted that an English traveler in 1865 “found the Valley standing empty as a moor.” The population of Warren County, Virginia, where I grew up, fell by 11 percent during the 1860s thanks in part to Sheridan’s depredations.
Historian Walter Fleming, in his classic 1919 study, The Sequel to Appomattox, quoted one bedeviled local farmer: “From Harper’s Ferry to New Market, which is about eighty miles, the country was almost a desert…. The barns were all burned; chimneys standing without houses, and houses standing without roof, or door, or window.” John Heatwole, author of The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley (1998), concluded, “The civilian population of the Valley was affected to a greater extent than was the populace of any other region during the war, including those in the path of Sherman’s infamous march to the sea in Georgia.”
Unfortunately, given the chaos of the era at the end of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, there are no reliable statistics on the number of women, children, and other civilians who perished thanks to “the burning.”
Abraham Lincoln congratulated Sheridan in a letter on Oct. 22, 1864: “With great pleasure I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation and my own personal admiration and gratitude for the month’s operation in the Shenandoah Valley.” The year before, in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln had justified the Civil War to preserve a “government by consent.” But, as Massachusetts abolitionist Lysander Spooner retorted, “The only idea … ever manifested as to what is a government of consent, is this — that it is one to which everybody must consent, or be shot.”
Some defenders of the Union military tactics insist that there was no intent to harshly punish civilians. But, after three years of a bloody stalemate, the Lincoln administration had adapted a total-war mindset to scourge the South into submission. As Sheridan was finishing his fiery campaign, Gen. William Sherman wrote to Grant that “until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources.” Sherman had previously telegrammed Washington that “there is a class of people — men, women, and children — who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.” Lincoln also congratulated Sherman for a campaign that sowed devastation far and wide.
The carnage inflicted by Sheridan, Sherman, and other northern commanders made the South’s postwar recovery far slower and multiplied the misery of both white and black survivors. Connecticut College professor Jim Downs’s recent book, Sick from Freedom, exposes how the chaotic situation during and after the war contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of freed slaves.
Ironically, a war that stemmed in large part from the blunders and follies of politicians on both sides of the Potomac resulted in a vast expansion of the political class’s presumption of power. An 1875 American Law Review article noted, “The late war left the average American politician with a powerful desire to acquire property from other people without paying for it.” The sea change was clear even before the war ended. Sherman had telegraphed the War Department in 1863, “The United States has the right, and … the … power, to penetrate to every part of the national domain. We will remove and destroy every obstacle — if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper.” Lincoln liked Sherman’s letter so much that he declared that it should be published.
After the Civil War, politicians and many historians consecrated the conflict and its grisly tactics were consigned to oblivion. The habit of sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post–Civil War policy towards the Indians (Sheridan famously declared that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”) and the suppression of Filipino insurgents after the Spanish-American War. Later historians sometimes downplayed U.S. military tactics in World War II that killed vast numbers of German and Japanese civilians.
The same pattern is repeating with the Vietnam War. The Pentagon is launching a major effort to commemorate its 50th anniversary — an effort that is being widely denounced as a whitewash. The New York Times noted that the Pentagon’s official website on the war “referred to the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, as the My Lai Incident.” That particular line was amended but the website will definitely not be including the verdict of David Hackworth, a retired colonel and the most decorated officer in the Army: “Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go…. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.”
The failure to recognize how wars routinely spawn pervasive brutality and collateral deaths lowers Americans’ resistance to new conflicts that promise to make the world safe for democracy, or rid the world of evil, or achieve other lofty-sounding goals. For instance, the Obama administration sold its bombing of Libya as a self-evident triumph of good over a vile despot; instead, chaos reigns. As the administration ramps up bombing in Syria and Iraq, both its rhetoric and its tactics echo prior U.S. misfires. The proclaimed intentions of U.S. bombing campaigns are far more important than their accuracy. And the presumption of collective guilt of everyone in a geographical area exonerates current military leaders the same way it exonerated Sheridan’s 1864 torching of Mennonite homes.
Since 1864, no prudent American should have expected this nation’s wars to have happy or uplifting endings. Unfortunately, as long as the spotlight is kept off atrocities, most citizens will continue to underestimate the odds that wars will spawn debacles and injustices that return to haunt us.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.