Saturday, January 5, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Sunday, Jan. 5, 1862

The War They Didn’t Talk About

The View from 2008: Sometimes it seems to us as if the Civil War, now almost a century and a half past, was a big family argument, using horses and muskets and almost charming in its quaintness.

It wasn’t charming. It was deadly (600,000 lives lost to battle and disease), dirty (the soldiers often lived in squalor and were usually covered with lice), and hard (yes, acts of gallantry occurred, but so did acts of unspeakable horror).

After Lincoln got rid of his most notorious “gentlemen generals”—McClellan and Buell, men who preferred the “soft war” of maneuvers instead of destruction—the conflict settled down to all-out warfare, each side trying to destroy the other’s will and ability to fight.

Grant, the gentlest of men personally—he loved children, refused to hunt, was repelled by dead bodies, and even adjured rare meat—understood this intuitively. After the capture of Fort Donelson, Grant surveyed the bloody battlefield and said, “Let’s get away from this awful place. I suppose this work is part of the devil that is left in us all.” After the Battle of Shiloh a few weeks later, Grant (he later recalled) “gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

So the battles by regular soldiers turned into hammer-and-tongs affairs, reported in newspapers, recorded in diaries and letters and memorialized in thousands of books, but there was another side of this war that is almost never mentioned. It was the ugly side and it involved both soldiers and irregular forces, some of them loosely organized guerrillas and some free-lancing “bushwhackers.” Both sides engaged in it, the Confederates by necessity relying more than the Federals on irregulars and guerrillas, some of the soldiers of the Union side reacting by suspending—without sanction by the high authority--the rules of warfare. (Pictured above: A Civil War guerrilla.)

One of worst regions for this was western Virginia, which was dominated by the Union side for most of the war but which saw unceasing brutality, especially by Confederate bushwhackers who ambushed Union messengers, outposts, and sentinels, slipping out of the woods to poison springs, shoot unarmed or lightly armed men, or slit throats, then to melt into the civilian population.

Violence begets violence and soon some of the Union soldiers were dishing out the own acts of brutality, especially to bushwhackers. It is hard to find information about this, but author William H. Armstrong included some in his account of a future president’s war record (Major McKinley, Kent State University Press, 2000). (There is no record McKinley was involved in such acts.)

Homes and property of suspected bushwhackers were plundered and burned, while all too often captured bushwhackers were apt to be shot “while trying to escape.” Col. George Crook of the 36th Ohio told his men to take no more prisoners. Returning from scouting, his officers would report that a captive had “slipped off a log while crossing a stream and broke his neck, or …was killed by the accidental discharge of one of the men’s guns.” A member of the 36th who disagreed with these acts could never forget how a young prisoner was encouraged to attempt escape, then shot and—when he fell—was shot again amidst his “heart-rendering…screams.”

If some of these events were recorded in soldiers’ letters or memoirs, one wonders how many more were deliberately forgotten. Such was some of the romance of the Civil War.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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