"All the people are now guerillas": the warfare of Sherman, Sheridan, and Lincoln, and the brutality of the twentieth century.

Author:Tooley, T. Hunt
Position:William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Henry Sheridan and Abraham Lincoln

Most observers would agree that the War Between the States went a long way in laying the groundwork for twentieth-century "total" warfare (see Royster 1993). Some emphasize technical aspects (trenches, railroads, infantry firepower, and the like) as the precursors of modern warfare. Some liken the length of the war to the drawn-out wars of attrition that we associate with the world wars. Studies of all these categories yield useful insights into the history of the modern world.

This article flows from a different set of questions. Having been engaged in long-term study of ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe and the large recent literature on the nature of twentieth-century violence, I have conceptualized these phenomena in terms of the enormous growth of the state in modern times. In my approach to these issues, the corresponding lessening of individual autonomy lies behind the whole issue of twentieth-century brutality: ethnic cleansing and, much more, extermination are nothing if not the exercise of interventionary power. In the context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these terrible measures also represent an extreme stage of the intensification of brutality. From this vantage point, I am asking questions about the mechanisms of both this loss of individual liberty and about the forms with which the Leviathan state chose to institute its regime. War is very close to the core of many of these questions. (1)

We all can point to numerous causes and sources for the horrific brutality of twentieth-century warfare, for its cruelties against civilians, and for nonwar state violence against civilians, for that matter. I am not suggesting here that the brutalities of warfare against civilians, deportations, shooting of hostages, destruction of civilians' lives and property, and the like had their sole origin in the terrible nineteenth-century American conflict. Any student of history knows that violence of every kind against civilians has been a potential feature of war since ancient times. One has but to think of ancient Mesopotamia or the Thirty Years War to remember that slaughter, rape, torture, forced migration, and expropriation are not twentieth-century inventions. Yet by the eighteenth century, in spite of widespread warfare, Europeans and some other groups across the globe seemed to be in the process of limiting the scope and cruelty of wars. (2) These trends may be documented by looking at declining numbers of civilian deaths in war, by examining the records of the army of Frederick the Great or of Napoleon, for example, or by reading the growing body of memoir literature from the eighteenth century onward. Slaughters of war prisoners became less frequent. Commanders often enforced limitations on soldiers' behavior. Reliance on well-organized supply systems cut down on the expropriative cruelties of the armies living on whatever land they were crossing or occupying. Civilians, in particular women and children, became more protected. If rape, murder, torture, stealing, and other violence still occurred in early-nineteenth-century Western armies, perpetrators of such crimes might well find themselves facing a firing squad or a noose courtesy of their own army. Cities were indeed bombarded, but usually with warning and often only after the evacuation of noncombatants. War remained a violent and terrible activity, the more so since the emergence of the nation-state in this same period made it possible to unleash violence on a more massive scale, both in numbers and in firepower. But a sense of restraint in terms of the brutality of warfare seems to have become the norm rather than the exception.

Yet by the time of the First World War, all historians would agree, the tide turned. By 1918, war was accompanied by massive civilian death, ethnic cleansing, slaughter of prisoners, violence against and expropriation of civilians, bombing of civilian centers, and so on. We may look for precursors to rising brutality in many areas. The present study is an attempt to assess a particular strain of brutality up to the period of the First World War. I intend to show that the increasing willingness to do violence to civilians during the Civil War provided one source of origin--a very significant one--for twentieth-century brutality.

Abraham Lincoln and John Pope

Historians generally associate Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan with the emergence of the most significant elements of total war, and they tend to date the creation of early total-war thinking roughly to 1864 and 1865, at the time of the famous March to the Sea. Recent research, however, draws our attention to still earlier stages of the War Between the States (DiLorenzo 2002, 171-99). Brutality, for example, was the coin of the realm from the very beginning of the war in the West, in Missouri in particular. In the eastern theater, the first targeting of civilians really came about in 1862, not in 1864, and is associated with Abraham Lincoln himself. Its actual practitioner was John Pope. (3) An acquaintance of Lincoln, Pope was brought from military success in the West to stop the chaos in the Union's invading army after its disastrous defeat in the battles of the Seven Days during the summer of 1862. The Federal army was beaten and chaotic. Yet from the moment of his arrival in Virginia in July 1862, the self-confidant Pope sent directives to his army that in effect announced that the Union would be taking off the gloves.

The general also proclaimed that his army, occupying northern Virginia, would now "subsist upon the country." Hence, provisions were to be confiscated and "vouchers" given to the owners--but only to "loyal" citizens, not to supporters of the "rebellion." If guerilla or partisan activity should occur, Pope declared, the blame would be borne by the entire local population. In case of sabotage to bridges or roads, the local populace would be turned out for a radius of five miles to repair and pay for the damages (in money or property). Perpetrators, if caught, were to be shot outright, as would civilians caught firing on Union troops. In the latter case, the perpetrator's home was liable to being burned to the ground.

Having introduced a distinction between "loyal" and "disloyal" civilians in the occupied areas, Pope's Order No. 11 elaborated on the significance of the distinction. All persons refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States would be divested of their property and driven from their homes into the Confederate lines. Hence, the Union strategy in the war for minds and hearts was simple: forcibly remove those not in agreement with the armies of the invading North.

Clearly, Pope's role in the genesis of a new aggressiveness toward civilians is important. Still, as historian Daniel Sutherland (1992) has made clear, the credit for the new outlook in Pope's orders should be given less to Pope than to President Lincoln himself. More than any of Lincoln's commanding generals, Pope was a friend and supporter. He was a staunch Republican and an antislavery man. Lincoln had plucked him from the West and elevated him to command of the great invading force in the East. In fact, his arrival in the East coincided with Lincoln's political decisions to support the Radical Republicans in passing their Confiscation Bill, in beginning to discuss future emancipation in rebel-held territory, and--to the amazement of Lincoln's political associates--in putting freedmen into units in the U.S. Army. (4) Shaken by the disaster of the Seven Days battles in midsummer 1862, Lincoln accelerated both a political program and a military program that targeted the civilians of the South. In fact, it is possible that Lincoln himself drafted the orders that Pope issued.

In the end, Pope's ability to carry out a new kind of war in the eastern theater was short-lived. His defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas led to his replacement at the end of August 1862. Embarrassed, moreover, by the bad press generated by Pope's (Lincoln's) directives, the Union army made haste to soften some of the offending threats to civilians.

The Lieber Code

In the wake of Pope's departure, Lincoln took up the offer of Francis Lieber, a professor at Columbia College in New York, to work out a clear codification of the legal basis for behavior in war. Although many modern commentators see the resulting "Lieber Code" as a humane set of laws limiting the cruelty of warfare, (5) a close study of Lieber's rules can yield a much less optimistic interpretation. Born in Berlin in 1798, Lieber had experienced the years of the Napoleonic War as a child during Napoleon's entry into Berlin in 1806. He served as a (very young) soldier in the Prussian army at Waterloo. After the war, he joined the nationalist student movement in Prussia. His politics fit well into the American Whig context, being quite representative of the vague liberalism, nationalist consolidationism, and romantic irrationalism that characterized the Turnverein (Gymnastic League) movement in the German states after 1815. Immigrating to the United States in 1827, Lieber spent much of his career in South Carolina as a college professor of history and government, moving to New York only in 1856 (Freidel 1943, 1947). He supported the Union wholeheartedly.

Lieber's guidelines, about nine thousand words long, appeared in early 1863 under the official title "General Orders 100." (6) Clearly, the guidelines set out rules with the aim of delimiting some of the chaos and violence of war. Lieber certainly did delimit some behaviors. In martial-law situations or occupations, the rules say, law is still to prevail, administered strictly by the state and its institutions. Although military exigency always takes precedence, in general the U.S. Army should not behave viciously and capriciously. The status of noncombatants should be clearly defined, with the condition of true noncombatants preserved...

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