UnMasking Lincoln, Part Two: Warfare From Hell

The greatest fact of Lincoln's career is the war he imposed upon the nation, a conflict that changed the nature of war in the civilized world.  As one of Lincoln's favorite generals observed, "war is hell,"  and it has been hell at least since General Sherman gave us the example of total war.  In primitive stages of human history, warfare had been savage, but civilized men learned to develop rules that took some of the savagery out of war.  Ambassadors were respected, promises were honored, treaties observed.  Unconditional surrender was not a usual condition, and the shelling of civilians was generally frowned upon except in cases of absolute necessity.  

Among the ancient Greeks, warfare was brutal, but we have to remember that they were fighting with swords and spears.  The killing zone, in consequence was a very narrow space.  Conquest of a city or a people was a terrifying event which could bring slavery and subjugation, but first the Romans and then later the Christians devised customs and codes that protected civilians from the worst horrors of war.  Even in the most civilized period of warfare, the 18th century, the code could be violated, and George III's raw recruits murdered civilians at Lexington and Concord, and Tarleton's dragoons wreaked havoc in the South.  

These were exceptions, however, rather than the rule.   We postmoderns are too prone to conclude from a violation of law and custom that no law or custom existed to punish abuse of children or oppression of the weak.  War on the frontier, of course was savage, with red men and white observing no rules but the biological laws of race war.  Conflicts between civilized nations, such as between England and France, were different, and as the 19th century progressed, warfare became ever more humane in its conduct, at the same time as the weapons became more effective at killing and maiming.  The great turn-around took place in Lincoln's mind, in the anti-Southern propaganda spewed from the abolitionist press, and from the junkyard dogs Lincoln unleashed against the South: Pope, Butler, Sherman, Sheridan, Grant. 

Even after the election of 1860, war might have been averted, if Lincoln had listened to the leaders of his own party. W.H. Seward, the leading abolitionist who was his secretary of state, warned the President repeatedly that any attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter would not only drive the states of the upper South into secession, but would also bring on a war.  When compromises were offered, Lincoln answered as a politician rather than as a statesmen who knew that his job was to protect his people.  When, for example, Charles Francis Adams advised admission of New Mexico as a slave state, Lincoln insisted upon putting party above nation: "By no act or complicity of mine shall the Republican Party become a mere sucked egg." 

Lincoln did lull the South into thinking that he would not make the first move, and when he did attempt to reinforce Sumter, the South Carolinians opened fire.  The President explained his double-dealing to a friend from Illinois: "The plan succeeded.  They attacked Sumter--it fell and thus did more service than it otherwise could."  It was a brilliant move--so brilliant that North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee all promptly seceded, and the border states turned violently against the Union. 

But it was in the conduct of his war that Lincoln blazed a trail for the future.  Along with his chief generals, he concerted the first total war of modern times, a war waged against the women and children of the South: houses were burned, food and property stolen, women--mostly black were raped--all on a grand scale and as part of a deliberate policy to starve and torture the Southern people into submission.  

 In New Orleans, Southern women who defied the Yankees were treated as prostitutes; in Missouri, the female relatives of Confederate soldiers were rounded up and put into an unsafe building that collapsed, killing some and maiming others; in New Mexico, Lincoln's government designed the first concentration camp for Navajo Indians who were suspected of disloyalty, and in Athens Alabama, a former Cossack officer actually pillaged a town and allowed his men to rape and loot to their hearts' content.  Col. John Basil Turchin took over the house of a prominent citizen and refused to allow a doctor to attend to the man's sick daughter, who died as a result.  One pregnant woman had a husband suspected of being a confederate guerilla.  After being brutally gang-raped, she miscarried and died. 

A court martial was convened, and, although the officers voted for acquittal, the presiding judge, classical scholar and future president James Garfield overruled them and dismissed Col. Ivan Vasilief Turchin from the service.  Lincoln promptly  reinstated and promoted the Cossack, who had influential political friends in Illinois. The alcoholic Turchin, who had regaled his officers with tales of how they did things back in Russia, died a raving maniac

The Union's war to suppress South independence has been the model for every American war since:  the Spanish American War crushed the independence movement of the Philippines and gave us a maritime empire that had to be defended from the enemies our actions created.  In WW I, our leaders were either duped or helped to create the propaganda that demonized the Germans, dragged us into a European War where we had no business, and served the vindictive and mercenary interests of the English and the French.  The Lusitania episode was a propaganda stunt (concocted by Churchill) as cynical and effective as the so-called "massacres" in Sarajevo during the recent Bosnian conflict.  

During the Bosnian War, one of the gravets accusations of  "war crimes" laid against the Bosnian Serb Republic was the shelling of civilian centers.  Investigation--and first hand testimonials from people I know--have revealed that Sarajevo was not destroyed and that the most serious incident, the bombing of a marketplace, was probably the work of local Bosnian Muslims.

But let us set aside any fact that might disturb the smug superiority Americans feel toward lesser breeds.  Suppose the Serbs did shell civilian neighborhoods in Sarajevo.  What of it?  The Union virtually leveled America's most beautiful city, Charleston, in a siege that lasted  585 days, because its officers were unwilling to stage a direct assault on Fort Sumter.   Milby Burton's quiet and scholarly book on the siege bears witness to the enormity of the Union's crimes.  Charleston was largely a symbolic target.  Secession had begun in Charleston, and both Halleck and Sherman wanted to torch the city (as they torched Columbia).  Even after the surrender Sherman was still making threats to burn the city, in retaliation for any civil disturbances.     

In the New Millennium  American troops are quartered in a hundred different countries.  We have devastated Iraq and Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo.  These last two were conquered in order to assist the anti-Christian jihad.   In the early 19th century, we refused to go to war to help the republics of Latin America or nations like Greece and Bulgaria fighting to liberate themselves from the Turks--it wasn't our fight, we said.  Today, we are doing everything in our power to give those nations back to the Turks, as part of an imperial grand design whose origins lie in the Lincoln administration which began our government's policy of imperialism by conquering and subjugating the once free states of the South. 

Previous empires have been more frank in describing their activities.  The Athenians and Romans spoke of peace and civilization, but also of glory and self-interest.  Napoleon, on entering Italy, inspired his soldiers with a speech in which he told them that, while they had nothing upon entering the country, everything they could possibly want lay in the prosperous cities that lay before them. 

Unlike the French and the Romans, we are not by nature an imperial race.  We are like the jackdaws described by Konrad Lorenz:  Not being fighters and killers, the daws,  when they do get into a fight,  peck the loser to death.   So we Americans, since Lincoln's day, must  cloak our worst actions in the mantle of religious language.  We intervened in Bosnia, to protect human rights, and to reestablish democracy--as if Turks had the slightest idea of what that would mean.  We plotted Arab Spring, so says Mrs. Clinton, to liberate women from oppressive men.   We went to Vietnam: to stop the spread of godless communism. 

We have spent virtually the entire century promoting wars to end all wars, waging perpetual War for perpetual peace.   Conservatives, who are supposed to be guided by a Christian or at least a rational moral sense, so far from opposing these wars, contrast our own virtuous self-denial with the nefarious schemes of the evil Putin.


Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Avatar Ken Rosenberger says:

    Even better than the first installment. A sobering indictment. Of course the standard “educated” American response to this (assuming that any of them could hold still long enough to read the essay) runs along the following lines: “The South had it coming for being racists, for inventing slavery for the purpose of demeaning and humiliating blacks and exploiting their labor, because they were racist rednecks, and we all know racism is the most evil thing there can ever be, America’s original sin, and the South was completely to blame for it. So any extermination the South got, they had it coming, and it’s only a shame that Sherman and Grant, et al., didn’t complete the job and kill every last one of them, those redneck racists.”

    I’ve run into more than a few WWII buffs over the years, of the sort who read books by people like Stephen Ambrose and Rick Atkinson and believe that the USA won the war pretty much all by themselves, after Churchill’s speech rallied the troops to hold the fort long enough for the US cavalry to get there on time to hit the beach at Normandy, make a key second half adjustment at the Battle of the Bulge, and drop the A-bombs, all of which did the trick. If you ask them about the Allied fire bombings of Dresden and Hamburg and Tokyo, and the mass slaughter of civilians, these folks will say “what about Coventry, the German people voted for Hitler and they had it coming, every bit of it, for Coventry.“ I know that Coventry must have been terrible, but the difference in casualties involve orders of magnitude.

    After Lincoln, it seems, the mass slaughter of non-combatants is taken as a given. The only kind of war is total war. The only kind of surrender is unconditional surrender.

  2. Avatar Harry Colin says:

    I concur with Mr. Rosenberger on his assessment of this piece and his reflection on how most Americans view our history – if they reflect upon it at all.

    The horrors of war are almost too terrible to contemplate, but the after effects, in so-called “peacetime,” are even less examined. The carpetbaggers in the American South are a sordid example in our own continent, while the postwar forced relocations of millions of people after both World War I and II are sickening.

    As for Mr. Lincoln, I remember responding to the overwhelmingly laudatory responses by friends and colleagues to the Spielberg movie, sharing some corrective truths to counter many of the fantasies that vomited from that film. If I had poisoned the drinking water I could not have received more angry or astonished responses.

  3. Avatar Allen Wilson says:

    Sometimes I have to refrain from telling someone what I really think of Lincoln since it would do no good, and avoid telling them that Lincoln “had it coming”.

  4. Avatar Carl Mixon says:

    I grew up a low church Southerner, who loved and obeyed his Father and Mother and went into the military like my WWII Seabee Father and Vietnam era veteran Brothers. My emancipation took place in my middle 30’s by hearing Dr. Clyde Wilson at a Red Shirt reading circle meeting Columbia, S.C. in the mid 90’s. I now despise Abe Lincoln and tell my black friends and everyone else why I do. One thing I do not criticize is veterans that I meet almost daily, but I am ashamed that I am one. As Jim Kibler reminds me, we all have been supporting the Beast.

  5. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Pastor Jim Kibler ?