Thursday, April 7, 2011

Was This Really America?

I recently finished Daniel Sutherland's excellent book, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War.  If anyone out there still has a romanticized view of the Civil War, this book is sure to cure them of that misconception.  Sutherland details the pervasiveness of guerrilla warfare during the war.  Although many guerrilla bands served a military function, by mid-war, numerous gangs of outlaws also roamed the Southern countryside.  Near anarchy and senseless violence descended on many communities.  Even farming became dangerous, as guerrillas robbed and attacked men out working their fields.  And traveling from one city or town to another must surely have been a risky and frightening proposition.  The Union Army reacted predictably by using increasingly harsh tactics to deal with the guerrillas and the civilian populations that were suspected of supporting them.  Commanders ordered summary executions, had property seized, and banished families.

"Guerrilla Depredations -- 'Your Money or Your Life!,'" Harper's Weekly, Dec. 24, 1864 (courtesy of sonofthesouth.net)

All of this got me to thinking about the way we remember the Civil War in light of recent military history.  How many of us have sometimes thought of our Civil War as different from the multitude of  "civil wars" that have plagued other countries in modern times?  Lawless guerrillas and the deaths of innocent civilians are somehow contemporary Latin American or African  problems.  Surely, FARC, machete-wielding fighters, the contras, civilian casualties, or right-wing paramilitaries are a world away from the glories of Civil War battlefields and those Kurtz & Allison lithographs?  We all know that when our boys in blue or gray weren't giving water to dying enemy soldiers, they were exchanging coffee, newspapers, tobacco, and jokes with the other side.  Sutherland's book makes you think twice. Our Civil War was every bit as brutal and unrestrained as the civil wars of recent times.  We shouldn't expect any less when a fratricidal conflict unleashes passions and pent-up frustrations on both sides.  Somehow we may like to think we are different.  But the nature of civil war knows no boundaries.

6 comments:

Walk Forrest Walk said...

I to enjoy learning all I can about our country's early history. I can across your blog while researching information for my blog. You're daily entries are very interesting and informative. Take care, Jim from Dewitt, Mi

Ron said...

Jim--Thanks for stopping by. I am glad you enjoyed the entries. I will be sure to check out your blog. And from what I see, I feel guilty for not getting any exercise. You manage to do that, and keep up with history as well!

Richard said...

Good post, but it didn't stop at Appomattox. Reconstruction was not always peaceful and post-Reconstruction years were even worse, especially violence against African Americans. In a state like Kentucky, where reconstruction did not exist, post-war violence (not only against blacks, but also against whites who employed them) was not uncommon at all.

Ron said...

Thanks, Richard. Good point. I was just thinking the other day how the war didn't really end in 1865, but continued in a different form during the Reconstruction period. (Sutherland discusses this issue briefly in his book.) The Southern U.S. certainly seems like it was a frightful place, particularly if you were African-American, a former Unionist, or a Northern transplant. All of this is far from the image of benevolence and reconciliation that paintings and engravings of Appomattox conjure up.

Andy Hall said...

For the postwar period, I'd suggest The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War, by Stephen Budiansky. Although if you're fond of the idea that human beings are fundamentally decent creatures, you may not want to read it back-to-back after A Savage Conflict.

Ron said...

Thanks for the recommendation. It's on my reading list, but it might be too much to take after just finishing Sutherland's book. I am reading some more on the conventional war in the interlude....