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Merchant of Terror

To his brother John Sherman on October 1, 1862, General W.T. Sherman wrote:

“I rather think you now agree with me that this is no common war — that it was not going to end in a few months or a few years. For after eighteen months the enemy is actually united, armed and determined, with powerful forces well-handled, disciplined and commanded on the Potomac, the Ohio, the Missouri. I knew, and know yet, that the Northern people have to unlearn all their experiences of the past thirty years and be born again before they will see the truth.”

Property destruction was not the complete answer. Sherman was convinced of this, since the “guerilla” attacks continued even after the example offered in the fate meted out to Randolph. There was something lacking – an element to complete the new concept of war – if the part played by the people of the South was to be eliminated.  With acceptance of the fact that destruction of property was not the final answer, Sherman’s mind leaped the gap and seized on the solution – terrorism. 

He would so thoroughly inject the shock of fear into the South that it would lead to its complete demoralization. Such demoralization would work like a slow poison, resulting in the paralysis of the Confederate armies through wholesale desertions of men returned home to assure the safety of their families. More important, dread would so sicken the people of the South that they would clamor for cessation, and to obtain relief they would exert every pressure on their government to end the war.

Here then, in Memphis, was the mold made. The months ahead would see it filled in: it would harden into the completed philosophy of total war, employing a program of devastation and waste, the turning loose on the countryside of a horde of pillagers and looters who would do their work systematically and well.”

(Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War, John Bennett Walters, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1973, excerpt pp. 65-66)

Lee’s Only Chance

Though Lincoln doubted that he would be reelected in 1864, and was heard to state that he hoped another Republican would replace him as he feared being imprisoned by a Democrat for his numerous unconstitutional acts, his Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana said “the whole power of the War Department was used to secure Lincoln’s re-election in 1864.” By that time there were far too many whose careers and wealth depended upon the powerful centralized government Lincoln had created, and which the Radical Republicans wanted to rule.

The starving, ragged soldiers of Lee and Johnston were the last remaining barriers to full Radical control of the destiny of the “nation conceived in liberty” declared at Gettysburg in November 1863.  

Lee’s Only Chance

“In Lee’s ranks there was less fear of Grant than of that grim enemy, hunger. George Cary Eggleston [A Rebel’s Recollections] reports the rigid economies in food which his men practiced; then he adds:

“Hunger to starving men is wholly unrelated to the desire for food as that is commonly understood and felt. It is a great agony of the whole body and the soul as well. It is unimaginable, all-pervading pain inflicted when the strength to endure pain is utterly gone. It is a great despairing cry of a wasting body – a cry of flesh and blood, marrow, nerves, bones, and faculties for strength with which to exist and to endure existence. It is a horror which, once suffered, leaves an impression that is never erased from memory, and to this day the old agony of that campaign comes back upon me at the mere thought of any living creature’s lacking the food it desires, even though its hunger be only the ordinary craving and the denial be necessary for the creature’s health.”

In the whole campaign from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, the Union losses were 55,000, nearly as much as Lee’s whole army. Grant, however, could find new recruits; he was amply reinforced; and he had no embarrassment from the lack of food or equipment. As a defensive accomplishment in fighting off superior numbers, the campaign stands as a significant chapter in Confederate annals.

Confederate losses in the Wilderness campaign were proportionally heavier than those of Grant, behind whom stood the North with its numbers, wealth, organization, and equipment.  Lee’s chance of conquering the Northern armies had gone.  His only chance was in the doubtful hope that a stout and desperate defense, if continued long enough, would wear down the Northern will to fight, produce Lincoln’s defeat in the election of 1864, and by the sheer force of war weariness bring peace on terms acceptable to the South.”

(The Civil War and Reconstruction, James G. Randall, D.C. Heath and Company, 1937, excerpts pp. 544-547)

Unceasing Blows and Sheer Attrition

In early May 1864, Grant moved across the Rapidan River in Virginia to pass quickly through the Wilderness before giving battle. Instead, there he lost some 26,000 men in the dense thickets. On June 3rd Grant lost “more men in the eight minutes of hottest fighting than in any period of the war.”  Though this carnage intensified the peace movement in the North, Lincoln provided Grant with an endless supply of immigrants, substitutes and conscripted men to continue this fearful slaughter. Lincoln, despite ruling the North with near-dictatorial powers, was well-aware 1864 was an election year and victories at any cost were needed before November.

Unceasing Blows and Sheer Attrition

“With the spring of 1864, the war entered a new phase. Union victories in the West had cut deeply into the economic and military strength of the Confederacy.  They had done more, for they had associated the names of Grant and his lieutenants with a habit of mind which connoted aggressiveness, strategy on a large scale, and victory.

It was not that Grant was a supreme master of the “science of war,” nor even that he merited full credit for the victories under his command . . . It was rather that a situation had been reached where, with Northern recruiting, Confederate depletion, and Grant’s sledge-hammer blows, the essential conditions of Union triumph had been presented.

Almost immediately [after Grant’s elevation to lieutenant-general] the final grand strategy of the war began to unfold itself, a strategy by which Grant used his numerical superiority and plunged ruthlessly ahead in Virginia, losing an enormous number of men, but wearing out the Confederates by sheer attrition; while in the lower South Sherman attained unenviable laurels by destroying vast amounts of food and other supplies in his “march” through Georgia and the Carolinas.  

It was by these unceasing blows at the heart of the Confederacy that the war, which had dragged on indecisively for three years, was brought to an end in 1865.”

(The Civil War and Reconstruction, James G. Randall, D.C. Heath and Company, 1937, excerpts pp. 539-543)

The Carnage at Fredericksburg

The battle at Fredericksburg began at first light, December 13, 1862, and soon became a slaughter of Northern soldiers urged on against a near-impregnable barrier of musket and cannon-fire.  New York Times reporter William Swinton’s post-battle dispatch to the Times noted: “[The Federal soldiers] were literally mowed down. The bursting shells make great gaps in their ranks . . . flesh and blood could not endure it. They fell back shattered and broken, amid shouts and yells from the enemy.”  By nightfall, more than twelve thousand Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing.

This severe defeat of Northern forces at the end of a year that witnessed astronomical casualties on both sides, leaves us to question Lincoln’s motives for continuing his war.  After shelling and starving the women, children and old men of Vicksburg into submission, and the wounded, dead and maimed at Gettysburg, Lincoln unleashed Sherman, Sheridan and Grant upon Americans in the South in absolute total war – war against military and civilians.

The Carnage at Fredericksburg

“It was the first of six assaults, each more futile than the last. Federal artillery assayed a covering barrage; the euphemism “friendly fire” had not yet been invented, but according to [Cincinnati Commercial reporter Murat] Halstead, “at least half of the shells” fell into the Federal ranks, “killing more of our men than the enemy.”

A large number of Federal troops – wound or otherwise – were trapped on the battlefield. [London Times correspondent Francis] Lawley presented the view from the rebel lines:

“Such a scene . . . would baffle any mortal pen to describe. In addition to the agonized cries for water, and the groans of tortured and dying men, may be heard voices, constantly growing fainter and fainter, shouting out names and numbers of their regiments in hope that some of their comrades may be within hearing . . . Their bodies, which lie in dense masses, as thick as autumn leaves, within 40 yards of the muzzles of the Confederate guns, are best evidence of their bravery as well as to the desperate plight of their bitterly deceived commanders.”

Lawley, noting the large number of European mercenaries in the Federal army, offered a particular ethnocentric comment:

“It is not likely that the full details of this battle will be generally known in the North for weeks and weeks; but if, after the failure of this last and feeblest of all the Federal attempts to reach Richmond . . . the Irish and Germans are again tempted to embark on so hopeless a venture, then it is the conclusion irresistible that, in addition to all the shackles of despotism which they are alleged to have left behind them in Europe, they have left also that most valuable attribute of humanity, which is called common sense.”

“It became apparent to all observers,” the Cincinnati editor wrote, that the fortunes of the day on our side were desperate. It was manifestly absolutely impossible for our columns of unsupported infantry to carry the terrible heights.”

(Blue and Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War, Brayton Harris, Brassey’s, 2000, excerpts pp. 224-225; 228)

“Whose Hand Shall Write It, Whose Tongue Shall Utter It?”

Senator Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia, one of the last to accept the secession of his State in 1861, proved himself to be the last to give up the hope of establishing that secession. After Lincoln’s election in November 1860, Hill pleaded that the Union not be abandoned to its enemies by withdrawing. He asked: “Is this Union good? If so, why should we surrender its blessings because Massachusetts violates the laws of that Union? Drive Massachusetts to the duties of the Constitution or from its benefits . . . Let us defend the Union from its enemies – not abandon it to them.”

On March 11, 1865, he delivered what has been designated “the last speech made by any Southern man in behalf of the Confederacy.”

“Whose Hand Shall Write it, Whose Tongue Shall Utter it?”

“[As Hill considered Lincoln’s terms at the Hampton Roads Conference,] he summarized his conclusions on this score: I have shown you that [Lincoln] requires us:

To accept a new Constitution and new laws made by our enemies, and we must accept this new Constitution and these new laws without reservation or qualification as to the consequences that may follow.  I need scarcely add that in order to carry out this policy it will become necessary to obliterate all State lines, and have all the States of the Confederacy reduced to one vast territory. For this vast territory there will be but one law-making power, the Federal Congress . . .

As an inducement and the only inducement offered, to accept these terms Mr. Lincoln offers us a liberal exercise of the pardoning power. And doubtless those at the North who support him, will consider this indeed a liberal offer, since they claim the right to exterminate us for the sins already committed.” Such terms, Hill declares, are manifestly impossible. Defiance to such an insolent enemy is the only answer that a proud people can make.”

Moreover, Hill maintains, a peace on such a basis as Lincoln offers, would avail the Southern people nothing. The old Constitution, which many of them loved and would gladly embrace again, is gone beyond recovery; and by the very terms proposed, Southern property is confiscated. Why accept such a peace while hope and resistance remains?

But “darkest thought of all,” in such a peace, that blackest of all libels must be written over the graves of dead comrades: “Traitors lie here.” Whose hand shall write it and not grow paralyzed? Whose tongue shall utter it and not grow speechless? . . . Enough, enough! cries Hill. “Away with the thought of peace on such terms. “Tis the wildest dream that restless ambition, or selfish avarice or slinking cowardice could conjure . . .”

(Benjamin H. Hill: Secession and Reconstruction, Haywood J. Pearce, Jr., Negro University Press, 1928, excerpt pp. 108-110)

A Political Party Dangerous to Peace

Stephen R. Mallory succeeded David Yulee as Florida Senator in 1851, after a highly-contested campaign. Yulee vigorously opposed the Compromise of 1850, holding “that the North had violated the Missouri Compromise by proposing the Wilmot Proviso.” Mallory’s Catholic faith disturbed Yulee supporter and future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who later “ruled that Lincoln’s assassination had been a Catholic plot.” It is also understood that the hanging of Mrs. Surratt “has been charged to her Roman faith.” Below, Senator Mallory addresses the United States Senate regarding the John Brown insurrection in Virginia.

A Political Party Dangerous to Peace

 “On December 7, 1859, in discussing the Harper’s Ferry invasion resolution, he said:

“In this case the cause of Virginia is the cause of the South. We feel proud of her attitude, proud of her high tone, proud of the legal and constitutional manner in which her executive and people have met this outbreak; and we expect to stand by her in any issue that she may make.

Now, Sir, are not the Southern people justified in looking to the North to quiet public opinion? Are they not justified in the excitement which is felt there, though it is not manifested in words or acts – deeply as it underlies the current of society?

I might appeal to Northern gentlemen for the justification. I might tell them, Sir, that the popular pulpit throughout the North, that the light literature of the North, that the separation of the churches between the North and the South, that the laws upon her statute books, the speeches in her Legislatures, the messages of her Governors, all have tended to produce the fruits which now stare us in the face.

Gentlemen get up here frankly and disavow, in terms more or less explicit, all knowledge or concurrence with, or approval of, the acts of this simple murderer, midnight assassin, and traitor. They could do no less . . .

The speaker went on to call attention to the threat of the Republican party to [the peace of the country, and] to the “meetings of sympathy condolence and compassion . . . for a man who deserves the severest condemnation throughout the whole world. Bells are tolled; in Albany [New York] one hundred guns are fired . . . [in his honor]”

(Stephen Russell Mallory, Occie Clubbs, Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume XXVI, Number 1, July 1947)

A Shameful Line of Work

Charles Ignatius Pfaff was the owner of New York City’s “Pfaff’s Cave” where customers “lounged among the hogsheads in an atmosphere of pipe smoke and laughter.”  The New York Illustrated News of February 23, 1861 wrote about the Pfaffians – “free-thinkers and free lovers, and jolly companions well met, who make symposia, which for wit, for frolic, and now and then for real intellectual brilliance, are not to be found in any house within the golden circles of Fifth Avenue.”

Pfaff’s was the meeting place of the self-appointed intellectuals including Saturday Press editor Henry Clapp, Jr., who was asked his opinion of newspaperman Horace Greeley. Clapp responded that Greely “is a self-made man who worships his creator.”

A Shameful Line of Work

 “Newspapermen lived on the periphery of a society which barely understood their function. Dickens, the most widely-read novelist of the day, had held them up to ridicule in Martin Chuzzlewit. Among American novels of the period, only two of seventeen touching upon journalism mentioned reporters at all; both were by James Fenimore Cooper, and both derogatory.

To be a reporter was to be a Paul Pry, a Jenkins, a busybody, a snooper, a penny-a-liner, a ne’er do-well.  Edmund Clarence Stedman, a reporter on the Tribune in 1860, considered that “it is shameful to earn a living in this way.”

It had been a quarter of a century since the penny papers led the way in broadening the concept of news, but it was their reporting of sex and crime that most impressed the public and left a lingering conviction that reporters were disreputable. Half a dozen of them had gone along with the armies of Scott and Taylor to report the Mexican War; many more had brought the story of “Bloody Kansas” to the country, often inventing the blood . . .”

But the emphasis of the press remained on opinion rather than news, on editorials and editorial commentary, as witness the fame of Greeley himself, of Henry J. Raymond, of Bryant, of a galaxy of editors . . . The Superintendent of the Census of 1860 reflected the prevailing view when he classified eighty percent of the periodicals of the country, including all 373 daily newspapers, as “political in their character.”

[The reporters at Greeley’s New York Tribune] gave superb implementation to Greely’s credo: that the newspaper must provide American society with leadership – moral, political, artistic and intellectual leadership – before anything else.”

(Bohemian Brigade: Civil War Newsmen in Action, Louis M. Starr, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, excerpts pp. 4-6; 19)

News Fronts, Rumors, False Reports and Speculations

“When we study the history of journalism we are principally studying a way in which men in the past have grasped reality.” James W. Carey, (“The Problem of Journalism History, Journalism History, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1974)

In 1860 New York City was the hub of journalism and locked in the maelstrom of lurid crime reports, immoral [tales of varied personages] . . . created by James Gordon Bennett’s news machine, the New York Herald. Pay for “reporters” was minimal and all that was required was a reasonable grasp of the English language. The worst “were not above fabricating news if facts did not come readily to hand.”

The New Orleans Picayune editorialized that “The Herald may be said to represent, in one particular, the genius of the ‘universal Yankee nation’ — that is, in its supreme regard for what is vulgarly called the main chance.”

News Fronts, Rumors, False Reports and Speculations

“The people of the interior,” President [James] Buchanan wrote apprehensively to James Gordon Bennett on the very day that South Carolina left the Union, “are kept in a constant state of excitement from what are called “telegrams.” The Philadelphia Morning Pennsylvanian, among many others, though the telegraph “a curse to the country.”

“We warn the people to beware of this new power in our midst, more potent than ‘an army with banners.’ Its whole stock in trade consists in the perpetual excitement of the community.”

The Erie Weekly Gazette had another caution: “Beware of this ‘special correspondence’ confidence game . . . in the New York or Philadelphia journals. A safe plan is to believe nothing you find in a ‘sensation’ column, however seemingly well authenticated . . .”

There was ample justification for these forebodings.  As word came of State after State preparing to follow South Carolina out of the Union in anticipation of a Republican in the White House . . . the press began dispensing news, rumors, false reports and speculations on a scale that left men confounded. 

Undercover men from the New York World, the Tribune, the Evening Post, the Baltimore American, and the Philadelphia Press arrived [in Charleston] as the tension mounted. Everyone who could read knew by the middle of February [1861] that the brick walls of Sumter were eight feet thick, that the Major and his garrison numbered scarcely a hundred . . .

[Charles A. Dana of Horace Greeley’s Tribune, had] three men in Charleston. These and other Tribune men in the South sported blue secession cockades in their lapels, wrote in an elaborate code Dana had devised, and addressed their material to New York banks and commercial houses which had agreed to serve as fronts.

In the third week of May . . . Dana [served an editorial] with plenty of lead: “On to Richmond! To Richmond Onward! On to Richmond, then is the voice of the people . . . Let her still sowing of the wind, have generous harvest of the whirlwind, and let it be now . . . To Richmond! To Richmond!”

(Bohemian Brigade: Civil War Newsmen in Action, Louis M. Starr, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, excerpts pp. 9-11; 20-21; 33-34)

Journalism, Truth and War

“There is something in the human mind that turns instinctively to fiction, and that even journalists succumb.” What remains to the world, Mencken argued, “is a series of long tested and solidly agreeable lies.”

Journalism, Truth and War

In May 1830 James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald in search of “that mass market” which was soon to become the Holy Grail of American industry. In its pages aimed at the laboring classes were “police-court reports, details of murders and offenses against morality of an interesting nature, blow-by-blow write ups of bare knuckle prize fights, stock market reports, gossip and the most up-to-date news that money could procure.”

By the 1850s news-collection was the central task of the business, with political broadsiding still the bread and butter of each paper – as each thought of itself as the very political life of its particular partisan party.

New reporters picked this up immediately and wrote from the party point of view.  When trouble commenced in the Kansas Territory in the mid-1850s, Republican party-minded papers sent young reporters on westbound trains and steamers to get the right news to send back East.

One “reporter” was 21-year-old James Redpath, a Scottish immigrant to Michigan, whose only training was writing “fervid articles damning slavery in a Detroit paper.” This caused him to be highly regard by the editors of the St. Louis Missouri Democrat, Chicago Tribune and New York Tribune. These connections and his worship of John Brown helped him become a delegate for the first two conventions of the Free State faction, and a major’s rank in the Free State army once guerilla warfare began.

Bernard Weisberger wrote in his “Reporters for the Union” that the “reporters sent to Kansas by the metropolitan journals wrote amid the time-hallowed insanity of an election year and under the weight of their own upbringing. They were actors, not spectators, and many believed that truth could be put to flight in a free and open encounter unless it received at least some assistance. They sallied forth to depict a contest between freedom and tyranny in the impressive arena “beyond the Mississippi.” The results boded ill for the Union.”

Just before Lincoln’s election in 1860 Redpath admitted: “I believed that a civil war . . . would ultimate in slave insurrection and that Kansas troubles would probably create a military conflict . . . Hence I . . . went to Kansas; and endeavored personally and by my pen, to precipitate a revolution.”

(Reporters for the Union, Bernard A, Weisberger, Little, Brown and Company, 1953)

Economic and Political Opportunity in Florida

Almost immediately after war commenced the New England Emigrant Aid Company envisioned the national benefits of “transplanting friends of the Union” in conquered States and flooding them with “Energetic, loyal, liberty-loving colonists.” The promoters avowed that their goal was “to aid in the political, industrial and social regeneration of the South.” In the case of Florida, the emigrants would settle the rich soil, open resorts for invalids, and build permanent homes for “those whose delicate constitutions cannot endure the severe weather of the North.”

In early 1864, Salmon Chase’s presidential ambitions were assisted by increased military invasions of Florida to occupy more land area and establish a new State government dominated by his political appointees. They were then expected to declare Florida’s 3 electoral votes for him come November.

Economic and Political Opportunity in Florida

“Almost from the beginning of the fratricidal conflict of 1861-1865 far-seeing politicians and interested economic groups from the North began an economic invasion of the South. First, a Confiscation Act made all property used in support of the rebellion subject to seizure by the federal government. Later in 1861, despite Abraham Lincoln’s questioning of its constitutionality, Congress passed a second Confiscation Act which made the property of all Confederate officials subject to immediate confiscation by Union officials.

The authors of the Act, by a provision that gave people supporting the Confederacy sixty days to drop their support or have their property become liable to federal confiscation, struck below the upper stratum of the Southern official family and at the roots of Southern life.

Then, in the summer of 1862, Congress passed the Direct Tax Set which, once Union troops occupied rebel territory, made Southern homes, lands, farms and plantations subject to sale or seizure by the federal government if the owners failed to pay the assessed taxes.

The avowed objectives of the laws were to “relieve” rebels of their war-producing materiel and to finance the [cost of the] war; but under them Northerners could transfer Southern wealth to themselves at the same time they emasculated the South politically.

Among the most frank in expressing their desire to exploit the South and guide Southern political development were the directors of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. This company had already experimented with sending emigrants to Kansas in an effort to flood that blood-stained territory with abolitionist settlers. Now with the war hardly more than a year old, the directors saw the South as a land of opportunity for Northerners and Northern ideals.

To them, the war presented an opportune time for settling in the South Northern workmen in numbers large enough to “support presses, schools, and churches true to their own principles and to the interests of freedom.” Land for the emigrants would be no problem since the government was sure to acquire considerable quantities through confiscation and defaulted direct taxes.

The implications of these plans were great. Should they succeed, Southerners would lose both their wealth, and their voice in the national political arena.”

(Northern Plans for the Economic Invasion of Florida, 1862-1865, Robert L. Clarke, Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume XXVIII, No. 4, April 1950, excerpt pp. 262-263)

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