Great Things Happened Here

Over the July 4th holiday I got to visit the biggest civil war battlefield in the US, the one in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Looking at those huge, wide-open fields, you could imagine the Union army and the Confederate army lined up on each side, shooting and lobbing explosives at each other. (The many civil war enactors, dressed for duty, were a great aid to the imagination). The whole business of warfare seems mind-bogglingly primitive.

I kept thinking, in a hopelessly naïve and probably dim-witted fashion, couldn’t disputes be settled in another way? Why couldn’t the generals agree on a chess tournament, for example, and do away with all the death and carnage? They’d just have to make up their minds to treat wins and losses at the game just like wins and losses on the battlefield. Sadly, I suppose it wouldn’t work. The humiliation of losing at chess just isn’t excruciating enough. People don’t give in unless they’re being slaughtered, beaten black and blue, raped, pillaged, and plundered.

I’ve been finding it awfully disappointing to learn this is just what union soldiers did to the south. The March, a novel by E. L. Doctorow, is about General Sherman’s march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina late in the war. I’ve always thought of the union soldiers as the “good guys.” Well, that was the side that was against slavery, and in fact they did liberate slaves as they marched along, 60,000 strong. What I didn’t know is that the union soldiers lived off the riches of southern plantations, stealing not just what they needed, but everything they could get their hands on, and setting fire to what was left. It seems they freed black women by day and raped them by night.

More uplifting was Independence Hall in Philadelphia. My husband and I got downright misty-eyed looking upon the very room, with original tables and chairs, where the founders signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the constitution. Great things happened here! The sense of holiness or sacredness is surely not the exclusive preserve of people who believe in gods or goblins. If the reverence of us pilgrims was merely for human inventions (checks and balances, rights, liberties, equality, and the people who dreamed them up), well, so be it. Some inventions are worth being awed by, as others (slavery, raping, pillaging) are worth finding completely repulsive.

Leave a comment ?


  1. I`m glad that you enjoyed your trip. The fact that the union represented a good cause, the abolition of slavery, does not mean that union soldiers, as individuals, were “good guys” and southern soldiers “bad guys”. Life is not that simple.
    As a matter of fact, a good cause may carry out more atrocities in war-time than a bad one.

  2. I want life to be that simple!

  3. Here is a case in which the right thing may not be able to be accomplished in a right way…. For the Union army to succeed in defending their cause, they would have to fight in at least some manner in which they did, that is stealing food and destroying the rest, in order to sustain themselves and deny resources to their enemy (I’m leaving the rape aside, as that seems pretty unjustifiable).

    To do otherwise would create long supply line chains from the north to support the union armies, that would themselves become targets for the enemy, and themselves require significant supply, support, and protection, weakening the effectiveness of the army.

    I was playing around with the idea recently if there was anything that I would find wrong that I would engage in actively… This is the obvious case of the greater good justifying the means… But this was about the only time I could justify in my mind.

  4. Eric MacDonald

    I hope Amos is wrong, and I think he is.

    But the truth of the matter is, I think, that Sherman believed, probably rightly, given the way that the war had been waged up to that point, that the only thing was something as primitive and brutal as possible would really win in the end. And he was right. Yes, war is blindly primitive, though there have been the so-called laws of war which have reined in some of the worst excesses, but if the Union armies had not been placed in the command of a general who was willing to go all out to win, the war might conceiveably have lasted longer.

    That’s the argument that is used to defend the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. It was used to justify — and AC Grayling’s “Among the Dead Cities is an eloquent argument against — the area bombing of German cities, that killed countless civilians, and destroyed treasures of art and architecture that can never be replaced.

    War is brutal and primitive, and life is not that simple. But at Gettysburg great things did happen. It was the turning point of the war which preserved the unity a great republic and liberated (in principle at least) many people whose only crime was to be black. The values expressed in that Philadelphia hall were fought for on the fields, in the hills, and amongst the rocks of Gettysburg. It was a great and terrible battle. It had to be done. It will no doubt have to be done again.

  5. The French Revolution is another example of a good cause (end the absolute monarchy, end feudalism, proclaim the rights of man) that brought its share of atrocities, especially the so-called reign of terror.
    Probably, there were more atrocities commited during the period of the revolution than in a similar period of the absolute monarchy, yet my sympathies, as did those of Kant, go out to the cause of the revolution, as a step, albeit a bloody one, towards the recognition of the equality of all human beings.

  6. Mike LaBossiere

    Actually, the American soldiers (Union and Southern) showed remarkable restraint in the context of war.

    As you point out, the naive view is not accurate. However, it is important to acknowledge that the soldiers in that war did generally recognize clear moral limits (while some clearly violated them-like executing black POWs and their white officers) and most of them acted as best they could under such conditions.

    See, for example, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, by Mark Grimsley. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

  7. Mike, I don’t know what to think. From what I’ve read about Sherman’s march in particular (in the Doctorow novel and a peek at this and that…) it sounds like it deliberately involved excessive force. Lots of raping, pillaging, plundering, burning. Now that I’ve gotten the civil war bug, I’m afraid I maybe buried in books about it for a couple of years. Thanks for the reference.

    Eric, Thinking about this also brought the atomic bomb to mind and AC Grayling’s book too (which I may just have to read…though Jonathan Glover’s book “Humanity” is higher on my list). Those cases seem a bit differently since they involved a calculated attempt to achieve military goals by killing non-combatants. The union soldiers on Sherman’s march seemed to have been not so calculating, but rather just very intemperate. They celebrated their victories by looting, raping, setting buildings on fire, etc. The curious thing is that Sherman sort of used their intemperance for military ends (apparently…).

  8. Eric MacDonald

    Jean, I think if you do study Sherman’s campaign through the South you will find that he deliberately used terrorism to achieve his ends. The terrorism consisted in permitting troops to run wild. This was a calculated attempt, I believe, to obtain military goals by terrorising civilians. I didn’t say it was nice, but it may have shortened what had already been a long and bloody war.

    I have very mixed feelings about the use of such tactics, and think that Bomber Harris was probably wrong (along with Churchill) to target German civilians. It actually, in that case, did not bring the end more quickly. It may even have postponed victory, because it aroused fears in Germany as to what the peace might be like. Versailles was widely hated in Germany. The area bombing of German cities may have convinced German civilians that the next peace settlement would be even more humiliating and costly. Sherman, on the other hand, was there, occupying territory as he went, leaving a path of destruction in his wake, not all of it a military necessity, but all of it used to convince the South that it was time to give up. It worked.

    Don’t forget that after a battle soldiers, in the past, were often given a free hand in looting, raping and pillaging the enemy. This was their reward for the fear and the horror and the sacrifices of battle. Napoleon, before the Battle of Waterloo, had given Brussels to his troops as a prize, and as one book on the battle said, every woman in the city knew what that meant. But Sherman used the ‘intemperance’ of his troops to terrorise the civilian population for military ends.

  9. Eric MacDonald

    Oh, I meant to say, Jean, thanks for referring Jonathan Glover’s book. I shall get it.

  10. I don’t much about Sherman, but from what I can see from wars in the 20th century, the evidence shows that terror, if it is sufficient, works. That is, Hitler’s bombing of England, Harris’s attacks on Germany and the U.S. bombing of Hanoi strengthened the will to resist, but the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war almost immediately.

  11. It seems like a few distinctions could be made here…

    There’s bombing buildings with the intention of killing civilian men, women, and children (even!), so that a population and its leaders will surrender. There, the death of “innocents” is part of the strategy.

    Then there’s letting soldiers go amok for strategic reasons, not intending the deaths of innocents, but knowing they’re inevitable.

    “Intended” vs. “foreseen.” I wouldn’t want to say there’s a huge difference, but at least at the level of character there might be. The first person is willing to contemplate the killing of children (eg) as a military maneuver. The other doesn’t have that in mind so explicitly.

    Intuitively, there’s a difference, but of course the question is whether to trust that intuition.

  12. I don’t see much intuitive difference myself. For example, during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, according to the supporters of Pinochet, Pinochet himself never knew exactly what his torture and death squads did. Perhaps it’s true: he never knew the details of torture techniques or the names of the victims. He simply gave his subordinates a green light to do what they “had to do” to annilate “subversion”. So Sherman gave his troops a green light to run amok, knowing full well what the results would be. Another good example is the behavior of the Soviet troops as they entered Germany at the end of World War 2: rape, looting, killing civilians. Stalin had given them the green light, as part of a policy of spreading panic through Germany.

  13. As a matter of fact, there is a certain ethical cowardice in the attitude of those who close their eyes and let their troops run amok, thus washing their hands of direct responsibility when being in command, they are actually responsible. At least Truman and Bomber Harris took responsibility for their decisions.

  14. Amos…OK, good point. The Pinochet example is a great one to cast doubt on the distinction I was making. I suppose I’m just trying to defend civil war heroes because they have a different image. In fact, I went to the bookstore and found a magazine with a cover story about Sherman that made him out to be the inventor of 20th century warfare against non-combatants. (I should have bought it…but had a hard time seeing myself as a reader of military magazines!)

  15. Eric MacDonald

    Amos’ point is perhaps sufficient to raise questions about the distinction between intended and foreseen; but it’s still not enough to assimilate Pinochet to Sherman. The Civil War heroes are still heroes. But war heroes, heroes though they may be, are always tarnished. Pinochet wasn’t fighting a war, as such. He was trying to secure the dictatorship of the right over the wrong. There is a distinction there.

  16. At least Sherman had good ultimate aims. The worry is that his tactics were questionable. That makes him more like the bombers of Germany and Hiroshima. But then there’s the issue of how explicitly he intended the suffering of “innocents.” The Pinochet example casts doubt on how much that matters, even it’s not a good comparison overall. I’ll let Amos comment on your description of Pinochet as “trying to secure the dictatorship of the right over the wrong.”

  17. Eric: Pinochet is a hero to his supporters. Sherman is certainly no hero to southerners in the U.S.
    Actually, since Pinochet was doing the dirty work for the Nixon administration, he, like Sherman, represents U.S. military policy. According to Pinochet and his supporters, he was fighting a dirty war against communist subversion, against guerrilla groups backed by Cuba, who wanted to turn Chile into a Soviet satellite. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but Pinochet must be seen in the context of the cold war. He didn’t seize power for the fun of it, and he most certainly had his own green light from Nixon and Kissinger. I’m not anti-communist myself, so Pinochet is no hero to me.

  18. Is a hero defined by being involved in a good cause or by whether or not she uses good means? Second, while I’m sure that everyone agrees that ending slavery is a good cause, outside of such clear-cut issues, we might have some difficulties deciding on what are good causes. Third, can someone be a hero and be involved in a bad cause? I think of Homer’s Iliad, and there are heroes among the Greeks and among the Trojans. Maybe there was no good or bad cause at Troy. However, at my very superficial level of knowledge about the U.S. Civil War, Robert E. Lee is generally considered to be a gentleman and perhaps a hero, maybe more so than Sherman, even though Lee was defending a bad cause. Thinking about the war in Vietnam, I can imagine heroes on both sides, yet for me the North Vietnamese side represents the good cause.

  19. Eric MacDonald

    Oh, I say, that’s a bit like saying that Hitler was a bulwark against the communists, which is what he was widely held to be, and why he received so much support from the Vatican (at least initially). Sherman may not be a hero in the South, but in the context of the Civil War, he was a hero, because his tactics won, and brought the war to an end, which benefited everyone, in the end (that is, after the dust had settled — perhaps there’s still a bit in the air).

    But Pinochet, green light from Tricky Dick or not, Cold war or not, was a vile dictator who overthrew a duly elected government, and carried out oppression (as is the wont of South American dictators) with the use of terror. No one benefited from Pinochet’s coup. Whether Pinochet siezed power ‘for the fun of it’ or not (I’m not quite sure what that means), and whether or not it was an expression of clandestine US activities, he was a brutal dictator, and used brutality to maintain his power.

    It’s not the same thing at all. There’s an important (a vital) distinction to be made between Sherman, who was fighting a terrible war to preserve the union, and in that desperate fight to try whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, as Lincoln said on the battlefield at Gettysburg, can long endure. Thousands of men had died already in that struggle. Sherman invented a new kind of war (total war) to bring the slaughter to an end. To compare Pinochet and Sherman and try to put them in the same class is futile.

  20. Eric: Our posts crossed. You romanticize Sherman or have a different concept of what a hero is than I do. For me, Sherman did the dirty work or let his boys do the dirty work of destroying the south.
    Given his methods, I don’t see him as a hero. I’d call Sherman a necessary evil. He may not even have been necessary, because there may have been other ways to end the war. However, not being a historian, I will not speculate on that. A hero for me exhibits moral excellence or virtue, and for me, a general who lets his troops rape, pillage and terrorize civilians does not exhibit moral excellence. Have to run, but I’m ready to receive
    criticisms later in the day.

  21. Eric MacDonald

    Not true, Amos.

    I do not romaticise Sherman at all. He was a brutal army commander who discovered a new way of waging war. It wasn’t enough, for him, to defeat an army in the field. That army, as it had shown, could keep on going, so long as it had support at home. The only answer was to invade the homeland, and bring the war home to those who supported it and kept it going. Then it stopped.

    It was a brutal, inhuman, nasty business, as war always is. It’s a primitive, atavistic, ruinous way for human beings to behave. But what is moral excellence in war? If killing enemy soldiers isn’t enough, and it was beginning to seem inadequate, the war had to be taken to the economic base on which the enemy depended. This concept of total war, understood by Grant and Sherman, Sheridan and others on the Union side, destroyed farms and other productive capacity throughout the South, with consequent, but not obviously intended, even if foreseen, loss of civilian life, and abuses to human dignity. But the goal throughout was to bring an end to the war. And it did.

    Heroes are always tarnished, I’m afraid. And if the only thing that can make heroes is the kind of moral excellence very seldom seen in the midst of war, then we need other ways of settling our differences. Indeed we do. Meanwhile, however, so long as war endures – and it was Plato, I think, who said that only the dead have seen the end of war – we’d better reserve some kind of commendation for those who dare, for freedom, for justice, for those they love, to die. And it’s not only whose hero you are that matters, but whether you really did dare for ends that are truly moral. I think Sherman might justify his claim. I’m not sure that Pinochet could.

  22. Eric: Actually, among my heroes there are no generals. I prefer writers, philosophers and even people who I’ve met, people who lead a normal ethical life heroically. Heroes, for me, are models, people whose lives appear ethically superior to mine. 20 years of work in the Chilean human rights movement left me with a sense of a good cause without heroes, of no one who, I especially admire, or would wish to model myself on. I wish I could say that I had the typical heroes, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, but I mistrust public heroes so much after my experience in the human rights movement that I’ll limit my heroes to Spinoza, Hannah Arendt, Kafka, some people who life has brought me into contact with by chance, and even my sister. I thought of Socrates for a moment, but no, he’s not a hero for me any longer. He tried too hard to be a hero for me to see him as a hero.

    Sherman, for me, was a thug who served a good cause; Pinochet, a thug who served a bad cause.
    Contrary to what you say, lots of people benefited from Pinochet: the U.S. copper companies, the Chilean ruling elite, U.S. geopolitics (Chile was kept within the U.S. sphere of influence), etc. I have no doubt that Pinochet died, considering that he had served a good cause, that of destroying the left and “modernizing”/”rationalizing” the Chilean economy. Pinochet has many fans in Chile: he received 44% of the vote in the 1988 plebiscite, considered to be a fair election, not a bad voting score. Margaret Thatcher is a big admirer of General Pinochet. By the way, you appear to believe that South American dictators are intrinsically more brutal than U.S. generals.

  23. Eric MacDonald

    Yes, dictators don’t rate high in my book. Never took to it myself. Wouldn’t want a dictator ruling over me. Sherman was no a thug. He was a commanding officer of the Union army marching through Georgia. He capture Atlanta. The first sign of a real crack in the Conderacy. From there on out it was basically a walk in the park. Generals are expected to get results. Sherman was a tough man when he was needed. It is still arguable, despite polls — Hitler did pretty well at the polls too — that Pinochet was determined to preserve the right class to rule, and subordinated his enemies to intolerable oppression. Are you so sure that Allende would have not improved matters in Chile, and that in fact Pinochet was a brute, no matter what Margaret Thatcher thought of him? (I don’t always trust the iron lady’s views.) Sherman helped to end a deadly and a dangerous war. It is absolutely improper to call him a thug. Pinochet was a thug. There’s a difference.

  24. Eric: Did you read my post with attention? I never said that Allende would not have improved things in Chile nor that Pinochet was not oppressive. I simply noted that to many, Pinochet is a hero. Not to me.
    In any case, generals don’t rate high in my book. If you’re not going to read what I write with attention, I don’t see any point in continuing this dialogue. Take care, Amos

  25. Eric MacDonald

    Sorry, Amos, indeed I did read what you said with attention. I just think you are wrong, and said so. If Allende had been a danger to the people of Chile, as the Conderacy was to the principle of equality, then perhaps Pincohet’s achievement could be seen differently, but those who see him as a hero are wrong, unless that is true. Sherman was not a thug, but, by all accounts, a great general who brought a long and desperate struggle to an end.

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