Beneath the Virtue-signaling Propaganda of Total War

William Tecumseh Sherman, 1864. Promised to “make Georgia howl.”
William Tecumseh Sherman, 1864. Promised to “make Georgia howl.”

The Nineteenth Century concept of Just War was derived principally from Biblical roots, but both Greek and Roman thought and especially Roman experience undoubtedly influenced Augustine (354-430 AD) in what is generally recognized as the first systematic treatment of Christian doctrine as it applies to the State, its citizens, and its soldiers in time of war. First of all, Augustine recognized that war is often a necessity to defend the State and its citizens from aggressive enemies and that Christians may justly bear arms in that defense. Categorical pacifism is unrealistic, unloving, and unbiblical. Moreover, isolationism is often short-sighted and unwise, and may result in war and excuse callous abandonment of loyal allies to tyranny and tragic human slaughter. 

Augustine outlined three main criteria for a just war: it must be initiated by properly constituted authority (Congress, in the case of the United States), it must be for a just cause, and it must be conducted by just means. To Augustine, a just end to war should be a just peace. Who then determines what are proper authority, just cause, and just means? Augustine’s answer: God, as revealed in Scripture. Practically, those who constitute proper authority decide these issues on behalf of the citizenry, but these authorities are also ultimately accountable to God and therefore the teachings of Scripture. Thomas Aquinas and many others since have attempted to flesh out a more comprehensive Just War Theory, but the tragedy of war always generates many ethical loose ends.

Most Frequently Listed Principles of a Just War

1)  Just Cause—generally defensive or correcting a grave wrong.

2) Initiated by Properly Constituted Authority (Congress in the case of the U.S.)

3)  Just Means and Conduct—A distinction must be made between combatants and non-    combatants. Senseless cruelty and wanton destruction are prohibited.

4)  Goal must be a just peace. (Therefore allied nations should not be abandoned to slaughter or brutal tyranny.)

5)  Proper Jurisdiction—Evils corrected must be within legitimate sovereignty.

6)  Last Reasonable Resort—Reasonable exhaustion of attempts to settle differences peacefully.

The Most Frequently Listed Principles for Conducting a Just War:

1)  Non-combatants should never be deliberate or primary targets of military action.

2)  Prisoners of war must be treated humanely and respectfully.

3)  Torture of prisoners of war or non-combatants is prohibited.

4)  Force used must not be disproportionate to objectives, harm done, or threats.

5)  Avoidance of senseless cruelty and all evil means (even for a just cause).

6)  As much as possible, the enemy must be treated in good faith to keep open the possibility of reconciliation.

7)  The end of war should be a just peace. (Therefore allied nations should not be abandoned to slaughter or brutal tyranny.)

The Geneva Conventions of 1863, 1906, 1929, and 1949 evolved substantially from Just War Theory. The United States was not a signer of the 1863 Geneva Convention.

For several centuries before the U.S. Civil War, Western nations adhered fairly closely to the Christian concept of just conduct in war, if not always just cause.  Confederate forces, with only a few exceptions, conducted military operations according to the Western and Christian tradition of just conduct and means.  Union forces, however, soon began a systematic escalation to a Total War concept.  Total War differs from the Christian concept of limited war in its erosion of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants.  Total War is war on an entire society, often escalating by degree according to military or political expediency or desire for vengeance on a demonized enemy.  Total War pursues victory and dominance by whatever means without regard to moral or humanitarian considerations.

Many people familiar with the Bible may recall that God ordered on several occasions the destruction of entire tribes. But such decrees belong to an all-wise and perfectly just God alone and most emphatically not to human leaders. Total War decreed and practiced by human leaders finds no sanction in the Bible.

General William T. Sherman, perhaps the most famous practitioner of Total War, summed up the Total War philosophy that prevailed in Washington:

“This war differs from other wars, in this particular. We are not fighting armies but a hostile people and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

Southern civilians, especially Southern women, were adamantly unsympathetic to Northern invasion and occupation of the South.  Sherman, who believed that “fear is the beginning of wisdom,” thought it very important to humble the South and put a fear and dread of Union might and power in their hearts.  In June of 1864, he wrote to like-minded Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that:

There is a class of people, men, women and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.”

Misconduct occurred on both sides, but with a significant difference.  Southern misconduct was infrequent and not sanctioned by high levels of Confederate leadership. It usually resulted in discipline. Six Confederate soldiers were shot for plundering during the Gettysburg campaign in 1863.  Union misconduct was frequent and--especially in the last two years of the war--was employed as part of a systematic policy of devastation to break the will of the Southern people by starvation and terror.

There were notable Union exceptions to total war thinking. Union generals George B. McClellan and Don Carlos Buell were among the most prominent. But these generals were unable to prevail against the Total War thinking of Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and the Radical Republicans in Congress. McClellan and Buell were eventually relieved of their commands. Their thinking on the objectives and conduct of the war was completely incompatible with that of Stanton, who undermined them at every opportunity  Many lower-ranking Union officers were heart-sick at having to carry out orders to torch the homes of women and children. Among these was General Lawrence Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, and Col. Robert G. Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts, depicted in the movie, Glory. Chamberlain wrote to his sister during the Petersburg campaign, late in the war: “I am willing to fight men in arms, but not babes in arms.”  The highest level of Union military leadership would fall into the hands of those generals willing and sometimes eager to practice the devastation and inhumanity of Total War.

In September 1864, Union Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant sent General Philip Sheridan with 40,000 men to reinforce General David Hunter’s 22,000 men and severely punish the much smaller Confederate  forces of Jubal Early and Wade Hampton. But their primary purpose was to destroy the entire Shenandoah Valley.  Up to that point the Union’s Total War policy had been on a relatively small scale, but now it would be practiced on a grand scale.  Union troops under the command of Sheridan and Hunter devastated a 92 mile strip of the Shenandoah Valley from Winchester to Staunton, in some places 40 miles wide. This had been the breadbasket of the Confederate Army and the Southern people. The remaining railroads were destroyed.  Crops of all kinds were burned.   Homes were looted and burned.  The Federal troops destroyed more than 2,000 barns and all the farm equipment in them.  A destroyed barn was a destroyed livelihood for farm families.  They destroyed seventy mills, 4,000 horses, 11,000 cattle, 12,000 sheep, and other livestock. Anything the Union troops could not use themselves, they destroyed. Even pump handles were destroyed so families could not draw water from their wells.

One of Jubal Early’s staff officers wrote of this tragic and appalling scene:

“I rode down the Valley after Sheridan’s retreating cavalry beneath great columns of smoke…I  saw mothers and maidens tearing their hair and shrieking to Heaven in their fright and despair, and little children, voiceless and tearless in their pitiable terror.”

Sheridan had made good on Grant’s order “to eat out Virginia clear and clean.” As Grant had suggested, a crow flying over the Shenandoah Valley would have to carry its own lunch. One has to ask what sort of a “Union” practices such deliberate barbarity on those it claims should be partners in the “Union.” What sort of thinking allows such inhumanity in the name of “Saving the Union”?  It is the moral perversion that insists that the means justifies the end. It is the pitiless philosophy that might makes right.

General Sherman, perhaps the grand champion of Total War, said in January of 1864:

“The government of the U. S. has any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war—to take  their lives, their homes, their land, their everything—war is simply unrestrained by the Constitution…to the persistent secessionist, why death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better.”

At least 50,000 to 100,000 Southern civilians died due to Union Army actions in the Civil War. The culmination of total war policy was Sherman’s March through Georgia and South Carolina, and especially the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, and many smaller surrounding towns.  Yet both Grant and Sherman turned more magnanimous at the very end of the war. The U.S has had a more exemplary record on Geneva Convention and Just War issues since then. However, modern politically correct historians have distorted, whitewashed, and covered up so much of the reality of Civil War causes and conduct, that Abraham Lincoln would not recognize their accounts as the war he knew.  

You have no rights to post comments