August 23, 2008

War Crimes Against Southern Civilians

By Cimprich, John

War Crimes against Southern Civilians. By Walter Brian Cisco. (Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Company, 2007. Pp. 220. $24.95, ISBN 978-1-58980-466-1.) Walter Brian Cisco, a professional writer, seeks in this work to convince a broad popular audience of the number and gravity of crimes committed by Federal forces during the Civil War. From eight states he draws many examples of unnecessary killing, imprisonment, coercion, exile, destruction, looting, and electoral interference. He covers in roughly chronological order incidents from the 1861 St. Louis riot to General William T. Sherman's 1865 march through the Carolinas.

Cisco believes that "all Americans are less free today, and live in a more dangerous world," because of the destruction of the right to secession, the strengthening of the central government, and the introduction of a hard war policy mat made enemy civilians suffer (p. 20). He blames President Abraham Lincoln for causing these changes. Although the audthor argues Lincoln was the "micromanager" of the Federal war effort, the book consistently shows that Lincoln allowed abuses to occur by failing to interfere with subordinates' delegated powers (p. 16). Actually, one need not agree with Cisco's Lost Cause views or all the details he includes in order to accept that a significant amount of wrongdoing occurred.

As Cisco observes, "an enemy dehumanized would be treated inhumanely" (p. 144). The passions of war, especially a rebellion or civil war, lead some, not all, soldiers to take such a view of enemy civilians. Thucydides treated it as common human behavior in his account of the Corcyrean civil war in ancient Greece. Cisco's assertion that "the kind of warfare practiced by the Federal military during 1861-65 turned America-and arguably the whole world- back to a darker age" overrates the influence of the American Civil War (p. 17). Voltaire judged the flexible military codes of eighteenth-century Europe as allowing very brutal wars. During the modern period the use of guerrilla tactics has inflamed many conflicts and has provoked retaliation that escalates the cycle of violence, as recent events have made all too familiar.

Practically all of Cisco's research involves printed works. His most solid evidence comes from contemporary primary sources, particularly admissions by Federals. Because of the controversial nature of the subject, he should not depend as much as he has on reminiscences, which were potentially distorted by postwar hostility, and on poorly documented secondary works, which cannot be readily checked back to the original sources.

The book is very readable but sometimes needs more context. Cisco rejects without elaboration Marion Brunson Lucas's well-reviewed work, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia (College Station, Tex., 1976). Cisco also presents all runaway slaves as suffering at the hand of Federals, when many also benefited.

Little has been written directly on crimes against civilians during the Civil War, though the topic has been addressed in works on Sherman, slavery, guerrillas, and certain wartime localities- especially New Orleans; Nashville; Fredericksburg, Virginia; Athens, Alabama; Charleston, South Carolina; western Missouri; the Red River Valley; and the Shenandoah Valley. The subject deserves careful examination by professional historians, especially given its contemporary relevance.


Thomas More College

Copyright Southern Historical Association Aug 2008

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