Remembering a historic battle
At this time of the year a century and a half ago, word began to spread that Stonewall Jackson was dying. After having spearheaded a brilliant flank attack against numerous Union forces at Chancellorsville in what was then called Northern Virginia, Jackson was riding back to his secondary line when Confederate soldiers, mistaking his entourage for Union personnel, opened fire and wounded him. Amputation of an arm and treatment of other injuries did not stop his fever and infection, and he died May 10, 1863.An interesting account that includes a description of that battle came out 20 years ago. It is called “The Destructive War” by Charles Royster. The book’s major subjects are T. J. Jackson and William T. Sherman. The sections on Jackson include what people said Jackson would have accomplished if he had lived. The sections on Sherman discuss what he actually did. There are parallels. People said Jackson would have carried the war to the North, burning Philadelphia and other northern cities, carrying destruction into the heart of Union territory. Of course, Sherman did just that in the South.
Early in the war Sherman was in charge of troops along the Ohio River and kept telling the authorities that a large armed force would be needed to quell the rebellion by invading the rebel states. He repeated that statement so many times and so vociferously that some of the newspapers in the north stated openly that he was insane. Three years later, when his forces were sweeping through Georgia and South Carolina, one of the nicknames his troops gave him was “Crazy Bill.” That was because they knew he’d been called insane because he insisted on the need for a force as large as the one he was leading through Georgia.
The author points out that in the early months of the war Sherman tried to keep the soldiers under his command from damaging civilian property or taking civilian goods. But gradually he came to realize that those at home in the Confederate states were encouraging their soldiers to continue fighting and were supplying them with the means for doing so. So he adopted the tactics that made his reputation for ferocity, making Southern civilians as much aware of rebellion’s dangers as Southern military people.
The book opens with the occupation of Columbia, S. C., by Sherman’s army. Fire broke out and when civilians sought help from Sherman he told them bluntly: “You brought it on yourselves.” That was because South Carolina had been the first state to vote to secede from the Union.
There are several quotations from Confederates early in the war who called for destruction of that nature on communities in the North. That was why the book got its title. There was more destruction, both physical and mental, than nearly everyone had believed possible at the outset of the war.
The section on Chancellorsville is somewhat turgid but quite unusual. It intersperses what was actually happening on the ground with what various people said about the battle in after years, and where people later said they were during the fighting. The commanding Union general, Hooker, said later that he had sent a warning to the general in charge of his right wing, Gen. O.O. Howard, to be wary of a flank attack. Gen. Howard said he never received the warning. In later years another Union officer wrote that he had been with Howard when the warning arrived. More than 20 years later a historian contemplated the contrasting statements and bemoaned the fact that it was impossible to tell who was right and who was mistaken.
The book does a good job on two levels — it gives a good picture of how destructive war is and an equally good view of how vague the memory of that destruction can become in the minds of the survivors as the decades go by.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.