Bookmarking Our National Transgressions

Going through old bookmarks, I found Eric Foner’s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Professor Foner is a leading historian of the 19th century. From the review:

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system….

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal….Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Foner concludes:

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.

Reading this review again reminded me of another book review. It was easy to find, although it was published eight years ago. Janet Maslin wrote the review. The book was Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. Maslin says it’s a corrective for those who think slavery ended with the Civil War:

[The author] is not simply referring to the virtual bondage of black sharecroppers unable to extricate themselves economically from farming. He describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.

All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Bastardy, gambling, changing employers without permission, false pretense, “selling cotton after sunset”: these were all grounds for arrest in rural Alabama by 1890. And as Mr. Blackmon explains in describing incident after incident, an arrest could mean a steep fine. If the accused could not pay this debt, he or she might be imprisoned.

Alabama was among the Southern states that profitably leased convicts to private businesses. As the book illustrates, arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail. For the coal, lumber, turpentine, brick, steel and other interests described here, a steady stream of workers amounted to a cheap source of fuel.

It’s hard not to think of contemporary practices that mimic the “pushing system” or the cruel exploitation of prison labor. Today, we read about corporations like Amazon that set ever-increasing production quotas. If you don’t meet your quota, you’re fired. If you do meet your quota, you’re quota goes up. Then there’s the way towns and cities like Ferguson rely on fines for their funding. If you can’t pay your fine or miss your court date, you’re hit with a bigger fine or thrown in jail. And, of course, we now have a huge prison-industrial complex that’s devoted to mass incarceration as a way to lower the unemployment rate while increasing corporate income.

After writing the above, I looked at another bookmark. It was to a New York Times interview with someone who isn’t quoted very often in newspapers like the Times or on television: Noam Chomsky. I’d forgotten that he cites both The Half Has Never Been Told and Slavery By Another Name. His subject is “the roots of American racism”:

There is … a common variant of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” of what it is inconvenient to know: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims….

Jefferson, to his credit, at least recognized that the slavery in which he participated was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” And the Jefferson Memorial in Washington displays his words that “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Words that should stand in our consciousness alongside of John Quincy Adams’s reflections on the parallel founding crime over centuries, the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgment.”

The entire interview is here.

Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman by William Tecumseh Sherman

General Sherman and General Ulysses S. Grant were the two most successful military leaders on the Union side in the American Civil War. Sherman published the first edition of his memoirs in 1875, ten years after the war ended. He published a second edition in 1885, after he retired from the Army at the age of 64.

I don’t recommend this book, since it’s 800 pages long and Sherman spends an amazing amount of time detailing the minutiae of his military career. But I found it worth reading anyway. He was an interesting man with strong opinions. If you read this book, you’ll better understand how the Union army defeated the Confederates. For example, I never realized how important railroads and support from the navy were to the success of his campaign in the South, and how much effort went into supplying food for an army of 80,000 men.

General Sherman Has a Blog

J J Brownyneal, “a resident of Indiana with an interest in history”, has a remarkable blog devoted to General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War years. The entries are based on Sherman’s correspondence and other papers and are being posted in chronological order.

The first entry, for December 1, 1860, was posted on posted on December 25, 2010. It’s a letter Sherman wrote to his brother when Sherman was living and working in Louisiana. Abraham Lincoln had been elected but not yet sworn in as President:

The Convention will meet in January, and only ‘two questions will be agitated, Immediate dissolution, a declaration of State independence, and a General Convention of Southern States, with instructions to demand of the Northern States to repeal all laws hostile to slavery and pledges of future good behavior… the moment Louisiana assumes a position of hostility, then this becomes an arsenal and fort.

Let me hear the moment you think dissolution is inevitable. What Mississippi and Georgia do, this State will do likewise.

On August 2, 1864, Sherman was outside Atlanta. An entry for that date (posted today) includes his messages to other Union officers, with remarks like these:

If you have any negro regiments fit for duty I would like to have them in front of Nashville…

Losses in battle and sickness from work and weather is beginning to tell on the strength of my army.

Too many citizens manage to come to the front. Be even more stringent than heretofore. Grant no passes beyond Chattanooga, and only the smallest possible number that far.

Another entry for August 2 features a letter Sherman wrote to his wife:

I have for some days been occupying a good house on the Buckhead Road about 4 miles north of Atlanta but am going to move in the morning nearer to the Right to be nearer where I expect the next battle….

Somehow or other we cannot get Cavalry. The enemy takes all the horses of the Country and we have to buy and our People won’t sell. [Major General] Stoneman is also out with a cavalry force attempting to reach our prisoners confined at Andersonville, but since [Maj. Gen.] McCook’s misfortune I also have fears for his safety….

No Recruits are coming for the draft is not till September and then I suppose it will consist mostly of freed slaves & bought recruits that must be kept well to the Rear. I sometimes think our People do not deserve to succeed in War. They are so apathetic….

Atlanta is on high ground and the woods extend up to the forts which look strong and encircle the whole town. Most of the People are gone & it is now simply a big Fort. I have been a little sick today but feel better. Weather very hot.

By all accounts, Sherman was an excellent officer, although some of his actions in the South might qualify as war crimes today (his role in our treatment of the American Indians probably would). Of course, he also helped end a terrible war that was begun in order to protect and propagate an economic system based on the subjugation of millions. Fierce Patriot, a new biography of Sherman, has just been published and I plan to learn more about him by reading it.

One last thing: That scary burning of Atlanta depicted in Gone With the Wind wasn’t Sherman’s doing. It was Confederate General John Bell Hood who ordered the burning of both public buildings and military supplies on the night of September 1st, as his troops and some residents left the city.

Sherman’s army occupied Atlanta on September 2nd. All remaining civilians were ordered to evacuate. Later, on November 15, when Sherman moved on toward Savannah, he ordered the city’s remaining war resources, including a train depot, to be burned. According to a site called About North Georgia (probably not a regular purveyor of Yankee propaganda), Sherman’s burning of Atlanta was “significantly less than Hood’s Burning of Atlanta”.

Sherman and Sheridan on War

General William Tecumseh Sherman is now famous for two things: “marching through Georgia” and his statement that “war is hell”. Sherman led 95,000 men into Georgia in the spring of 1864. A year later, having fought their way to the Atlantic Ocean and then north through South Carolina, Sherman and his troops were in North Carolina when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Later that month (after the assassination of President Lincoln), Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Sherman and the Civil War was finally over.

From Wikipedia: “Sherman’s bold move of operating deep within enemy territory and without supply lines is considered to be revolutionary in the annals of war….British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart famously declared that Sherman was ‘the first modern general'”.

Sherman’s goal was to end the war by destroying the South’s ability and desire to keep fighting, not by targeting the civilian population directly but by destroying as much crucial infrastructure as possible. From what I’ve read, he didn’t order the wholesale destruction of food supplies. Nevertheless, having his army “live off the land” had the same practical effect. Sherman understood the severity of his actions. This is from a letter he wrote to his wife In March 1864:

It is enough to make the whole world start at the awful amount of death and destruction…Daily for the last two months has the work progressed and I see no signs of a remission till one or both or all the armies are destroyed…I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash – and it may be well that we become so hardened [320].

In September, after ordering the evacuation of Atlanta, he responded to complaints:

My orders are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions, yea hundreds of millions, of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace not in in Atlanta but in all America. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war on our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride [339].

One of Sherman’s comrades, General Philip Sheridan, who led his own “scorched earth” campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, explained his actions this way:

The stores of meat and grain that the valley provided, and the men it furnished for Lee’s depleted regiments, were the strongest auxiliaries he possessed in the whole insurgent action….I do not hold war to mean simply that lines of men shall engage each other in battle, and material interests be ignored. This is but a duel, in which one combatant seeks the other’s life; war means much more, and is far worse than this.

Those who rest at home in peace and plenty see but little of the horrors attending such a duel, and even grow indifferent to them as the struggle goes on, contenting themselves with encouraging all who are able-bodied to enlist in the cause, to fill up the shattered ranks as death thins them. It is another matter, however, when deprivation and suffering are brought to their own doors. Then the case appears much graver, for the loss of property weighs heavily with the most of mankind – heavier, often, than the sacrifices made on the field of battle. Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life [327].

A century later, the Geneva Conventions were modified to include the following prohibition:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

For any other motive, including ending a war.

A brief note: Grant and Sherman thought highly of General Johnston, one of their Southern adversaries. After the war, the three were close friends, and Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. (The page references above are to The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands.)

There is a great collection of quotes from Sherman here, including these extremely prescient remarks he is said to have made in Louisiana before the war:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail.