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Ethnic Cleansing, American-Style

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The United States government intervened earlier this year in a civil war in Yugoslavia. President Clinton and other Western leaders justified the NATO bombing by the crackdowns that Serbian forces had conducted on Kosovar Albanian rebels and civilians.

However, prior to the onset of NATO bombing, the actions of the Serbian forces were more moderate than were the actions of the Northern armies during our own Civil War. Once the NATO bombing began, Serbian persecution and atrocities and NATO bombs provoked a massive exodus from Kosovo. In order to put the Yugoslavian civil war in perspective, it is helpful to recall the brutality of the conduct of our own federal government during the War between the States.

In his Memorial Day address, Clinton declared that “we are standing against ethnic cleansing with our wonderful, myriad, rainbow, multiethnic military … and the even more powerful pull of our shared American values.”

The American Civil War did not involve ethnic cleansing per se. But the attitude of some of the Northern commanders paralleled those of the Serbian commanders more than many contemporary Americans would like to admit. The statements of Union officers in their official reports reveal attitudes far different from how the war is presented in American school textbooks.

The longer the American Civil War lasted, the more Union generals acted as if they were conducting a crusade to crush infidels. In a September 17, 1863, letter to Henry W. Halleck, the general in chief of the Union armies, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote:

“The United States has the right, and … the … power, to penetrate to every part of the national domain. We will remove and destroy every obstacle – if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper.”

Halleck liked Sherman’s letter so much that he passed it on to President Lincoln, who declared that it should be published. Sherman, in a follow-up to Halleck on October 10, 1863, declared:

“I have your telegram saying the President had read my letter and thought it should be published. I profess … to fight for but one single purpose, viz, to sustain a Government capable of vindicating its just and rightful authority, independent of niggers, cotton, money, or any earthly interest.”

On June 21, 1864, before his bloody March to the Sea, Sherman wrote to the secretary of war: “There is a class of people [in the South] men, women, and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.” A few months later, Sherman informed one of his subordinate commanders:

“I am satisfied … that the problem of this war consists in the awful fact that the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright rather than in the conquest of territory, so that hard, bull-dog fighting, and a great deal of it, yet remains to be done. Therefore, I shall expect you on any and all occasions to make bloody results.”

On September 27, 1864, Sherman wrote to Gen. John Hood, the Confederate commander of the Army of Tennessee, and announced, “I have deemed it to the interest of the United States that the citizens now residing in Atlanta should remove, those who prefer it to go south and the rest north.” Sherman’s comments could have been a model for the Serbian leaders who drove ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.

On October 9, 1864, Sherman wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant:

“Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources. I can make the march, and make Georgia howl.”

Sherman lived up to his boast – and left a swath of devastation and misery that helped plunge the South into decades of poverty.

Scorched-earth tactics were also used in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864-65. On September 28, 1864, Gen. Phil Sheridan ordered one of his commanders to “leave the valley a barren waste.” General Grant ordered Union troops to “make all the valleys south of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad a desert as high up as possible … eat out Virginia clear and clean … so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.” Union Gen. Wesley Merritt proudly reported to Sheridan on December 3, 1864, that “the destruction in the valley, and in the mountains bounding it, was most complete.”

Such tactics were typical towards the end of the war. On December 19, 1864, a Union colonel reported that he had followed orders “to desolate the country from the Arkansas River to Fort Scott, and burn every house on the route.” In the same month, a major general with the Army of the Potomac noted the success of a Union expedition south of Petersburg, Virginia: “Many houses were deserted contained only helpless women and children … almost every house was set on fire.”

Many Union officers were horrified at the wanton destruction their armies inflicted on the South. On March 8, 1865, Gen. Cyrus Bussey reported:

“There are several thousand families within the limits of this command who are related to and dependent on the Arkansas soldiers in our service. These people have nearly all been robbed of everything they had by the troops of this command, and are now left destitute and compelled to leave their homes to avoid starvation…. In most instances everything has been taken and no receipts given, the people turned out to starve, and their effects loaded into trains and sent to Kansas.”

The source of the preceding quotes is The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 volumes published by the Government Printing Office). Thomas Bland Keys compiled some of the most shocking comments in his excellent 1991 book, Uncivil War: Union Army and Navy Excesses in the Official Records, published by the Beauvoir Press in Biloxi, Mississippi. For a masterful examination of the broad issues surrounding the war, check out Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (Chicago: Open Court, 1996).

Some Northern leaders claimed to be deeply concerned about the well-being of slaves liberated by the Northern armies. However, Union tactics intentionally devastated the economies of much of the South – leaving people to struggle for years to avert starvation. This destruction made the South’s recovery far slower than it otherwise would have been – and greatly increased the misery of both white and black survivors. Similarly, the NATO devastation of both Kosovo and Yugoslavia will make life far harder for any Kosovo Albanians who do return to their land.

The more ruthless the Northern armies acted, the more exalted federal power became. For many, the greatness and sanctity of the federal government was confirmed by the fact that the government possessed the power to burn Southern cities, destroy Southern crops, and starve Southern families.

The more the politicians used government power to destroy, the more government power itself was exalted as the greatest curative. Lord Acton, writing in England in 1862, observed of the American war: “Whether the Northern Government succeeds or fails, its character is altered, and its power permanently and enormously increased.” An 1875 article in the American Law Review noted: “The late war left the average American politician with a powerful desire to acquire property from other people without paying for it.” The tragic mistakes, blunders, and crimes of politicians led to a war that resulted in a vast expansion of the power of the political class.

U.S. government officials have accused both sides in the civil war in Kosovo of atrocities. Unfortunately, that’s what civil wars, including our own, routinely do – reflect humanity at its worst.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.