Ethnic Cleansing, American-Style
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
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
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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