Ethnic Cleansing, American-Style
by James Bovard, October 1999
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
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
"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
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
"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