American Culture

Should the Union have allowed Sherman to destroy the South?

In a Scrogues Converse feature, Jim Booth, Lex and @Doc reconsider the decision to rein Sherman in before he burned the Confederacy to the ground.

[Ed. Note: Jim was an English teacher in the rural North Carolina high school @Doc attended.]

Jim Booth:

Worth a few moments of your time:

The Stubborn Persistence of Confederate Monuments

For most Americans, today is the second day of work this week. But state employees in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are just kicking off the work week: They had Monday off for Confederate Memorial Day.

Last July, it seemed like the momentum against the Confederacy had turned definitively, the biggest reversal since July of 1863. After the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina lowered the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ordered it removed in Montgomery, the former capital of the Confederacy, too. Cities and states began tearing down or quietly removing statues, flags, and other memorials.

Why Is the Flag Still There?

But as Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army discovered, there’s a long road between reversing momentum and actually winning the war. For all the high-profile removals, there remains a stunning number of Confederate Civil War monuments, memorials, and namesakes in public spaces around the country, as a new inventory taken by the Southern Poverty Law Center makes clear.

Full disclosure: one of my great great grandfathers was a captain of cavalry who rode with Stuart (a cousin). Another was a corporal with Joe Johnston. Still another joined Lee’s Army of Northern Virgina as a drummer boy at 13 in 1861, joined the army proper at 15, and was among Lee’s troops at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 at 17. My “heritage” is impeccable in a crummy sort of way.

Note especially the two times when Rebel monuments went up most widely and rapidly.

My own long history of often unintentional assholery may have a genetic explanation.


I honestly mean no offense, but given that the war still smolders, and from a purely historical perspective, it would have been better if Sherman had been let loose to truly crushed the Confederacy.

Shermans-march-to-the-seaI mean the US should have occupied, as a victorious military power, the south. Redrawn state boundaries. Removed even new southern states from Congress for a generation. Not quite burn it to the ground and salt the earth, but close.

It’s easy for me to say. It’s not even “my” history since no one of my family was here until 30 years after it ended – and most of them closer to 50. And maybe it would have made it worse.


No offense taken, Lex. I am not sure if your idea would have made any difference, though. The South is a storytelling region. So the stories of “the War of Northern Aggression” would have kept right on generation after generation.

Maybe parallels to the Middle East apply. Maybe the problem of the South is the age old two state problem. Who knew maintaining the United States as a unified country could be so complicated?



Not sure it would have worked, either, Lex. The parallels aren’t the same exactly, but the stomp-it-’til-it-tops twitching approach yielded undesirable results with Germany after WW1.

Of course, even if that’s true, eradicating as much of the root issue as you could have was the right thing to do for a lot of reasons. No statues. No textbooks even vaguely glorifying the “heroes.” Showing that flag should have been grounds for severe punishment.

I mean, even in the ’70s you wouldn’t believe the shit that was tacitly taught in my history classes. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of overtly racist behavior that were met with a laugh and a pat on the head. Jim, remember the time [name withheld] wore a makeshift Klan uniform to school and walked into a class being taught by a black student teacher? Maybe my junior or senior year? The principal got a good laugh out of that, as I recall.

My teachers told us things like “most masters treated slaves very well” and “a lot of slaves didn’t want freedom” and “they loved their masters,” and at NO point was it ever admitted that the war was explicitly over slavery.

Tensions like we have today persist – are made possible – when official institutions are allowed to perpetuate this kind of hateful ignorance. It isn’t just your crazy uncle saying it, it’s THE SCHOOLS. And this was in a period and a culture where teachers were deeply respected. (Not paid very well, but respected.) The only people in the community who were better regarded than teachers were preachers. (And not once in my 25+ years as a Christian did I ever hear one of them speaking out against racism, either.)

So let me retract what I said above. Maybe what Lex says would have worked. You spend more than a century teaching that the Civil War was shameful and treasonous and THAT gets woven into the cultural DNA, like we see in Germany today. The German guy a couple weeks ago punched the asshole American for giving the Nazi salute in Dresden? THAT’S the sort of basic cultural assumption we want here.


I have so little direct knowledge of the South that my thoughts should be taken with a salt mine. But if what I got from “White Trash” is correct, I’d amend my occupation theory thusly:

The point would have been to destroy the wealth and prestige of the planter class. The majority of the whites in the South did not benefit from slavery; it hurt their economic potential more than anything since labor could be had for free. And the planter class treated poor whites like, well, trash. So what if the severe military occupation was focused almost solely on the economic strata at the top?

I still think the US would need to redraw state boundaries and eliminate political representation at the federal level until new systems/people were elevated. But what if it included confiscation and redistribution of planter land/money? What if it included exiling the planter class, men, women and children to Europe? And then treating their actions as treasonous so far as history is concerned? History written by the victors told as how a handful of rich elites sent your boys to die so as to protect their wealth and power … from you.

We know that after the war, the planter class stoked racial animosity as a means to maintain their power. It’s hindsight, but what if the design of the occupation is an attempt to prevent that?

I thought about the Versailles argument, and see the problem. I’m not sure it lines up completely, partly because the long term negatives were heavily dependent on the cash reparations, some lost territory and not much else. Germany wasn’t occupied and put under allied control.


Had a thought here. I’m thinking about a particular weirdness. I’m guessing most people don’t know about Louis Althusser’s theory of “Ideological State Apparatuses.” Here’s the brief Wikipedia description:

…the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) belong to the private domain of society — to churches, schools, families, etc. Instead of expressing and imposing order, through repression, the Ideological State Apparatuses reinforce the rule of the dominant class, principally through ideology; people submit out of fear of social ridicule, rather than fear of legal prosecution or police violence.

A social class cannot hold State power unless, and until, they simultaneously exercise hegemony (domination) over and in the ISA; however, in the course of class struggle, dominance of the ISA enables the subordinate class to counter the ruling class, by using the inherent ideologic contradictions of the apparatus of State ideology.[2]:1491 Althusser said that the School has supplanted the Church as the crucial ISA for indoctrination, which augments the reproduction of the relations of production (i.e. the capitalist relations of exploitation) by training the students to become the productive forces (labour-power) who work for and under the Capitalist agents of exploitation. The Educational ISA assume a dominant role in a Capitalist economy, and conceal and mask the ideology of the ruling class behind the “liberating qualities” of school so that the hidden agendas of the ruling class are inconspicuous to the parents of the students.[2]:1493–1496

Therefore, the ideological State apparatus (ISA) and the site of the class struggle might be at stake, because the social class, or alliance of social classes, in the ISA cannot lay down the law as readily as in the repressive State apparatus (RSA). One reason for that difference in control is that the former ruling classes are able to retain strong positions in the RSA. Another reason is that the exploited social classes are able to find the means and occasions to politically express themselves, either by way of the utilization of ideologic contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in the course of class struggle.

This function seems very, very real to me, even in my least Marxist moments. And there are huge problems with how it all works (you know, the way the ruling classes keep the lower classes in their place). What’s bizarre, though, in light of Lex’s comments above, is that the Northern establishment allowed the institutions – especially the schools – to preserve and promote ideological constructs that were directly counter to their interests. In theory, the Union should have brought the hammer down hard on anything that glorified the Confederacy.

I mean, how often do US textbooks justify Benedict Arnold? Hirohito? King George? Mao? Stalin? Guevara? Hell, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t get a pass. If you walked away from class wondering about his Communist ties, well, that was okay. These are the same people who today equate Black Lives Matter with the Nazis.

I honestly have no damned clue how these ideologies were allowed to propagate via official state institutions.

Unless, of course, those ideologies aren’t contrary to the perceived interests of the American ruling class at all…



Your last sentence is probably the unfortunate truth of the whole thing. The Southern planter class and the Northern merchant class weren’t so different. The whole game of this great nation since the beginning has been to keep the rich powerful. Still is.

And it’s not like Northerners were/are generally less racist, just more genteel about it.