The U.S. Flag

During Gen. Sherman’s infamous march to the sea, he cut a black swath 50 miles wide of destruction, stealing and burning. Sherman himself said he wanted to teach the Southerners a lesson. Gen. Sherman was nothing if not direct. Of course, his methods caused considerable resentment.

One of Sherman’s Corps Commanders, Maj.-Gen. Oliver O. Howard, a pious man, encountered his share of angry Southerners. In Savannah, one woman was seen to leave the sidewalk to walk in the muddy street, so as to avoid walking under the U.S. flag. The flag was hung above Howard’s headquarters. This act counted as defiance in occupied Savannah. A guard brought the woman before Gen. Howard.

The general told her he understood she had refused to walk under his flag. “I did,” the lady replied. “Am I not at liberty to walk in the sand if I prefer it to the sidewalk?”

“Yes, but you intentionally avoided my flag.” The general paused. “I’ll make you walk under it.”

“You cannot make me. You may have me carried under it, but then it will be your act, not mine.”

“I’ll send you to prison.”

“Send me if you will. I know you have the power.”

The general paused.

“I’ll have the flag hung in front of your door, so that you can’t go out without walking under it.”

“Then I’ll stay home and send the servants. They won’t mind.”

With that, Gen. Howard realized she had won.

Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 372

The Burning of Atlanta: Why Not?

In early November, 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman resolved to leave the confines of Atlanta and march to the sea. Before leaving, he would destroy what he believed were facilities that could be used by the Confederates to prosecute the war.


But, before burning Atlanta, he first burned small towns north of Atlanta. He started with Cassville, a small village. Cassville was accused of harboring Confederate raiders who had attacked the railroad and a Union wagon train. The First Ohio Volunteers arrived in the morning of Nov. 5 with orders to burn the town. The federals gave the residents 20 minutes to pack up and leave. The inhabitants, mostly women and children, huddled in the cemetery as the town was reduced to ashes. They never re-built.


Next up was Rome. As Brig.-Gen. Corse prepared to burn the town, a Union Colonel protested. Gen. Sherman replied, “You have known for ten days that Rome was to be evacuated and have no right to appeal to my humanity.”  The Federals proceeded to stack up dry goods boxes and trash in the stores and set fire. Soldiers with firebrands in their hands ran from designated places to undesignated place and simply burned them all, regardless of any pre-planning. The troops fired two flour mills, two tanneries, one salt mill, one foundry, machine shops, depots, and bales of cotton. They also fired several private homes. A livery stable caught fire and the horses within burned along with the rest. Sherman wired Gen. George H. Thomas, “Last night we burned Rome, and in two or more days we will burn Atlanta.”


The original plan in burning Atlanta was to burn certain designated places. A large steam mill was on the list. So were shops, houses, the courthouse, all around the central square, known as Five Points. A brand new major, Henry Hitchcock rode up to the general just as these buildings were burning, right under the general’s nose. Thinking this was not intended, Maj. Hitchcock saw a group of soldiers trying to save the courthouse.

“Twill burn down, sir,” Hitchcock said.

“Yes,” added Sherman. “Can’t be stopped.”

“Was it your intention?”

“Can’t save it. I’ve seen more of this than you,” said the general, sometimes known as Crazy Bill.

The general then added that soldiers just do these things. It can’t be stopped. “I say Jeff Davis burnt them.” Hitchcock then apologized, saying he was new. Gen. Sherman replied, “Well, I suppose I’ll have to bear it.”

In truth, the Federals had already damaged all the fire fighting equipment in the city and had already forced out all the fire fighters, along with the all the residents.

For the next few nights, Union soldiers went about firing private homes. One young resident, Carrie Berry, age nine, remained as one of the very families in the city. She recorded how frightened her family was each night when the soldiers would wander with firebrands in their hands. She said the soldiers said they would fire all the houses if they had to leave the place. The nights of Nov. 11 through 15, Carrie and her family suffered through some very long nights.

There’s No Help For It

After the war, Sherman insisted no private home in Atlanta was burned by his troops. He insisted only the burning of four buildings had been planned. But, certainly the destruction was monumental. Yes, mills, machine shops, depots, train car sheds were burned. But, also burned was every hotel, except the one in which Sherman had been staying. Most of the business area was burned, including shops, depots, mills, and warehouses. Four churches were burned to the ground, including the African Church. The theater and the concert hall were both burned. Every school and institute of higher learning was burned. Some 3,200 to 5,000 private homes were burned. Only 400 private homes were left standing. We know this because Pres. Davis sent a Georgia Militia colonel to complete an inventory of the destruction two weeks after the Federals left.

Sherman rationalized his tactics in the early days of his march to the sea. Against the pleas of a widow, he told Hitchcock, “I’ll have to harden my heart to these things. That poor woman today – how could I help her? There’s no help for it – the soldiers will take all she has. Jeff Davis is responsible for all this.”  See a picture of some of the destruction here.


Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 342-364

The Leadership of Robert E. Lee

There is no greater challenge than to lead men and now, women in combat. No situation, no office will call on a leader’s abilities more than combat. It is the supreme leadership test. A general can understand the squares and hash marks on a military map perfectly. Yet, if his men do not follow him, then he is not a combat leader. Leadership is the test. It is the crucible. One masterful leader was Robert E. Lee. How did he do it?

Lee was a modest man. Even at the height of his fame, he eschewed pomp and ceremony. One contemporary Southern newspaper noted at the time that Lee slept in an ambulance when he traveled. When he stayed in a tent in the field, it was never the “largest and best house in the neighborhood, as is the custom of some officers.” One contemporary Southern soldier noticed that when Gen. Lee rode about the battlefield, he made no notice of himself. He rode as quietly as a farmer would ride about his farm. He wore a generally modest uniform, lacking some of the indicia of his rank. He disdained the usual decorative gold braid on his sleeves.

This soldier was saying that Lee did not do what some senior officers would do, even today. Lee did not stop and correct a soldier’s uniform. He did not stop and fuss at men at work. He did not ride about with a retinue trailing behind him.

George S. Patton

Gen. George S. Patton’s leadership style was very different. Patton wore the three stars of a Lieutenant-General before he was entitled to the rank. As a newly appointed Corps Commander in North Africa, he installed a metal flag on his car with the three stars. Every other Corps Commander used the simple, government-issue cloth flag that would unfurl when the wind blew. But, government-issue was not good enough for Gorge Patton. He wanted a flag that would be visible even when the wind did not blow. So, he had a metal flag with the three stars fabricated for his scout car.  

Indeed, even in this author’s experience, I have known a few officers over the years who could not resist the urge to pin on early. Promotion orders are always issued a few months prior to the effective date. That means an officer will know a few months prior that he will be promoted. A few, perhaps very few, officers could not resist pinning on the new rank before that effective date.

In choosing a smaller tent, Lee knew what that meant for the Headquarters soldiers. No general would erect his own tent. Like today, most officers in the 1860’s did not erect their own tent. That chore fell to some harried enlisted men. That Lee eschewed the larger roomier tent reflects some consideration for the soldiers’ welfare. It is hot work erecting those darn tents. Soldiers notice those small things.


Gen. Lee understood a modern component of morale: appealing to the family. Whenever an officer brought his wife near enough for a visit, Lee insisted on being so informed. He would call on the wife of any officer who was in the area. This would usually occur in winter quarters or during a lull between campaigns. Lee made it known that he was to be informed when a wife was nearby for a visit.

Lee also gave pincushions to soldiers who were mentioned in battle dispatches. The highest honor the Confederate army could bestow was to be mentioned. The Confederate army did not award medals. The general would give a pincushion to the mentioned officer or soldier. In a time when all women sewed, Lee knew the pincushion was of little value to the husband. But, the wife would appreciate it. It was a small gesture, but doubtless one appreciated by many spouses.

Manual Labor

There is perhaps no more sensitive issue in any army than whether and to what extent officers perform manual labor. Generally, the more traditional the army, the less likely officers perform manual labor. Even today, many officers believe it beneath them to perform manual labor, even for a few minutes.

Soon after taking command of Confederate forces, Lee told his men they have to start digging entrenchments. Like the Duke of Wellington, he saw the value in hard labor. Lee said that to keep up with the Federal forces, who were working like beavers, the Confederate officers would also have to help dig. Lee, the student of Roman and French military history, knew that trenches were essential to protect Richmond. The army, which he would name the Army of Northern Virginia, had suffered from loose discipline. It was not uncommon for officers to make unannounced trips to Richmond for social reasons. Gen. Lee sought to impose discipline in part by focusing on digging. His men awarded him with the nicknames, “King of Spades” and “Granny Lee” for his efforts. But, his focus was on building an army. He knew the value of simple manual labor.


Emory E. Thomas, Robert E. Lee (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 226, 275, 330

Stanley P. Hirshson, General Patton, a Soldier’s Life (New York: Harper Collins 2002), p. 317-319

Scott Bowden, Robert E. Lee at War (Grapevine, Texas: Legion of Honor Publ. 2017), p. 68-69, 71-72.

Yankee Thievery

Time and time again, the Federal soldiers took a pause from their martial duties to help themselves to some Southern souvenirs. Perhaps out of some feeling that the Southerners had not paid enough for, in the Federal view, having started the war, they grabbed what they could when they could. During the days long Battle of Atlanta, Gen. Sherman sent the cavalry of Maj.-Gen. George Stoneman on a raid ostensibly to tear up railroad tracks leading to Macon, Georgia. Stoneman asked if he could also move on afterward to free the prisoners at the notorious prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Sherman agreed.

But, Maj.-Gen. Stoneman had other ideas. He bypassed the railroad station where he was to link up with two other Federal columns and headed straight for the prisons at Macon and Andersonville. Stoneman was very ambitious. He hoped that in freeing the prisoners, he would find his name splashed across the front page of Northern newspapers.

Along the way, Stoneman’s troops stopped to loot roadside homesteads, and strip ladies of their rings and pins. The cavalrymen broke open drawers and trunks. They grabbed “silver and plate of every description.” In some houses, they demanded the lady of the house to produce wine from the cellar. Their saddlebags were stuffed full with loot.

As Stoneman’s men approached the Ocmulgee River, they found it impassable. They turned back north, but ran into a large Confederate force. Eventually, Maj.-Gen. Stoneman was captured with one of his three brigades. He found himself the highest ranking Union officer to be captured. No record indicates whether his saddle bags were full.

Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 202-205

Gen. Sherman and the Rules of War

It was one of the most extraordinary exchanges in the war. Two experienced, trained, tough commanders got into a fuss fight over the rules of war and over the civil war itself. Gen. John Bell Hood and Gen. William T. Sherman fussed over proper procedure and even about the war itself.

The fuss started with the Battle of Atlanta. Sherman’s forces had a three to one advantage over Hood’s men. Yet, the battle lasted 36 days as the Southern Army of Tennessee poured their hearts and souls into defending the city. And, of course, Sherman being Sherman, he made the war more personal than necessary. Like other Union commanders, Gen. Sherman ordered his men to bombard the unarmed civilians in the city. For 36 days, the Atlanta citizens were subjected to indirect artillery fire. For no apparent military purpose, the gunners targeted homes and houses. Officers bragged that they had destroyed one, two or more houses that day.

Crazy Bill

Gen. Sherman was erratic, as generals go. Very skilled and unpretentious, he was nevertheless subject to depression. Early in the war as a brigadier general in Kentucky, he had over-reacted to a Confederate scare. He had vastly over-estimated Confederate strength. He betrayed his fears. He chain-smoked his cigars. He rarely slept or ate. He berated his subordinates. He threatened to hang a reporter as a spy. He said he needed 200,000 troops to invade Tennessee. In November, 1861, he was sent home to his wife, depressed and dishonored. He was said to have considered suicide. Sherman became known as Crazy Bill. The Northern newspapers vilified the general.

Weeks later, he returned to active duty under Gen. Grant. From there, his fortunes rose until in 1864 he was in command of three Union armies barreling toward Atlanta. The semi-siege of Atlanta started in the summer. Over 36 days, Sherman’s gunners shelled the Confederate defensive positions. In their spare time, the gunners would lob a few shells into the city. Other Union commanders had shelled civilians, as well. The Federals shelled the civilian homes in Fredericksburg and Charleston. In regard to Atlanta, the Confederate commander, John Bell Hood, did not protest this violation of the rules of war. Submitting a written protest would have been the typical approach between commanders. Hood chose not to do so.

By Sept. 3, 1864, Union forces entered Atlanta. Southern forces retreated some miles away from the city. Again for no apparent military purpose, Sherman decided the citizens must leave. By this point, there were only some 5,000 remaining in the city out of a pre-battle population of 20,000. He may have been concerned about having to feed those folks. Prior to retreating from the city of Atlanta, Hood was providing rations for some 1500 poor citizens. Gen. Sherman gave the citizens of Atlanta 5 days to pack up and leave. He assured them his troops would help them leave. Sherman planned that the citizens with Union or Northern sympathies could go north on the train. The Southern supporters would leave on wagons via the southern roads.

The Dark History of War

As Sherman proceeded with the logistics of evicting the civilians from the city, he sent a letter to Gen. Hood informing him of the move and proposing a two day truce to effect the move. Gen. Hood responded matter of factly, agreeing to the truce, as if he had much choice. But, at the end, Gen. Hood commented,

“And, now sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.

Gen. Sherman was part of a very influential family. His brother was a U.S. Senator. He rarely allowed slights to pass unnoticed. The General responded to Hood mentioning that Hood’s army had destroyed civilian houses. He accused Hood of situating his defense so close to the town as to invite inadvertent artillery rounds. Sherman claimed he was helping the white citizens of the city by removing them from a possible battlefield. Sherman had to know any risk of harm for the civilians was quite minimal, now that the actual battle was over.

Gen. Hood responded rightly that his defense during those 36 days was a mile or more from the city. The Union gunners were very skilled. It is very unlikely so many shells were the result of accident. Hood added:

“You came into our country with your Army avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but you make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism to its present position, which is the highest ever attained by that race, in all time. I must, therefore, decline to accept your statements in reference to your kindness to the people of Atlanta ….”

Shelling Civilians

Regarding the shelling of civilians, Hood added:

“I made no complaint of your firing into Atlanta in any way you thought proper. I make none now, but there are a hundred thousand witnesses that you fired into habitations of women and children for weeks, firing above and miles beyond my line of defense. I have too good an opinion, founded both upon observation and experience, of the skill of your artillerists, to credit the insinuations that they for several weeks fired too high for my modest field-works, and slaughtered women and children by accident and want of skill”

Gen. Sherman was always a profligate letter writer. He quickly penned one more response.

“First, we have no ‘negroe allies’ in this army, not a single negroe soldier left Chattanooga with this Army, or is with us now. There are a few guarding Chattanooga [the 14th U.S. Colored Troops] which General Stedman sent at one time to drive [Confederate General] Wheeler out of Dalton.”

Regarding the bombardment of civilians, Sherman replied, “I was not bound by the laws of war to give notice of the shelling of Atlanta, a ‘fortified town, with magazines, arsenals, foundries, public stores;’ you were bound to take notice. See the books.”

The rules of war had been pretty well defined since the early 1600’s. Both West Point graduates knew the rules. Sherman is taking considerable liberties in claiming the city was fortified and contained arsenals and magazines. There were guns and Army supplies in train cars. But, there were no magazines or arsenals as they would have understood those terms in 1864. Now, we know from diaries, letters and orders that Sherman did indeed tell his gunners to fire into the city. He did commit a war crime. Why?

War is Cruelty

Well, we see Sherman’s motivations when the citizens protested. Mayor James M. Calhoun, a sometime Union sympathizer, who had opposed secession, sent a letter of protest. He said forcing people out with nowhere to go was cruel. In his now infamous response, Gen. Sherman agreed this was cruel:

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and division of our country.”

Gen. Sherman was essentially shrugging his shoulders and saying, “this is war. You started the war.” He would defend or gaslight his bombardment of the city for the rest of his life. Sherman was nothing, if not direct.

The Book of Exodus

Colonel William Le Duc, Quartermaster of the of the 20th Corps had known Sherman before the war. It would fall to the Quartermaster to make this citizen removal happen. Col. Le Duc passed a message to Sherman warning him that history would not look well upon this eviction. Sherman passed a message back to Bill Duc: “… I care not a damn how others read it. I am making history, and the citizens of this rebel town shan’t eat the rations I need for my army.” By Sept. 26, Sherman had evicted southward: 446 families, including 705 adults, most of whom were women. The evictees included 867 children and 79 servants. Col. Le Duc prepared an exhaustive list of the person who were removed. He titled it, “The Book of Exodus.” A similar number were removed northward.

Yes, indeed, the 14th U.S.C.T. actually performed superbly in their one engagement with Gen. Wheeler’s cavalry, much to the surprise of their Union commanders. If Hood can be rightly accused of patronizing the blacks, Sherman was guilty of the same offense. For all his faults, Gen. Sherman believed cruelty would shorten the war. But, that is why we have rules of war, to ameliorate those cruelties on the defenseless. Ask any private with an M16 in a war zone, during war, the Army has unfettered power. Gen. Sherman had the power. He used that power to wreak revenge.


Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 16-19, 307-318.

The Leadership of Jeff Davis

Afghanistan is not the first country that did not support its army. Other countries likewise did not or could not support its army. But, not all of those unsupported armies failed. The Confederate army also suffered from extreme lack of beans and bullets, clothing and more. Yet, up to the very end, the Confederate army performed superbly considering its limitations. Why? What made the Confederate army succeed where the Afghanistan army failed so miserably? One answer is sound leadership.

Robert E. Lee famously tried to lead his troops in a charge himself, not once, but three times. Each time, his own soldiers turned him back. Officers like John Bell Hood excelled at simply taking to his soldiers and listening to them.

Jefferson Davis, the much maligned President of the Confederate States, certainly had his faults. Davis did, however, practice effective leadership. He was a graduate of West Point. His regiment, the Mississippi Rifles performed brilliantly during the Mexican War. He knew how to display leadership.

Battle of Atlanta

After the fall of Atlanta, he showed what he had learned. Within six days of the loss of the city, Pres. Davis was with the Army of Tennessee. It took him six days of train travel, because the Federal troops had captured so much that he had embark on a complicated route. He wrote to a friend just days before he left Richmond that the “first effect of disaster is always to spread a deeper gloom than is due to the occasion.” By Sept. 26, 1864, he there with the army to dispel their gloom. Along his route, he took the time to make speeches to the local citizens. He likely received some not-so-subtle criticisms on these forays, but the undertook them all the same.

He did not come just to buck up the men. He also had to deal with generals with angry egos. But, doubtless, the troops appreciated his visit, all the same. He gave speeches to the soldiers. They held a grand review. With the President came Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris, Texas Governor Francis R. Lubbock, Howell Cobb, the Georgia general and former Secretary of the Treasury in the U.S. government, and Robert Toombs, former U.S. Congressman and frequent critic of Jeff Davis. They all gave speeches, which was one of the chief entertainments of the time.

The Big Bugs

The morale of the men likely did perk up. One Tennessee soldier wrote home, “It was all hands round, swing the corner, and balance your partner” [a verse from a popular dance tune]. The same soldier recorded that Pres. Davis shook his hand, saying howdy Captain. Toombs shook his hand, saying howdy Major. “ . . . and every big bug that I shook hands with put another star on my collar and chicken guts on my sleeve.”

The soldiers, as all soldiers in the field do, complained about the lack of food, clothing, shoes and pay. At the outset of the grand review, the soldiers were called on to give a Rebel yell for Davis and Hood. Perhaps hearkening back to better days, they instead chanted, “Johnston! Give us Johnston! Give us our old commander!” Their officers fussed at them. But, the call persisted down the formation.

Speaking from personal experience, troops in the field appreciate visits from the “big bugs” enormously. It is easy to think the folks back home have forgotten about you. But, when presidents and governors come, you know that is not true.  


Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 327-332

Confederate Leadership Principles and the Afghan Army

Armies have trained and studied for centuries on how to develop unit cohesion or esprit d’corps. With proper unit cohesion, an army can accomplish any objective. But, how do we attain unit cohesion? In Afghanistan, we see a complete disintegration of an army. On paper, the Afghan army numbered 300,000 soldiers. But, we know in reality it was much less, perhaps only 50,000. Even so, they have surrendered several times within the last week, sometimes without a shot fired. An entire Afghan Corps headquarters surrendered last week. How big is a Corps staff? In the U.S. army, a corps staff would include upwards of 500 soldiers. However large it was, they surrendered without firing a round. Why?

The New York Times tells us that the Afghan soldiers were not supported by their chain of command. They generally surrendered because they lacked food and ammunition. One Afghan security force was given a box of slimy potatoes as their daily ration. A police officer yelled out, “These french fries are not going to hold these front lines!” just days before surrendering. Not stated is that it is likely the Afghan higher commanders did not visit their troops. Sometimes, we visit the subordinate troops just to “show the flag.” As a commander, you always need first-hand information about the soldiers’ welfare. Historians tell us that one problem with how the U.S. conducted the Viet Nam war was the lack of visits by field grade officers to company level troops. Field grade officers include colonels and majors, the mid-grade levels.

Confederate Leadership

The Confederate soldiers endured this and worse. Many times, they would have been happy to have slimly potatoes as their daily ration. The Confederate army made their own shoes from rawhide. It was common for soldiers to wear trousers with only one leg. 300 members of the Texas Brigade returned from furlough in the Spring of 1864, knowing food and clothing would be scarce. See my prior post about the Texas Brigade here. In 1863, the Rebels were receiving only one-quarter pound of meat per day. During one two week period, one company received only one-quarter pound of flour, one-quarter pound bacon, three ounces of sugar.  Tents and blankets were rare for an army that always slept outdoors. See my prior post here.

In 1864, the adjutant to Confederate Lt-Gen. William Hardee reported at the close of the Battle of Atlanta that his uniform included the following: a hat with no crown, socks with no feet, trousers with one large white patch on the seat, boots with no soles. This was W.L. Trask’s sole clothing for the prior four months. If that was what an officer wore, we can imagine what the enlisted men were wearing.

Yet, the Confederates did not disintegrate like today’s Afghan army. The Texas Brigade suffered from a 6% desertion rate, much lower than other Confederate units. But, the Texas Brigade also did not suffer from the sort of home problems other Confederate army units endured. The Yankee soldiers did not pillage and burn Texas homes as they did in other Southern states.

John Bell Hood Leadership

So, what did the Confederates do that the Afghan army did not? We find some clues in the experience of John Bell Hood. Then Col. Hood succeeded to command of the Texas Brigade after others had tried and failed. He succeeded because he talked to the enlisted men. He explained the “why” of an order. He respected them for their pre-war jobs, many of which were very respectable. When he imposed a rule, such as lights out by 10 p.m., he explained that keeping lanterns lighted would keep other men awake. He insisted that subordinate officers explain the necessity of particular rules.

We know that Gen. Lee practiced the same sort of leadership principles. Even though he was the most senior general in the army, Lee wore a modest uniform, without all the required marks of his rank. He did not erect the largest tent. In fact, Lee’s tent was no larger than any other officer’s tent. Lee rarely slept in a house. He almost always slept in a tent, just like his men. And, of course, we know that Gen. Lee three times tried to lead a charge himself and three times, his men turned him back. There is no better example than to assume the most dangerous position in an attack.

Jefferson Davis was roundly criticized throughout the war by Southerners and Southern newspapers. But, he often visited various communities and the troops. He heard their complaints. The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has rarely left the high blast walls of the presidential palace in Kabul. The Confederates simply practices excellent leadership. Of course, we call this “Confederate” leadership. But, they were actually practicing what they learned at West Point and in the U.S. Army.  It takes work to lead men. It requires a leader to listen to his men. The Confederates practiced those principles of good leadership. It appears the Afghans did not.


Emory E. Thomas, “Robert E. Lee (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 226, 275, 330

Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 296, 351-352

New York Times, Aug. 14, 2021, p. 1, col. 6

Beaten, But not Defeated

It was a remarkable episode in the novel, Gone With the Wind. Scarlett. Melanie and a newborn baby are trying to escape burning Atlanta. Prissy, the vexatious maid, is with them. Rhett Butler, the cynical blockade runner, is driving them in a tiny, rickety wagon. As they pause at the railroad tracks, a silent, marching force emerges from the dark. Silently, meaning no chatter, no singing, they march forward at route step. Route step means they are walking, while maintaining their formation.

All the soldiers were ragged, so ragged, that Margaret Mitchell tells us, there were no distinguishing insignia between officers and enlisted. Other veterans relate that in the latter stages of the war, you could distinguish between an officer and enlisted soldiers by the patches. The officers had just one patch on their trousers. Enlisted soldiers would have two or more. Contrast that with today’s Army, where we never patch our uniforms. If you get a tear, you turn in those trousers and receive a new pair.

On that awful night in burning Atlanta, many of the boys were barefoot. Many had a dirty bandage wrapped around a head or an arm. They walked past Scarlett and Rhett with no word, no looks cast toward the unexpected civilians. The soldiers were too tired, too worn. By this time in the war, they had been fighting for a straight 90 days. Civilians do not appreciate the severe physical stamina required for fighting. Running, crawling for hours at a time. The physical exhaustion compares to running a marathon. Not to mention the emotional toll. Now, this night, the boys in gray and butternut were walking to their next battle position, too tired to glance about, as Atlanta burned.

Rhett pokes fun at the soldiers. He mocks the “Glorious Cause.”

Put Me Down

As the tail end of the column passes their small wagon, a small figure in the dark, hesitates and then stops, his rifle butt dragging on the ground. He is barely taller than his rifle. Scarlett guesses he is 16 years old at the most. The boy stares at the column walking away, unblinking. Scarlett says he looks like he is sleep walking.

The boy’s knees buckle. He falls in the dust. Two soldiers, without a word, walk back to him. The first soldier, with a beard down to his belt, hands his own rifle to a second soldier. He then hands the boy’s rifle to the second soldier. Then the bearded soldier picks up the boy, slings him over his shoulder. Still no word is spoken. The two soldiers start walking toward the column. The boy, now awake, screams, “Put me down, damn you! I can walk!” Silently, the two soldiers just plod on around the bend.

Margaret Mitchell was very talented. But, she could not have made up this story. It has the ring of truth. The soldiers communicate wordlessly, like family. Because, they are family. They know each other so well that they know the boy may tire. They know what he will say. But, they are too tired to talk. Communication requires too much effort. They just plod on. They will talk later.

In the book, soon afterward, the cynical Rhett Butler decides he will join the army. The same army he has been mocking for the prior three years. Seeing that selfless devotion aroused guilt even in the most selfish. Ms. Mitchell was describing the Army of Tennessee.

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (New York: Scribner 2011), p. 369-370.

Ken Burns’ Documentary

Ken Burns’ excellent Civil War documentary has now become the object of subject of some criticism. Folks say it white-washed the Confederacy and in general painted the Confederates in too positive a light. One 2020 post on the Journal of the Civil War Era blog says:

“In romanticizing the Confederacy, obscuring the role of slavery, and refusing to grapple with the war’s devastating racial repercussions, the much-loved documentary is complicit in a long tradition of distorting the meaning of the Civil War.”

What does the author mean by romanticizing? Well one complaint concerns descriptions by Shelby Foote praising Robert E. Lee as a warm, outgoing man who always had time for any private soldier’s complaints and Jefferson Davis as an outgoing, friendly man, “a great family man, loved his wife and children, an infinite store of compassion.” See the JCWE blog post here.

The author, Ella Starkman-Hynes, seems concerned by Mr. Foote’s “down-home drawl” and his folksy ways. Mr. Foote exhibits admiration for some of the Confederate leaders. Mr. Foote presents a sympathetic portrayal of some Confederates. Worst of all, says the author, Foote said he would have joined the Confederate army if he had lived at the time. Mr. Foote was a descendant of a Confederate officer and a native of Mississippi.

In short, Ms. Starkman-Hynes objects to presenting Confederate soldiers and leaders with a human side. It is almost silly, if it did not also reveal an odd view of folks who sought to defend their soil from invaders. One comment does criticize this blog post. But, other critical comments to the post which came later have been deleted.

Robert E. Lee

But, worse for the sake of accurate history, it fails to explain some of its controversial sources. It points to the 2017 Atlantic piece about Robert E. Lee which asserts Lee whipped his own slaves. In truth, that source, Wesley Norris, a former slave, was rejected by most Lee historians. It was Elizabeth Pryor who in 2007 pointed to Norris’ allegations and corroborated them to some degree. But, she did not and cannot corroborate the central piece of Norris’ allegations, that Lee had three escaped slaves whipped or that Lee whipped them himself. Ms. Pryor won a Lincoln prize worth $50,000 for her Lee biography. But, a prize does not corroborate Norris’ allegations either.

Most historians rejected the Norris allegations, because they are based largely on reports from abolitionist newspapers. Abolitionist newspapers were not reliable sources. Too, that story just contravenes what is well known about Lee. The former general avoided confrontation. Other slaves who escaped and were re-captured, Lee leased them out. He did not whip them or have them whipped. He leased them to other white men. In some ways, leasing out enslaved Americans was quite harsh in its own right. Leasing them to some other white person effectively removed the slaves form their home. But, that act of leasing out difficult slaves was more true to Lee’s personality. Most historians just find Norris’ 1866 story unlikely. But, the author of the JCWE blog post never mentions any of this controversy. Ms. Starkman-Hynes accepts the central assertion of the Atlantic article at face value.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

The author accuses Nathan Bedford Forrest of “overseeing” the massacre at Ft. Pillow. The massacre at Ft. Pillow was indeed a war crime. But, the evidence of Forrest’s involvement is ambiguous. There is evidence that Forrest knew about or perhaps even ordered the massacre. There is evidence that he did not and that he actually stopped the massacre. This blog post seems to have accepted one set of facts over another without explaining the controversy. The documentary does explain the massacre clearly. So, Ms. Starkman-Hynes’ concern is not clear. She seems offended that Foote describes Forrest as an unschooled military genius. Which he was. For a discussion of the evidence regarding Forrest’s possible involvement in the massacre, see History net here.

Too, Ms. Starkman-Hynes might have devoted some space to the problem posed by Ft. Pillow before the massacre. Nothing excuses a war crime. But, prior to Forrest’s attack, the fort served as refuge for Union soldiers and Union sympathizers who were committing raids on the nearby Southern farms and homes. The Negro soldiers (to use the contemporary term) generally knew where the homes of Confederate soldiers were and where the women and undefended homes were.

And, have to add, the wording is just problematic. The blog post accuses Forrest of “overseeing” the massacre. “Oversee” is not a well-defined term. It could include almost any action on the part of the general. Technically, I “oversee” the plumber when he comes to my house. I always check on him and ask questions. But, that does not make me responsible for the fixed toilet. The blog post appears to accuse Forrest of complicity. It does so with no discussion of the contrary evidence.

I tried to point out these modest points about Forrest and Lee, but my comment was deleted like many others.

Blue Gray Reunions

The blog post even criticizes Ken Burns’ use of reunion videos. The documentary shows footage from the 1913 and 1938 reunions which were held at Gettysburg. I wrote about those reunions here and here.

The reunion videos are sweet. They show ancient blue and gray veterans shaking hands and embracing. As I mention in my prior posts, the reunions were not all handshakes and hugs. There was a knife fight and angry objections to the Confederate flag. But, the JCWE blog argues that the reunions somehow replaced or prevented political freedom for black citizens during this time period. The post does not explain how reunions inhibited civil rights. But, even if they did, that does not mean the reunions hold no value for modern audiences. Reconciliation is hard work. Those old veterans did that hard work. Our country was better for it.

Torn Red Flags Flying in the Rain

By 1864, the Confederacy could barely support its army. Thousands of men wore cardboard or rags for shoes. They only had boots if they could find boots that fit on a dead Union soldier. By June, 1864, the Union army under Gen. Sherman had driven Gen. Joe Johnston and the Army of Tennessee back, back and finally back to Atlanta. The Confederate army fought courageously and performed superbly for their limitations. But, they could not overcome Sherman’s huge advantage in numbers. No matter how many times they repulsed the Union soldiers, Sherman always found a way to turn the flank and force another retreat deeper and deeper into Georgia. Until they were finally in Atlanta on a hot July day in 1864.

In the Army, we all know that the most difficult maneuver is retreat. It is exceedingly difficult to coordinate between a rear guard force and the retreating column. And over all that effort hangs the deep, deep fear. Even the best troops will simply fall apart and flee. Consider the French after Waterloo. Some of the best troops in history, they had withstood 15 years of major, complicated battles. Yet, even they, in retreating from Waterloo gave in to their worst fears and simply ran. Cries of “Vive l’Emereur” were replaced by “Sauxe que peut!” (Every man for himself.). Napoleon himself simply disappeared from the battlefield. Marshall Ney, Napoleon’s great general, said the emperor “entirely disappeared” without notifying him or the other field commanders.

Or, consider King James II. After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, he literally raced his carriage all the way to Dublin, a distance of some 60 miles. He made it to Dublin within hours of the defeat. Upon arrival, still flushed, he is said to have exclaimed to Lady Tirconnel on the steps of Dublin castle, “Madame, your countrymen run well.” He was saying the army ran from the enemy. Lady Tirconnel replied, “If so, I see your Majesty has won the race.”

But, running was not for the Army of Tennessee. But, running was not for the Army of Tennessee. The Battle of Atlanta lasted 36 days. Gen. Sherman would deny it after the war, but the truth is that during the battle, his army lobbed artillery shells into the city day and night. Union gunners would fire a few rounds in their spare time, apparently just because. Sometimes, after a particularly picturesque round, the gunners would exclaim, “All Aboard for Atlanta!” Officers would brag about how many houses they had destroyed that day. The Confederate breastworks were a mile beyond the city. So, the constant bombardment of civilians served no military purpose. The Battle of Atlanta was a very personal battle for its citizens.

So, one episode in the novel is not surprising. Margaret Mitchell, who researched her novel for a year before putting pen to paper, and who grew up in Georgia hearing stories of the war, tells us that when the Army of Tennessee came to Atlanta to assume battle positions, they came with torn red battle flags flying in the rain. They were worn and weary from 76 straight days of playing defense against overwhelming odds.  “… [T]heir horses starved scarecrows, their cannon and caissons harnessed with odds and ends of rope and strips of rawhide.” But, they did not enter the city disorderly or fleeing for their lives. They marched in good order, “jaunty for all their rags.”  The men called out rude gibes to the men not in unform. They still grinned and waved at pretty girls. The Atlanta crowd cheered them just as they would have in victory. For they knew, their boys had lost, but they were not beaten.


Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (New York: Scribner 2011), p. 311-312

Alan Schom, One Hundred Days (New York: Ateneun Press 1992), p. 290-291

Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 211-216