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The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans.

Anyone who investigates the American Civil War cannot ignore its horrifying human and material destructiveness. So it is with historian Charles Royster, whose new book represents an imposing inquiry into the social history of organized human violence. "The scale of destruction to which the participants committed themselves" (p. xi) in the Civil War serves as Royster's point of departure. His pages represent an exploration of the reasons why so much carnage took place, but his answers do not reside with such traditional concerns as military strategy, battlefield tactics, or technological improvements in the tools of war. Rather Royster focuses on mutually exclusive ideological constructs of nationhood, dating back to the era of the American Revolution, to explain so bloodthirsty an encounter. Once in motion, the Civil War's unremitting carnage took on its own momentum, built to a devastating crescendo, and came to an end only when the northern combatants finally crushed their southern adversaries in what each had come to define as a purposeful, if not highly moral conflict to destroy the other's concept of nationhood.

Royster begins his story with a gripping reconstruction of Union forces destroying Columbia, South Carolina, in mid-February 1865. With this metaphor in place, he then turns to his central characters, the fearsome warrior-generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and William Tecumseh Sherman. Jackson's aggressive martial behavior personified the sense of "justness of revenge" that characterized both sides. For Confederate citizens he "represented ... the strong-willed man, the triumphant general, and the country's divinely decreed destiny" in the mold of such earlier nation-making heroes as George Washington. Relentlessly aggressive Jackson became the most admired warrior among these same southern folk because of his firm conviction that when the fighting "stopped at last, his cause would prove to have been God's". The far more secular Sherman had learned in his pre-war life to respect the law, resist disorder, and despise citizens who failed to "place loyalty to the nation and obedience to its government ahead of all other loyalties". Early on in the war, Sherman lacked resolution and suffered from bouts of melancholy. Then he began to comprehend, especially after his bloody reckoning with Confederate troops at Shiloh, the folly of conciliating opponents who thought of themselves as so righteously superior. Once convinced that Southerners must receive in kind what they had first wrought, Sherman became the supreme northern master of martial destruction.

Provoking the contest and its unremitting intensity, Royster asserts, was a mutual claim "to be guarding the legacy of the American Revolution." Both sides emphasized "internally contradictory stories of nation-making" as "justifications for a bitter war to establish which myth was true". In standing up for state sovereignty the South demanded an inalienable right to independence, whereas the North equated secession with treason in formulating its appeals to an inviolate, perpetual union. Each side acted with an irreconcilable "compulsion" of purpose, concludes Royster, all of which resulted in a host of ghastly combat scenes, such as the one so graphically described in a chapter on a battle during late June 1864 at Kennesaw Mountain in northwest Georgia.

Through all of the twists and turns of his presentation, which include a brilliant chapter on the death of Stonewall Jackson (pp. 193--231, and as vivid a rendering of a crucial historical event as this reviewer has read in recent years) and a much less satisfying, overly long section on Sherman's post-1865 career and public declarations about the war as a seedbed of social progress, Royster never admits other factors to his pantheon of reasons for so destructive a war. This forswearing of other possibilities will surely raise the hackles of many reviewers, especially historians of the Civil War. They will ask how representative Jackson and Sherman really are and will want to know why Royster did not take into account recent works that have investigated why citizens North and South became Civil War soldiers. Statements about the centrality of nationhood do not noticeably stand out in contemporary letters and recollections, if these qualitative and quantitative profiles are correct.(1) Nor does Royster reckon with such putative cultural determinants as the Celtic factor, which some have claimed affected the battlefield behavior--and rates of carnage--among offensive-minded, hard-charging Southerners.(2) There is nothing on the massive size of Civil War armies, both as a reflection of Napoleon's utilization of the levee en masse and as a source of the Civil War's incredible scale of destruction. Nor do such technological factors, such as the adoption during the 1850s of a far more effective killing weapon, the percussion-cap rifled musket, merit passing mention in Royster's exposition. His explanation rests firmly on an intellectual-ideological as compared to a social-technological base.

None of this takes that much away from the many strengths of this book. However circumscribed the explanatory argument, Royster's character portraits of Jackson and Sherman and descriptions of the Civil War's unbelievable wastage in lives and property represent compelling, thought-provoking reading regarding the perils of resorting to war as an instrument of social/political change. Few will leave this study unmoved by the author's trenchant images of so tragic a sequence of events.


1. Representative of the methodological variety of such studies are Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York, 1987); James I. Robertson, Jr., Soldiers Blue and Gray (Columbia, S.C., 1988); and Joseph Allan Frank and George A. Reaves, "Seeing the Elephant": Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh (Westport, Ct., 1989).

2. Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (University, AL, 1982).
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Author:Martin, James Kirby
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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