The Elephant of the Valley

In a classic fable, a group of blind men happen upon an elephant and try to describe what an elephant is like.  One man holds the elephant’s trunk and says an elephant is just like a snake.  Another holds the elephant’s tusk and says an elephant is just like a spear.  A third man feels the elephant’s leg and says the elephant is just like a tree.  Another feels the elephant’s midsection and says an elephant is just like a wall.  Finally, one man holds the elephant’s tail and says an elephant is just like a rope.  All of them were accurate in their reporting of what they learned, yet none gave an accurate picture of what an elephant is like because they only had a small part of the picture.

In this article, James Bovard gives a similar description of Phil Sheridan’s actions in the Valley.  In an earlier comment on this blog, Mr. Bovard claimed, “Judicious comments from this & other blogs spurred me to do more research.”  It’s a shame he couldn’t be more judicious in what he reported.  Instead, he only gives a carefully selected part of the picture, with the result being that we don’t see the elephant regarding what Sheridan did in the Valley, but instead we see Mr. Bovard’s carefully laid out snake, with the rest of the elephant excised.

Mr. Bovard starts early by conflating quotes from different times:  “In August 1864, supreme Union commander Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sheridan to ‘do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.’ Sheridan set to the task with vehemence, declaring that ‘the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war’ and promised that, when he was finished, the valley ‘from Winchester to Staunton will have but little in it for man or beast.’ ”  As I showed here, Grant did indeed tell Sherman, “Give the enemy no rest, and if it is possible to follow the Virginia Central Railroad, follow that far.  Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can.  Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting.  If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” [Ulysses S. Grant to Philip H. Sheridan, 26 August 1864, OR Series I, Vol 43, Part 1, p. 917]  Sheridan did say, “To-morrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage, &c., down to Fisher’s Hill. When this is completed the Valley, from Winchester up to Staunton, ninety-two miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.” [OR Series I, Vol 43, Part 2, p. 308]  But Sheridan did not, in 1864, say, “‘the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.”  Sheridan did say it, but it was in 1870, not 1864, and it was in Europe, not in the United States.  It was in a conversation between Sheridan and Otto von Bismarck while Sheridan was in Europe observing the fighting between Bismarck’s Prussians and the French.  After the French surrender, guerrillas kept up harassing attacks and ambushes.  At a dinner conversation, “Amongst other matters mentioned at table were the various reports as to the affair at Bazeilles.  The Minister said that peasants could not be permitted to take part in the defence of a position.  Not being in uniform they could not be recognised as combatants–they were able to throw away their arms unnoticed.  The chances must be equal for both sides.  Abeken considered that Bazeilles was hardly treated, and thought the war ought to be conducted in a more humane manner.  Sheridan, to whom MacLean has translated these remarks, is of a different opinion.  He considers that in war it is expedient, even from a political point of view, to treat the population with the utmost rigour also.  He expressed himself roughly as follows:  ‘ The proper strategy consists in the first place in inflicting as telling blows as possible upon the enemy’s army, and then in causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force their Government to demand it.  The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.’ ” [Moritz Busch, Bismarck:  Some Secret Pages from His History, Being a Diary Kept by Dr. Moritz Busch During Twenty-five Years Official and Private Intercourse with the Great Chancellor, Vol. 1, pp. 127-128]  Certainly Sheridan might have said it in 1864, but the fact is that he didn’t say it in 1864 like Mr. Bovard claims.  But why did they say what they said?  Bovard wants to paint Sheridan and Grant as bloodthirsty as possible, when in fact they were seeking to end the war as quickly as possible and in so doing save lives.  As discussed earlier, the confederacy’s use of the tax-in-kind meant that 10% of any crop yield, no matter how small or how big, went to the confederacy to support their armies in the field.  If the Federal soldiers destroyed half of a farmer’s crop, the confederacy would take 10% of the remainder.  If they destroyed 90% of the farmer’s crops, the confederacy would take 10% of the remainder.  Let’s not forget that food for an enemy’s army is a legitimate military target.  The only way to cut off that flow of food to the confederate armies was to destroy all the crops.  It is harsh, but war is a harsh thing, and the sooner it is over, the better for everyone.  Sheridan’s 1870 comment about leaving the people nothing but their eyes to weep with means destroy property, not kill people, and then the people will force their government to end the war quickly.  That’s not a part of the picture Mr. Bovard wants us to see, and to disguise it he’s not above claiming something Sheridan said in 1870 was something he said in 1864.  Mr. Bovard would come back and say it’s a sentiment with which Sheridan in 1864 would agree, but that’s not what he wrote.  Mr. Bovard writes for a living, and thus it seems reasonable to me to hold him to a standard.

Mr. Bovard continues, “Some Union soldiers were aghast at their marching orders. A Pennsylvania cavalryman lamented at the end of the fiery spree: ‘We burnt some sixty houses and all most of the barns, hay, grain and corn in the shocks for fifty miles [south of] Strasburg … . It was a hard-looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year.’ An Ohio major wrote in his diary that the burning ‘does not seem real soldierly work. We ought to enlist a force of scoundrels for such work.’ A newspaper correspondent embedded with Sheridan’s army reported: ‘Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North not half the inhabitants of the valley can subsist on it in its present condition.’ ” Certainly the destruction of crops was controversial with some soldiers, but again Mr. Bovard is only telling a carefully selected slice of the story.  He doesn’t tell about the Pennsylvania soldiers who may have been against burning crops, but after hearing about the confederate burning of the town of Chambersburg weren’t hesitant in the destruction.  For many Pennsylvania soldiers, the Burning was a justified retaliation for Chambersburg, which itself was conceived by Jubal Early as a justified retaliation for what David Hunter did in the Valley.  Much as Mr. Bovard would like us to believe the opposite, these things didn’t happen in a vacuum.  In the case of the correspondent mentioned by Mr. Bovard [and he was most probably one of Sheridan’s soldiers and not a regular newspaper reporter, with Mr. Bovard’s use of the term “embedded” being an anachronism], looking at the full story he wrote is instructive:

“The atmosphere, from horizon to horizon, has been black with the smoke of a hundred conflagrations, and at night a gleam, brighter and more lurid than sunset, has shot from every verge.  The orders have been to destroy all forage in stacks and barns, and to drive the stock before for the subsistence of the army.  The execution of these orders has been thorough, and in some instances, where barns, near dwelling houses, have been fired, have resulted in the destruction of the latter.  In no instance, except in that of the burning of dwellings within five miles, in retaliation for the murder of Lieut. Meigs, have orders been issued for the burning of houses, or have such orders been sanctioned by Gen. Sheridan.  Such wholesale incendiarism could not have been pursued, however, without undue license being taken by the worst class of soldiers, and there have been frequent instances of rascality and pillage.  Indiscriminating (for with such swift work discrimination is impracticable), relentless, merciless, the torch has done its terrible business in the centre and on either side of the valley.  Few barns and stables have escaped.  The gardens and cornfields have been desolated.  The cattle, hogs, sheep, cows, oxen, nearly five thousand in all, have been driven from every farm.  The poor, alike with the rich, have suffered.  Some have lost their all.

“The wailing of women and children, mingling with the crackling of flames, has sounded from scores of dwellings.  I have seen mothers weeping over the loss of that which was necessary to their children’s lives, setting aside their own, their last cow, their last bit of flour pilfered by stragglers, the last morsel that they had in the world to eat or drink.  Young girls with flushed cheeks, and pale with tearful or tearless eye, have pleaded with and cursed the men whom the necessities of war have forced to burn the buildings reared by their fathers, and turn them into paupers in a day.  The completeness of the desolation is awful.  Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North.  Our trains are crowded with them.  They line the wayside.  Hundreds more are coming–not half the residents of the valley can subsist on it in its present condition.  Absolute want is in mansions used in other days to extravagant luxury.” [Appletons’ Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1864,  pp. 154-155]  Yes, there was devastation, but other than the retaliation for Lt. Meigs’ killing there were no orders to burn houses, nor did Sheridan approve of burning houses.  Houses were burned, but they were against orders and done either by accident or by criminal act.  And note that the Union Army was providing transportation for families out of the Valley to where they can find food.  Sheridan provided wagons for this, and hundreds of people took advantage of this transportation.

Mr. Bovard writes, “After one of Sheridan’s favorite aides was shot by Confederates, Sheridan ordered his troops to burn all houses within a five-mile radius. After many outlying houses had been torched, the small town at the center — Dayton — was spared after a federal officer disobeyed Sheridan’s order. The homes and barns of Mennonites — a peaceful sect who opposed slavery and secession — were especially hard-hit by that crackdown, according to a 1909 history of Mennonites in America.”  At least he’s no longer calling Lt. Meigs “a politically connected Union officer” as he did previously.  Mr. Bovard also doesn’t tell us that Sheridan ordered that retaliation because he had been told by a soldier who was there that Meigs was murdered by civilians.  Nor does Mr. Bovard tell us that when he found out that was not the case, Sheridan rescinded his order.  That wouldn’t fit in with the distorted picture of a snake instead of an elephant Mr. Bovard wants us to see.  As to the claim about the Mennonites’ homes and barns being “especially hard-hit by that crackdown,” which he claims came from a “1909 history of the Mennonites in America,” this appears to be another instance of a description not fitting what was written.  I assume the 1909 history he’s referring to is C. Henry Smith’s The Mennonites of America [Goshen, Indiana, 1909].  In it, we find, “In the summer of 1864 the war cloud again settled thick and dark over the Mennonite homes in the Shenandoah Valley. With the suddenness of a thunderclap there came from the seat of government at Richmond, the announcement that the substitute Exemption Law was abolished and that all able-bodied men from seventeen to sixty years of age were now required to go into the army. This of course started off many of the seventeen-year-old boys and most of the older brethren to hiding again, numbers of them going in squads of three and four across the mountains into West Virginia and Ohio until by September and October, the exodus of brethren from the state was so general that it is remembered as the time when the Sunday congregations were composed of a few old men, the younger boys and the women. The meetings at this time are remembered as being made all the more solemn because of the many sad and weeping faces that were seen in the audience. It sometimes happened that these meetings were seriously disturbed and even stampeded by the real or imaginary approach of soldiers, and at times for a period indefinite no meetings were held by reason of soldiers being quartered on the grounds and occupying the meeting house where our people were accustomed to meet for worship.

“Then, to cap the climax, there came the never-to-be forgotten Sheridan’s raid through the Shenandoah Valley. From the evening of Oct. 6th, 1864, to the morning of the 8th following, nearly all the barns and mills, and in some cases the dwelling houses also, were set on fire in that part of Rockingham county where the Mennonites were located. These buildings being burned, together with their stores and provisions, and the live stock driven from the farms—the whole country being overrun by troops of both sides, keeping up a desultory warfare between them—with the fences obliterated in a way that left their farms a desolate waste. It is not to be wondered at that quite a number of our Mennonite families and nearly all the sixteen and seventeen-year old boys bade farewell to the hallowed surroundings of the dear places they used to call home, and rather than to longer bear the hardships of a war-ridden country, took the opportunity to remove to Pennsylvania and Ohio under the protection of Sheridan’s army as it marched northward in October, 1864.

“Before the hard, cold winter of 1864-65 had fully set in, those of our people who remained at their homes managed to provide some shelter and to divide with one another the scanty supplies that remained for them. There was perhaps, never a time before this that Mennonites in America had things more ‘in common’ than during the war period of 1864- 65. Every possible article of wearing apparel had to be manufactured at home—no leather to make shoes except that which was tanned at home; no hats were worn except the home-made article; no sugar or salt or pepper or spices to season food with; no coffee, except such as was made from parched wheat or rye. Upon the whole, it was like going back to the purely primitive life of the grandfathers of a hundred years before. [pp. 320-322]  Were their houses and barns “especially hard-hit?”  It doesn’t seem so from the account, and the account shows that they were provided transportation North and the protection of Sheridan’s army as they moved.  They appear to have suffered more at the hands of the confederate conscription than Sheridan’s raid.

Mr. Bovard says, “Some defenders of the Union tactics insist that there was no intent to harshly punish civilians. However, after three years of a bloody stalemate, the Lincoln administration had adapted a total-war mindset to scourge the South into submission. As Sheridan was finishing his fiery campaign, Gen. William Sherman wrote to Grant that ‘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.’ Sherman had previously telegrammed Washington that ‘[t]here is a class of people — men, women and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.’ President Lincoln congratulated both Sheridan and Sherman for campaigns that sowed devastation far and wide.”  I’ve already dealt with Mr. Bovard’s attempted deception regarding Sherman’s “class of people” message here.  Sherman was talking about bushwhackers in Kentucky, but knowing that lets us see more of the elephant than just the snake.  Let’s look at the first quote from Sherman, though.  Bovard would like us to believe it was Federal policy to destroy people.  That’s why he very carefully culled one phrase from that message.  Let’s look at the entire message, though:

“Allatoona 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 9th 1864 
Lt. Gen. Grant
City Point

It will be a physical impossibility to protect this road now that Hood, Forrest, Wheeler and the whole batch of Devils are turned loose without home or habitation. I think Hoods movements indicate a direction to the end of the Selma and Talladega road to Blue Mountain about sixty miles south west of Rome from which he will threaten Kingston, Bridgeport and Decatur and I propose we break up the road from Chattanooga and strike out with wagons for Milledgeville Millen and Savannah. Until we can repopulate Georgia it is useless to occupy it, but utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources. By attempting to hold the roads we will lose a thousand men monthly and will gain no result. I can make the march and make Georgia howl. We have over 8,000 cattle and 3,000,000 pounds of bread but no corn, but we can forage the interior of the state.” [OR, Series I, Vol 39, Part III, p. 162]

Sherman here is arguing to make his famed march to the sea.  He doesn’t want to stay in Atlanta, he doesn’t want to stay in Georgia.  He’s arguing that if he has to do so, then he will have to kill people as well as destroy things.  Mr. Bovard would like us to think of Sherman as waging total war.  He didn’t.  Mr. Bovard either doesn’t know what total war is or is trying to deceive us again.

Here’s Professor Mark Neely discussing why the Civil War can’t be considered a total war, nor could Sherman’s actions be considered total war:

Professor Neely discussed this more fully in his 2004 article in Civil War History.

This was hard war, but not total war, and what Sherman and Sheridan did was in accordance with accepted practices of the time.

According to Mr. Bovard, “After the Civil War, politicians and many historians consecrated the conflict as a moral crusade and its sometimes-grisly tactics were consigned to oblivion. The habit of sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil War policy toward the Indians (Sheridan famously declared, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’) and the suppression of Filipino insurgents after the Spanish-American War. Later, historians sometimes ignored U.S. military tactics in World War II and Vietnam that resulted in heavy civilian casualties.”

Well, first of all, Sheridan never said “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  The quote is attributed to him, but he never said it.  Mr. Bovard’s assertions that historians ignored military tactics that resulted in heavy civilian casualties is just poppycock.  I don’t know of a history of World War II that doesn’t talk about bombing German cities, bombing Japanese cities, and especially the dropping of the two atomic bombs.  I don’t know of a history of the Vietnam War that doesn’t talk about My Lai, bombing Hanoi, or bombing Cambodia and Laos.  And what was swept under the rug?  Is there a history of the American Indian Wars that doesn’t talk about the Washita Raid, the Sand Creek Raid, or Wounded Knee?  Does any history of the American occupation of the Philippines leave out the Moro Insurrection?  His assertion doesn’t make it reality, especially when the assertion veers so far away from reality.

His last two paragraphs reveal his actual goal in writing this piece, in my opinion.  It’s not to bring to light some history, but rather to score political points:

“The failure to recognize how wars routinely spawn pervasive brutality and collateral deaths lowers Americans’ resistance to new conflicts that promise to make the world safe for democracy, or rid the world of evil, or achieve other lofty sounding goals. For instance, the Obama administration sold its bombing of Libya as a self-evident triumph of good over a vile despot. Instead, chaos reigns in Tripoli. As the administration ramps up bombing in Syria and Iraq, both its rhetoric and its tactics echo prior U.S. misfires.

“Since 1864, no prudent American should have expected this nation’s wars to have happy or uplifting endings. Unfortunately, as long as the spotlight is kept off atrocities, most citizens will continue to underestimate the odds that wars will spawn debacles and injustices that return to haunt us.”

Here’s the thing, Mr. Bovard.  Since forever, no prudent person should ever look at war and think that bad things don’t happen to people in wars.  Bad things happen to people in every war, and no one should start a war, and the confederates started the Civil War, without understanding that.  The Burning was militarily necessary to cut off supplies for the Army of Northern Virginia.  Civilians were in the Valley and would naturally be affected by that action.  This was also a form of psychological warfare, demonstrating to Valley civilians that the confederate government in Richmond couldn’t protect them, and that the longer the war went on the worse things would get.  The Civil War was a war between two entities that were set up as republics, meaning that the will of the People would ultimately determine the courses of action of those two entities.  If the People wanted a war to end, they can pressure their government to make that war end.  The Valley civilians now had a huge incentive to pressure the confederate government to end the war.

In  his concluding paragraphs, Mr. Bovard refers to some unintended consequences of recent military actions and tries to connect them to the Burning.  There are unintended consequences of many acts, not just warfare.  Anytime national leaders seek to take any action, military or otherwise, they need to try to determine what unintended consequences will result from that action.  Anytime national leaders seek to use military force, they need to understand they are accepting that bad things will happen to people as a result of that use.  That doesn’t mean we don’t use military force.  It means we have to make sure what we gain from that use of force outweighs those bad things.

As to Mr. Bovard’s use of history as a propaganda vehicle, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we should never count on political partisans for accurate history.  This is yet another example.  You simply can’t trust someone writing with a political agenda.  They will want you to see only a snake, or a spear, or a tree, or a wall, or a rope instead of an entire elephant.



  1. Snap! You’ve just been schooled, Mr. Bovard. I thought it interesting that he commented on an earlier post that the thoughtful blogs like this one and others had caused him to do more “research.” It’s a shame he didn’t actually read the contents of those blogs.

    1. It’s the political agenda that’s important.

  2. Great post Al. See my own response at

    1. Thanks, John. I like your response very much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: