The United States is intervening in a civil war in Yugoslavia.
President Clinton and other western leaders have justified the NATO
bombing by the brutal crackdowns that Serbian forces conducted on
Kosovar Albanian rebels and civilians.
However, prior to the onset of NATO bombing, the actions of the
Serbian forces may have been less abusive than were the actions of the
northern armies during our own Civil War. Once the NATO bombing began,
Serbian persecution 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 our own federal government during the
War Between the States.
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 tens of thousands of southern civilian casualties during the
war were no accident.
In a Sept. 17, 1863 letter that Union General, William Tecumseh
Sherman, wrote to the general in chief of the Union Armies: “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 seems proper.” Halleck liked
Sherman’s letter so much that he passed it on to President Lincoln, who
declared that it should be published.
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
subordinates, “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
On Sept. 27, 1864, Sherman wrote to Gen. John Hood, the confederate
commander of the Army of Tennessee, and announced that “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 Oct. 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
Scorched-earth tactics were also used in the Shenandoah Valley in
1864-65. On Sept. 28, 1864, Gen. Phil Sheridan ordered one of his
commanders to “leave the Valley a barren waste.” Gen. 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 General, Wesley
Merritt, proudly reported to Sheridan on Dec. 3, 1864 that “the
destruction in the valley, and in the mountains bounding it, was most
Many Union officers were horrified at the wanton destruction their
armies inflicted on the South. On March 8, 1865, Gen. Cyrus Bussey
reported: “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, Miss.
Some northern leaders claimed to be deeply concerned about the
wellbeing 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 Kosovo will make life far
harder for any Kosovo Albanians who do return to their land.
Civil wars routinely show humanity at its worst. U.S. government
officials have accused both sides of the civil war in Kosovo of
atrocities. Unfortunately, American bombs have only made
a bad situation far worse. No amount of Clinton-style righteousness can
provide a just pretext for the bombing of foreign civilians in the name
James Bovard is the author of Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the
State & the Demise of the Citizen (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). To see the
first chapter of this book, check out his website, JamesBovard.com.