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A War Over the War

A while back, we had the beginnings of a war.

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Nothing to get concerned about, thankfully. Just one of those wars between some of those most contemptible combatants, namely newspaper columnists.

Now since a large majority of newspaper columnists have the gumption of a gecko, they most enjoy wars fought at long range, far, far from any target which might strike back. This is why faraway politicians -- those in Baton Rouge or Washington or Baghdad -- are favorite targets.

The only thing better than faraway targets is dead faraway targets. That's why this war promised to be perfect. First of all, it was about LSU, its Board of Supervisors and a state senator, Republican at that. All safe targets for columnists. Oh yeah, and the Civil War. Yes, that Civil War. ...

Synopsis: When LSU (nee: Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy) opened in Pineville in 1860, its first president was an Ohioan named William Tecumseh Sherman. Yes, that William Tecumseh Sherman. ...

Well, the general snuck back into Louisiana news some 145 years after leaving the state to join the winning army. Seems like the LSU Board of Supervisors recently was seized by the spirit of reconciliation and announced it would name one of the campus buildings after Sherman. As tit for the Sherman tat, Sen. Robert Barham (R-Oak Ridge) suggested that the names of 18 LSU students who died in the Civil War be added to the school's war memorial.

All right. In one corner, the shrinking forces of the Old South demanding to know why honor not just a Yankee but the Yankee who brought immoral scorched-earth warfare to the dear old Southland and whacked plenty of Indians after the war? In the other corner, the forces of P.C. and Al Sharpton, who parallel any Confederate with Joseph Goebbels and the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan manages to dominate pop culture with a membership of 16 or 17, but that's a story for another time.

Right now, the story is about Gen. Sherman and his 1864 march through Georgia. It will not help you answer any essay questions on the exam, but may help with a true-false or multiple-choice query.

Sherman was a West Pointer who had retired from the army until the outbreak of war. His first command was in Kentucky, where he vastly exaggerated Rebel strength and his spooked estimates led to his replacement.

He redeemed himself the following year at Shiloh and then was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi. He and U.S. Grant planned simultaneous offenses against the Confederacy -- Grant in Virginia, Sherman in Georgia.

His troops nicknamed him "Crazy William," and his conversations were described as "manic." Sherman sought to reduce every problem to its essentials and thought in absolutes. He called slavery "a minor question" and had no use for abolitionists. Other groups he expressed a distaste for include journalists, clergymen, politicians and Southern Unionists -- he thought they hadn't opposed secession vigorously enough.

Yet he thought that during his campaign he could convince Georgians to repudiate that secession, and if that happened, they should be immediately readmitted to the Union. "When a people submit, I would not bother with little local prejudices and opinions," he said. He admired the enemy's spirit: "The devils seem to have a determination that cannot but be admired. No amount of poverty or adversity seems to shake their faith -- niggers gone -- wealth and luxury gone, money worthless, starvation in view ... are causes enough to make the bravest tremble, yet I see no sign of let up."

To break that spirit, Sherman issued foraging instructions to his troops, though the degree is still disputed. But beyond dispute were his instructions to "deal harshly" with anyone who offered "obstructions."

With such permissive guidelines, the Yankee army reached new highs in plunder. Thousands of homes, farms and barns were burned; the resultant stand-alone chimneys were known hereafter as "Sherman's sentinels."

Of even greater damage was the pillage, authorized or not. "Prospecting" was the soldier slang for it, and the native populace did its best to mitigate it by burying its valuables and telling the Yanks that their houses were quarantined by smallpox. But expert foragers would feign lynching the man of the house or a slave until the whereabouts of the loot was revealed. Thus the inventory of a typical forager's wagon might be:

"Pumpkins, chickens, cabbages, guinea fowls, carrots, onions, squashes, a shoat, sorghum, a looking glass, an Italian harp, a peacock, a rocking chair, a gourd, a bass viol, sweet potatoes, a cradle, honey, a baby carriage, peach brandy and every other imaginable thing."

In later years, myth added much guilt to Sherman's reputation, e.g. he was said to have assembled a personal herd of 500 white horses collected in Georgia. He has his defenders and he has his critics, one of whom was a Union officer named TourgŽe: "By seeming to forbid, and failing to prevent, he let the blame fall upon the man, who, without the encouragement of such tacit approval, would never have dreamed of perpetuating such acts."

Me? Leave me out of it. My Civil War hero is Colonel Prentiss Ingraham of Natchez, Miss. He served in the 1st Mississippi Light Artillery until captured at Port Hudson. But what makes him a hero to me is his post-war achievements. Namely, in a 34-year writing career, Prentiss dashed off 400-odd novels and 600 novelettes. It's been estimated that comes to 1,350,000 words a year or 3,708 words a day or 154 words an hour.

That's the kind of stuff a columnist appreciates. All those thousands of words getting slung around.

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