History focuses on generals

January 19, 1992|By Richard Lech | Richard Lech,Knight-Ridder News Service

THE DESTRUCTIVE WAR.

Charles Royster.

Knopf.

523 pages. $30. Imagine the United States subdivided into a collection of banana republic-style countries, each operating in constant fear of war with its neighbors or domination by a larger European power.

Many Northerners in the 1860s feared such a political nightmare, and that was one of the reasons they were willing to fight such a long and costly Civil War.

As Charles Royster puts it, the Unionists foresaw that "the Confederate States and the United States would be in perpetual war. Further political division would follow, burdening the continent with 'jarring, warring fragmentary States,' armies and a 'race of chieftains, who will rival the political bandits of South America and Mexico.' "

This is just one of the unusual insights Dr. Royster, professor of American history at Louisiana State University, offers in "The Destructive War" as he describes why the Civil War became the most devastating conflict in the nation's history.

Not so much a history of the war, although he gives vivid descriptions of such events as the burning of Columbia, S.C., by Northern troops, "The Destructive War" is a fascinating history of the ideas held by the people who fought the war.

Dr. Royster specifically focuses on the beliefs and careers of two generals -- William Tecumseh Sherman of the North and Thomas E. "Stonewall" Jackson of the South -- who epitomized the idea of drastic, total war.

"Jackson did not go through the Civil War's often-described transition from notions of chivalric gallantry to brutal attrition," Dr. Royster writes. "For him the war was always earnest, massed and brutal."

Sherman was equally ruthless in his assessment of the enemy. To him, the Southerners had rejected lawful government and opted for anarchy. On his destructive march to the sea, Sherman "used his soldiers to give Southerners a taste of life without government."

But Dr. Royster disagrees with modern writers who trace every frightful event of 20th century total war, such as the mass bombings of World War II, to Sherman's march. The writers confuse Sherman's harsh words with reality, ignoring the fact that while Sherman's men destroyed much property, very few civilian lives were lost.

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