Total War

Eight years ago, I sat in the home of Nashville artist Jack Kershaw, drinking whiskey from a Jefferson cup and listening to the story of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina (February 17-18, 1865).  Mr. Kershaw pointed to the various scenes in his terrifying painting of the fire: In the center, a drunken Yankee plays a piano that his fellow soldiers have dragged into the street and set aflame.  In one corner, an Ursuline nun consoles a crying child as they watch their convent and school burn.  In another, a Yankee soldier takes an ax to the hose of the Columbia volunteer fire brigade as they hopelessly struggle to put out the blaze.  Citizens lose their pocket watches to Yankee robbers.  Homes are invaded and looted, and, along with silver and china, Negro women are carried off by their Yankee liberators.  Some survive their humiliation; others are left dead.  All around, the city burns—hell come to earth.  Above the pandemonium, almost grinning with approval, float the ghastly visages of General Sherman and President Lincoln.

Since that afternoon in Jack Kershaw’s parlor, the sack of Columbia has, for me, represented the horrifying extremes to which soldiers in the service of a Jacobin cause will go.  For the technological advancements that converged in the mid-18th century, and for the Union’s practice of unrestricted warfare, the War Between the States has often...

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