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Realist’s War

July 2024
2min read

Perhaps General William Tecumseh Sherman had caught the idea. It might be going too far to say that he had thought the thing through, but something in him seemed to respond instinctively to the changed condition. He fitted in, where Stuart and Semmes did not. He was no man for the knightly gesture or the grand flourish that both of these men understood so well, but he knew precisely what to do when he came across the enemy’s corncribs and machine shops and he did it without a qualm. What he did finally won the war, but it was not very pretty.

For a firsthand glimpse of it you might read When the World Ended , which is the diary of a seventeenyear-old girl who lived in Columbia, South Carolina, edited by Earl Schenck Miers and brought forward here as an illustration of the unhappy fact that war in the modern world embodies things which the romantic outlook overlooks.

Emma LeConte lived in Columbia just when Sherman’s destroying army came marching into the place and turned the greater part of the city into rubble. Her diary tells what she saw, felt, and experienced. It is hysterical, unbalanced, bitterly biased—and true; which is to say that she tells us, from an extremely partisan viewpoint, what the people of South Carolina felt when the destroying horde finally descended upon them.

The fact that there is in this book a strong touch of that departure from reality which was experienced by so many ardent Confederates (to say nothing of a great many ardent Northerners as well) simply gives it added point. The war which began as an inspiring and romantic thing got very grim, finally, and there is little of romantic inspiration in the story of Sherman’s march across the Carolinas. Whatever of final gain for all the nation there may have been in the Civil War was not readily visible to a teen-ager in Columbia in the early weeks of 1865, and you cannot expect to find a recognition of it in this diary.

When the World Ended; the Diary of Emma LeConte , edited by Earl Schcnck Miers. Oxford University Press. 124 pp. $4.

What you do find is the undeniable fact that Sherman’s men did a great deal to earn the hatred which the people of South Carolina felt for them. They went across the state like (and it was an expression the men themselves fancied) the wrath of God. They had an animus, and they felt justified in expressing it. They were imperfectly disciplined, and among them there were a good many out-and-out rowdies, and they looted and burned without giving the matter a second thought. They rationalized it, later (whenever it occurred to them that rationalization might be needed), by remarking that the war had to be won and that anyhow South Carolina had started it, but it does no one any harm to see how the whole business looked to a girl who was on the receiving end of it.

The war had to be won: perhaps that is the sentence that does the damage. In the old days there were limits; there were things you did not have to endure and things you did not have to do, and when the pinch came you could simply stop fighting and work out some sort of settlement. War has got beyond that now because the stakes are always immeasurable. Neither the North nor the South imagined that the war they began at Fort Sumter was going to be like that. Their belief that it was going to be of the old, limited kind was basically a romantic belief. The present was going to be like the past. Unfortunately, it was not in the least like it, and the blackened ruins of burned Columbia lay on the sky line in testimony of it.

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