Abraham Lincoln’s Forgotten Atrocities

The Lincoln movie is on the verge of picking up a heap of Oscars at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. That movie did not quite capture Honest Abe’s full record. I was raised in a county that was devastated (and lost much of its population) as a result of Lincoln-approved Scorched Earth tactics in the final year of the Civil War. The northern armies treated Confederate soldiers who resisted the barn-burning and crop-burning as war criminals and hanged them. (Some background on the Civil War in Virginia can be found in my memoir riffs in Public Policy Hooligan).

Here is a riff I did on Lincoln for a National Review Online symposium on Lincoln 12 years ago, and a snippet on Abe from Attention Deficit Democracy

James Bovard
Author of Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years

How can the same people who vigorously support indicting Serbian leaders for war crimes also claim that Lincoln was a great American president?

Lincoln bears ultimate responsibility for how the North chose to fight the Civil War. The attitude of some of the Northern commanders paralleled those of Bosnian Serb commanders more than many contemporary Americans would like to admit.

In a September 17, 1863, letter to the War Department, Gen. William Sherman wrote: “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.” President Lincoln liked Sherman’s letter so much that he 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.” How would U.N. war crimes investigators react if Slobodan Milosevic had made this comment about ethnic Albanians?

On October 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.” Sherman lived up to his boast — and left a swath of devastation and misery that helped plunge the South into decades of poverty.

General Grant used similar tactics in Virginia, ordering his troops “make all the valleys south of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad a desert as high up as possible.”

The Scorched Earth tactics the North used made life far more difficult for both white and black survivors of the Civil War.

Lincoln was blinded by his belief in the righteousness of federal supremacy. The abuses and tyranny that he authorized set legions of precedents that subverted the vision of government the Founding Fathers bequeathed to America.

****From Attention Deficit Democracy (Palgrave, 2006):

The more vehemently a president equates democracy with freedom, the greater the danger he likely poses to Americans’ rights. President Abraham Lincoln was by far the most avid champion of democracy among nineteenth century presidents—and the president with the greatest visible contempt for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Lincoln swayed people to view national unity as the ultimate test of the essence of freedom or self-rule. That Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, jailed 20,000 people without charges, forcibly shut down hundreds of newspapers that criticized him, and sent in federal troops to shut down state legislatures was irrelevant because he proclaimed “that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”


Lysander Spooner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, ridiculed President Lincoln’s claim that the Civil War was fought to preserve a “government by consent.” Spooner observed, “The only idea . . . ever manifested as to what is a government of consent, is this—that it is one to which everybody must consent, or be shot.”


4 Responses to Abraham Lincoln’s Forgotten Atrocities

  1. smitty February 24, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    ‘Modern’ presidents-and other political critters-often seem to worship Abe the tyrant.

    They seem to be imitating his governing style too.

    Spooner was an amazing fellow, so right about the Constitution:

    “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”
    ― Lysander Spooner

    As a practical matter, with the rarity of critical thinking happening in this country, we are stuck with trying to right this sinking ship of a nation, with the flawed Constitution.

    But the Constitution worship masquerading as ‘patriotism’ isn’t helpful.

  2. Jim February 24, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Excellent points, Smitty.

    AS the old saying goes – “The Constitution isn’t perfect but it’s better than what we have now.”

  3. Tom Blanton February 25, 2013 at 12:59 am #

    I find it amazing that the “recent unpleasantness” still whips up the passions of so many. Dare to mention that Lincoln was a racist tyrant war criminal in some circles of pseudo-intellectual progressive types and suddenly you are accused of wanting to bring back slavery.

    Here in Richmond, where the war was still alive well through the 1960’s, bring up the fact that the city was under martial law during the reign of terror under Jefferson Davis and some rebels will claim you are a carpetbagging Yankee traitor.

    It’s the same mentality that informs normal people that if someone criticizes a Democrat, then they must be a Republican, or vice versa.

    Lincoln should have been thrown in prison, but then he got his blowback in the back of his head. Jeff Davis had to go to jail for a bit, but was released.

    It seems to me that all presidents – Union, Confederate, Democrat, Republican, whatever – should be thrown in prison, for a term not to exceed their lives, to begin the day they leave office. Or maybe give them the Ford Theater Option.

    It is ironic that the new Lincoln propaganda movie was filmed in Richmond, where you can still see the battle flag flying from time to time. One thing that you don’t see in Richmond is any memorial to the great 900 foot Lincoln who saved the nation from the evil Richmonders.

    I was actually taught that Lincoln’s troops burned Richmond in elementary school. I was shocked when I learned that Confederates burned Richmond as they got the hell out of Dodge.

    I’m glad that “Lincoln” didn’t win an Oscar for best movie and Shillberg didn’t win for best director. Maybe this movie will fade away and there won’t be a theatrical re-release. The Cult of War Criminal Tyrants can still buy the DVD or go worship at the huge Lincoln Memorial Shrine in the Imperial City.

  4. Jim February 25, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    Excellent points!

    On the history lessons learned in school – While attending Virginia schools in the 1960s & 1970s, I don’t recall hearing anything about Jefferson Davis’s affinity for bonehead generals who got their troops slaughtered for no good reason. Some of the Southern leadership may have preferred to lose playing by West Point rules than to win via the tactics of John S. Mosby & Bedford Forrest.

    It would have been a tonic for the nation if both Lincoln & Davis could have been placed on trial after the wars and cross-examined for a long long time.

    Same thing should have happened after Nixon’s resignation – Gerald Ford’s pardon robbed the nation of one of the best learning experiences of the late 20th century.