Christopher Check’s review of W.G. Simms’ A City Laid Waste: The Capture, Sack, and Destruction of the City of Columbia (“Total War,” September) was an excellent consideration of that volume’s importance in current topical terms.  If Southerners were allowed to know the true story of the invasion and burning of the civilian South by U.S. troops, then maybe they would be the first to question invasions elsewhere today.  That is another reason why Southerners especially should read Simms’ account of the burning of Columbia and the civilian atrocities committed there.  Dr. Brian Cisco’s new book, War Crimes Against the South (Pelican), is a good volume to supplement Simms.  It corroborates on a large scale the truth of what Simms writes.

        —James Kibler
Athens, GA

No moral person could defend raping, burning, and looting Columbia, as described by Christopher Check in his review of A City Laid Waste.  However, South Carolina herself had sown the seeds of the destruction of her capital.

It was South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks who caned Sen. Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, in 1856.  In 1861, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union and also captured Fort Sumter, the first overt military act in what became a long and bloody four years.  Without excusing Union general Sherman and his troops, it was fortunate they laid waste to a small town, not Charleston.

Sherman was not the first proponent of total war.  For example, it was Scipio Africanus who razed Carthage and sowed the ground with salt in 149 B.C.  Mongolian Genghis Khan and his sons practiced particularly brutal total war in the 13th century.

        —Mark G. Michaelsen
Madison, WI

Mr. Check Replies:

My thanks to Professor Kibler for his kind words and for his recommendation of Dr. Cisco’s book.

Thank you, also, to Mr. Michaelsen for his apt comparison of General Sherman with Genghis Khan, although, for pure military genius, I am going with Genghis Khan.  I did not suggest that what we today call “total war” began with Sherman.  On the contrary, I noted that the Peace of Westphalia and the ideas of theorists including Hugo Grotius were efforts to restrain the increasing brutality of warfare.  The Jacobin ideas of the French Revolution ended any hope of even lip service being paid to just-war theory in the modern world.  Not for nothing has the Holy Father questioned whether a just war can be fought today at all.

Scipio Africanus did not practice anything like total war.  After Scipio defeated Hannibal at Zama, Carthage remained independent, and Hannibal was not surrendered.  It was in the Third Punic War that Scipio Aemilianus, or Africanus Minor (whom Scipio’s son had adopted), occupied and destroyed Rome’s deadliest enemy.  It was not the best day for the pagan republic, but unless we are willing to adopt pagan morality, equate the Punic Wars with the Civil War, and regard Christian Southerners as baby-murdering idolaters, the parallel is entirely irrelevant.

Acting alone, Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner with a hollow cane that broke during the event.  The medical reports that immediately followed declared that Sumner was not badly harmed.  The Boston Post, a day after the assault, reported, “The despatches from Washington yesterday afternoon were that ‘Mr. Sumner was better, and would be able to occupy his seat in a day or two.’”  Sumner’s three-year “recovery” (which he spent on holiday in Europe) was a stage-managed political stunt to foster sympathy for the abolitionists.  What provoked Brooks?  Sumner’s infamous “Crime Against Kansas” speech in which he insulted Brooks’ uncle, Sen. Andrew Butler, and called the state of South Carolina a “brothel.”  The Boston Courier deemed the speech “exceedingly insulting.”  The Detroit Free Press called it “atrocious [and] filled with libels and insults, gross and vulgar, which their author had conned over and written with cool and deliberate malignity, and repeated before the looking-glass, night after night, in order to find the appropriate grace with which to spit them.”  The Washington Star found it “little more than a tissue of personal accusation and assault, and charges against all his opponents without the slightest effort to sustain their truth.”  The Cincinnati Daily Inquirer thought Sumner had asked for it: “[W]e would suggest that those who provoke attacks of this violent description are not without great blame.”  The people of Columbia did not ask for their city to be sacked.  They surrendered on terms expecting better treatment than Eastern Europeans received at the hands of the Mongol hordes.