The Civil War and 150 Years of Forgotten US Military Atrocities

by JAMES BOVARD
George Orwell wrote in 1945 that “the nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” The same moral myopia has carried over to most Americans’ understanding of the Civil War. While popular historians have recently canonized the war as a practically holy crusade to free the slaves, in reality civilians were intentionally targeted and brutalized in the final year of the war.

The most dramatic forgotten atrocity in the Civil War occurred 150 years ago when Union Gen. Philip Sheridan unleashed a hundred mile swath of flames in the Shenandoah Valley that left vast numbers of women and childrens tottering towards starvation. Unfortunately, the burning of the Shenandoah Valley has been largely forgotten, foreshadowing how subsequent brutal military operations would also vanish into the Memory Hole.

In August 1864, supreme Union commander Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sheridan to “do all the damage to railroads and crops you can… If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” Sheridan set to the task with vehemence, declaring that “the people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war” and promised that, when he was finished, the valley “from Winchester to Staunton will have but little in it for man or beast.”

Because people lived in a state that had seceded from the Union, Sheridan acted as if they had automatically forfeited their property, if not their lives. Some Union soldiers were aghast at their marching orders. A Pennsylvania cavalryman lamented at the end of the fiery spree: “We burnt some sixty houses and all most of the barns, hay, grain and corn in the shocks for fifty miles [south of] Strasburg… It was a hard-looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year.” An Ohio major wrote in his diary that the burning “does not seem real soldierly work. We ought to enlist a force of scoundrels for such work.” A newspaper correspondent embedded with Sheridan’s army reported: “Hundreds of nearly starving people are going North . . . not half the inhabitants of the valley can subsist on it in its present condition.”

After one of Sheridan’s favorite aides was shot by Confederate soldiers, Sheridan ordered his troops to burn all houses within a five mile radius. After many outlying houses had been torched, the small town at the center – Dayton – was spared after a federal officer disobeyed Sheridan’s order. The homes and barns of Mennonites – a peaceful sect who opposed slavery and secession – were especially hard hit by that crackdown, according to a 1909 history of Mennonites in America.

By the end of Sheridan’s campaign, the former “breadbasket of the Confederacy” could no longer even feed the women and children remaining there. An English traveler in 1865 “found the Valley standing empty as a moor.” Historian Walter Fleming, in his classic 1919 study, The Sequel to Appomattox, quoted one bedeviled local farmer: “From Harper’s Ferry to New Market, which is about eighty miles, the country was almost a desert… . The barns were all burned; chimneys standing without houses, and houses standing without roof, or door, or window.” John Heatwole, author of “The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley” (1998), concluded: “The civilian population of the Valley was affected to a greater extent than was the populace of any other region during the war, including those in the path of Sherman’s infamous march to the sea in Georgia.” Unfortunately, given the chaos of the era at the end of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, there are no reliable statistics on the number of women, children, and other civilians who perished thanks to “the burning.”

Some defenders of the Union military tactics insist that there was no intent to harshly punish civilians. But, after three years of a bloody stalemate, the Lincoln administration had adapted a total war mindset to scourge the South into submission. As Sheridan was finishing his fiery campaign, Gen. William Sherman wrote to Gen. Grant that “[U]ntil we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of it’s roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources.” Sherman had previously telegrammed Washington that “[T]here is a class of people – men, women, and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.” President Lincoln congratulated both Sheridan and Sherman for campaigns that sowed devastation far and wide.

burning sheridan troops cheering

Troops cheering Sheridan amid the flames of the Shenandoah Valley.

The carnage inflicted by Sheridan, Sherman, and other northern commanders made the South’s post-war recovery far slower and multiplied the misery of both white and black survivors. Connecticut College professor Jim Downs’ recent book, Sick From Freedom, exposes how the chaotic situation during and after the war contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of freed slaves.

After the Civil War, politicians and many historians consecrated the conflict and its grisly tactics were consigned to oblivion. The habit of sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil War policy towards the Indians (Sheridan famously declared “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”) and the suppression of Filipino insurgents after the Spanish-American War. Later historians sometimes ignored U.S. military tactics in World War Two and Vietnam that resulted in heavy civilian casualties.

The failure to recognize how wars routinely spawn pervasive brutality and collateral deaths lowers Americans’ resistance to new conflicts that promise to make the world safe for democracy, or rid the world of evil, or achieve other lofty sounding goals. For instance, the Obama administration sold its bombing of Libya as a self-evident triumph of good over a vile despot; instead, chaos reigns in Tripoli. As the administration ramps up bombing in Syria and Iraq, both its rhetoric and its tactics echo prior U.S. misfires. The proclaimed intentions of U.S. bombing campaigns are far more important than their accuracy.

Since 1864, no prudent American should have expected this nation’s wars to have happy or uplifting endings. Unfortunately, as long as the spotlight is kept off atrocities, most citizens will continue to underestimate the odds that wars will spawn debacles and injustices that return to haunt us.

James Bovard is the author of author of Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books. More info at http://www.jimbovard.com; on Twitter @jimbovard.

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Federal Drug Agency Sued for Creating Fake Facebook Profile

A federal agency responsible for enforcing drug law has been sued for creating a fake Facebook profile of a woman arrested on drug charges.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is accused of using photos and information Sondra Arquiett’s cellphone to create a false Facebook profile that was used to extract drug secrets from her friends, according to the Associated Press. Arquiett was arrested in New York in 2010 on charges that she was involved in a drug distribution network.

A Department of Justice spokesman said Tuesday that the government is now reviewing the incident and the practice, even though it previously defended itself, according to August court filings. In the documents, the DOJ argued that while Arquiett did not directly authorize a DEA agent to create a fake Facebook profile, she “implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cellphone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in … ongoing criminal investigations,” AP reported.

The trial is scheduled for next week.

[AP]

Richard Price On Growing Up In the Golden Age of Public Housing

The New York City Housing Authority began construction on the North Bronx’s Parkside Houses in 1948. The first tenants—including the family of novelist Richard Price—began moving in during the spring of 1951. In a recent piece for Guernica, Price detailed the rise and fall of public housing in New York, told through the lens of his own upbringing. Below are some of his early recollections:

This was the beginning of public housing’s golden age. And it would last for roughly fifteen years.
Similarly résuméd couples in their mid- to late twenties found each other effortlessly, quickly forming tightly knit cliques. The men were postal workers, chauffeurs, garment factory foremen, institutional cafeteria managers, cabbies, truck drivers, subway motormen, and the odd luncheonette or bar owner. The wives/mothers did what wives/mothers did back then. Housewifing, maybe taking on a little part-time work to cut the drudgery if their own mothers could cover the kid. Or kids.
Keeping up with the Joneses was a piece of cake.
Bragging rights were hard to come by.
None of the men seemed interested in taking advantage of the GI Bill to further their prewar education.
On the other hand, they all had jobs.
Everyone read the Daily News and the Daily Mirror, and occasionally the New York Post (vaguely Red), but rarely the New York Times, which, unlike the tabs, was too unwieldy for public transportation.
They were patriots but not particularly political.
In their downtime, many of the Originals, both men and women, took to the benches in front of the buildings, Greek-chorusing about this and that, the talk easily reaching their friends directly overhead, hanging out of apartment windows in order to join in the conversation. The buildings were only seven stories high, there was no reason to shout.
Everyone smoked like chimneys.

Read the story here

Photo via Wikimedia Commons (Photo is not of the Parkside Houses)

 

Pharrell’s New Music Video Features Fall Foliage, Aerial Acrobatics and Giant Daft Punk Helmets

Featured Image

Go ahead and take five minutes out of your day and watch Pharrell stroll through a possibly-enchanted forest on a crisp autumn afternoon, nodding at ethereal dancers and occasionally pausing to wiggle his hips. All of this — and more! — can be found in the new video for “Gust of Wind,” Pharrell’s latest Daft Punk collaboration.

The clip, directed by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), is aesthetically pleasing, if strange. Though the guys from Daft Punk don’t make an appearance, their trademark helmets do — in the form of giant stone boulders that eventually float up and away into space.

Bonus: the bright red, orange and yellow hues make this video feel like one big tribute to fall. So feel free to grab yourself a pumpkin spice latte, wrap yourself in a cozy sweater and enjoy.

 

U.S. Air Strikes Can’t Stop ISIS in the Fight for Kobani

By sunset today, the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was flying on the edge of Kobani, a strategically important Syrian-Kurdish town on the Turkish border. Despite President Barack Obama’s pledge to destroy ISIS—and the ongoing air campaign that has followed that promise—the extremist group seems poised to take this town and solidify their control over a swath of the Syrian-Turkish border.

“ISIS is attacking from three sides and they are pushing into the city. We are fighting back,” said Ojlan Esso, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces in Kobani by phone. The sound of mortars hitting the city echoed in the background of the call before the line went dead.

For more than three weeks Kurdish fighters have been fending off ISIS and calling for air strikes, better weapons and for Turkey to allow Kurdish fighters to cross the border and join them in fight in Kobani. They’ve only gotten the strikes so far, courtesy of the U.S.-led coalition, and that hasn’t been enough to stop the militants’ advance.

“They’ve definitely been too few and far between to disrupt the ISIS offensive in the area,” said Jenny Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. Taking Kobani will not just be a blow to the Kurdish fighters there but a strategic gain for ISIS, broadening their control in Syria and connecting key areas under their burgeoning caliphate’s power.

Many Kurds in Kobani are angry that assistance didn’t come to the besieged city weeks ago. “I saw several air strikes today, but they should have taken place before ISIS entered Kobani,” said Abdul Azziz, a Kurdish resident from the city.

The ISIS attack on Kobani is in line with its efficient approach to combat—strategically targeting areas the group knows will have difficulty fighting back. The Syrian Kurds have a precarious relationship with the country’s opposition rebels, while Turkey has blocked weapons, supplies and fighters from entering Kobani because of Ankara’s long-standing feud with Kurdish groups.

America isn’t having any more success. So far the U.S.-led operation in Syria has focused on damaging ISIS infrastructure, targeting convoys and checkpoints instead of frontline positions and active battle sites. In part, this is because the U.S. is not coordinating with the forces fighting on the ground in Syria. In the case of Kobani, Kurdish leaders have said that they need air strikes on strategic positions where the militants are advancing.

But as the bombing has taken its toll on ISIS convoys and checkpoints, the militant group has begun limiting large movements in open daylight, making it more difficult to hit their units. “These strikes have forced ISIS to shift some of its tactics, and this shift in tactics actually increases the difficulty in acquiring target sets,” says Cafarella.

More precise strikes are impossible for now—the U.S. lacks the intelligence networks to hit key targets, says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, who focuses on Syria and U.S. policy in the Levant region. “You have to get these networks set up so they can feed you with this sort of information.”

It’s not just Syrian Kurds who are complaining about the impotence of the strikes. Even the moderate Syrian rebel groups that have been picked for training and weapons distribution by the U.S. have begun criticizing the early strikes in Syria, arguing that they will not be effective as long as the U.S. fails to work with fighters on the ground.

“The strikes are just not coordinated with ground objectives in mind,” said Tabler. “Concerning Syria, I can’t define a strategy there. I can’t see what it is.”

While the U.S.-led strikes against ISIS in Syria have targeted the group’s financial infrastructure and warring capability it is not having much effect on the many front lines between the militants, and both these Kurdish fighters in Kobani and the Free Syrian Army groups the U.S. talks about backing.

But even in Iraq, where the U.S. is coordinating with both the Iraqi national army and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, ISIS is still making gains in some areas. “You notice [ISIS] is advancing outside of Baghdad,” said Tabler. “So it’s hard to argue that the strikes are working to halt ISIS’s advance.”

If Kobani falls into the hands of ISIS, it may not only provide a new supply route into the caliphate and strategic territorial control, but also demonstrate that the U.S. is far from defeating the militant group

 

Why Schools Should Screen Their Students’ Mental Health

Why Schools Should Screen Their Students’ Mental Health

Schools should be a first line of defense for catching young people at risk for mental health issues from depression to ADHD, a pair of new reports says.

Kids and adolescents spend a significant amount of their time in school, yet providing mental health screenings and care is not an overarching requirement for many schools. “We need to think about how to embed mental health services so they become part of the culture in schools,” says study author Dr. Mina Fazel, a child psychiatrist at the University of Oxford. “It will take a commitment from health and education.”

The reports, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, looked at programs already implemented in both high-income schools and middle- and low-income schools. The authors made suggestions for both education systems. For instance, schools could conduct school-wide screenings by asking teachers to identify at-risk kids for further evaluation, or health counselors could be trained to spot both physical and mental issues by looking for visible signs like weight fluctuation or bullying. If treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy were included in a school’s health offerings, Fazel believes mental health problems could be caught early and treated.

“If we made mental health part of the usual health system of a school, then it becomes more normal…and hopefully it will then be easier to access it,” says Fazel. According to data presented in the reports (which is UK-specific but also looks at U.S. programming), about 75% of adults who access mental health treatment had a diagnosable disorder when they were under age 18, but in high-income countries, only 25% of kids with mental health problems get treatment.

Stigma is largely to blame for a lack of participation in mental health care. “[Mental health] is the service that people seem to know least about, seem to fear accessing most, and think they will be negatively viewed by their peers or their teachers or their families if they access those services,” says Fazel.

Some schools in the U.S. and abroad have had success with mental health screenings and programs, but implementation still hasn’t been made a standard, which Fazel thinks is a lost opportunity. By prioritizing mental health in a child’s early years, more people will get the treatment they need early on.

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