Chasing Smallwood .46. Hell in South Carolina

[A book with four interlocking themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and
  • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.46. Hell in South Carolina

 And so the series of transmissions (as I came to call them) that started December 18, 2005 abruptly ended on February 27, 2006. It hadn’t lasted a very long time. But marking beginnings and endings in our lives is a somewhat arbitrary process. Only a week later, on March 5, a new series began. This series led me far indeed, for I realized that our ability to talk to those on the other side is not limited to those with whom we had a “past life” connection. We can talk to anyone we have a reason to talk to, if we put in the work and time necessary to learn the process. But that is the subject of another book, that has to do with a lot more than merely contacting others on the other side.

The session of February 27, 2006, wasn’t – by far – the last time I talked to Joseph. He continues to watch my life (and, presumably, others) as he did before, and from time to time we talk. A couple of our conversations bring this account to my trip to Gettysburg in April, and that’s a good place to break off.

Sunday March 19, 2005

(1:15 p.m.) Joseph – having read Sherman’s March yesterday, I got the feeling that you were pretty ashamed of the army’s actions in South Carolina, and now I know why.

War ain’t pretty, but it don’t have to be unnecessary hell. Making war on the whole populace is one thing, and nobody can say it didn’t work. But acting like a drunken mob – being a drunken mob, doing the kind of things that got done, was something else, and I didn’t much like it, you’re right. What I said about our actions in Georgia was right, but I didn’t say much about running through Carolina – South Carolina – and like you say, it ain’t something I like to dwell on. But you know, it’s a hard question. How do you kill people, and burn their fences, and steal their food and livestock, and generally raise hell trying to make ’em stop fighting you – and not let yourself hate ’em? It’s easier if you hate ’em, and damned hard if you’re feeling sorry for ’em. I’d say most of us – the good ones, put it that way, most of the army in my view, went back and forth day to day, sometimes minute by minute. The fighting men, we didn’t much hate them, unless they was doing something like killing our prisoners and leaving ’em on the road to taunt us, or doing something else we’d not stand. Otherwise, they was more like us than either of us was like the people that were not soldiers, and we felt like we understood ’em and sympathized with ’em. Of course when you got one prisoner who was spitting hatred at you, you’d laugh at him, it’s just natural. But they was good fighting men and we respected that, and they felt pretty much the same about us, most of ’em. But then they would hear what we was doing to their homes, plus we were invaders, to hear them tell it, and that would get some of ’em awful mad. And we’d see our own boys getting shot up and we’d think how the whole damned war was unnecessary, and we’d get mad all over again sometimes. So on both sides we’d get hot and then we’d get over it, and we’d get hot again. And the things an army does when it is hot – especially if the man at the top don’t clamp down tight – don’t bear looking at in cold blood in daylight.

Nobody had any doubt about South Carolina – and the thing the histories carefully don’t tell you is the women, hiding behind the fact that they was women and couldn’t be held to account for what they said, the tongue-lashings they’d give our boys when they could. That’s one thing that made our boys behave all the worse, I believe: them women weren’t so high and mighty when they were scared. I’m not defending it, exactly, but I’m saying see it right; see the whole story, not just part of it. People that were civil to us got better treatment even if we did still steal their stuff and destroy around ’em. People spitting hatred at us just naturally didn’t bring out our best side, you know? And I don’t mean hatred for what we was doing, I mean hatred for what we were. We were Yankees (which is a laugh, as five men out of six were from the west) and we were low-class, poor whites – and they were at the top of a very small circle. Well, we sort of knocked some of the stuffing out of South Carolina society, trying to make ’em a little less high and mighty. I tell you, it was infuriating, hearing it from them women just the way it seemed we’d all be hearing it from South Carolina politicians all our lifetimes, back to John C. Calhoun. To listen to them, they were quality and everybody else just didn’t count as much as their favorite horse. Our boys took it out on ’em, and in a way you could say they earned it, and plenty.

But – like I say – you can’t really get at it by hating people. All you do is make ’em hate you more. Nothing you do is going to make anything better. No matter how good you are they ain’t ever going to think well of you, and when you give ’em back some of their own, they only hate you the more. It’s like in your day the Jews and the Arabs.

If you’re going to judge us, all I ask is that you look at how we were in Georgia, and how in South Carolina, and how in North Carolina. When we was with poor people, we were soldiers just the same, but mostly we were decent and sometimes even kind, or as kind as possible. When we came up against the people of Savannah, they didn’t love us, but they were decent to us and we were decent to them, and if we could have got there two years earlier, or three, probably they’d have been back under the old flag pretty quick and not much hard feeling except among the nobs. But South Carolina was crazy at the start and we didn’t give ’em quarter, but they weren’t any crazier at the end than they always had been.

Still, things got out of hand, I know that. Sherman knew it too, you could see it in the book. Probably he didn’t intend that Columbia get burned down – and not even the rebs ever claimed he caused the wind that night! – but he didn’t spend any more time crying about it than we did. It looked like the hand of God, to us – if you don’t count all the dammed drunks running around the night doing their worst. In a way it would have been a howling injustice if the rest of the country had got wrecked in four years – which it did, one way and another – and Columbia got left standing. Many a fellow in the ranks wished we could go burn Charleston, too. But we didn’t have anything special against the tar heels, and we didn’t treat ’em bad. They looked to us a lot like the Georgia flatland farmers looked – three or four meals shy a week, every week. Plus, they was plenty afeared of us, but they didn’t hate us on principle, just out of fear – and not all of ’em did anyway. Lot of Union men in North Carolina, always had been. Maybe if the war had kept on till we got to Virginia, North Carolina would have got it worse, but I don’t think so. It’d been worse because longer, but not harder. It wasn’t their doing and we all knew that – plus Uncle Billy looked like he meant it about treating ’em easy, this time. Like I say, I think he was a little ashamed of what we did to the Palmetto State. It’s awful easy to do something while you’re busy hating that you’re mighty ashamed of later. You just got to hope to God you don’t go too far before you get back to your senses.


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