The “Forget Hell!” crowd

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Feb 27, 2006 12:53 PM

I love history. I’m proud of my Southern heritage. But for me to be angry to the point of protesting a moment in Southern history that happened nearly a century-and-a-half ago would be just, well, nonsensical. And would in some ways tarnish that heritage.

Which brings me to an event that took place in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, February 18 – just over a week ago – exactly 141 years to the day after Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman bombarded, crossed into, and ultimately burned Columbia (the capital city and my hometown): The general and his commander in chief, President Abraham Lincoln, were hanged in effigy on the steps of the S.C. State House.

The hangings were a peculiar feature of a weekend-long series of informative, fun, family events commemorating Sherman’s invasion of South Carolina, specifically his capture and fiery ransacking of the capital city on February 18, 1865.

Now, I am not suggesting that what happened back in February of 1865 was family fun. Fact is, it was horrible; not unlike that which acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow describes in his latest work, The March: “…Columbia was an inferno, whole streets aflame, home after home collapsing thunderously into itself, its wood sap hissing and cracking like rifle fire. The sky, too, seemed to have caught fire.”

But that was then. This is now. And what’s the point, generations later, of hanging an effigial representation of Sherman on the grounds of the State House when he was simply doing his duty as a soldier, or Lincoln who was trying to preserve the Union we all today embrace?

Moreover, it is debatable as to whether or not Sherman was actually responsible for burning the entire city, though most of Columbia was indeed reduced to ashes. His artillerists certainly fired on the capital from gun-batteries positioned beyond the west bank of the Congaree River. And once entering the city, his infantry and some of his cavalry certainly enjoyed a long revelous night of drinking, terrorizing the locals, raiding homes and businesses, and, yes, setting some fires or standing and watching those that were set.

War is “all hell,” Sherman would later proclaim, and Columbia was one of the primary strategic targets in his campaign (following his infamous march from Atlanta to the sea) to “make the Carolinas howl.” Columbia was after all the city where the Confederacy’s first secession convention was held (in the Sherman-spared church in which I would ultimately be both baptized and married).

But despite the misdeeds of Sherman’s soldiers, the razing can’t be totally laid at the General’s feet. Retreating Confederates also have been said to have set fires in the city; burning any-and-everything they hoped the advancing Federals would not get their hands on.

Friend and historian, John Hammond Moore, states in his book, Columbia & Richland County, there were three primary fires started in the city. One when bails of cotton that had been placed in the center of a street were ignited, another that began in a row of brothels, and a third in the center of town. “General Sherman himself, many of his men, and scores of Columbia citizens tried to subdue fires both great and small,” Moore writes. “Both defender and invader actually battled three adversaries that night: fire, wind, and drunken, blue-clad soldiers who often impeded their efforts and on some occasions even set fires.”

Thus was-and-is war, particularly a war fought by exhausted, largely uneducated troops with access to wine cellars and liquor cabinets, and who had been taught that their enemies were nothing more than common rebels.

But those who hanged the effigies of Sherman and Lincoln were not historians in the traditional sense. They were, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the very same mixed bag from the “Forget Hell!” crowd (members of The League of the South and other “unreconstructed” types) who are always present at these events – as well as a handful of Confederate re-enactors who, by the way, looked to be much better fed than those men I've seen in the pictures of the half-starved, typhoid riddled ranks of the Confederate Army in 1865.

I’m not knocking reenactors. Reenacting has its Hollywood purposes. It’s also great to have reenactors at historic sites, reenacting historic events. Plus I suppose it’s great fun for those who might like to dress-up and play army. But it seems odd to reenact an event that never took place – like a public hanging of a U.S. Army general and a U.S. president unless you have some sort of agenda or you are trying to make some sort of statement, which is not what reenactors are supposed to do.

I suppose from my perspective, it all boils down to the fact that I am Southern. My family has been here for nine generations, and members of my family have served under every banner from the Union Jack to the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Stars and Stripes.

Also, it seems that there are two primary groups of White Southerners:

One group, wherein my own kin exists, is the group that values the true nobility of Southern heritage. Important to us are things like honor, courage, courtliness, a genteel spirit, and a love of others – Black and White, Southern and non-Southern – and respecting all as equals.

Then there is the “Forget Hell!” crowd. Those who would hang Sherman and Lincoln in effigy, and who were also among the most vocal during the recent Confederate battle flag controversy. The battle flag which had flown – along with U.S. and South Carolina flags – over the State House for as long as I could remember was removed in 2000 after a contentious debate in the S.C. General Assembly, resulting in a compromise that now has the flag fluttering behind the Confederate soldiers monument facing Main Street (less than a rebel-yell from where Sherman and Lincoln were hanged).

The “Forget Hell!” crowd would argue they were the ones fighting hardest to keep the flag above the State House.

Perhaps.

But it was after all the predecessors of that group – along with generations of Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis – who hijacked the Confederate battle flag in the first place, and made it one of their own symbols: They unashamedly and, in many cases, unwittingly disgraced the flag by flying it from pick-up trucks, tattooing it on arms, stitching it to the backs of jackets, and painting it on the roofs of Dodge Chargers. Then the worst sorts (like the KKK and others) paraded the flag as a symbol of White supremacy and racial exclusion, creating an atmosphere in which a battle over the battle flag was simply inevitable.

I am not saying members of the “Forget Hell!” crowd are Klansmen or Skinheads. They are not. But many of their aims of regional separation and exclusion have been similar, and their vocalizations brutish and void of anything closely resembling the charm and chivalry with which true Southerners are associated.

Of course, members of the “Forget Hell!” crowd proclaim themselves as being the true standard bearers of Southern heritage. They will no doubt continue to do so, and do it loudly. But it is their lack of quiet-dignity – among other things – that has truly sullied our Southern heritage. The effigial hangings of Gen. Sherman and President Lincoln are just another crass example.