Friday, August 22, 2014

A Tale of Two Towns

Anybody who thinks that the "politics of personal destruction" is a relatively new phenomenon in U.S. political history...  Well, they don't know shinola about history.

In late July of 1864, little more than a year after General Robert E. Lee had withdrawn his Gettysburg-mauled Army of Northern Virginia from Pennsylvania, another Confederate force under the command of Major General Jubal Early pushed north down the Shenandoah Valley and invaded northern territory in a bid to take pressure off of Lee's forces hemmed up by Grant at Petersburg and Richmond.  

A subordinate force under Brigadier General John McCausland raided the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and demanded a ransom of $500,000, or $100,000 in gold. 

The good people of Chambersburg refused. 

McCausland burned the town.

Guarded by Confederate masons, the Chambersburg Masonic Temple was the only building of note left standing.

Another nearby landmark in southern Pennsylvania, US Postmaster Montgomery Blair's mansion in Silver Spring, was burned by Early's forces. 

Less than a month later -- 150 years ago, today -- Union forces returned the favor.

Union General William T. Sherman and his army were cutting a swath through the South, headed for Atlanta, and Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest was playing havoc with Sherman's supply lines.  

Tasked with the mission from Sherman of "follow[ing] Forrest until death," Union Major General Andrew J. Smith gathered a force in west Tennessee and headed south into Mississippi in search of the legendary and troublesome Forrest.  Immediately upon his arrival in Oxford, Mississippi, Smith received word that his quarry was back up his line of march -- behind him -- in Memphis.  He turned his force around and headed that way.

But, not before giving the order to burn Oxford.  Smith also ordered that the nearby University of Mississippi, then really not much more than one main building -- the iconically beautiful Lyceum -- also be torched.    

The town burned; Ole Miss didn't.  

Nobody knows for sure why Smith ordered Oxford torched.  Grant didn't do it when he occupied the town in 1862.  Some say it was in retaliation for the burning of Chambersburg and Blair's mansion. Smith never said and didn't leave a memoir.

He left a lasting memory in the psyche of Oxford, however.

One of the structures in Oxford specifically targeted that day was former US Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson's home. Thompson was particularly despised in the North for having immediately resigned from Lincoln's cabinet upon Southern secession and joining the army of the Confederacy.  Thompson further fueled the Union's hatred of him by heading secretive operations in Canada against the United States and attempting to create a "Northwest Confederacy" against the Union.

So, burning Thompson's home, "Home Place," was personal.

So had been burning Blair's mansion, "Falkland."

But, as heinous and ruthless as some Americans can be towards one another, there are actions by other Americans -- even in the midst of all-out war -- that demonstrate the great capacity of our people to peek around the blinders of hate and see the right things that must be done. 

As Chambersburg was put to the torch, some Confederate units disobeyed their orders and helped residents save personal belongings.  They even prevented some sections of the town from being set alight by their brothers in butternut.

The Union officers sent to burn the fledgling University of  Mississippi saw no good in its destruction.  They disobeyed their orders.  

They disobeyed orders that made all the sense in the world to men gone mad with hatred and revenge.

Some beautiful and good things remained standing in the ashes of two towns that late summer of 1864.  

The Lyceum, and the town of Oxford, would see more hatred unleashed nearly a hundred years later.  They were scarred, both literally and figuratively, then too.

They sure stand pretty, today. 

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