Aleppo, the American Civil War, and “Civilization”

Roundup
tags: Civil War, Syria, Aleppo, Syria Civil War



Matthew C. Hulbert is a cultural and military historian of nineteenth-century America. He is the co-editor of The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth (Kentucky, 2015) and the author of The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers became Gunslingers in the American West (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

Recent coverage of Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year, has caused an uproar on cable news and social media platforms. In particular, images of the humanitarian fallout in Aleppo disturb American sensibilities. Aleppo was the besieged stronghold of American-backed rebel forces who oppose dictator Bashar al-Assad’s Putin-backed regime, and the scenes from there have been chilling: bleeding children, covered in dust, crying, or worse, shell-shocked and silent. Homes destroyed. Buildings hollowed out by relentless bombing. Roads cratered, hospitals and police stations left in ruin. Thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire, praying they will live to become refugees from the world’s most ancient city, while insurgents cling bitterly to whatever territory they can possess.

American responses have ranged from calls for direct military intervention, to increased humanitarian efforts, to plans for harboring Syrian refugees in the United States, to viewing the conflict as none of our business. What commentators seem to have in common, though, is the notion that this sort of violence—with its hollowed buildings, insurgents fighting from street to street, scorched earth policies, and ever-growing refugee rosters—is distinctly foreign; that is to say, it is not in keeping with how we fight our wars. It just isn’t American. Nothing along these lines ever has happened, or could now happen, within the civilized bounds of the United States. 

In fact, we have indeed been in the very place Aleppo is now. Scenes like those seen lately taking place in the streets of that city played out on American soil during our own civil war.

By late summer 1863, the United States and the Confederate States of America had been engulfed in a bloody civil war to determine the fate of the Union and of slavery for more than two years. Massive armies, supplied by their respective governments, drilled in Napoleonic tactics, and bound for the most part by the established rules of war, had collided with dreadful impact at places like Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. The casualties suffered by both armies were unprecedented in American history. But along the Missouri-Kansas Border, a region that was Union territory by definition for the entirety of the war, a different sort of conflict raged.

Here pro-Confederate bushwhackers squared off against various Union forces in a hyper-violent, hyper-localized struggle. The back roads, fields, barns, corncribs, and front porches of the homefront replaced traditional battlefields and war departments. Men, women, and children were all drawn into a conflict centered on households, the logistical nerve centers that made waging irregular war possible. To be a bystander in this conflict was impossible as ambuscade, arson, rape, torture, assassination, and massacre replaced uniforms, interior lines, and echelon formations. The established rules of war mattered very little. Guerrilla warfare constituted the status quo. ...




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