Debating DiLorenzo: Squabbles with Scholars

In this portion of his interview with Brian Lamb, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo describes another encounter with an unnamed Lincoln scholar:

DILORENZO: I was at another event in Richmond, it was panel discussion with the – well known Lincoln scholar who has identified himself as the president of a committee, the head of committee that gives the Lincoln book award out every year. And …

LAMB: Is this the – Mr. Borat [Boritt], the …

DILORENZO: No, no, it was somebody else who is much less known than Gabor Borat [Boritt] but anyway during the course of this panel discussion this man stands up and says things like, ”no private property was ever stolen from the southern household by Sherman’s army,” and this is Richmond and I’m astounded at the statement like that. I’ve read – you can go to any Barnes and Noble this afternoon and pick up books on Sherman’s March and read the exact opposite about that whole episode. And I got to wondering, well why would a man like this stand up and say such an obvious falsehood? And the impression I got was that he was just trying to make me out to be saying falsehoods because he was the Lincoln scholar. I’m just an economist who picked this up as a hobby. That’s what he seemed to be saying but he’s the real expert.

And so he made statements like that. Another statement he denied the killing of civilians by Sherman’s army, Sherman’s march and I was astounded at that too. He said Lincoln never killed any civilians, you know, as the commander-in-chief. Well, of course, he never pulled the trigger and killed anybody but there have been quite a few books about James McPherson, one of his books said there were about 50,000 southern civilians who just disappeared by the end of the war, killed, died, one way or another and so you don’t have to be a Lincoln critic, like me, to recognize that there was a lot of civilian deaths in the southern states during the Civil War. And here’s this man denying this. And I’d think, why would he say such a strange thing? And I think it was just to make me out to be – you know, I’m spreading falsehoods because I’m just an economist, he’s the expert. And that’s how some of the Lincoln people have behaved.

Crossroads Comments: Given DiLorenzo’s inability to identify his protagonist, who’s a “well known” Lincoln scholar but much less “well known” than Gabor Boritt, long identified with the Lincoln Prize, one is not quite sure what to make of the rest of this statement.  Apparently it’s noteworthy to DiLorenzo that the exchange took place in Richmond. What I do know is that given DiLorenzo’s incorrect portrayal of the work of other historians, I would not take his description of this exchange at face value, especially given how vague and somewhat confused it is.

To recognize civilian death and suffering is one thing: to portray Union soldiers as killing large numbers of noncombatants (civilians) and then to charge Lincoln with responsibility for that stretches the imagination.  Again, the Confederacy is simply invisible in DiLorenzo’s view of events.  For example, why did Confederate commanders put civilian populations at risk when they defended cities such as Fredericksburg, Vicksburg and Atlanta?  That suggests they were willing to use their own people as shields.  And yet we’d have to pursue that line of argument if we were to accept DiLorenzo’s assertions.

We’ve already documented some of DiLorenzo’s misstatements.  Should we call them falsehoods?  And should we follow him by pondering what motivates him to offer these falsehoods while presenting himself as the voice of truth?  That’s why there’s a comments section.

10 thoughts on “Debating DiLorenzo: Squabbles with Scholars

  1. James F. Epperson March 3, 2011 / 4:34 pm

    One of the many errors I found in his book was an instance in which he made the following accusation:

    “Upon entering Jackson, Mississippi, in the spring of 1863, Sherman ordered a systematic bombardment of the town every five minutes, day and night.” (Page 184 of “The Real Lincoln.”)

    So, according to DiLo, *after* he entered the town, Sherman ordered it bombarded every five minutes? He was firing on his own men?

    Turns out, this was during Sherman’s sweep east after Vicksburg fell, and was a threat he made to Johnston if Johnston persisted in defending the town. IOW, it was a reasonable military move to threaten to make.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 3, 2011 / 4:40 pm

      Well, it’s an interesting understanding of military history. Its relationship to what actually happened remains a different matter. As they say, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you aren’t entitled to your own facts.

      • M.D. Blough March 3, 2011 / 6:52 pm

        Look at Lee’s actions at Fredericksburg. He made it clear to the city leaders that he regarded the city as undefendable and that, since the city was between the two armies, he advised the city leaders to tell the residents to evacuate and get out of the crossfire. Nothing Lee said or did indicated that he regard the city as anything other than being a legitimate military target, particularly once his army took position.

  2. Riley March 3, 2011 / 4:57 pm

    The myth of eviiiil Sherman is childishly easily to demolish; Sherman’s actions were mild by 19th and even 21st century standards. The fact that people can insist that slavery is “all in the past” yet whine about Sherman is an example of subtle racism, like you said to these people property is more important than Black lives. Sherman, who did not order his men to kill civilians, was engaging in a legitimate tactic, destroy the enemy’s capability to wage war, only a complete ignoramus would call him a war criminal. People like DiLo never mention the burning of Chambersburg or how Confederate troops enslaved Pennsylvania Blacks or the Lawrence massacre or, wait I don’t have space for the entire list.. The whining is also similar to how modern supporters of dictators basically inflate civilian casualties in order to defend dictatars (Milosevic’s fans for example)

    “When I read about the “horrors of war” inflicted upon Southerners (most especially civilians) by Union troops, I wonder what stories would have come out of the war if the Confederate army spent more time on “Northern soil.” But then, why wonder when what little time they spent there was documented… with atrocities. ”…-in-the-north/

  3. Lyle Smith March 3, 2011 / 7:43 pm

    I’m not really sure the Confederates purposely put their civilian population at risk. Even if we took that argument as truth, I think it wouldn’t rise to the level of what constitutes using human shields by today’s standards.

    I think they simply chose the best defensible point and if the city, like a Fredericksburg, was on the wrong side of it, it was just on the wrong side of it. That’s arguably not using your civilians as human shields, but picking the best place to resist an assault.

    The defense of New Orleans conspicuously stands out as a place where Confederate officers clearly chose not to risk civilians lives… largely because the city wasn’t defensible but from above or below the city and certainly not once ships got past whatever barriers existed upriver or downriver.

    So I think any argument that the Confederates used civilians as human shields doesn’t hold much water.

    There’s also the notorious events during the siege of Charleston, SC where both sides did in fact use human shields, but they used captured officers and soldiers to do this and not civilians. Definitely a war crime today, but not one perpetuated against civilians, but detained combatants.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 3, 2011 / 10:05 pm

      Well, the issue of intent is important here. After all, neither Sherman nor Sheridan went out of their way to slaughter civilians. The estimate McPherson offers has to do with indirect effects. So did Confederate commanders seek to kill their own civilians? We all would say no, but, if DiLorenzo’s logic is to be applied consistently across the board, then the answer’s not so clear. It’s by offering the CSA counterpart of his argument that the weakness of his indictment becomes evident.

      • Lyle Smith March 4, 2011 / 11:18 am

        I agree with your point about DiLorenzo’s argument. His argument about Sherman and others is hyperbole, I think. The war was quite ferocious at times, if not always, and both sides stepped over the line in certain instances. Some civilians of course got caught in the mix as well, like Jenny Wade at Gettysburg, who could be argued got used as a human shield if one wanted to overstate the reason behind her killing. 🙂

        I’m guessing the 50,000 civilian death number he quotes from McPherson must contain a large number of deaths by disease. 50,000 Confederate citizens killed by combat or extra-judicially seems quite high. Calculating such numbers has got to be really imprecise as well.

        • Frank March 4, 2011 / 11:34 am

          Michael Bradley’s “With Blood and Fire” contains some of the better new research into this subject, and what he reveals is not pretty. The study focuses only on Tennessee and doesn’t present any overall stats, but he brings to light some very ugly episodes of extra-judicial killings of civilians by the Union Provost Marshall operations. The worst examples were little more than death squads, with bands of unsupervised soldiers basically given lists of names to go around and eliminate.

          • Lyle Smith March 4, 2011 / 2:08 pm

            That’s interesting. I’ll have to check that book out sometime.

  4. Christopher Shelley April 9, 2014 / 11:07 pm

    “I’m just an economist who picked this up as a hobby.” He never spoke truer words.

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