Other towns were seriously damaged when Sherman’s troops got out of control. It is an explanation that we hear about Sherman’s men continually; despite his bloodthirsty pronouncements, Sherman didn’t really mean for his troops to do what he threatened to do. Sherman’s men apparently took him at his word. So should we. If nothing else, he failed to control his troops or discipline them afterwards.
Consider the fates of two Georgia mill communities. New Manchester was obliterated, and its population, deported. The women and children of Roswell were also deported; many were never heard from again.
When the March to the Sea began in November 1864, Sherman didn’t just burn Atlanta. His men ranged about burning such essential military objectives as the deed records of Cobb County. The records had been evacuated from the courthouse but were captured and torched on the highway.
Sherman’s friends quibble about the destruction to the city of Atlanta. The wreckage was documented very carefully for Gov. Joe Brown by Gen. W.P. Howard. It was well beyond 40 percent. But even if it were “only” 40 percent, the real crime was not merely the destruction of the buildings and homes, but the expulsion of women, children and elderly to fend for themselves in a land stripped of sustenance by the Yankees.
Later, Sherman summarily executed both prisoners of war and civilians to end any resistance. Outside Savannah, he paraded prisoners of war across minefields in order to clear them for his own troops. Sherman wrote his wife gleefully describing the Confederates gingerly negotiating the minefields.
Sherman was famous for repeatedly saying that “War is hell” and could not be refined. Like the “Lieber Code” adopted by the Lincoln Administration, anything that supported the war effort was acceptable to Sherman. The end justified the means. Sherman’s brutal conduct against civilians and captured soldiers would poison post-war sectional relations well beyond the lives of the combatants.
Was the “hard war” necessary for ultimate Union victory? Laying to one side that medical observers, Sherman’s contemporaries and even Sherman himself speculated that he suffered from mental illness, Sherman showed a decided aversion to the risk of conclusive, offensive combat. In this, he does not compare well with one of his generals: George Thomas.
In the Atlanta campaign Sherman undertook six major offensive actions. Only the abortive assault at Kennesaw Mountain was a deliberate offensive. The others involved either some misunderstanding or errors about the position of Confederate forces.
Thus, by relying on his flanking maneuvers, Sherman was successful in minimizing casualties for the Union Army — as well as the Confederate Army. Because his flanking maneuvers were always executed with great caution and very slowly, he never placed the Confederates in serious danger of being cut off either in whole or in part. By not committing his entire army to a major offensive action that could have led to a complete battlefield defeat of the Confederate Army, Sherman effectively lengthened the war.
Napoleon said: “When you contemplate giving battle, it is a general rule to collect all your strengths and to leave none unemployed.”
Sherman would never gain a Napoleonic victory because he never utilized his full strength against the always outnumbered Confederates. Instead, it was the helpless civilian population that felt the full rage of the conqueror.
The excuse that Sherman’s depredations against Southern civilians and their property affected the length of the war or its outcome is highly questionable. He could not plead necessity as a defense, nor claim mitigation of his culpability for inflicting unnecessary civilian suffering by claiming it lessened the long-term harm. Sherman’s crimes against the civilian population were more of the response of a frustrated bully who could not conclusively, by offensive action, defeat the Confederates on the battlefield.
For this he deserves to be remembered — but not honored.
Martin K. O’Toole is a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney practicing in Marietta and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.