To many Southerners today, the name William Tecumseh Sherman conjures up an image of a brute, a remorseless destroyer who spread fire, rapine and death across a broad swath of Georgia and South Carolina, leaving behind little but ruined lives and smoking ruins. His men allegedly stole food and left children to starve. They supposedly shamed innocent women — or much worse. If Sherman did not commit these crimes personally, he nevertheless created the climate in which they took place.
To many Southerners then and still, Sherman violated every law of war imaginable. He was not a feeling human being; he was a cruel destroyer, a war criminal.
Such characterization is based on myth. Sherman did not burn Atlanta to the ground, “Gone With the Wind” notwithstanding. The city lost around 35 percent of its property, much of that military buildings and stores. The famous motion picture scene of Atlanta in flames actually depicted the fire resulting from Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s explosion of ammunition as his army retreated from the city.
Similarly, Sherman did not wreak destruction 40 miles wide through Georgia, though his men did burn barns containing fodder that could be used by Confederate cavalry, and took horses as well as livestock for their own use. A hefty percentage of destroyed property was the work of Confederate Joe Wheeler’s cavalry, Confederate and Federal deserters, fugitive slaves and unscrupulous civilians. Sherman’s men destroyed, but they had a lot of home-grown help. And the stories about the starvation of children and the molestation of women are simply not factual.
In truth, Sherman was a multi-faceted personality. He loved his wife and family and endured the death of two young children during the war. Both before and during this period, he corresponded with leading Americans, Southerners included, frequently quoting Shakespeare. He enjoyed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and P.T. Barnum’s circus. He was a person of emotion, intelligence, ability and wit. He was no brute.
Why, then, did he bring American warfare to a new level of violence by attacking farms and fields, factories and even homes? Ironically, the reason was that he did not want to inflict unnecessary pain on old friends, individuals he had come to know when he lived many years in the South before the war. He wanted to end the war as quickly as possible with the least possible loss of life, so he substituted property damage for killing.
Rather than a vindictive punishment inflicted on Southerners, his March to the Sea was a product of his humanity. To be sure, the six-week march resulted in extensive property damage; but it produced a combined casualty total of only around 4,000, few of whom were civilians, and less than a tenth of the number of deaths suffered in Virginia during the same period.
Compare the six-week casualties of 4,000 in Georgia to the 24,000 casualties in two days at Shiloh and the 51,000 in three days at Gettysburg. Consider too, that, in Pickett’s Charge, which lasted around one hour on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee suffered 6,000 casualties of the 12,000 troops he ordered forward in the attack.
Dying at Lee’s order in Pickett’s Charge came to be considered heroic, however, but suffering the destruction of a house or a barn was not. Sherman’s march created a helpless feeling among Southerners and contributed to large-scale desertions in Lee’s army as men rushed southward to try to protect family and home. These feelings of shame and helplessness go far in explaining why many Southerners still cannot forgive Sherman.
At the beginning of the war, Sherman did fight a gentleman’s war, as it was then understood. But he recoiled at the extensive loss of life and created a new strategy of destruction, a form of warfare which characterized later wars where the aerial bombing of cities was common. In the 21st century, “shock and awe” tactics against Baghdad and drones against terrorists have raised few eyebrows. Many Americans have even come to believe that torture is acceptable.
Sherman’s employment of violence against property was psychological warfare designed to bring a murderous war to a swift end. He was hardly a war criminal. More accurately, he was the American pioneer of modern war. Later generations have repeated his ideas, yet no one of these leaders has ever suffered the condemnations hurled at Sherman or been accused of being a war criminal.
John F. Marszalek is a Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Mississippi State University and executive director and managing editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, at Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Memorial Library.
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