Are the Media Right to Single Out William Tecumseh Sherman As the Most Reckless Civil War General of Them All?

Fact & Fiction

Dr. Taylor is Assistant Professor of History, Dickinson State University.

Among Southern historians the legacy of General William Tecumseh Sherman is one of death and destruction on a scale matched only by the most formidable tyrants in human history. However, traditionalists view his contributions to the Northern war effort as necessary to victory and, ultimately, the preservation of the Union. Much of the current debate over specific campaigns is based upon current perceptions of relevance to modern controversies. Though it is a simple task to admire or admonish a figure from the past, a more daunting endeavor is to comprehend a controversial action based upon the mores of an era removed from ours; therefore, contemporary criticisms and allegorical uses of Sherman's march within a modern context are suspect at best.

Sherman's march was an integral part of a Union strategy to overwhelm Confederate resources and cause Southern resistance to implode upon itself. It was Sherman's role to isolate Rebel armies in Georgia and the Carolinas and impede them from launching any organized defensive. According to T. Harry Williams, this would be accomplished by a"march across Georgia on a wide front, destroying economic resources as he moved." Such a movement would inhibit Southern abilities to mobilize and supply troops and, if successful, thwart an incursion by John Bell Hood. The object of the campaign was not specifically to take Southern lives, but to break their will to continue the rebellion:"We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies." In line with this strategy, Sherman ordered his men to wreak havoc upon the enemy. Much of the carnage centered on the Confederate railroad system, though private property was not immune.

In his wake, Sherman's army destroyed over $100,000,000 [estimate in 1865 values] in property--most of it upon Southern railroads--and inflicted between 7,000 to 10,000 casualties upon the Southern army. In the years following Confederate defeat the Union general's deeds became the fodder for legend and myth. Southern chroniclers of the war made stinging criticisms of Sherman's actions while embellishing pertinent details. Religious leaders compared him with Satan himself in the liturgy. In his 1867 book The Lost Cause, Edward Pollard wrote that"Sherman is an example of the reputation achieved in the North by intrepid charlatanism and self-assertion," and deplored the fact that in the North"the chief excursionist was raised to the dignity of a hero." Historian Gaines M. Foster observed that at Confederate reunions held in 1895,"Southerners almost delighted in recounting the tales of violence, destruction, and thievery that they claimed the armies of Sherman, Sheridan, and other northern generals directed at civilians." Thus, the popular Southern image of William Tecumseh Sherman was that of a pariah to be wholeheartedly admonished.

Due to the disparity of the disagreement between historians, the question under consideration is not whether Sherman caused an excessive loss of life during his march towards Savannah, but whether or not his actions were ethical under the standards of warfare at that time.

If one contends that war is morally wrong, then the conclusion will not be in Sherman's favor, for if the overall action itself is immoral, then the end product of that action shall also be. This is based upon a traditional philosophical tenet that because mankind cannot construct life from scratch, mankind does not possess the right to destroy it. In war casualties are a given, and the more efficient the technology, and the more driven the aggressor, the higher the number of casualties. Under this premise had Sherman's actions cost one human life, military or civilian, his actions would have been immoral.

Should one argue that a nation has an inalienable right to self-preservation, the destruction and casualties wrought from Sherman's actions are morally defensible. This conclusion is based upon a modern philosophical tenet that a community or state has a duty to its citizens to defend itself against elements that would cause its demise. Thus, any action taken in the defense of that state was wholly justified, even if those actions caused the wholesale destruction of both property and lives. Under this premise, Sherman's actions are a necessary evil, for his march was part of an overall strategy to force the Confederacy to surrender, which could have effectively ended the blood shed by ending the war and, in tandem, preserved the Union.

Which of these moral perceptions is correct? Would Southern historians have brought up the question of battle casualties had Robert E. Lee sacked Philadelphia and marched up the Atlantic coast toward Boston? Indeed, had this been the case, would traditionalist historians have made the same claims of excessive destruction and loss of life? Perhaps the answer to this question was best demonstrated in the trial of Henry Wirz for"war crimes" perpetrated at the Andersonville Prison Camp when evidence of the ghastly treatment of Confederate prisoners of war held in Union facilities at Elmira, New York were excluded from consideration in his defense. Thus, charges of excessive force seem on the surface to be the little more than the claims of losers against victors as a means of claiming some sort of moral victory.

Neither North nor South held the moral high ground in this conflict. Both sides were fighting for what they believed to be the best course of action for themselves specifically. The Confederate States possessed as much moral justification in waging a war for political independence from the United States as the American colonists had in their efforts to free themselves from the"tyranny" of Great Britain. Therefore, historians could legitimately argue that Southerners had perpetrated a legitimate conflict with the Union as the aggressor. But historians also argue that the United States had the impetus to preserve itself, which meant that the South was in rebellion and that Union troops used only the force that was necessary to bring them back into the Union.

There can also be no question that the actions taken by the Union army towards the South during the final campaigns were brutal. But, they were also instrumental in preserving a nation hell-bent on self-destruction. All of those who perished in the American Civil War were the casualties of a necessary evil. For had not the United States been forced to endure such a repulsive loss of life two nations would now exist where one had formerly resided.

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Van L. Hayhow - 2/28/2003

If you go back and review the history leading up to the American Revolution, you will see that the colonists made many efforts to negotiate their concerns to little avail. Part of the problem is that the English monarch was trying to remain as powerful as possible against Parliament and was against any compromises. If you review the post-revolutionary period, you will note that during the shipping embargo imposed during President Jefferson's time, many Federalists in New England tried to start of secession movement because of the economic hardships caused by the embargo. They were laughed at at the time, including by Sourtherners. The Southerners started the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumpter because they refused to accept a valid election. They did so knowing that Lincoln did not have the power to affect the slave soclety in the South. And of course, while many feel that the South should be able to secede if they wanted to, that decision was made without consulting the slaves who represented a large portion of the population. Why, exactly, do you see a parallel to the American Revolution?

Jake the Brain - 10/24/2002

Should anything be in print (I have no time to read such nonsence so I am speculating based on the title) stating Sherman as reckless or any such defamatory comment be made, then I dare say the writers or supporters of such claim have little or no knowledge of Civil War mlitary history nor any real knowledge of Sherman at all...He is without question one of the finest field commanders in U.S. History---Nuff Said!

Kevin - 10/11/2002

Sherman destoyed economic resources belonging to people who had set up a new government because they thought the old one was not sufficiently supportive of the institution of slavery. That's what southerners said in 1861. An independent CSA would have probably been rather aggressive. It would have almost certainly gone after Cuba and parts of Mexico. And they did fire on Fort Sumter.Murder and rape were apparently fairly rare in the Civil War. The South got off very easy. It is idiotic that we permit them to re-write history.

charleston bookguy - 8/22/2002

There is no doubt that SHERMAN was a great general, and Basil Liddell Hart heralds him as the founder of modern warfare. Other historians laud his March Through Georgia and other southern states as the deciding factor of the war.
As a southener, I disagree. We here in the south loath the general for senseless cruelty and wanton distruction all for the sake of victory. Him blaiming his own men is just passing the buck. Lee and his army was always the key, and the war didn't end until Lee himself surrendered.
As far as being a the greatest general, everything Sherman learned it was from that awesome school master, U.S. GRANT. It was Grant who started the north on the road to victory with his brilliant VICKSBURG campaign, and it was he who finally caught Bobby Lee.

Glenn - 8/13/2002

Would this apply to 1776 as well? I for one can't read the Declaration of Independence without drawing parallels between England and the North.

Jim Lynch - 8/2/2002

"You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta [the south] can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride. We don't want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your lands, or any thing you have, but we do want and will have a just obediance to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it".
Sherman wrote that to the mayor and city council of Atlanta some weeks prior to his Georgia march. Their pride, of course, blinded them to both the righteous truth and inevitable repercussions embraced in the statement; a pride that is to this day perpetuated by seccess apologists. Sherman might easily have inlficted heavier punishment had he been so inclined, but he didn't. Rather than curse him, the south should recognize themselves as fortunate recipients of his practiced forbearance. And I look forward to that very day, when that gratuitous, enfeebling mote is cast from their eyes, if for no other reason than to finally see pigs fly.

Ed Dziedzic - 8/1/2002

I agree with Alexander Bevin's book > that Sherman should be considered among the best. Bevin argues that great generals destroy their opponent's ability to wage war. Sometimes that means destroying the enemy army, but Sherman (and others beginning with Hannibal and Scipio) understood that attacking an enemy's most vulnerable point while engaging in misdirection is a key to achieving great victories and minimizing losses.

It amazes me that the Lost Cause argument continues. The secessioist South refused to accept a valid election, and ultimately we would have had more than three English speaking nations in North America had the Confederacy succeeded. The principle that a subdivision of the U.S. can break away whenever it disagrees flies in the face of democratic theory, and is, at minimum, highly impractical.

Lost Cause advocates just do not want to acknowledge that the Confederacy was born to support an evil system. Blaming Sherman for the war the secessionists started is an example of what psychologists call transferrence.

thesafesurfer - 8/1/2002

Sherman is guilty of defeating the enemy and attacking a legitimate target, military infrastructure. The southern society that rebukes Sherman attacked the civilian infrastructure of Germany and Japan in WWII, of North Korea in the Korean War, of North Vietnam in the Vietnam war, and of Irag in the Gulf War. At least Sherman was not a hypocrite in either the March to the Sea or his earlier scorched earth campaign around Meridian, Mississippi the preceeding year. He was fighting a war to win, unlike Quantrill's southern terrorists.

mark safranski - 7/31/2002

The southerners lost whatever constitutional high ground they had by initiating the use of force and entering into a compact with each other in violation of the Constitution. Peaceable means, such as a secession bill in Congress or an amendment allowing states to secede ought to have at least been tried first before commencing hostilities. Once that was done Southerners legally committed treason by virtue of having levied war against the United States.

William McTernan - 7/30/2002

Dr. Taylor asserts "The Confederate States possessed as much moral justification in waging a war for political indendence from the United States as the American colonists had in their efforts to fee themselves froom the "tyranny" of Great Britain." But the American colonists did not rebel to preserve an evil system. If there had been no slavery, there would have been no civil war. The South could have worked out its problems within the existing system of government. Indeed, even President Lincoln was willing to let them have slaves, as long as they did not try to export their "peculiar institution."

Chris - 7/30/2002

Not all southerners agreed on Sherman. Joeseph Johnston, for one, found him a worthy opponent and post war friend, to the extent of standing in the rain with his hat off in respect at Sherman's funeral; leading to his own death (of course, not all southerners like Johnston either). Sherman had many southern friends, having served as the head of a southern military academy; some of these friends appealed to him in Columbia SC and did receive protection. Additionally, Sherman (in 20th century history books written by both southerners and noetherners) did attempt to stop the fires that raged through Columbia; unfortunately fires started by retreating Confederates and fueled by some drunk union soldiers and slaves were beyond the power of those union soldiers still until control to stop.

Sherman rightly determined that only by taking the war to the South's civilian base could he break the will to fight; he knew it would be the quickest way to end the war and therefore also end the suffering war brings. He also was a leading proponent of aiding the recovery of the south after the war.

Now if you wish to explore his darker side, look to his leadership of the army during the conflict with the Native Americans. This, more than the Civil War, brought out the worst in many.

Don B. Kates - 7/29/2002

Without advancing the view myself, I note that Professor Jeffrey Hummel's splendid EMANCIPATING SLAVES, ENSLAVING FREE MEN: A HISTORY OF THE CIVIL WAR identifies numerous contemporary thinkers -- including abolitionists! -- who regarded attempting to coerce the South to stay in the Union as no less abhorrent an evil than slavery itself. Lincoln was not "defending America." He was defending the Union as it had existed in 1859. Had the South won, there would have been 3 English speaking nations in N. America, rather than two. Incidentally, Lee Kennett's new SHERMAN is an enlightening biography of this very strange and brilliant man.