Sherman and Sheridan on War

General William Tecumseh Sherman is now famous for two things: “marching through Georgia” and his statement that “war is hell”. Sherman led 95,000 men into Georgia in the spring of 1864. A year later, having fought their way to the Atlantic Ocean and then north through South Carolina, Sherman and his troops were in North Carolina when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Later that month (after the assassination of President Lincoln), Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Sherman and the Civil War was finally over.

From Wikipedia: “Sherman’s bold move of operating deep within enemy territory and without supply lines is considered to be revolutionary in the annals of war….British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart famously declared that Sherman was ‘the first modern general'”.

Sherman’s goal was to end the war by destroying the South’s ability and desire to keep fighting, not by targeting the civilian population directly but by destroying as much crucial infrastructure as possible. From what I’ve read, he didn’t order the wholesale destruction of food supplies. Nevertheless, having his army “live off the land” had the same practical effect. Sherman understood the severity of his actions. This is from a letter he wrote to his wife In March 1864:

It is enough to make the whole world start at the awful amount of death and destruction…Daily for the last two months has the work progressed and I see no signs of a remission till one or both or all the armies are destroyed…I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash – and it may be well that we become so hardened [320].

In September, after ordering the evacuation of Atlanta, he responded to complaints:

My orders are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions, yea hundreds of millions, of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace not in in Atlanta but in all America. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war on our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta 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 [339].

One of Sherman’s comrades, General Philip Sheridan, who led his own “scorched earth” campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, explained his actions this way:

The stores of meat and grain that the valley provided, and the men it furnished for Lee’s depleted regiments, were the strongest auxiliaries he possessed in the whole insurgent action….I do not hold war to mean simply that lines of men shall engage each other in battle, and material interests be ignored. This is but a duel, in which one combatant seeks the other’s life; war means much more, and is far worse than this.

Those who rest at home in peace and plenty see but little of the horrors attending such a duel, and even grow indifferent to them as the struggle goes on, contenting themselves with encouraging all who are able-bodied to enlist in the cause, to fill up the shattered ranks as death thins them. It is another matter, however, when deprivation and suffering are brought to their own doors. Then the case appears much graver, for the loss of property weighs heavily with the most of mankind – heavier, often, than the sacrifices made on the field of battle. Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life [327].

A century later, the Geneva Conventions were modified to include the following prohibition:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

For any other motive, including ending a war.

A brief note: Grant and Sherman thought highly of General Johnston, one of their Southern adversaries. After the war, the three were close friends, and Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. (The page references above are to The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands.)

There is a great collection of quotes from Sherman here, including these extremely prescient remarks he is said to have made in Louisiana before the war:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. 

4 thoughts on “Sherman and Sheridan on War

    • Yet, after reading about it, and reading Sherman’s and Sheridan’s words, it may have been the best way to end that terrible war. At any rate, it’s important to understand that stuff like “Gone With the Wind” was written from a particular Southern perspective. And thank you for the re-blog!

  1. In a July 31, 1862 letter to his wife (from his Collected Works) he wrote that his purpose in the war was: “Extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the [Southern] people.” Hiswife Ellen wrote back that her fondest wish was for a war “of extermination and that all [Southerners] would be driven like the Swine into the sea.”

    With this attitude, Sherman issued the following order to his troops at the beginning of the Indian Wars: “During an assault, the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age. As long as resistance is made, death must be meted out . . .” (Marszalek, p. 379).

    He conceived a strategy similar to the one he used in the Shenandoah Valley. In the Winter Campaign of 1868–69 Sheridan attacked the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes in their winter quarters, taking their supplies and livestock and killing those who resisted, driving the rest back into their reservations. Professional hunters, trespassing on Indian land, killed over 4 million bison by 1874, and Sheridan applauded: “Let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo is exterminated”. When the Texas legislature considered outlawing bison poaching on tribal lands, Sheridan personally testified against it, suggesting that the legislature should give each of the hunters a medal, engraved with a dead buffalo on one side and a discouraged-looking Indian on the other.”
    Sheridan was in Europe observing the Franco-Prussian war, he and Otto von Bismarck struck up a friendship and von Bismarck asked Sheridan how to deal with the French guerrillas behind German lines. This was Sheridan’s answer:

    “The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with after the war.” He advised that the insurgents be hanged, their villages burned and their lands laid waste until they begged for peace.

    Now tell me how honorable they were, Kill women and children starve them to death etc.

    • I didn’t actually say in my post that Sherman or Sheridan were honorable men. I don’t know enough about either of them to form a solid opinion, although the reading I’ve done suggests they were both excellent generals. I also appreciate the fact that they both had substantial roles in winning the Civil War. I do plan to read the most recent Sherman biography, “Fierce Patriot”, by Robert O’Connell, and will learn more about Sherman.

      As to the question of Sherman or Sheridan (or Sherman’s wife, for heaven’s sake) wanting to exterminate the Southern civilian population: People say a lot of angry and boastful and hyperbolic things during wars. Many in the South still apparently consider themselves to have been victimized by the North. That’s really too bad. Southerners were willing to tear apart this country, even initiating a war, in order to protect and even spread an economic system built on slavery. They got beat and many still haven’t gotten over it. People, for example, who identify themselves as neo- or neon-Confederates, and assign Lincoln major responsibility for starting the war, as you do on your blog (“most importantly Lincoln as he is the one who initiated the actions which led to the Civil War”).

      Regardless of what Sherman wrote to his wife or anyone else, the question is: did he actually try to “exterminate” Southern civilians? There’s no evidence that he did. A recent demographic study suggests there were roughly 750,000 soldiers killed in the war, with more Union soldiers being killed than Southerners. Regarding the civilian population, “Dr. Hacker could make no estimate of civilian deaths, an enduring question among historians, “because the overall number is too small relative to the overall number of soldiers killed.”

      If Sherman’s goal was to exterminate white Southern civilians, he did a poor job. He certainly seems to have issued orders that the Geneva convention eventually outlawed, as I indicated in what I wrote, but his principal goal was to end the war as quickly as possible, thereby restoring the Union and saving lives in the long run.

      By the way, here’s another quote from Sherman regarding extermination. On June 14, 1863, during the Vicksburg Campaign, he wrote: “If the Inhabitants of the South, believing as they do, maintain their present political Faith, War must be eternal, or extermination take place. I have yet to See the first honest Convert.” Again, this sounds like wartime hyperbole to me. At any rate, it didn’t come to pass.

      Lastly, regarding the American Indians: Sherman and Sheridan clearly had important roles in our abysmal treatment of the Indians. Slavery and our extermination of the Indians are the two major blots on America’s history. Most white Americans clearly considered the Indians to be savages, basically less than human. But that’s got little or nothing to do with the Union army’s invasion of the South. I have no doubt whatsoever that Southern military men had the same terrible attitudes toward the Indians, and would have gotten rid of as many as they could if they’d won the Civil War, yet many in the South still revere the memories of their so-called “honorable” military leaders, men who fought to preserve and enlarge a system that treated millions of people as less than fully human.

      This conversation is now over. Your cat looks nice but your flag doesn’t.

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