Rehabbing Sherman

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/LEADERS

“The amount of plundering, burning, and stealing done by our own army makes me ashamed of it. I would quit the service if I could for I fear we are drifting towards vandalism. Thus you and I and every commander must go through the war justly chargeable for our crimes.” – General William T. Sherman, 1863

“I have felt a human sympathy with him [Ulysses S. Grant, dying of cancer] in his suffering, the more so because I think him so much better than the pillaging, house-burning, women-persecuting Sherman & Sheridan.” – President Jefferson Davis, 1885

There is a concerted effort from historians to “rehabilitate” General William T. Sherman, probably because his campaigns were so evil and shameful that they cannot be reconciled with the popular fable about the righteous, holy “Civil War.” The cognitive dissonance is simply overwhelming. Rather than face the truth, historians have decided to put as much spin on it as possible. Most of the truth about secession and war has already been “revised” away, so why not Northern war crimes, too?

Today, historians – some of whom, like Victor D. Hanson, are court historians of the War Party peddling an interventionist agenda – insist that Sherman only targeted military infrastructure. Of course, to Sherman, who believed in “total warfare,” everything was military infrastructure! Regardless, the idea that Sherman showed any sort of restraint flatly contradicts the historical record and is pure fantasy. Sherman’s troops sacked and razed entire cities and communities. Sherman’s troops exhumed graves to loot the corpses. Sherman’s troops tore up little girls’ dolls and nailed family pets to doors. Sherman’s troops left countless civilians – including the slaves they were supposedly liberating – without food or shelter. Sherman ransomed civilians to armies in the area, threatening to execute them or burn their homes if they did not comply. Sherman had a few contemplative moments and was always careful to maintain plausible deniability, but he knew what was happening and let it happen. By contrast, Confederate generals, despite hearing news of death and destruction from home, strictly enforced orders protecting the person and property of Northern civilians. “I cannot hope that heaven will prosper our cause when we are violating its laws,” declared Lee upon entering Pennsylvania. “I shall, therefore, carry on the war in Pennsylvania without offending the sanctions of high civilization and Christianity.” Sherman, however, whined that “war is hell” and turned his troops loose on the people.

Here is Sherman’s war in his own words and the words of his soldiers – emphasis added:

For my part, I believe that this war is the result of false political doctrine, for which we are all as a people responsible, viz: That any and every people has a right to self-government […] The Government of the United States has…any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war – to take their lives, their homes, their lands, their everything…and war is simply power unrestrained by constitution or compact. If they want eternal warfare, well and good; we will accept the issue and dispossess them, and put our friends in possession. Many, many people, with less pertinacity than the South, have been wiped out of national existence.” – Sherman

I would banish all minor questions, assert the broad doctrine that as a nation the United States has the right, and also the physical power, to penetrate to every part of our national domain, and that we will do it…that we will remove and destroy every obstacle, if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper; that we will not cease until the end is attained; that all who do not aid us are enemies, and that we will not account to them for our acts.”– Sherman

“To the petulant and persistent secessionists, why death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources.” – Sherman

“The war will soon assume a turn not to extermination of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble […] There is a class of men, women, and children who must be killed.” – Sherman

“When I go through South Carolina, it will be one of the most horrible things in the history of the world. The devil himself couldn’t restrain my men in that state.” – Sherman

“I hazard nothing in saying that three-fifths of the personal property of the counties we passed through were taken by Sherman’s army. As for wholesale burnings, pillage, and devastation committed in South Carolina, magnify all I have said of Georgia some fifty-fold, and then throw in an occasional murder…and you have a pretty good idea of the whole thing.” – New York war correspondent

“The track of Sherman’s march in South Carolina…looked for many miles like a broad, black streak of ruin and desolation – the fences all gone; lonesome smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots where human habitation had stood.” – General Carl Schurz

“You never heard of a more desolate country. I do not believe you can find food enough in S.C. to keep a dozen chickens over winter. I saw property destroyed until I was perfectly sick of it…and if this thing had been North I would bushwack until every man was dead or I was. If such scenes should be enacted through Michigan, I would never live as long as one of the invading army did. I do not blame the South and I shall not if they go to guerilla warfare.” – Michigan soldier

“It is a shocking sight to see how the soldiers sarve the farmers. Tha take everything before them. I saw them today and go into a hous and take everything tha cood lay their hands on and then went for the chickens adoors and the worst of all it was a poor widow woman with fore little children. I was mity sorry for her. She begged them not to take her things for her little children would sarve. I have saw a heepe such cases as that tell. I am tired out of such doings. If I was at home I cood tell you a heepe of such things as I have seen.” – Indiana soldier

These are just a few quotes off the top of my head and are by no means comprehensive. For a full study of Sherman, see John B. Walther’s Merchant of Terror General Sherman and Total War, Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War, Karen Stokes’s South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path: Stories of Courage Amid Civil War Destruction, Burke Davis’s Sherman’s March: The First Full-Length Narrative of General William T. Sherman’s Devastating March through Georgia and the Carolinas, and Stephen Davis’s What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta.

Although modern historians conveniently dismiss Southern sources as untrustworthy – Southerners, you see, are defective Americans and ultimately expendable in the march of historical progress – they contain even more stirring accounts of Sherman’s atrocities. William G. Simms, a South Carolinian and one of America’s finest writers, witnessed the burning of Columbia, an act which Sherman ludicrously tried to pin on the Confederates. Simms’ home, “Woodlands,” along with his library of over 10,000 books – some of which were irreplaceable sources on the American Revolution – and collection of 50 original paintings, was burned to the ground (a legitimate military target, no doubt). Sifting through the smoking ruins, Simms conducted extensive interviews with other survivors and compiled them into a brief but powerful book. Simms’ book, The Capture, Sack, and Destruction of Columbia, paints a gruesome picture of plunder, arson, rape, and murder. “We need, for the sake of truth and humanity,” said Simms, “to put on record, in the fullest types and columns, the horrid deeds of these marauders upon all that is pure and precious – all that is sweet and innocent – all that is good, gentle, gracious, dear and ennobling – within the regards of…Christian civilization.” To Simms, Sherman and his soldiers were “monsters of virtuous pretension.”

If ever confronted with the undeniable truth, historians typically deflect the issue two ways. First, they claim that Sherman did what he did in order to break the back of slavery. This is false. Sherman, something of a totalitarian, shrugged at slavery and was primarily concerned with punishing “treason,” instilling absolute “loyalty” to the government, and forging a new “nation” with blood and iron. Second, they attempt to establish moral equivalency between the North and the South, claiming that General Thomas J. Jackson also waged total war against the Northern people. This is also false. Stonewall wanted to raise the black flag against Federal troops – “No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides!” – but this policy was never even adopted. Sherman, however, raised the black flag against the Southern people. To the honest, the difference is obvious.

Like all the murderous regimes of the 20th century, Sherman spoke chillingly of “extermination” and “repopulation.” Sure, Sherman sometimes destroyed legitimate military targets. Surely legitimate military targets were destroyed in the Rape of Nanking and the Warsaw Uprising, too. There are no official numbers on Southern civilian dead, but Pulitzer-winning historian James M. McPherson estimates about 50,000. To learn more about Northern atrocities in the so-called “Civil War,” Walter B. Cisco’s War Crimes Against Southern Civilians is virtually one of a kind.

Most Southerners have family stories about their suffering at the hands – or claws – of the Yankees. My own takes place in Lincoln County, a small community in Middle Tennessee skirting the border with Alabama:

While the men were away fighting for their freedom, Federal cowards terrorized the county. Rapine against defenseless women and children was widespread. Homes were burned to the ground and many public records destroyed. Men were shot dead in the streets under mere suspicion of treason or even out of sheer spite. On one infamous occasion, General Eleazar A. Paine, whom General Sherman put in charge of guarding the Duck and Elk Rivers, stormed into Fayetteville, set the town afire, and seized hostages. Unless the people gave up information on guerillas in the area, threatened Paine, four of the hostages would be “shot and sent to hell.” The first victim, Franklin Burroughs, had just left the courthouse with his marriage license. The second, Thomas Massey, was heading home with food for his family. The third, William Pickett, was wearing a patched-up coat with a single Confederate button. The fourth was Dr. J.W. Miller, who was mysteriously spared in the eleventh hour. John R. Massey, upon hearing of his brother’s fate, rode into town and courageously offered to take his place. “My brother is innocent of any involvement in this war. He has never supported or fed a guerilla,” he explained. “He has a wife and a young family. If you want Massey blood, take mine.” Paine eagerly agreed to the exchange. When the appointed time came, no citizens had come forward with information. As the firing squad assembled before the condemned three, Pickett and Boroughs knelt and prayed. “Pray standing,” said Massey, pulling them up by their collars. “Don’t let these dogs think you are kneeling to them.”

To Southerners, long-acquainted with the true face of the Yankees through well-documented stories like these, the legalistic rationalizations of Sherman’s modern-day camp followers are something of a sick joke. Yet these folks are the ones who get called up by the New York Times for a comment on the new pro-Sherman historical marker at Atlanta.

Those engaged in “rehabilitating” Sherman belong next to the Turks who deny the Armenian Genocide, the cranks who deny the Holocaust, and the fellow travelers who deny the “Gulag Archipelago.” The crimes against Southerners – along with their very humanity – are being papered over by the lineal and intellectual descendants of their perpetrators. Denying what happened to Southerners is a “double-killing” which adds insult to injury. First, they killed them. Now, they are killing their memory.

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3 thoughts on “Rehabbing Sherman

  1. An excellent article. I cannot imagine the terror the defenseless women and children surely felt as union brigands entered their homes. And repeated with each passing segment of the armies. I have seen number of the “historians”, Grimsley included, dismiss the accounts of those of whom acts of violence and destruction were enacted upon, but it is very difficult to dismiss the accounts of the federal soldiers and those cited by officers in the O.R.

  2. HDQRS. DEPARTMENT AND ARMY OF THE TENNESSEE,
    Rice Creek Springs, S. C., February 20, 1865.

    Major General F. P. BLAIR, Jr.,

    Commanding Seventeenth Army Corps, Army of the Tennessee:

    GENERAL: I desire to call your attention to the fact that some of our soldiers have been committing the most outrageous robberies of watches, jewelry, &c. A case has come to my notice where a watch and several articles of jewelry were stolen by a foraging party under the eye of the commissioned officer in charge. Another, where a brute had violently assaulted a lady by striking her, and had then robbed her of a valuable gold watch. In one instance money was stolen to the amount of $150, and another, where an officer with a foraging party had allowed his men to take rings off the fingers of ladies in his presence. To-day a soldier was found plundering, arrested, placed under the guard of one of General Corse’s orderlies, and was liberated by some of his comrades who had arms in their hands, and who threatened the life of the guard. These outrages must be stopped at all hazards, and the thieves and robbers who commit them be dealt with severely and summarily. I am inclined to think that there is a regularly organized banditti who commit these outrages and who share the spoils. I call upon you upon all the officers and soldiers under you, who have one spark of honor or respect for the profession which they follow, to help me put down these informs proceedings and to arrest the perpetrators. Please furnish to every inspector, provost-marshal, and officer in charge of a foraging party a copy of this letter, and enjoin them to be on the watch to stop these infamous proceedings, and to bring to justice the individuals who commit them.

    Very respectfully,
    O. O. HOWARD,
    Major-General.

  3. Grimsley presents a bit of a false choice: Federal generals did not order their soldiers to be beasts, he argues, but had a cogent policy of “hard war” to break the back of the Confederacy. None of Sherman’s critics, as far as I know, have argued the former. Sherman made it clear that he believed “hard war” on the home front was necessary to win the war. That “hard war” meant death and destruction for civilians and private property which were previously protected under the time-honored laws of war, punctuated at times by acts of extreme cruelty and cowardice. If anything, the fact that this was all part of a systematic policy makes it even worse than if it were just the product of undisciplined armies and isolated atrocities. Grimsley’s book has its flaws, but it contains lots of good information and is still a worthwhile read.

    To me, the “Rape of Athens” captures the entire evolution of Federal policy toward Confederate civilians. In the spring of 1862, Federal troops in Northern Alabama were struggling with Confederate “bushwhackers” disrupting their supply lines. To retaliate, Col. Ivan Turchaninov, a Russian nationalist, brought several regiments to Athens, where he addressed them in the town square. “I shut my eyes for two hours,” said Turchin. “I see nothing.” The rape and pillage which ensued was unprecedented at the time. Homes and stores were ransacked and vandalized. Citizens were intimidated with threats and gunfire. A pregnant woman was so badly terrorized by Federals, who called her a “bitch” and threatened her life, that she miscarried and died. Slaves, as usual, were gang-raped. A few conscientious Federals reported the atrocities. When General Buell – who, like McClellan, believed in limited, “civilized” warfare – found out, he was furious, ordering Turchin dismissed and court martialed for his crimes. Turchin did not even bother to deny what happened, but instead argued that such tactics were necessary to crush “treason” and win the war. At the same time as this military court convened, the court of public opinion was also in session. Although there was some outrage over the Rape of Athens, Northerners were generally sliding towards approval of “total warfare.” Meanwhile, Turchin’s wife, Nadine, traveled personally to Washington, D.C. to plead her husband’s case to President Abraham Lincoln. Before the war, Turchin and Lincoln had both worked for the Illinois Central Railroad. Nadine’s intervention proved decisive. Lincoln – Mr. “With Malice Toward None” – overruled the court martial and promoted his old colleague to a brigadier generalship. Buell was shocked and appalled, but the Northern public was elated. At a victory speech in Chicago, Turchin proclaimed, “We have been hurrahing for the Union for a great while. Let us now hurrah for conquest.”

    So, in the midst of a prominent debate between limited or total warfare, the President of the United States chose total – war on the civil population as well as the military. The evolution from conciliation to conquest is right there as plain as day. The Rape of Athens was a brief episode with big implications.

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