Fateful Lightning: Was Sherman’s March To the Sea a War Crime? Part I

images-3You 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 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.

If war is a thunderstorm, then from November 15 until December 21, 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his 62,000 soldiers were the lightning of that particular storm.

Sherman’s March began after the fall of Atlanta, on September 2, 1864. Many seeGWTW_1lg photographs of Atlanta, or remember Rhett Butler driving Scarlett O’Hara away from what was actually the controlled burning of old sets from the 20th Century Production Company and think the depredations of Sherman’s March to the Sea started early. It comes as a surprise to many that Sherman was not responsible for the complete devastation of Atlanta. A reading of Sherman’s correspondence among himself, Generals Grant and Halleck on the Union side, and General John Bell Hood of the Confederacy clearly displays Sherman’s concern for the citizens of Atlanta. Apparently General Hood’s intent was to burn all military supplies and political information before they could get into Yankee hands, but most of Atlanta was made of wood, and the winds were high.

In early September, Sherman was in contact with Hood concerning the welfare of the240px-Lt._Gen._John_B._Hood citizens of Atlanta. He sent official communications to the Confederate commander, asking his help in removing the women, children, and older people to a safer environment. Hood, a law unto himself, responded by informing Sherman that even an appeal to “God, in the cause of humanity,” was not enough to gain his cooperation. Hood probably felt that God, given the choice, would stay and fight the Yankees.

Frustrated, Sherman replied:

In the name of common sense, I ask you not to appeal to a just God in such a sacrilegious manner . . . If we must be enemies, let us be men, and fight it out as we propose to do, and not deal in such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity. God will judge us in due time, and he will pronounce whether it be more humane to fight with a town full of women and the families of a brave people at our back or to remove them in time to places of safety among their own friends and people.

Clearly, these are not the actions of a war criminal, although those of Hood remain somewhat suspect.

Sherman sent copies of all his memoranda to Lincoln’s Chief-of-Staff, General Henry Halleck, in Washington, D. C. Halleck responded that Sherman had the full approval of the War Department for his efforts. Halleck goes further:

Not only are you justified by the laws and usages of war in removing these people, but I april30halleck-207x245think it was your duty to your own army to do so. Moreover, I am fully of opinion that war, the conduct of the enemy, and especially of non-combatants and women of the territory which we have heretofore conquered and occupied, will justify you in gathering up all the forage and provisions which your army may require both for a siege of Atlanta and for your supply in your march farther into the enemy’s country. . . . I have endeavored to impress these views upon our commanders for the last two years. You are almost the only one who has properly applied them. I do not approve of General Hunter’s course in burning private, houses, or uselessly destroying private property–that is barbarous; but I approve of taking or destroying whatever may serve as supplies to us or to the enemy’s armies.

The South felt the loss of Atlanta very much, in all geographic areas. It seemed a bitter pill to swallow, according to the diary of Mary Boykin Chestnut. She wrote, “These stories of our defeats in the valley fall like blows upon a dead body. Since Atlanta fell, I have felt as if all were dead within me forever.” However, if there was any hint that the South felt it was in the hands of a war criminal, the newspapers gave no indication. They continued to publish the same misinformation concerning the success of the Confederate armies as they had always done. Politicians such as Georgia’s own Joseph E. Brown exhorted the citizens of his state to resist the Union invaders with all their might, while Robert Toombs was hopeful that discord would “reign forever.” None of this indicates a reaction necessary to constitute being victims of war crimes.

The importance of the Union capture of Atlanta was both symbolic and strategic; when Sherman took the city, the results were the beginning of the collapse of the Confederacy. After November 8, when Lincoln’s election was assured, Sherman decided to continue his “march” across Georgia, liberally foraging for his army and destroying all structuresGeneral-Sherman-Atlanta deemed to be of use in any way to support the cause of disunion. The stated purpose of this endeavor was, according to Sherman’s memoirs, ” . . . to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us.”

With such threatening words, it is easy to cast the March to the Sea in terms that, by today’s standards, constitute war crimes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Sherman was determined to make the people in the Deep South feel “the hard hand of war,” the horrors of war in the mid-nineteenth century were considered to be part of the nature of armed conflict itself. Before the twentieth century, armies frequently behaved brutally toward enemy soldiers and noncombatants alike; whether there was any punishment for this depended on who won the war. A victorious nation rarely tries its own people for properly executing plans in a winning strategy.

The very definition of what constitutes a war crime was not devised until after World War II. The murder of several million people, mainly Jews by Nazi Germany, but including the mistreatment of prisoners and civilians by the Japanese, changed international attitudes about exactly what constituted a just war (jus en bello). Nevertheless, even modern theories of warfare have considered the definition of non-combatants as legitimate targets. If the civilians in question are actively helping the enemy by moral encouragement, or arming, feeding or sheltering enemy combatants, then those civilians are considered to be targets of warfare.

davisA week after Lincoln won the Presidential election, Sherman’s army left Atlanta. Rather than chase John Bell Hood’s troops into Alabama, he took Confederate President Davis at his word: The Confederacy remained as “erect and defiant as ever . . . nothing has changed in the purpose of its government . . . the valor of its troops . . . or the spirit of its people.”

It is those words of Jefferson Davis that absolve Sherman of the charge of cruelty against innocent civilians. The Confederacy derived a large measure of its strength from the material and moral support of sympathetic Southerners. Farms, plantations, and factories, were providing the Southern armies with necessary supplies, delivered to them by the railroad. Sherman reasoned that if he could destroy the infrastructure of the Deep South, he could destroy the Confederate war effort. If he could also undermine civilian morale by making life unpleasant, perhaps the civilians would demand an end to the war. In a telegram dated October 9 1864 to General Ulysses S. Grant, he wrote:

I propose that we break up the railroad from Chattanooga forward, and that we strike out with our wagons for Milledgeville, Millen, and Savannah. 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. By attempting to hold the roads, we will lose a thousand men each month, and will gain no result. I can make this march, and make Georgia howl!”



10 Responses to Fateful Lightning: Was Sherman’s March To the Sea a War Crime? Part I

  1. Are you kidding me? If this forum is now casting Sherman as some grand humanitarian Mother Theresa wracked with concern over “the welfare of the citizens of Atlanta,” I think I’m in the wrong place. I’m pretty sure that Sherman himself would sneer at this depiction. No “words of Jefferson Davis” or anyone else could “absolve Sherman of the charge of cruelty against innocent civilians.” His actions alone, and those of everyone under his command, either convict or absolve him, and in his words, God will indeed judge in due time.

    1. My work only reflects myself. One thing I learned very quickly in my Master’s program is that I must go into uncomfortable places and entertain disturbing opinion if I am to truly become a historian and a writer. Dr. Chappo, at APU, told us that nothing was worth putting down on paper in history unless we knew the historiography of our subject. Our work should either support that historiography, challenge it, or extend it. I try to stay true to that maxim.

  2. Look at Sherman in his total behavior. What about his Meridian raid in February 1864? What about his treatment of Indians after the Civil War? Even with all those blots on his record, I don’t think I’d label him a war criminal. He certainly intended to wage “hard war,” a new tactic for the time.

  3. I would not categorize Sherman as a “war criminal,” either,” but also wryly note that winners of wars are rarely deemed as such, even if deserved. And I am all for challenging cherished, longstanding viewpoints and theories. But it should be based on evidence, not on what one would like to think, or a desire to advance a contrary view for its own sake.

    I would like to offer some additional information about Sherman’s propensity to “remove” citizens which demonstrates that his motive was other than “concern for the citizens…”. When Sherman first approached Atlanta seeking sites to cross the Chattahoochee, McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee ventured northward to the town of Roswell. There they found textile mills producing tent cloth and apparel for the Southern armies. In addition to destroying the structures, thereby effectively shutting them down, Sherman forced their 400 female workers, many with young children, onto northbound trains to be dumped unceremoniously in Indiana. These were poor, lowly, menial workers eking out a meager living for themselves and their families, some of them immigrants likely harboring no grand Confederate allegiance. There is no way that one can spin Sherman’s removal of these women into concern for their welfare. It was purely a punitive measure.

    Similarly, by the time Sherman issued his removal order in Atlanta, many citizens who were able had already departed. The city’s mayor appealed to Sherman, explaining that those who remained included “many poor women in advanced state of pregnancy, others having young children…. How is it possible for the people still here (mostly women and children) to find any shelter? And how can they live through the winter in the woods–no shelter or subsistence, in the midst of strangers who know them not, and without the power to assist them much, if they were willing to do so?” The reality is that Sherman was not sending these people to “places of safety among their own friends and people” and he knew it. Instead, he simply wanted them out of his way and he did not want to feed them once the Southern army departed. (Hood had been providing 1500 rations per day to the city’s poor during August.) (source: “War Like the Thunderbolt” by Russell S. Bonds)

    Sherman’s own words show his mindset. He later claimed he never said “War is hell…” as often quoted, but he did acknowledge in writing, in explaining this very removal order, that “War is cruelty.” For one more example of his callousness toward common people for whom he had no use, think Ebenezer Creek. If you want to argue that he was doing what he believed was necessary to win the war, that seems fair. But to attribute caring, humanitarian motives to him with regard to his treatment of civilians is either naive or a deliberate distortion.

  4. The American Army Air Force generals, and their counterparts in the UK (e.g., “Bomber” Harris) showed no compunction about bombing civilians in Germany – bombing, and bombing and bombing some more. There was no point in firebombing Dresden – but it was done as the Wehrmacht collapsed.

    The author of the piece is right: “war crimes” is a term thought up after World War II, and the winning side does not prosecute its own generals. The allied bombing campaign in Germany, and the US bombing campaign against Japan, are clear instances of this. When I was a kid people still talk about the hideous U-boat campaigns against civilian shipping; they were always appalled when I asked how the German behavior and that of the US Navy against Japanese shipping could be differentiated. The best any could do was say that “it was different.” Never could explain how it was different. And yes, my father and two of his brothers were in the Army during the war; my father and one of his brothers suffered life shortening injuries while in Europe.

  5. Slavery was a far greater crime than anything Union commanders did. Slavery was a massive crime against humanity perpetrated by lazy southern aristocrats who couldn’t be bothered to work themselves. I’m glad much of their stuff got destroyed. Sherman should’ve burned all those plantations and hanged all slave masters, overseers and those who operated slave markets.

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