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

Sherman's Bummers
Sherman’s Bummers

On November 15 1864, Sherman began marching south, dividing his army into two wings. On November 22, a large (4,500) group of Confederate soldiers under General Pleasant J. Phillips met part (1,500) of the right wing of Sherman’s troops, commanded by General Charles C. Walcutt. The Battle of Griswaldville ended so badly for the South–94 Union casualties and losses versus 1,123 Confederate–that Confederate troops initiated no more major conflicts. Instead, they tried to anticipate Sherman’s line of march, working ahead of the Union forces and wreaking their own brand of havoc in front of Sherman’s men. In an attempt to slow the Union juggernaut, bridges were burned and wrecked, trees were felled across roads, and barns with provisions and fodder were burned before Sherman had a chance to use them.

Not that the Union was innocent of inflicting harm. Far from it! Union soldiers

Those famous "neckties"
Those famous “neckties”

unsparingly raided farms and plantations, stealing foodstuffs and personal possessions, slaughtering cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, and hogs. Stores of molasses and sorghum, beehives, and untold numbers of sweet potatoes were “foraged liberally” by both officially authorized foragers and those men who simply felt that the early bird should get his share of the worm. One Iowa soldier in the Seventeenth Corps wrote home, “I think a katydid, following our rear, would starve.”

There are stories of wanton, unnecessary destruction on the part of Union soldiers, but they fall far short of war crimes, unless pianos are considered victims of war. An Ohio infantryman wrote his family about such a musical instrument being removed from one Louisville, Georgia, family home. “One fellow played on the piano while his comrades danced a jig on top of the instrument and then he drove an axe through it.”

Judson Kilpatrick
Judson Kilpatrick

Serious and discomforting as these sorts of anecdotes are, they do not meet the criteria for being war crimes. However, reports made to General Sherman by cavalry commander General Judson Kilpatrick were more alarming. A letter from an Ohio cavalryman states that, “On the first of December, three men belonging to the regiment were murdered.” Another letter from a soldier in the 79th Pennsylvania reported that, “Rebels captured our Brigade Q(uarter) M(aster) and three men, shooting them all, some of them with their throats cut from ear to ear.” General Kilpatrick had put several such reports in his official correspondence with Sherman, who monitored the situation, but did not respond to the cavalry chieftain until Thursday, December 1, 1864.

Joseph Wheeler
Joseph Wheeler

Kilpatrick had been informing Sherman of even more instances of the murder and mutilation of his men after they had been taken prisoner. Sherman considered this to be, perhaps, anecdotal evidence, but he could not ignore the increasing number of incidents being reported. Sherman wanted to be certain that, before he issued any sort of retaliatory order, Kilpatrick had communicated his concerns to Confederate cavalry commander General Joseph Wheeler. Once Kilpatrick had alerted Wheeler, should he obtain substantial proof that Rebel soldiers were committing any excesses, Kilpatrick would receive official approval to retaliate. Sherman’s command, in such a circumstance, was: “You may hang and mutilate man for man without regard to rank.”

This communication puts Sherman clearly on the edge of the modern definition of war crimes, but in context, it does not cross that line. Sherman’s due diligence concerning waiting and monitoring the situation, the insistence on the notification of Wheeler about his concerns, and finally his clearly-voiced response–“man for man”–do not indicate approval of wholesale slaughter of an enemy combatant based on rumor or innuendo.

09lawton1lgPrior to arriving in Savannah (Sherman’s actual destination was kept secret until the last possible moment), Sherman ordered an investigation of conditions at Millen, where Camp Lawton had been built. Camp Lawton was supposed to replace Andersonville Prison, but the approach of Sherman’s Left Wing had forced its evacuation. What Federal soldiers found inside the compound that had once housed Union prisoners of war both sickened and angered the men who saw it. David Anderson, of the 19th Michigan wrote: “We found the bodies of several of our men lying unburied in this loathsome den; consigning them to the parent earth, our bugles sounded, and falling in line, solemnly and sadly we moved away.” Upon hearing of the conditions in which prisoners had tried to exist, some failing, Sherman was angered. His verbal instructions to General Frank Blair, commander of the Seventeenth Corps, “was to make the destruction (of Millen) ‘tenfold more devilish’ than he ever dreamed of, as this is one of the places they have been starving our prisoners.” However, the letters and notes of Sherman’s aide, Major Henry Hitchcock, printed as Marching With Sherman: Passages from the Letters and Campaign Diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Major and Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers-November 1864-May, 1865, clearly indicate that nothing more was done at Millen than was done at any other town; the government buildings were burned, the arsenal was fired, supplies were looted, and a hotel (not normally a legitimate target, but perhaps an accidental one) was burned.

By mid-December, Fort McAllister had been taken by the Federals and there was only Savannah left with which to deal. Forage had been poor for several weeks, as the Confederates removed everything they felt would aid Sherman, and torched what could not be carried. A siege is never anything other than painful, but on December 21, 1864, Savannah surrendered. General Sherman presented the capture of the city to President Lincoln as a “Christmas present.” In less than four months, the American Civil War would be over. However, there was unfinished war crimes business to be dealt with, for there were at least two men who had performed such unforgivably atrocious acts that it was nationally recognized that some sort of action must be taken against them.

The least known of these two men is Samuel “Champ” Ferguson, a Confederate guerrillayy4919who operated outside any laws. He admitted to killing over 100 people, mostly civilians, whom he deemed sympathetic to the Union. He was also suspected of killing several wounded cavalrymen from the 5th U. S. Colored Cavalry. He was tried for fifty-three murders, and convicted. He was hung on October 20, 1865, in Nashville.

The better known case is that of Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Andersonville Prison. Court records accuse him of, “willfully and traitorously . . . combining, confederating, and conspiring . . . to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States . . .in violation of the laws and customs of war.” To read the transcript of Wirz’s trial is a sickening endeavor for most, but the transcript makes clear that, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were “laws and customs” that could not be breached, even in a war. Wirz was convicted and hung on November 10, 1865.

Wirz Execution
Wirz Execution

No one has yet proved that the overall intent of Sherman’s March to the Sea was to do anything other than end the war. If it took creating a warlike atmosphere deep in the Confederacy to make the South understand that they could not win a war of attrition, then the powers in Washington agreed–ending the war was paramount. Sherman’s work in Georgia was destructive and sometimes brutal, but it did what it was planned to do–end the war. If war was hell, then “total” war was total hell.

Major Hitchcock, who began the March with a lack of confidence in Sherman’s tactics and in Sherman himself, sums up his complete turnaround to becoming a supporter of his general:

This Union and its Government must be sustained at any and every cost. To sustain it, we must war upon and destroy the rebel forces–must cut off their supplies, destroy their communications . . . and produce among the people of Georgia a thorough conviction of the personal misery which attends war, and the utter helplessness and inability of their ‘rulers’ to protect them . . . If that terror and grief and even want shall help to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting us . . . it is mercy in the end.

Sherman and his generals
Sherman and his generals



1 Response to Fateful Lightning: Was Sherman’s March To the Sea a War Crime? Part II

  1. “To read the transcript of Wirz’s trial is a sickening endeavor for most, but the transcript makes clear that, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were “laws and customs” that could not be breached, even in a war.”
    Lol. Yeah. Sherman, for the most part, cannot be considered to have committed “war crimes” by the modern definition since we have a very relaxed view of civilized warfare. For his time he was a monster! Although I think clearly, he should still be considered a war criminal.

    Sherman was operating under warfare rules of the Lieber Code that was instituted in 1863 and considered an open license to commit atrocities by his contemporaries. The US army used the Code of 1806 until this time and which is why, for instance, both armies attempted to prevent pillaging and foraging early in the war by way of court martial. It was a crime so serious, it was punishable by death.
    Sherman did use POW’s to find the locations of land mines. That is a modern war crime, but wasn’t one when he did it. Arguably, he considered the land mines “uncivilized warfare,” but he used wagons packed full of POW’s, not simply one POW’s to dig them up, suggesting an usually unwholesome brutality.
    There were over 450 counts of rape brought into military courts under the Lieber Code. Most were against African-American slave women and pertaining to the March to the Sea. The frequency of rape must have been much, much higher given that the main group targeted had little legal protection and this was a time when rape was a very delicate subject. Sherman letters indicate that he knew rape was occurring and did nothing to stop it, even if he didn’t condone it. Rape and sexual violence is recently considered a war crime if it is used as a violent weapon of armies. Many letters from the period indicate the rapes took place in front of white women and children to make them fearful.
    In modern wars, armies have a duty to attempt to preserve civilian lives. This is usually done by evacuating areas before a conflict begins. Sherman did not do this. In fact he made evacuation of the “war zone” impossible by making it secret. His army came into pockets of resistance from civilians-an obvious consequence of wantonly attacking civilian homes-and these civilians were killed by his army. This is a war crime now and was obviously considered an atrocity in his day as well.

    Sherman saw the conditions at Andersonville and blamed the Confederacy for intentional cruelty. He would not have known what we know today about the wide spread problems throughout civil war era POW camps. But the Northern media used Andersonville to excuse Sherman’s brutal tactics, so it remains significant to us today that we correct the distortion.

    Wirz isn’t a war criminal, not by his time or ours, since his orders were lawful and he tried his best to get the prisoners evacuated. Some of the attempts included having the Union bring in ships to the coast to pick up the POWs. Jefferson Davis offered to pay the Union in gold to restart the POW exchange which had stopped with tragic consequences for Confederate POWs as well in prisons, such as Elmira in NY. The Union refused and the prisoners at Andersonville were made aware of this. He was found guilty of murder against unknown persons: since no one knew of anyone he had murdered and they couldn’t prove he was responsible for the prison’s poor living conditions. This was after 160 people testified. The moving testimony you refer to was given by a Union deserter who had to admit he had committed perjury in the case only weeks later when Union soldiers who had honorably served became angry he was given a government job (for his perjury). Wirz was offered a plea deal by President Grant if he would testify that former CSA President Davis (who was in prison for two years, but finding charges to bring against him proved impossible) was responsible for the treatment of the prisoners, but he said he would not because that was a “lie.” If you think I’m bloody insane, the closing statements for the defense for Wirz were given by the prosecution. That is a matter of public record that easily proves the man was given a “kangaroo court.”

    Just to end, you say:
    “No one has yet proved that the overall intent of Sherman’s March to the Sea was to do anything other than end the war.”
    War crimes are not judged by their intent to win the war or not, since in most cases that is the point. “War crimes” are sets of specific crimes, which changes over time, meaning aberrations from legally accepted principles for the conduct of war they were created as attempts to avoid unnecessary deaths and suffering.
    “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it”
    This is a quote which shows Sherman’s personal disdain for the very principles on which “civilized war” and our modern “war crimes” are based.

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