Top 15 Posts of 2013—Number 10: Fateful Lightning: Was Sherman’s March To the Sea a War Crime? Part I
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 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 see 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 the 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 think 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 structures 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.
A 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!”
6 Responses to Top 15 Posts of 2013—Number 10: Fateful Lightning: Was Sherman’s March To the Sea a War Crime? Part I
It comes down to evidence…and there just isn’t enough to prove the murder of civilians. Good post.
Great post. These snippets in history are well presented by you and I esp appreciate keeping it short and to the point. My students could never stop the refrain “How much do we write?” My answer was always “I don’t know. Write as much as it takes to answer the topic in the fewest words possible.” Their reply “Yeah , but how much do we write?”
Yeah–I know how that one goes–in Math Class it is, “Do we have to show our work?” I always say, “No, not at all–just find one kid who has the right answer and copy it.” “Hw do we know it is the right answer?” “Just see if it matches yours. If not, rework your own answer. You’ll figure it out.”
It never gets old.
Hurray! I love a post about the complexities of war and life. Things are never as clear cut as they seem. We like simple good guys and bad, so do people with agendas. In school and the media agenda so often overrides scholarship. It’s a shame.
Thank you for this treasure. What a find! I appreciate you.
I don’t want to debate anyone, especially here. All I know is that tourists in Georgia get an earful of how Sherman burned down the ENTIRE STATE! This is just before the planned tour of the lovely antebellum homes in the Atlanta area. Hmmmmm.