war unvarnished is brutality itself -- 7/5/16

Today's selection -- from Citizen Sherman by Michael Fellman. In his march on Atlanta, and his subsequent march to Savannah and the sea, General William Tecumseh Sherman was the first in the Civil War to engage in "total warfare." In this mode, in addition to battling the Confederate Army, he burned homes, destroyed crops, expelled civilians and sought to destroy the South's will to fight. At a key moment in this campaign, he exchanged letters with his opponent, Confederate General John Bell Hood, thus providing an extraordinary portrait of the mind at war:

"Immediately after Atlanta fell to his army, Sherman initiated a plan to expel all civilians from the city, something he had done on a much smaller scale before but that, at this level, amounted to perhaps the most extreme action yet taken against civilians by any general in the war. Anticipating Southern reactions, Sherman declared to [his fellow General Henry] Halleck, 'If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will an­swer that war is war and not popularity seeking. If they want peace they and their relatives must stop war.' Writing this letter, on September 4, 1864, was the moment in which Sherman attained his most fully conscious and self-acknowledged role as psychological warrior. Though he had a military argument for getting civilians out of the way of his army -- in order to use Atlanta as one big military rail depot -- his greater purpose was to strike terror into Southern hearts. He would not remain a personality with human feelings, but would incorporate war itself. Having chosen transformation into the totalist warrior, he would offer Southerners a big puzzle -- what would this particular gen­eral not do? In purpose and self-conception he would be barbarous and cruel, not from his peacetime person, but from his personal rededi­cation in war, a war into which he had finally and fully entered.

Stereograph showing skeletal remains and uniforms on the battlefield at Gaines' Mill, Virginia, several months after the battle.

"Three days after girding himself in this letter to Halleck, Sherman wrote John Bell Hood, the Confederate commander, offering a ten-day truce, during which he would ship every Atlanta civilian through Union lines to the Confederacy. Hood agreed to the truce, realizing that Sherman really had not given him any alternative. But, Hood added in a letter he wrote to Sherman but intended for the Southern press, 'the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ... in the dark history of war. In the name of God and humanity I protest.' Sherman replied in a letter he intended for the Northern press and not just for Hood, 'If we must be enemies, let us be men and fight it out ... and not deal in such hypocrit­ical appeals to God and Humanity. God will judge us in due time,' but military men, real men, will act out of pure force rather than hiding in effeminate appeals to higher moral powers. In any event, Hood's ap­peal to a 'just God' was 'sacrilegious,' for it was the South that had 'plunged a nation into war, dark and cruel war, who dared and bad­gered us to battle.' Having created the war, the South would now ex­perience it.

"When the mayor and two city councilmen of Atlanta wrote Sherman, also protesting the expulsion order, which, they were certain, would lead to unimaginable 'woe, horrors and suffering' on the part of the expelled civilians, Sherman replied in grim righteousness and with his previously rehearsed phrase, '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 alone be done by admitting that it began in error and is per­petuated in pride.' War had now visited them -- as by extension it would visit all Southerners, that nation of sinners. They had to cry out in defeat before the war could cease. 'You cannot qualify war in harsher terms, than I will. War is cruelty and You cannot refine it,' thundered Sherman in King James biblical cadences, which all Ameri­cans understood, 'and those who brought war into our country de­serve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.' At this Point Sherman the cool deist had become Jeremiah, the Old Testament judge, and an ancient war god emerged from his prophecy, the god of the terrible swift sword.

"But there could be an end to this catastrophe and redemption from it. 'I want peace, and believe it can now only be reached through union and war .... But my dear Sirs,' Sherman promised, 'when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your home, and families against danger from every quarter.' This assertion of recrudescent postwar morality was intended to demonstrate to Southerners, and perhaps even more urgently to himself, that he was making morally purposeful war, not in the war measures he might take, but in purely peaceful ends radically split from whatever might prove to be necessary wartime means. This moral and temporal dualism served to heighten Sherman's fearsomeness, as morally disengaged means could lead potentially to any form or depth of destruction. Later kindness, as a re­ward for capitulation, used as a moral justification that reinforced Sherman in his promised wartime excesses, heightened rather than re­duced the terrors of what he and the still-deepening war might bring to the South."


Michael Fellman


Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman


University Press of Kansas


Copyright 1995 by Michael Fellman


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