By Chuck Wanager
And the Wind Swept through Georgia: Sherman!
— From the “Gone With the Wind”
When viewing history, and especially our Civil War, you are advised to follow Brigadier General John Buford orders to his troopers prior to the first day’s battle at Gettysburg: keep a clear eye. As noted earlier in this series on that war – a conflict Southern writer Shelby Foote called a catastrophic war – historic events often come down to us wrapped in myth or legend or false truths (or a combination of all three) that can fog our vision. That is so with war, in particular the Civil War now that it is slipping farther and farther into the past. It is so with the cause of that war, which, most historians agree, was the fate of slavery, and the result of some arcane interpretation of the Constitution or concern for states rights under a federalist form of government. The lens of history can distort our perspective of other aspects of the war, including the individual commanders on either side. One of those military leaders who must be exhumed from the sarcophagus of legend is William Tecumseh Sherman.
To this day, and probably forever forward, Sherman is an anathema in the South. No, that word is not strong enough. He is the man the South loves to hate, the force, as noted in the reference to the popular movie above, that wrecked the South. Sherman is hated, vilified, considered the devil himself too many Southerners. But to his friends, he was Cump (Grant called him simply, Sherman). To his men that he commanded, he was Uncle Billy.
Paradoxically, the two most vilified people in that war that pitted regions of the country against each other, state against state and brother against brother, were Sherman and Abraham Lincoln, two men who it can be said, and certainly so with Lincoln, did much to preserve our great nation. Sherman’s lasting legacy as The Evil One has much to do with his march through Georgia. He also had a prophetic name for someone who was destined to become the image of the cruelty of war. He gained his middle name through his father’s desire to pay homage to the Shawnee warrior chief.
When Grant went east to take command of the Union armies, Sherman was given the task of confronting Confederate General Joe Johnston in Georgia and moving on Atlanta, a major commercial and railroad hub. Sherman followed Johnston as he maneuvered south and took Atlanta in September 1864. He convinced Grant to let him led his 60,000 soldiers on a march through the heart of the state to Savannah, and without worrying about rail links to supplies. Those were constantly threatened by Rebel raids. He and his men would live off the land and wage “hard war” as he called it. Today, we call it total war and consider it a part of modern warfare. Sherman would, he said, “make Georgia howl.”
But there was more to his decision that just wanting to perhaps go down in history as some avenging angel of death. As he explained to Grant, Atlanta was valuable only because holding it kept it out of Rebel hands, but the prize also immobilized his troops. But the city could be abandoned if the things that made it valuable to the Confederates – its industry and rail facilities – were destroyed. Then he and his men would be free to carry destruction across the rest of the state, including the psychological damage (a facet of modern war) by “shocking” Georgians and other Southerners into the realization that if they persisted they were doomed. Here was a whole army of Yankees, the Rebels would see, slicing through an area that had not been touched directly by war before, bringing the war right to the residents of the path of its march, and with little opposition.
Before he marched he had to destroy those supplies and rail places in Atlanta. Sherman had a long list of structures to be demolished, basically “all buildings and works of military importance.” When the federals evacuated the city on mid-November 1864, the work began, but Sherman apparently did not order the city’s firing. He told his officer in charge of the demolition that he did not want him to use fire, which would endanger other buildings than those designated for destruction. Flames did erupt, probably from union soldiers who had thrown a fire brand into a gas house “to see how it would burn.”
(On the night of September 1, Hood evacuated Atlanta, burning military supplies and installations, causing a great conflagration in the city (the dramatic fire scenes depicted in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind). Union troops occupied Atlanta on September 2).
To look at the march and the destruction it caused, we must attempt to sweep away the crust of myth and legend. One historian has noted that he will talk to Southerners who will tell him that their ancestors had barns or houses or actually lost family members to Sherman’s host as it cut through the state. But then he would go to places where they said the relatives lived or where at the time of their death, and those locations were no where near the line of Sherman’s path, which was a parallel route with two probes in long columns of troops marching several miles apart. Living off the land was a common practice in war; in fact, Union armies had already done so in some campaigns in the Civil War. But the tradition held that soldiers would pay for the supplies they took. That was unworkable for Sherman. As a result, organized foraging parties from the main columns were charged with requisitioning (taking) supplies from residents along the route, but they were supposed to take only needed things. But that didn’t work because if units didn’t get the food they wanted or thought they didn’t have enough, they would send out their own independent foraging parties. Soon, lots or foragers were going out and taking what they wanted.
Along with them came the leeches, the so-called bummers. The word took on several meanings and connotations as it evolved before and after the march. It was a pejorative at first, used to mean a shirker who avoided work or combat and also to designate non-combat soldiers by those who fought. But it also came to mean forgers who worked independent of the official parties and then to mean forager in general. Following the war, it took on a more flattering ambience, coming to label, like GI after World War II, all those who had marched with Sherman. Soldiers were proud to say they were one of Sherman’s bummers.
It is true there are many apparently true accounts of horror stories associated with this “foraging,” as noted by Lee Kennett in his book, “Marching Through Georgia.” He writes that Sherman did issue various orders associated with keeping “proper form and decorm” while foraging, but points out that in countryside, order often broke down. Sherman desired foraging be done by the book, but his orders often had ambiguities that were seen as loopholes to be taken. For example, his orders state that while soldiers should not enter nay dwelling or commit trespass and that foragers should “endeavor to leave each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance. But he had already said that “the army will forage liberally on the country during the march.” Soldiers were to refrain from abuse or threatening language and that foraging be done only by organized parties, for instance, but often, Kennett point out, those orders were give liberal interpretations by the officers who passed them down the line.
Sherman was reported to have been frustrated over reports of abuses of civilians and ordered various refinements of his foraging edicts, but he is said to have been at the least “complacent” when it came to the behavior of the foraging parties. He wrote to his officers from time to time about the foraging and said he was generally pleased with the way it was going.
Also, Kennett tries for an accurate assessment of the destruction Sherman wrought. He notes that in his official report of the march, Sherman estimates that his men did $100 million damage to Georgia’s economy. However, Kennett counters the figure is suspect because Sherman was also quoted assaying the army destroyed a million dollars’ worth of property per mile, which would add up to three times the sum he put in his final report. The area which would have been affected by Sherman’s host was covered about 12 percent of Georgia’s territory, “including some extremely rich areas but also some very unproductive ones. Yet Sherman’s figures of one hundred million dollars represents a full third of Georgia’s total wealth in 1860, exclusive of slaves. There were though, hundreds of miles or railroads wrecked, and countless Sherman’s neckties left, those twisted and bent in two railroad rails.
The damage done by Sherman was almost entirely limited to the destruction of much property. Though exact figures are not available, the loss of civilian life appears to have been very small. that “it is a terrible thing to consume and destroy the sustenance of thousands of people”, wrote Alabama-born Major Henry Hitchcock, who served in Sherman’s staff. “but if the scorched earth strategy served “to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting … it is mercy in the end.” One of the most serious accusations against Sherman was that he allowed his troops to burn the city of Columbia. Historian James M. McPherson, however, claims that: Sherman did not deliberately burn Columbia; a majority of Union soldiers, including the general himself, worked through the night to put out the fires.
Although Kennett says there is no reliable statistical accounting of what Sherman’s army wrought, there is plenty of personal testimony, although the accounts are selective and impressionistic. However, they demonstrate the destruction felt on the personal level, of homes destroyed, with Sherman’s Sentinels left – the lone chimney stacks by burnout homes, and live stock shot down to starve out their owners. Kennett notes that, for balance, Southerners also cursed Confederate General Joseph Wheeler, who cavalry was the chief force opposing Sherman’s advance, plundered residents before any Union foragers came into sight. (Also, it was not only Union troops who looted and pillaged during the war. Confederate troops under orders of the sainted Robert E. Lee, shelled the town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign of 1863, before setting fire to the lumberyard and military barracks there, and there was also looting and pillaging during the Confederate march through the state. Also, in July 1864, the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania was set on fire after being pillaged by Confederates.
Questions also surround the famous phrase: war is hell. Sherman told Atlanta council members, who appealed to him to rescind his orders to evacuate the city before union troops took possession of the city, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” On June 19, 1879, Sherman delivered an address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy, in which he may have uttered the famous phrase.
Time may prove to be Sherman’s greatest ally. In 1879 he made a brief return to 1879and was cheered. In recent years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran the results of a poll of 752 Georgia adults in which 29 percent of respondents considered Sherman a hero and 28 percent a villain. Of those raised in the South, 30 percent considered him a hero, 43 percent had no opinion. and 31 percent a villain. Of those raised outside the South, 28 percent thought of him as a hero, 20 percent a villain.