Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman always will be best remembered for his infamous March to the Sea in 1864.
“I can make Georgia howl!” he said. “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” With studied patience, Sherman led his army of 62,000 seasoned veterans on a monthlong orgy of destruction through Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean, and then presented Savannah to President Lincoln as a “Christmas present.”
Vilified by Southerners, viewed with indifference and even open hostility by many in the North, Sherman remains today an enigma.
Was he an unbalanced, untreated victim of recurrent depression, or was he a misunderstood military genius who invented modern warfare?
“He was the most remarkable combination of virtues and deficiencies produced in the high direction of the Union armies,” historian Allan Nevins writes.
Sherman’s career up to the battle for Atlanta typified the contradictions in his personality. Born in Ohio in 1820, he attended West Point through the influence of his stepfather, compiling so many demerits that he was nearly expelled, and yet he finished sixth in his class.
He spent 13 relatively successful years in the Army, and then failed miserably in several civilian enterprises. Before the war, he became the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary and Military Academy, forging close friendships with many future secessionists who would later become his bitter enemies.
When the war broke out, he turned down a Confederate commission and bravely led a Union regiment at the Battle of First Manassas. When he moved to Kentucky in the Western theater, however, he exhibited inexplicable anxiety and timidity, imagined spies behind every tree, lost sleep and weight, and was finally sent home by the Army to recuperate. He contemplated suicide.
An Army report led to stories in the press that he was insane, and were it not for his close friendship with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman probably would never have been named to head the Federal Division of the Mississippi and to command of the Western Army when Grant left to confront Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the East.
“He stood by me when I was crazy,” Sherman later said of Grant. Lincoln also stood by him, perhaps recognizing a fellow victim of depression, telling Sherman before Shiloh through his wife that, “Your abilities would soon merit promotion.”
Once in charge in the West, he immediately set out on a vigorous, logical course of action, surprising those who had grown accustomed to his apparent inconsistencies. He moved out from his base at Chattanooga and threatened northern Georgia and Atlanta.
It was during this time that his ideas about total warfare began to crystallize. The Southern people, he said, “Cannot be made to love us,” but they “can be made to fear us.” His leadership during this period was notably more confident and focused. His men began to call him “Uncle Billy.”
They tempered their affection, however, with a latent degree of distrust. Sherman had long exhibited a tendency toward emotional and psychological irregularities dating back even before Kentucky, and his overall generalship during the Civil War cannot be examined without considering the impact of them.
Many of the troubles stemmed from the death of his father when Sherman was 9 and the sometimes awkward relationship that evolved with his stepfather. He was not happy and regularly battled with his own feelings and insecurities. His correspondence with his wife, in addition to revealing a deep love of his children, also exposes a lurking sense of resentment, inadequacy and rejection that he would never fully escape, even when thrust into supreme leadership and hailed as the savior of the Union.
He would often view the starving, suffering children of Georgia with mixed emotions as he remembered his own children, safely at home.
“Captured houses and lands must be repeopled [sic] by Northern settlers,” he wrote to his brother, Sen. John Sherman. Though never seriously contemplated by Washington authorities, Sherman’s thoughts hint at the wild and unpredictable nature of his intellect.
“He was a psychological terrorist with a reputation for madness,” biographer Michael Fellman says. “Always extreme,” Mr. Nevins says.
But was he a great general?
Orderly and sufficient
Sherman’s original goal in Georgia was to prevent the Confederates from reinforcing Lee’s forces in Virginia. Consequently, during spring 1864, he kept maximum pressure on Gen. Joseph Johnston and the Army of Tennessee, without seriously risking his own forces in major battle.
With the exception of Kennesaw Mountain, where Sherman learned the same lesson about the cost of frontal assaults on fortified positions that Grant would learn at Cold Harbor, Sherman’s campaign leading up to the siege of Atlanta was orderly and sufficient, but far from aggressive, brilliant or complete.
Fortunately for Sherman, Johnston was replaced by Gen. John Bell Hood, whose overly ambitious counterattacks outside the perimeter defenses left the Confederate army wrecked, and the city doomed. The stubborn, grizzled general who entered Atlanta and began planning his next move was about to be transformed into a mythic hero larger than life not because of his military record to that point, but because of a dramatic strategic decision to make war on the civilian population of Georgia.
“His great military prestige is really based upon his visionary strategic and operational concepts,” says Maj. Thomas Robisch in an article on the legalities of modern war. “Sherman is regarded as the first commander of the modern era.”
Fear and dread
The huge swath of Georgia that Sherman’s army traveled through would be swept clean as if by a 60-mile-wide vacuum cleaner. He pored over census records so he could choose the wealthiest route in terms of agricultural production. His stated purpose was, “to make a hole in Georgia,” and cripple the Confederacy by splitting it in two. In addition, he understood very well the psychological effect his march would have on the citizens. The Southern people could easily be “made to fear us, and dread the passage of troops through their country.”
Proponents of “modern war” are quick to seize Sherman as their founding father, but his motives for the march remain less than crystal clear. He was no friend of blacks, saying, “All the Congresses on earth can’t make the Negro anything else than what he is.” He was, ironically, a Southern sympathizer before the war, and believed in the right to revolution. When secession became a reality, however, he was seized with anxiety, and spoke of a country that would be “drenched in blood.” Later, his comments on those supporting the Confederate cause were often vitriolic.
Revenge may have been a primary motivator in Sherman’s decision to punish Georgia. He considered secession a “crime against civilization,” and did not hesitate to sever long friendships and associations with Southerners who supported the Confederacy. When asked about the burning of Columbia, S.C., after his army had turned north from Georgia, Sherman said: “I never shed many tears over the event.”
Lincoln and Grant initially opposed the idea of the march, and Sherman went to great lengths to promote it, even advocating it on the basis of the diplomatic benefits when military reasons alone were not enough to justify it: The world would witness the awesome power of the Union and the utter helplessness of the South.
Sherman’s actions, however, belied his words, typified by the incident when he made his headquarters at the plantation of Gen. Howell Cobb, a leading Rebel. “Spare nothing,” he ordered, and everything was burned, despite the fact that the deserted plantation offered no significant material aid to the Confederacy.
According to Maj. Robisch, “Soldiers serving in the U.S. Army today would be criminally liable for larceny or destruction of property for similar conduct.” It was hardly the kind of action that would engender international support.
What was the impact on the war, and on Georgia itself? Did Sherman’s efforts at destruction of war materiel, industry, railroads and foodstuffs result in a tangible shortage for major Confederate armies in the field (such as Lee’s), or did they merely result in short-term hardship for local citizens and militia?
The fact, mostly ignored for more than 137 years, is that Lee’s army was defeated by Grant’s tactical maneuvers, and not a lack of materiel. When the war closed, vast quantities of ammunition, clothing and food were still in warehouses in western North Carolina, and isolated parts of Virginia. Sherman’s march did not destroy a fraction of the total goods manufactured in Richmond, for example.
As for Georgia, the local effect was more devastating. The march set the Georgia economy back for almost 100 years, and left deep psychological scars.
Strategy of revenge
Would the war have ended sooner if Sherman had taken the course Grant did in Virginia, and pursued Hood’s army to the death? No one can know, but it’s certainly a reasonable possibility. Would peace have been made if Sherman hadn’t embarked on the march, and Lincoln had been defeated in the election? This is a more difficult question, and has less to do with Sherman’s personality and more to do with politics in the North.
Where Sherman’s motives remain the most problematic are in regard to the punishment of the perpetrators of rebellion. Having worked and lived in the South, Sherman felt betrayed by those he had considered close friends and colleagues.
While he may have been sincere in his belief that “total war” would result in a quicker victory for the Union, the reality was that his erratic personality colored his command decisions, such as when he told the mayor of Atlanta: “Those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”
He went to enormous pains to justify his actions, even when they were clearly in violation of all formal and informal rules of warfare.
Biographer Lee Kennett refers to critic John C. Ropes, saying, “Sherman went beyond the attainment of purely military ends, applying devastation as a ‘punishment for political conduct.‘“Sherman was making war on the Southern mind. Clearly, revenge was part of Sherman’s strategy.
After the war, Sherman once was asked and offered an answer to the same question: “What is strategy? Common sense applied to the art of war. You’ve got to do something. You can’t go around asking corporals and sergeants. You must make it out in your own mind.”
The uses of anger
The mind of Sherman was unpredictable and complex, and his decisions still remain controversial. Mr. Kennett, though, maintains it unlikely that he had more than a normal share of mental and behavioral problems. The words “depression” and “anxiety” appear nowhere in the index of Mr. Kennett’s biography of Sherman, and there is little discussion of the “insanity” reported by Sherman’s contemporaries.
Yet the allegations persist. A psychotherapist, Richard O’Conner, uses Sherman as an example of overcoming depression. “Sherman developed the ability to use anger against his enemies, much to the dismay of Georgia.”
One can certainly define Sherman by what he was not. He was not very well organized, nor was he an effective disciplinarian. For that matter, his tactical ability is suspect, as evidenced by his performances at Kennesaw Mountain (with its Cold Harbor-like casualties), Savannah (where he let Gen. William Hardee give him the slip) and Bentonville (where he nearly let the entire wing of his army be destroyed).
His major tactical victory in high command was at Atlanta, where Hood did him the favor of impaling his Confederate Army of Tennessee on the Union defensive positions.
After the war, Sherman rose to command the entire army, and then became a popular speaker and commentator, but one who rarely referred to the famous march through Georgia, preferring instead to talk about the battles around Atlanta and other war topics. Yet the March to the Sea dominates his legacy, and the modern debates that center around him.
Impulsive, sometimes irrational and always restless, Sherman must remain an enigma, even to his apologists. In his own words, he summed up the kind of courage it took to lead on the battlefield, or to face psychological challenges: “A perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a willingness to endure it.”
Sherman endures as both champion and villain.
Jack Trammell works for Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and writes novels and historical articles. His son, Alec, inspired a renewed interest in Sherman’s March to the Sea by buying him a dusty book on the subject. The author can be reached at email@example.com.