Speaking at the 1880 reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union general best known for his destructive march through the Confederacy's heartland uttered the words that would be reshaped for posterity: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys," the 60-year-old William Tecumseh Sherman declared, "it is all hell."
Remembered more pithily as "War is hell," the phrase distilled a sentiment that Sherman had voiced on many occasions, including once before the mayor and town council of Atlanta after he had brought that key Confederate city to its knees. The fact that this grand master of scorched-earth devastation abhorred war was, in his mind, neither an irony nor a contradiction. Sherman simply saw his approach to war as the best way of limiting its lethal potential.
Others, and not only partisans of the Confederacy, see it differently. To them, Sherman's devastating march through the South opened the way to the kind of warfare that culminated in World War II. Called total war, it goes beyond combat between opposing military forces to include attacks, both deliberate and indiscriminate, upon civilians and non-military targets. But was Sherman truly responsible for the strategic rationale that we now associate with the bombings of London, Dresden, and even Hiroshima? It is a question that historians continue to debate.
Sherman arrived on the world stage in much the same way his fellow officer and eventual commander, Ulysses S. Grant, did. Both were native Ohioans who went to West Point. Both served for several years before giving civilian life a try. Both had a hard time out of uniform, although Sherman ended up as the very able superintendent of a Louisiana military institute (forerunner of Louisiana State University) until that state's secession forced him to resign and go back north.
Unlike Grant, Sherman had not served in the Mexican War, where so many future Union and Confederate officers underwent their baptism by fire. Instead, he had been stationed in Florida (in the Second Seminole War) and several southern states, acquiring a knowledge of people and topography that would serve him well in the war to come. Sherman was a brave and inspiring leader, a brilliant strategist if not a great tactician, and one of the few Union officers who comported themselves well during the disastrous Battle of Bull Run. Yet he was prone to melancholy and could be carried away by his worst imaginings. Early in the war, he so exaggerated the size of Confederate forces in Kentucky that he had a nervous breakdown.
But Sherman knew his limitations and weaknesses. When he was offered commands above his friend Grant, he refused and insisted on serving under him. "Sherman looked at Grant and concluded that he was a better general, who had the whole package," says historian John Marszalak, a professor emeritus at Mississippi State University and author of several books on Sherman. "Grant only worried about what he saw in front of him, whereas Sherman worried about things over the next hill." After the first day of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, Grant's reply to Sherman's evaluation of the nearly disastrous outcome was typical: "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though."
Carnage. The two men proceeded to give the Confederates a licking throughout much of what was known as the Western Theater, achieving great successes (notably in Chattanooga and Vicksburg) that largely eluded Union generals back in the East. Experiences in this theater had a decisive effect on Sherman's emerging vision of what was necessary to win the war. The primary lesson was the sheer carnage of combat, with 23,700 combatants left dead, wounded, or missing after the Battle of Shiloh alone (2,000 of whom were in Sherman's division). Appalled by the numbers, Sherman grew even angrier at what he considered the irregular warfare of the Confederates, including guerrilla attacks and the mistreatment and murder of Union prisoners. Sherman also felt that Southerners, many of whom he had befriended before the war, were personally and collectively responsible for the treasonous split. Why, he increasingly questioned, should the society that initiated the war not be made directly mindful of its cost? Foreshadowing his full-blown policy, Sherman tore down houses in one Kentucky village to rebuild a bridge that retreating Confederates had destroyed. When the villagers requested vouchers for repayment, Sherman told them to bill the Confederacy.
That view only hardened with time. When Abraham Lincoln summoned Grant to Washington to assume command of all Union armies, Grant put Sherman in charge of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Grant urged Sherman not to go after territory but to pursue the Confederate forces and destroy them. It was counsel that Sherman, his sights set on Atlanta, quietly ignored. Indeed, apart from one disastrous battle with Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston's army, Sherman conducted brilliant maneuvers around his foe, all the while protecting the railroad lines that conveyed some 1,300 tons of supplies a day to support his three moving armies. The fall of Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1864, was not just the conquest of a crucial urban transportation hub between the upper and lower South. It also saved Lincoln from certain electoral defeat and made Sherman a Union hero.
Not resting on his laurels, Sherman launched his most famous campaign: the March to the Sea. He decided to forsake supply lines behind him and instead plunder his way to Savannah, feeding his 60,000 troops with what his foraging "bummers" collected from farms and destroying anything that directly supported the war effort or the institution of slavery (including dogs, notoriously used for tracking escaped slaves). His goal, as he put it bluntly, was to "make Georgia howl." After taking Savannah, Sherman persuaded Grant to let him proceed through the Carolinas, expressly to punish the state (South Carolina) that had led secession. Grant, who had wanted Sherman to bring his army north by sea, relented.
So was it total war? Many Southern partisans have claimed so because it was unnecessary. The war had been lost even before the March to the Sea began. And the restraints that Sherman had imposed on his army in Georgia were loosened during the march through South Carolina, leading, some charge, to the fires that razed Columbia. (Recent scholarship reveals multiple causes: accidental fires set by drunken Yankees and fires set by retreating Confederates, all fanned by freakishly strong winds). Even nonpartisan historians acknowledge that the collateral damage increased. "It was at least a step in the direction of total war," says Princeton's noted Civil War historian James McPherson, "because so many civilians suffered and some went hungry. And [Sherman's army] really had it in for South Carolinians."
Psychological. But as both McPherson and Marszalek emphasize, a lot depends on how you define total war. To Marszalek, Sherman's way of war fell short of total because it had limits and never targeted civilians directly. Both historians also agree that Sherman's greatest innovation was in psychological warfare. "Sherman came to the conclusion," says Marszalek, "that the best way to end the war was not to continue the bloody head-to-head fighting but to convince Southerners through destructive and psychological warfare that their government could not defend them...and that the Confederacy itself was, in Sherman's words, 'a hollow shell.'"
Even though he helped make war a greater hell, Sherman never doubted its necessity. Three years after delivering his famous remarks, he spoke just as directly from the heart: "Wars are not all evil; they are part of the grand machinery by which this world is governed, thunderstorms which purify the political atmosphere, test the manhood of a people, and prove whether they are worthy to take rank with others engaged in the same task by different methods."