June 7, 2007
The Hard Hand of WarBy Rachel Neuwirth
Historian James M. McPherson's magnificent collection of essays This Mighty Scourge; Perspectives on the Civil War contains an essay on General William Tecumseh Sherman's famous, or infamous, "march through Georgia " that sheds light on the success of his march in bringing victory, and peace, to the United States.
Sherman has always, understandably, been regarded by many Southerners as a horrendous villain of the Civil War. A recent proposal to build a monument to him in North Carolina was turned down by the State Legislature. Even 150 years after the war, the general is still remembered with revulsion and disgust in the South.
Yet his tough tactics and willingness to inflict hardship on the South's civilian population ended the war within months, finally ending the bloodshed. Civil warfare and even serious internal violent conflict have never recurred in the United States since Sherman's march.
How could a man make himself so unpopular while achieving such a desirable result?
Between December 1864 and March 1865, U.S. soldiers under Sherman 's command marched through 600 miles of Georgia , South Carolina , and North Carolina . Along their route, they destroyed or confiscated vast quantities of agricultural produce, crops, and livestock; destroyed huge numbers of railroad ties, rendering the Southern railroads unusable; destroyed factories and burned warehouses.
They also burned some houses belonging to Southerners-although not as many as the Southern public thought-and they burned some Confederate public buildings, including the South Carolina state capitol building.
On the other hand, Sherman 's soldiers were accused of murdering only one Southern civilian-a very low crime rate for 50,000 hungry and angry armed men.
Within a month after Sherman 's March ended, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, and the war to all intents and purposes was over.
The destruction of foodstuffs and other supplies, the sabotage of Southern transportation and manufacturing facilities, all deprived the Southern armies of the food and ammunition that they needed to keep fighting, and forced them to surrender. But Sherman's actions also caused suffering to the Southern civilian population.
Had fanatical Southern guerrillas continued the war, which was then feared as a possibility, the South's people, including women and children, might have starved. As it happened, there was little or no significant guerrilla resistance to the Federal occupation following surrender.
The South's economy recovered. Within eleven years, Federal occupation troops had all been withdrawn, and the Southern states were integrated into the United States again. Their people were represented in Congress and voted in Federal elections.
Within forty years, sectional rivalries had ceased to be an important factor in American politics. Southerners as well as Northerners had all become American patriots. Southern soldiers distinguished themselves in the armed services of the Republic for their bravery and loyalty to the United States ands its Constitutional Commander in Chief.
Sherman's tactics were brutal. But they worked.
Why did he consider it necessary to inflict hardship on civilians as well as enemy soldiers?
Early in the war, Union commanders, including Sherman, had required Union soldiers to respect the property, lives and even the freedom of Southern civilians in areas occupied by the Union forces. But this worked out badly for the Union army. Armed Southern "civilians" frequently murdered Union soldiers who traveled in small groups or who became separated from their units. Confederate guerrillas sabotaged Union communications behind Union lines.
Commenting on this situation, Sherman wrote,
The Union forces needed
McPherson and other historians believe that Sherman 's tough tactics, however distasteful they may have been, saved hundreds of thousands of lives by bringing the war to an end more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.
What lessons can America learn from Sherman 's March?
In order to win a war, it is not possible to harm only enemy soldiers without inflicting any harm at all on civilians. This is especially true when fighting "unconventional" terrorist enemies who dress as civilians and hide themselves among the civilian population. It is physically impossible to strike at them without killing some civilians, even some innocent people, among whom the terrorists live and plan their attacks.
Calling such counterterrorist strikes "war crimes," as many who are critical of both America (and Israel) do, is extremely unfair. In fighting an enemy who kills soldiers and civilians without distinction, it is not possible to fight a completely "clean" war, without losing it to the terrorist enemies. No country can defeat its enemies while fighting with one hand tied behind its back.
General William Tecumseh Sherman has taught us something important: it is not wrong to do whatever is necessary to win a war against a determined enemy with an agenda hostile to the survival of our liberty and our Republic. War is brutal and unpleasant, but surrender is never a good idea when fighting for your life.
In the long run, measures that may save hundreds of thousands, even millions, of innocent lives may be more humane ultimately than the alternative.
John Landau assisted in the preparation of this article.