One hundred and fifty years ago this September 2, William Tecumseh Sherman took Atlanta after a brilliant campaign through the woods of northern Georgia. While Grant slogged it out against Lee in northern Virginia all through the late spring and summer of 1864—the names of those battles still send chills up our collective spine: Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor — Lincoln’s reelection chances were declared doomed. All summer, General George McClellan reminded Americans that he had once gotten closer to Richmond than had Grant and at far less cost — and promised that, under his presidency, the war would end with either the South free to create its own nation or to rejoin the Union with slavery intact … but that in either case the terrible internecine bloodletting would end. Then Sherman suddenly took Atlanta (“Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”); McClellan was doomed and the shrinking Confederacy was bisected once again.
What was to be next? Southerners grew confident that the besieger Sherman would become the besieged in Atlanta after the election, as his long supply lines back to Tennessee would be cut and a number of Confederate forces might converge to keep him locked up behind Confederate lines.
Instead, Sherman cut loose on November 15, 1864 — despite Grant’s worries and Lincoln’s bewilderment — and headed to the Atlantic Coast in what would soon be known as “The March to the Sea,” itself a prelude to an even more daring winter march through the Carolinas to arrive at the rear of Robert E. Lee’s army, trapped in Virginia at war’s end.
After daring Sherman to leave Atlanta, and declaring that he would suffer the fate of Napoleon in Russia, Confederate forces wilted. The luminaries of the Confederacy — Generals Bragg, Hardee, and Hood — pled numerical inferiority and usually avoided the long Northern snake that wound through the Georgia heartland. Sherman’s army had been pared down of its sick and auxiliaries, but was still huge, composed of Midwestern yeomen who liked camping out and were used to living off the land. Post-harvest Georgia was indeed rich, and Sherman’s more than 60,000 marchers soon learned that they could live off the land in richer style than they ever had while occupying Atlanta. In their wake, they left a 300 mile-long, 60 mile-wide swath of looting and destruction from Atlanta to Savannah.
Yet there was a method to Sherman’s mad five-week march. He burned plantations, freed slaves, destroyed factories, and tore up railroads—but more or less left alone the farms and small towns of ordinary Southerners. His purposes were threefold: to punish the plantation class, the small minority of Confederates who owned slaves, as the culprits for the war; to destroy the Southern economy and remind the general population, as Sherman put it, “that war and individual ruin were now to be synonymous”; and to humiliate the Confederate military, especially what he called the cavalier classes that boasted of their martial audacity but would not dare confront such a huge army of battle-hardened troopers from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and other Midwestern states. In this context, the message was not lost: Unionists were not just New England Yankee manufacturers, but farmers who did their own hard work in harsh, cold lands more challenging than temperate Georgia; material advantages and repeating rifles were not antithetical to martial audacity, as a Michigan farmer with a Sharps rifle was more than a match for a plumed Southern cavalryman who boasted of killing Yankees.
Sherman was hated not so much because he killed Southerners: in comparison to Grant’s bloodbath in northern Virginia, probably less than 1,000 Confederates were killed during the March to the Sea. Rather, he humiliated the South by having supposedly less-audacious Northerners taunting the South to attack them on their own turf, and exposing the plantation class as hollow, showing them more willing to flee their rich and hitherto untouched plantations than to die while protecting them.
Was he a terrorist in destroying stately mansions, telegraph lines, and railroad tracks rather than searching out Confederate armies to square off in battle? Not really. His agenda of collective punishment aimed at ending the war quickly by starving Confederate armies of their ability to move, communicate, and be supplied. Sherman felt that it made no sense to kill young Southerners who did not own slaves when it was possible to destroy the livelihoods of those who did. He waged, instead, a sort of psychological terrorism, in which he sought to remind the Southern population that war was no romance, fought in far off places in glorious battle, but a dirty, nasty slog in which those who supported an amoral war would themselves have to pay some of its costs by the general impoverishment that followed the destruction of their leadership class.
Sherman’s legacy in Georgia is not akin to the blanket bombing of Dresden or Tokyo, much less to the nuking of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Nor is it a parallel to the indiscriminate bombing during Vietnam or the war against civilians waged by the Taliban or ISIS. Rather, it resembles the selective targeting that the U.S. sought against Slobodan Milosevic or the current Israeli shelling and bombing of Hamas in Gaza. In both cases, the targets were those who prompted the war, the homes and offices of the Serbian and Gazan commanders and controllers. The general population itself was neither deliberately targeted nor left alone. The destruction of infrastructure that had aided the efforts of the Serbians or Hamas was analogous to the railroads that ferried Confederate armies or the telegraphs that sent orders to Southern commanders. Such material damage was not just “collateral” but intentional, as a bitter reminder to both the Serbians and the Palestinians of the wages of joining a cause that was not only wrong, but also as weak in the concrete as it has sounded savage in the abstract.
Sherman believed that a martial, if not tribal, society was especially prone to humiliation, especially those cadres who bragged that material disproportionality did not matter given the supposed superiority of their own individual warriors. Sherman was quite eager to disabuse Confederates of that myth, in the same manner, perhaps, that American pilots reminded Serbians that their beefy, scary killers were vulnerable, or that Palestinians are being reminded that otherwise normal-looking Israeli youths can decimate those in Gaza who brag of their willingness to blow themselves up against cowering Jews.
The South hated Sherman in a way it never quite did Grant, the grim reaper of Southern youth. Sherman was unapologetic after the war; he welcomed controversy and kept reminding his critics that the Confederacy was mostly hollow, prone to bluff but — on examination — weak. It was his duty, he continued, to remind both the North and the South of that paradox in ways that were hardly subtle.
George S. Patton sought to do the same to formidable SS divisions in France, as did the 1st Marine Division to the Japanese veterans who had butchered the innocent in China, as did American Marines in Fallujah to supposedly indomitable Islamic terrorists and insurgents.
Sherman would say to us that the way to destroy a martially audacious enemy is to enter his homeland, to separate the rhetoric from reality, to destroy things that aid the war, and to remind the population why most of their own houses and homes survive and why those of the most prominent usually do not—and why the general chaos that follows is somehow connected to their own blind support to those who have misled them.
Sherman is still hated for that, or, as Machiavelli put it, “men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”