“My aim was, to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their innermost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
Perhaps no American general is as misunderstood or misrepresented as William Sherman. I recently read an account of his Civil War actions in a history textbook. The 93-word paragraph was able to hit what I’m sure the textbook authors considered the highlights: Sherman’s army killing “teenaged cadets” who tried to defend Atlanta, “women and children” fleeing from Sherman to Savannah while “Sherman followed destroying everything in a 60 mile wide path,” and finally “turning his fury” on South Carolina (by contrast the textbook has an entry twice as long on Jeb Stuart, noting his “keen sense of humor,” his style of dress, and his love of music). Of course the slant of the textbook seems charitable compared to the myriad of sources that vilify Sherman as a terrorist monster who raped, burned, and pillaged an innocent South. Today, on Sherman’s birthday, let’s take a closer look at one of history’s greatest liberators, and the importance of his task.
When we think of a great President like Abraham Lincoln it probably comes as a surprise that despite Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he was extremely vulnerable in the upcoming elections. Many in the North were weary of the war, and wearier still of the strategic bumbling that occurred by Union generals after nearly every repulse of the Confederate army. Ironically, one of the aforementioned bumblers, George McClellan, was Lincoln’s opponent in the Presidential election of 1864. Despite Ulysses S. Grant’s best efforts to capture the Southern capital of Richmond, the South’s will to fight remained strong, while McClellan’s Democrat party was holding sway over a war-fatigued Northern populace.
It was onto this stage that Sherman marched into history, saving Lincoln’s reelection and ultimately the Union. Sherman was a man who understood, as Lincoln did, that the promise of the American Revolution was not yet fulfilled. Despite an American founding that espoused the natural rights of all men, a plantation class of landed lords continued to flourish inside the great American experiment; an oligarchy that assumed, just as the British monarchs had, that there were those who ought to be ruled over. This Southern hierarchy not only assumed that those of a different color were nothing more than property, but also provoked the “lower classes” of Southern men to serve as cannon fodder in the great effort to preserve their way of life. So it was with great zeal that Sherman put his Grand Army of the West to work on destroying the roots of this great evil.
While Sherman’s purpose was noble, let us not miss the tactical brilliance he employed while pursuing it. At this time in history, the railroad played an important role in the supply of an army. Sherman, however, realized that most generals (including many of his fellow Union generals) had become far too reliant on the use of the rails. Instead of limiting himself to his supply lines he let his army cut loose across the countryside, foraging and literally eating away at the Confederate infrastructure.
Free of supply constraints, Sherman’s army cut a swath through Georgia, feeding themselves on Southern provisions and burning all the plantations they found in their way. Only once on the march did Sherman put his army into a frontal assault on a Confederate army. Instead he preferred to bypass fixed fortifications and large masses of opposing force. His army would deliberately take lines of advance to make Confederate forces uncertain of their objective. Was he going to Macon? Augusta? Savannah? Sherman called this putting his enemies “on the horns of a dilemma.” The Confederates would continue to reposition in an attempt to draw Sherman into a bloody slugfest that was all too common in the Eastern theatre of the war, and Sherman would merely sidestep the stronghold, and continue to burn his way to where the Confederate army was not. It is no surprise that generals such as Guderian and Rommel, architects of the German Blitzkrieg, and Patton, the hard-charging American, were students of Sherman’s tactics. Nor is it a surprise that Sherman’s tactics worked just as well nearly a hundred years later for those generals in World War II.
It took a certain kind brutality to burn down plantations, take everything of value, and destroy all that the South had built. Yet this brutality and destruction was necessary to shake the South loose from its notions of natural superiority. Sherman’s march through Georgia, and subsequent march through the Carolinas, brought this naked truth home to every southerner in vivid chimney red and halloween orange colors. As Sherman’s Grand Army of the West drove ever deeper into the South, they became even more devoted to the cause of freedom with every plantation they witnessed and every slave they freed. For every story of destruction that filtered back northward, the resolve of the Confederacy crumbled all the more.
Most history books don’t tell how bloodless the march was for both sides. Of course there were those individuals and small groups, who crazed with rage at Sherman’s men, would raise their guns only to be shot down, but by and large the Union army was very restrained in their evacuating of civilians before ripping apart their world. Furthermore, by crushing the spirit of the rebels it shortened the continued bloody collisions of the two opposing armies in other theatres of the war.
It’s ironic that in a world so squeamish about assigning absolute notions of good and evil, that Sherman is such a vilified and hated figure, when he was the scalpel that cut out the cancer of class tyranny that had limited our young nation from its inception. Sherman’s actions ensured that a President with the moral high ground was secure, and that his Emancipation Proclamation was more than mere rhetoric. Sherman’s grand march to the sea firmly moved the Declaration of Independence and Constitution out of the hypocritical light that was cast on them by the South and transformed them into that beautiful apple of gold in a frame of silver that would serve as an example for all nations in years to come.
Rich Policz is a 1997 graduate of Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholar Program and currently teaches Philosophy at Ashland Christian School.