Was Sherman a war criminal?

No other figure in the War Between the States is as vilified in Georgia as William Tecumseh Sherman. The Union general is blamed for countless depredations by his troops, from the burning of Atlanta and the looting and destruction of many North Georgia communities to the pillaging of a wide swath of the state in his March to the Sea. But was Sherman so depraved as to be called a “war criminal”? On the 150th anniversary of Sherman’s invasion of Georgia, two Civil War historians argue opposite sides of the debate. (Follow the AJC for more on the Civil War in Georgia and a calendar of 150th anniversary events.)


Yes: Sherman convicted by his own words

By Stephen Davis

Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S. Army, stands accused of four counts of war crimes. By his own admission, he is guilty.

After World War II, the Nuremberg Charter defined war crimes as violations of the laws or customs of war. It lists several categories of offenses. Let us see how Sherman, on his own authority and under no orders from his superiors, violated the laws and customs of war.

Murder or ill-treatment of civilians: Union artillery had barely gotten into range of Atlanta when, on July 19, 1864, Sherman ordered a bombardment of the city’s buildings: “No consideration must be paid to the fact they are occupied by families, but the place must be cannonaded.” The Yankee guns fired their first shells on July 20, and within a few days, Confederate newspapers began reporting casualties. One shell wounded a woman and killed the child she was carrying in her arms. In my book, I have concluded that the victims were the wife and child of John M. Weaver, an engineer who lived on Walton Street.

Sherman maintained a perverse determination to shell Atlanta, denying that innocent civilians still lived there. “You may fire from 10 to 15 shots from every gun you have in position into Atlanta that will reach any of its houses,” he ordered his artillery on Aug. 1. “Fire slowly and with deliberation between 4 p.m. and dark.”

Three weeks later, the bombardment ceased only because Sherman gave up on his semi-siege of Atlanta and led most of his army toward Jonesboro to break the Rebels’ railroad supply line (this he did on Aug. 31, forcing Confederate evacuation of the city the next day). Civilian casualties of Sherman’s 37-day bombardment are hard to count, but I estimate about 25 dead, and two or three times more wounded.

Deportation of civilian population in occupied territory: On Sept. 4, just days after his troops entered Atlanta, Sherman dictated his Special Field Orders 67: “The City of Atlanta being exclusively required for warlike purposes, will at once be vacated by all except the Armies of the United States.” Civilians wishing to go south would be taken to Confederate lines under truce flags; the Rebels would then have to transport them on to Macon. The displaced could take some possessions, but most of their property, not to mention their homes, would be left behind.

The real shock was that Sherman expelled even those Atlantans who were Northern sympathizers (“secret Yankees”). They and their belongings would be taken by train to Nashville or other points north. Eventually, some 1,650 men, women and children were dumped into Confederate lines south of the city during September. (A handwritten list of their names is in the National Archives.) Probably an equal number went north. Sherman’s forced expulsion of Atlanta’s civilian population has been called by historian Mary Elizabeth Massey “the single largest forced evacuation of an entire city during the Civil War.”

Plunder of public or private property: Maybe 50 families were allowed to stay during the Union occupation, which lasted till mid-November. This meant that most of the houses in the city were abandoned. Union officers moved into the nicer ones, but most of the Northern troops camped outside of town. To build their huts, the Yankees tore down houses, outbuildings and shacks. Sherman’s Field Order 67 allowed “buildings, barns, sheds, warehouses and shanties” to be so used, and they were. “All around fine houses are leaving, by piece-meal,” wrote one of Sherman’s men, “on the backs of soldiers. All these, to fix up quarters.” For the civilians who came back to find their homes gone, Sherman would simply have told them that war is war — a kinder phrase than the one he is more famous for.

Wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages: Before he left Atlanta on his March to the Sea, Sherman ordered the destruction not only of railroad depots, factories, shops and warehouses in Atlanta, but whole blocks of the downtown business section along Whitehall and Peachtree streets. The engineers knocked down what they could, then blew up or burned what was left. Soldiers saw that “the engineers were having all the fun,” as one put it, and set fires of their own throughout the city. Sherman never ordered the wholesale burning of Atlanta. He didn’t need to; he knew what his veterans would do when he looked the other way.

“The boys commenced burning every house in (the northwest part) of the town,” wrote Capt. James Ladd of the 113th Ohio. “The wind was blowing hard at the time, and soon that part of the city was gone.” We’ll never know how much of Atlanta was burned before Sherman rode out on Nov. 16. Estimates run from a quarter of the city to 80 percent or higher. Sherman was satisfied, as he announced later in a field order congratulating his men: “We quietly and deliberately destroyed Atlanta.” The Yankees’ destruction was not quiet, but it was certainly deliberate.

A few years ago, I participated in a “mock trial” of General Sherman, staged by the historical society of Lancaster, Ohio, his home town. I was invited up to serve as prosecutor. We lost, of course: The three judges were Lancastrians playing U.S. generals, and the gallery was also stacked against us. It didn’t matter: I and my Southern witnesses argued our case strongly and passionately. In my closing statement, I addressed the judges: “Go ahead and justify him! Nobility, decency and civility have already been vanquished, ground into the red clay of Georgia by the heels of 100,000 Yankee soldiers under the direct command of William Tecumseh Sherman!”

I rest my case.

Civil War historian Stephen Davis of Atlanta is the author of “What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta.”


No: Property destroyed, but lives spared

By John F. Marszalek

To many Southerners today, the name William Tecumseh Sherman conjures up an image of a brute, a remorseless destroyer who spread fire, rapine and death across a broad swath of Georgia and South Carolina, leaving behind little but ruined lives and smoking ruins. His men allegedly stole food and left children to starve. They supposedly shamed innocent women — or much worse. If Sherman did not commit these crimes personally, he nevertheless created the climate in which they took place.

To many Southerners then and still, Sherman violated every law of war imaginable. He was not a feeling human being; he was a cruel destroyer, a war criminal.

Such characterization is based on myth. Sherman did not burn Atlanta to the ground, “Gone With the Wind” notwithstanding. The city lost around 35 percent of its property, much of that military buildings and stores. The famous motion picture scene of Atlanta in flames actually depicted the fire resulting from Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s explosion of ammunition as his army retreated from the city.

Similarly, Sherman did not wreak destruction 40 miles wide through Georgia, though his men did burn barns containing fodder that could be used by Confederate cavalry, and took horses as well as livestock for their own use. A hefty percentage of destroyed property was the work of Confederate Joe Wheeler’s cavalry, Confederate and Federal deserters, fugitive slaves and unscrupulous civilians. Sherman’s men destroyed, but they had a lot of home-grown help. And the stories about the starvation of children and the molestation of women are simply not factual.

In truth, Sherman was a multi-faceted personality. He loved his wife and family and endured the death of two young children during the war. Both before and during this period, he corresponded with leading Americans, Southerners included, frequently quoting Shakespeare. He enjoyed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and P.T. Barnum’s circus. He was a person of emotion, intelligence, ability and wit. He was no brute.

Why, then, did he bring American warfare to a new level of violence by attacking farms and fields, factories and even homes? Ironically, the reason was that he did not want to inflict unnecessary pain on old friends, individuals he had come to know when he lived many years in the South before the war. He wanted to end the war as quickly as possible with the least possible loss of life, so he substituted property damage for killing.

Rather than a vindictive punishment inflicted on Southerners, his March to the Sea was a product of his humanity. To be sure, the six-week march resulted in extensive property damage; but it produced a combined casualty total of only around 4,000, few of whom were civilians, and less than a tenth of the number of deaths suffered in Virginia during the same period.
Compare the six-week casualties of 4,000 in Georgia to the 24,000 casualties in two days at Shiloh and the 51,000 in three days at Gettysburg. Consider too, that, in Pickett’s Charge, which lasted around one hour on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee suffered 6,000 casualties of the 12,000 troops he ordered forward in the attack.

Dying at Lee’s order in Pickett’s Charge came to be considered heroic, however, but suffering the destruction of a house or a barn was not. Sherman’s march created a helpless feeling among Southerners and contributed to large-scale desertions in Lee’s army as men rushed southward to try to protect family and home. These feelings of shame and helplessness go far in explaining why many Southerners still cannot forgive Sherman.

At the beginning of the war, Sherman did fight a gentleman’s war, as it was then understood. But he recoiled at the extensive loss of life and created a new strategy of destruction, a form of warfare which characterized later wars where the aerial bombing of cities was common. In the 21st century, “shock and awe” tactics against Baghdad and drones against terrorists have raised few eyebrows. Many Americans have even come to believe that torture is acceptable.

Sherman’s employment of violence against property was psychological warfare designed to bring a murderous war to a swift end. He was hardly a war criminal. More accurately, he was the American pioneer of modern war. Later generations have repeated his ideas, yet no one of these leaders has ever suffered the condemnations hurled at Sherman or been accused of being a war criminal.

John F. Marszalek is a Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Mississippi State University and executive director and managing editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, at MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library.

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