William Tecumseh Sherman

by Morgan Reynolds
December 6, 2017

I am a member of my local Hot Springs Village Civil War Roundtable. Why bother? Because the so-called Civil War is one of the most important events in the history of the United States, plus it’s aged enough to offer an opportunity for civil discourse face-to-face yet remains in many ways highly relevant for the culture, politics and policies of today.

When our CWR president proposed that we “stand up” for 5-10 minutes to discuss our favorite character of “Lincoln’s War” I chose William Tecumseh Sherman for his importance, not because of any admiration for him. Why this choice? Because he had a major impact on the outcome of the war, paved the way to modern warfare (that is, the horrors of “total war” in the twentieth century), and had a serious impact on southern enmity toward the North. Prominent British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart famously declared Sherman “the first modern general.” Right, and a sorry legacy it is. Unfortunately I had to miss the “stand up” meeting last month, so I thought it useful to report my research results here.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, in his magnificent volume, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, surely a “fair and balanced” history text if ever there was one, refers to the “premature fall” of Atlanta on July 22, 1864 to Union forces which naturally depressed southern morale while northern hopes soared. It was “exactly the kind of victory Lincoln needed to save his administration at the polls,” Hummel remarks.

Further, “General Sherman realized that no matter how great his numerical superiority, he did not have enough troops to guard the railroads, garrison enemy territory, and chase down the Rebel forces, all at the same time. The South could never be subdued as long as its people resisted. [Note: the confederacy was an immense area, for example, it is 2,000 miles from Winchester VA to El Paso TX]. He therefore proposed to wage war against them directly. ‘This war differs from European wars in this particular: we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies’” said General Sherman.

General U.S. Grant, with Lincoln’s enthusiastic blessing, took the position that “…up to the battle of Shiloh I…believed the rebellion against the government would collapse suddenly and soon…[but then] I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest…consume everything that could be used to support or supply armies.” Sherman went a step further toward a policy of total war. In his own words, he would “make war so terrible” to the people of the South that “generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it…utter destruction of Georgia’s roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources…I can…make Georgia howl.” Sherman coined the adage “war is hell” and said “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.”

Sound familiar? Two recent examples come to mind from U.S. Presidents George W. Bush: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” and Donald Trump: “They [North Korea] will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Sherman’s “march to the sea” consisted of some 62,000 soldiers (and about 1 in 4 were immigrants in the Union army) who cut a swath of plunder, pillage, murder and mayhem sixty miles wide through the heart of the Confederacy. It consisted of lax discipline, foragers called bummers, hanging of house slaves…it was the ”Burnt country,” “Sherman’s Sentinels” for the stone and brick chimneys left after fires destroyed wooden buildings, “Sherman’s neckties” (heated rails bent around trees), and unbearable stench in the air. Strained union supply lines might have been exploited by irregular Rebel warfare but there were no young men left to turn Sherman’s march into a military debacle like British General John Burgoyne’s invasion from Canada, who was forced to surrender after the battles of Saratoga.

There was a sudden disintegration of Confederate will, partly because confederates became rebels without a cause since state’s rights and slavery were already gone. The wartime centralization engineered by Jefferson Davis and his West Point cabal (“died of West Point” was the downside of Robert E. Lee’s military strategy of “offensive defense”) had alienated the southern people from the cause of independence, not to mention the hardships imposed by a brutal Confederate price hyperinflation and economic want.

Hummel writes that “Most military historians view the move toward total war as some kind of progress rather than an “advance to barbarism.” Most military historians, of course, are camp followers of the winning army.  Sherman’s success certainly violated and defeated 19th-century aspirations to an ideal of civilized warfare, leading to familiar war crimes like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, mass murder and burning of villages like My Lai, prisoner torture practiced at Abu Graib, mutilation of soldier’s bodies in Afghanistan and countless other atrocities.

When Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, Sherman succeeded him as Commanding General of the U.S. Army 1869-83, so he was responsible for the Indian wars. He advocated total war against hostile Indians to force them back onto their reservations, if any were left. After the Fetterman massacre of 1866 Sherman wrote: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.”

You ask, what was the William J. Fetterman massacre or Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands of December 21, 1866? Red Cloud’s War forces consisted of an alliance of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indian. The battle occurred along the Bozeman trail in Wyoming. Fetterman was a Civil War veteran who disparaged the Indian fighters. Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse was part of the “bait” leading the “Feds” into a massacre. Over 1,000 warriors killed Fetterman, 78 other U.S. soldiers plus two civilians, only six by gunshot. Famous mountain man Jim Bridger commented, “These soldiers don’t know anything about fighting Indians.” Wikipedia states that in ritual fashion, the Indians scalped, stripped, and mutilated the soldiers’ bodies before leaving. Only bugler Adolph Metzger’s body was not mutilated, covered under a buffalo blanket apparently out of respect for his bravery.

Finally, literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) found in Sherman’s 1875 Memoirs a disturbing account of an “appetite for warfare” that “grows as it feeds on the South.”


Al Benson, October 10, 2017, Review of Karen Stokes, A Legion of Devils: Sherman in South Carolina, Shotwell Press, 2017,

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, Chicago: Open Court, 1996.

Wikipedia on the topics of “William Tecumseh Sherman” and the “Fetterman Fight.”

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