Gen. Sherman and the Rules of War

It was one of the most extraordinary exchanges in the war. Two experienced, trained, tough commanders got into a fuss fight over the rules of war and over the civil war itself. Gen. John Bell Hood and Gen. William T. Sherman fussed over proper procedure and even about the war itself.

The fuss started with the Battle of Atlanta. Sherman’s forces had a three to one advantage over Hood’s men. Yet, the battle lasted 36 days as the Southern Army of Tennessee poured their hearts and souls into defending the city. And, of course, Sherman being Sherman, he made the war more personal than necessary. Like other Union commanders, Gen. Sherman ordered his men to bombard the unarmed civilians in the city. For 36 days, the Atlanta citizens were subjected to indirect artillery fire. For no apparent military purpose, the gunners targeted homes and houses. Officers bragged that they had destroyed one, two or more houses that day.

Crazy Bill

Gen. Sherman was erratic, as generals go. Very skilled and unpretentious, he was nevertheless subject to depression. Early in the war as a brigadier general in Kentucky, he had over-reacted to a Confederate scare. He had vastly over-estimated Confederate strength. He betrayed his fears. He chain-smoked his cigars. He rarely slept or ate. He berated his subordinates. He threatened to hang a reporter as a spy. He said he needed 200,000 troops to invade Tennessee. In November, 1861, he was sent home to his wife, depressed and dishonored. He was said to have considered suicide. Sherman became known as Crazy Bill. The Northern newspapers vilified the general.

Weeks later, he returned to active duty under Gen. Grant. From there, his fortunes rose until in 1864 he was in command of three Union armies barreling toward Atlanta. The semi-siege of Atlanta started in the summer. Over 36 days, Sherman’s gunners shelled the Confederate defensive positions. In their spare time, the gunners would lob a few shells into the city. Other Union commanders had shelled civilians, as well. The Federals shelled the civilian homes in Fredericksburg and Charleston. In regard to Atlanta, the Confederate commander, John Bell Hood, did not protest this violation of the rules of war. Submitting a written protest would have been the typical approach between commanders. Hood chose not to do so.

By Sept. 3, 1864, Union forces entered Atlanta. Southern forces retreated some miles away from the city. Again for no apparent military purpose, Sherman decided the citizens must leave. By this point, there were only some 5,000 remaining in the city out of a pre-battle population of 20,000. He may have been concerned about having to feed those folks. Prior to retreating from the city of Atlanta, Hood was providing rations for some 1500 poor citizens. Gen. Sherman gave the citizens of Atlanta 5 days to pack up and leave. He assured them his troops would help them leave. Sherman planned that the citizens with Union or Northern sympathies could go north on the train. The Southern supporters would leave on wagons via the southern roads.

The Dark History of War

As Sherman proceeded with the logistics of evicting the civilians from the city, he sent a letter to Gen. Hood informing him of the move and proposing a two day truce to effect the move. Gen. Hood responded matter of factly, agreeing to the truce, as if he had much choice. But, at the end, Gen. Hood commented,

“And, now sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.

Gen. Sherman was part of a very influential family. His brother was a U.S. Senator. He rarely allowed slights to pass unnoticed. The General responded to Hood mentioning that Hood’s army had destroyed civilian houses. He accused Hood of situating his defense so close to the town as to invite inadvertent artillery rounds. Sherman claimed he was helping the white citizens of the city by removing them from a possible battlefield. Sherman had to know any risk of harm for the civilians was quite minimal, now that the actual battle was over.

Gen. Hood responded rightly that his defense during those 36 days was a mile or more from the city. The Union gunners were very skilled. It is very unlikely so many shells were the result of accident. Hood added:

“You came into our country with your Army avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but you make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism to its present position, which is the highest ever attained by that race, in all time. I must, therefore, decline to accept your statements in reference to your kindness to the people of Atlanta ….”

Shelling Civilians

Regarding the shelling of civilians, Hood added:

“I made no complaint of your firing into Atlanta in any way you thought proper. I make none now, but there are a hundred thousand witnesses that you fired into habitations of women and children for weeks, firing above and miles beyond my line of defense. I have too good an opinion, founded both upon observation and experience, of the skill of your artillerists, to credit the insinuations that they for several weeks fired too high for my modest field-works, and slaughtered women and children by accident and want of skill”

Gen. Sherman was always a profligate letter writer. He quickly penned one more response.

“First, we have no ‘negroe allies’ in this army, not a single negroe soldier left Chattanooga with this Army, or is with us now. There are a few guarding Chattanooga [the 14th U.S. Colored Troops] which General Stedman sent at one time to drive [Confederate General] Wheeler out of Dalton.”

Regarding the bombardment of civilians, Sherman replied, “I was not bound by the laws of war to give notice of the shelling of Atlanta, a ‘fortified town, with magazines, arsenals, foundries, public stores;’ you were bound to take notice. See the books.”

The rules of war had been pretty well defined since the early 1600’s. Both West Point graduates knew the rules. Sherman is taking considerable liberties in claiming the city was fortified and contained arsenals and magazines. There were guns and Army supplies in train cars. But, there were no magazines or arsenals as they would have understood those terms in 1864. Now, we know from diaries, letters and orders that Sherman did indeed tell his gunners to fire into the city. He did commit a war crime. Why?

War is Cruelty

Well, we see Sherman’s motivations when the citizens protested. Mayor James M. Calhoun, a sometime Union sympathizer, who had opposed secession, sent a letter of protest. He said forcing people out with nowhere to go was cruel. In his now infamous response, Gen. Sherman agreed this was cruel:

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and division of our country.”

Gen. Sherman was essentially shrugging his shoulders and saying, “this is war. You started the war.” He would defend or gaslight his bombardment of the city for the rest of his life. Sherman was nothing, if not direct.

The Book of Exodus

Colonel William Le Duc, Quartermaster of the of the 20th Corps had known Sherman before the war. It would fall to the Quartermaster to make this citizen removal happen. Col. Le Duc passed a message to Sherman warning him that history would not look well upon this eviction. Sherman passed a message back to Bill Duc: “… I care not a damn how others read it. I am making history, and the citizens of this rebel town shan’t eat the rations I need for my army.” By Sept. 26, Sherman had evicted southward: 446 families, including 705 adults, most of whom were women. The evictees included 867 children and 79 servants. Col. Le Duc prepared an exhaustive list of the person who were removed. He titled it, “The Book of Exodus.” A similar number were removed northward.

Yes, indeed, the 14th U.S.C.T. actually performed superbly in their one engagement with Gen. Wheeler’s cavalry, much to the surprise of their Union commanders. If Hood can be rightly accused of patronizing the blacks, Sherman was guilty of the same offense. For all his faults, Gen. Sherman believed cruelty would shorten the war. But, that is why we have rules of war, to ameliorate those cruelties on the defenseless. Ask any private with an M16 in a war zone, during war, the Army has unfettered power. Gen. Sherman had the power. He used that power to wreak revenge.

Source:

Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 16-19, 307-318.

4 thoughts on “Gen. Sherman and the Rules of War

  1. Very interesting, expelling the civilian population was a very brutal act. The rules of war and the impact on civilians brought to mind a war we had in Europe called the Thirty Years War. This occurred in the 17th century and was a very cruel war for the civilian populations. It left much of Europe devastated and took years to recover from. The shelling of civilian houses was common in European sieges throughout the ages too, although sometimes it was due to the inaccuracy of the weapons and closeness of the defences. The rules of war tended to be that if a city refused to surrender, then everyone was fair game. Captured cities were regularly ‘sacked’ and atrocities committed. Enslaving the captured civilians ended pretty much with the Middle Ages though.

    Like

  2. I don’t know, Simon. There was certainly some sacking during the Napoleonic wars. But, Paris was taken in 1871 without being sacked. Some Spanish cities were captured without pillaging during Wellington’s campaign. Perhaps it occurred, but with less frequency?
    Tom

    Like

    1. The storming of the Spanish city of Badajoz by Wellingtons army in 1812 is a particularly infamous affair. The British army went on a rampage; raping, murdering and stealing from the Spanish civilians, and even allegedly shooting their own officers. It took 3 days for order to be restored.

      Like

      1. That was a bad one. This was a time of transition, so I have been told during various Army classes, from armies based on upper classes to one drawing from the population at large. At least, as we were told, Napoleon was the first to raise large armies from the general population. Other European powers then had to do the same.
        Tom

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s