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.


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

10 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.


  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?


    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.


      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.


  3. Irish, I again disagree with you on the Atlanta situation.
    General Sherman, yes, a less then stable personality, Left Chattanooga with his armies for one primary reason, to bring the horrors of war home to the deep south. In this he evicted the residents of Atlanta.
    As for the bombardment of the city, I do not see this as a war crime. Atlanta was THE railroad hub of the deep south. Therefore there were many trains and cars loaded with the materials of war that needed to be destroyed. But Atlanta was not just a shipping point. It was a major manufacturing, maybe the major manufacturing city of the south. And at the corner of Walton and Peachtree Streets there did sit a major arsenal of the Confederacy. besides these industries resided in Atlanta,
    Atlanta Rolling Mills, Steel for ironclads
    Confederate pistol factory, manufactured side arms for confederate soldiers,
    Novelty Iron Works, Ordinance manufacturer
    Empire Manufacturing Railroad cars and bar iron
    Winship Foundry, Metal supplies, railroad supplies, iron bolts
    Atlanta Machine Works, cannons and ordinance
    W.S.Withers and Solomon and Solomon Foundry, buttons, buckles, spurs
    A Flour Mill stood at Marietta and North Avenues
    Hammond Marshall Sword, Swords
    Atlanta Steam Tannery, Saddles and leather goods
    Naval Ordinance Works, Gun Carriages and 7 inch cannon shells
    Confederate Iron and Brass Works, Iron and Brass components.

    All these seem to be able to contribute to a war effort in 1864. If you were the attacking general which one would you not concern yourself with? Collateral damage is a product of war. Unfortunately in trying to hit targets of command and communications it happens. In 1865 shells were not as well controlled as today and we still get collateral damage. Yes, Atlanta was rich in military targets besides railroad cars. To believe otherwise is naïve.
    Yes Sherman was a bit of an unstable character. But his orders were to bring the deep south to it’s knees. I think he did that.


  4. Well, sure, Rick, collateral damage does occur in every war. And, after the war, Gen. Sherman did argue collateral damage, but he did *not* argue that his gunners missed the train station or those facilities you have mentioned. He argued that his gunners overshot the Confederate defensive lines. But, of course, that cannot be true, since the Confederate defensive works were a mile or more outside the city. As Hood mentioned in the above exchange, he had seen the accuracy of the Federal artillery too much to believe they overshot by miles.

    That Confederate pistol factory was actually outside the Atlanta city limits – on the western side of the city limits. I think we can agree that the train station was certainly a valid military target. Some of those other facilities, we would need to quibble about. Flour mills and tanneries serves civilians as much as they do military.

    But, Gen. Sherman did not tell his gunners to fire at the train station or at the iron works. No, he told Gen. Thomas on Aug. 1 as the siege was commencing, “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 told them to target houses. On Aug. 7, he told Gen. Thomas to bring down his Parrot guns from Chattanooga and put them into position to “knock down the buildings of the town.” In another dispatch, he told his soldiers to “make sad havoc” on Atlanta and “reach the heart of Atlanta and reduce it to ruins.” No mention in the dispatches of a train station or iron works. In another dispatch to Thomas, he told him to “Get your guns well into position . . . let them open up slowly, and with great precision, making all parts of the city unsafe.” Here, Sherman makes it clear that all parts of the city are fair game. He warned Gen. Oliver to ignore the Confederate artillery fire – the Confederates want to draw your fire, said Sherman. But, that would distract them from their more important goal: destroy Atlanta and “make it a desolation.”

    The better defense of Sherman’s violations of the rules of war is that he believed the Atlanta civilians had evacuated. But, no, he had sufficient intelligence from Confederate prisoners and even from the few Atlanta newspapers to know some 5,000 civilians remained. the ones who remained were those too poor or with too few resources to evacuate. It was generally the better off folks or those who had family in the rural areas who evacuated.

    And, too he told his gunners to fire at night. It is incredibly difficult to target artillery at night. Artillery fire, even today, must be observed to make it accurate. A person, even today, cannot simply look down the barrel of an artillery piece and aim it. Someone must observe the point of impact and adjust fire toward the intended target. That would be exceedingly difficult to do at night. In theory, they could have registered targets and then fired them at night. But, if a target was registered, why were they missing the supposed target by miles.

    One could argue, perhaps, that Sherman told his gunners to target houses, but perhaps his men did not listen to him. No,unfortunately, that is not true. There are accounts of artillery men gloating over their success. “I have the honor to report that at least three houses, two frame and one brick, were destroyed by the fire in Atlanta,” said one signal officer one afternoon. “Our shells burst in the city right and left of brick stack,” (apparently meaning chimneys) Gen. Thomas reported in a dispatch. Some batteries reported they heated up some shells in furnaces with the hopes of starting fires when the shells landed within the city. Whether these “hot shots” worked is not known.

    But, there were many fires during the siege. The Atlanta fire companies were kept very busy. Houses caught fire almost daily. The few fireman remaining in the city – many were serving in the Confederate army – found it dangerous to go to the fires. The Federal gunners would typically target the burning fires. The smoke was easy to see in the day. And, the fire was easy to see at night.

    And, of course, the gunners did not succeed in damaging the train station. It remained standing until the Federals evacuated and burned the city.


    Russell S. Bonds, “War Like a Thunderbotlt,” pp. 212-214

    “A Very Barbarous Mode of Carrying on War”: Sherman’s Artillery Bombardment of Atlanta, July 20 – August 24,1864,” Georgia Hist. Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp.57-90.


  5. It was known as “Hard War” and Sherman was an expert at it.
    Hard war was so effective that it became the standard of the U.S. Army, against the Indians, Against the Spanish and through two world wars. And we won.
    Lately we have a tendency to wage the soft war of hearts and minds and we lose.
    Would we have defeated Hitler’s Germany with a soft war strategy. I think not. Hearts and minds warfare started in Vietnam and with the exception of the first gulf war in which the hearts and minds philosophy of war was not instituted America has taken quite a few lumps, on the battlefield and in it’s standing and respect in the world.

    Sherman understood that for the north to win the war the south had to suffer Destruction and deprivation outside of the State of Virginia. And that destruction wasn’t hit or miss. He saw a target he destroyed it, yes even civilian targets as they had to be shown the futility of supporting the Confederate Army. War is hell. Civilian casualties were relatively light compared to the damage done. His mission was to make the south howl. He was quite successful.


  6. Wow, Rick, that is a tough thing for a military veteran of 28 years to hear. We are thoroughly trained on the rules of war. We are expected to apply them in any war, hard or soft. I mean, you are talking court martial with that sort of talk.

    Yes, anecdotally, having talked to many WW II veterans over the years, we have executed a prisoner or two in the European theater during WW II. But, in the main, absolutely, we observed the rules of war. Heck, that is the point of this blog post. Those rules have been around since about 1600. The Pacific war was a little different. The US forcs committed many violations of the rules of war. But, I expect the instances of observing the rules far outweighed the violations. So, no, hard or soft, we have to observe those rules. Certainly, Sherman was hard. But, that ever excuses attacking civilians.



    1. Irish, Sherman targeted civilian property not civilians. In fact, historically, very few civilians were killed by Sherman’s actions. Before you stated that Sherman destroyed all of Atlanta but the railroad station. You are correct he didn’t destroy the train depot, John Bell Hood did. Hood, as he was evacuating Atlanta was unable to take a train of 81 cars with him. So he set it on fire. Many train cars of this train contained munitions. Hood created the biggest explosion of the war when the trains exploded from the fire, and that explosion blew the train depot area to smithereens. Why did Sherman not hit it during his bombardment? Maybe he wanted the stuff on the train cars. He had one line of supply by this time a very long one from Chattanooga. Nathan Bedford Forrest continually attacked and cut that line throughout the Georgia campaign.
      Sorry if I offended you with the last post. I have not served….only as a police officer for several years. I am one of the rare people in America where a war never fell to my generation. I was a year too young for Vietnam, and too old for the 1st Gulf War. I did not volunteer in the interim because my brother was in the Army and when it first went all volunteer he was not happy with it. But thank you for you service.
      I wrote that as a student of America’s past Wars and observer of the present. We worry too much in these times about hearts and minds and nation building not taking and keeping as we did in Mexico, Philippines, Japan, and twice in Europe. We took territory and held it until the country could learn how to act in the world.


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