Welcome to the last post on our series on General William Sherman’s September 1864 letter to the town leaders of Atlanta. We’ve seen that Sherman told the town leaders he would not cancel his evacuation order, which he issued because he planned to enter the city and burn all public buildings and war manufacturing businesses. The fire required to do this would obviously also destroy some homes and damage others, and so Sherman gave the city time to evacuate. The mayor and other officials wrote Sherman asking him to rescind this order because it would harm innocent women and children who would have to leave their homes and have nowhere to go with winter coming on. Sherman replied that he would not rescind the order, and that reply has become infamous to later generations.
That’s because it has been paraphrased as a “war is hell” statement—Sherman saying that because war is about destruction he has no compunctions about destroying civilians. We’ve seen that what he really said was that war is about destroying the enemy’s capacity to make war. The faster he can do this, the faster the war will end and everyone can go back to living in safety and peace. His other point is that the South has not hesitated to make war on civilians in the neutral states, and Atlanta was critical in the attacks on neutral civilians, and so Atlanta cannot now take a pious stance about protecting civilians. War is about suffering on all sides, civilian and soldier, and so the war must end, and so Atlanta must burn. Once this is done, and the march to the sea complete, the war will end and Sherman can go back to what he wants—supporting and helping and protecting the southern states that have returned once more to the Union.
Few people bother to read famous documents, and so few people actually read the text of Sherman’s letter, and so most people believe it expresses a callous or gleeful attachment to war. They think it is Sherman saying, Screw you, rebels—I’m coming for your women and children and you can all burn! The fact that the town leaders refused to evacuate when given the chance meant that there were civilians in Atlanta when it was burned, and there was loss of life. Some vindictive Union soldiers without personal integrity or honor were allowed to set fire to private homes with women and children in them both before and during the official destruction. But the fact that all loss of civilian life could have been prevented was conveniently overlooked by later southern historians, who simply focused on the carnage and helped create the image of Sherman as a south-hating demon whose memory must be reviled in perpetuity.
In fact, a story I have shared before is that I knew an elderly woman who went on a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi River in the late 1970s and she played the big pipe organ on the boat and got a commemorative certificate for her efforts. On the certificate was written: “This certificate allows the bearer to play the organ on any riverboat so long as she shall live—but shall be revoked forever if the bearer is ever heard to play ‘Marching through Georgia.’” “Marching through Georgia” was a song written after the war to commemorate Sherman’s “march to the sea”. So hatred of Sherman was a precious souvenir handed down through the generations in the south, right down to the present-day.
The ironies are many: Sherman offered a chance to evacuate civilians which no southern general ever offered civilians in the neutral states; he burned the buildings he targeted and moved on; he was a loyal supporter of the south before and after the war; and, last, he loathed the song “Marching through Georgia” and skipped many parades of Union soldiers on war anniversaries because the soldiers’ bands would always play it when they marched past him.
We’ll close this series with one bit of truth to counter another myth: Sherman did say “war is hell”—just about. On April 11, 1880, long after the war, he made a speech in Ohio in which he said, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” He can’t have been the first person to utter those words, but his statement is memorable because it is a view he truly held, and expressed in his letter to Atlanta.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In part 3 of our short series on Union General Sherman’s (in)famous September 1864 letter to the city fathers of Atlanta, we take a good look at what Sherman actually said in reply to the Atlantans’ request that he call off the evacuation and occupation of the city. Sherman had ordered the city evacuated before his soldiers came in and burned all public buildings, eliminating the city’s ability to make war. The town leaders wrote back saying that evacuating without a place to go would basically be a death sentence to the citizens of the town, especially the women and children, and that there was no reason to harm innocent civilians.
Now we look at Sherman’s reply, of which only two sentences are usually quoted as summing up his position. Here is the full text of his September 12, 1864 reply to Atlanta:
“GENTLEMEN: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders removing all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of the distress that will be occasioned, any yet shall not revoke my orders, because they were not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace, not only in Atlanta, but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are now arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey. To defeat those armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose. Now I know the vindictive nature of our enemy, that we may have many years of military operations from this quarter; and, therefore, deem it wise and prudent to prepare in time.
The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes is inconsistent with its character as a home for families. There will be no manufactures, commerce, or agriculture here, for the maintenance of families, and sooner or later want will compel the inhabitants to go. Why not go now, when all the arrangements are completed for the transfer, instead of waiting till the plunging shot of contending armies will renew the scenes of the past month? Of course, I do not apprehend any such thing at this moment, but you do not suppose this army will be here until the war is over. I cannot discuss this subject with you fairly, because I cannot impart to you what we propose to do, but I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away, and I can only renew my offer of services to make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible.”
—I have broken this long paragraph in two. In the first, Sherman says he is not concerned with the well-being of Atlantans, but with ending the war, which impairs the well-being of millions of Americans north and south (he is not concerned with “the humanities of the case [of Atlanta alone], but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest”). Achieving peace by ending the south’s ability to make war is the best way to ensure that no more civilians anywhere have to suffer. To win that peace, the southern army must be defeated, and that can only be done by destroying the civilian war effort and war industry that provides those soldiers with food, guns, transport, etc. (“we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose”).
In the second paragraph, Sherman answers the town’s statement that it is civilian, not connected to the war, and innocent of any action that would justify its occupation and destruction, and the evacuation of its citizens. Sherman counters that the business of Atlanta is war—that all of its “ manufactures, commerce, [and] agriculture” are part of the war effort. Shells and ammunition are manufactured in the city by city residents. Goods are sold to the army by civilian retailers. Civilian farmers grow crops to feed southern soldiers. If the city was concerned about protecting its citizens from war, Sherman is saying, it should have made them remain civilians rather than devoting the city to war production. When you fuel the war, you are a combatant. You are making it possible for the war to go on. You know this, Sherman says, so why not take this opportunity to evacuate safely, rather than waiting until soldiers enter the town and there will be unavoidable deaths? You know I’m not going to wait out the rest of the war outside Atlanta; the army is going to move. Get out now before it does.
“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 to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. This feeling assumes various shapes, but always comes back to that of Union. Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war, I and this army become at once your protectors and supporters, shielding you from danger, let it come from what quarter it may. I know that a few individuals cannot resist a torrent of error and passion, such as swept the South into rebellion, but you can point out, so that we may know those who desire a government, and those who insist on war and its desolation.”
—The first two sentences are often quoted. Let’s look at the entirety of this passage, in which Sherman makes a few points. First he answers the town’s pleas that civilians will suffer from evacuation. Yes, says Sherman; that’s what war does—it brings destruction and death and there’s no bright side. That’s why he is risking his own life every day to end the war. Second, he reiterates that peace will only come with southern surrender—the U.S. cannot have a peace that allows the Confederacy to remain. Peace means ending the illegal (because unconstitutional) secession of the southern states and restoring the union. The moment any southerner accepts this, and stops making war or contributing to the war effort, s/he becomes an American again and Sherman will support their full rights and defend their safety. But surrender must come first.
“You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.
We don’t want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your hands, or any thing that you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and, if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.”
—There is no way to fight a kind and considerate war where no one gets hurt. The only way to live in safety and peace is to not make war. Sherman knows that southerners are naturally resistant to an enemy that comes into their land to take their land and property; but that’s not why he is there. He doesn’t want to possess southern wealth, he wants to destroy it, because it enables the south to make war. Don’t let everyone suffer this destruction just because you are too proud to admit you were wrong to start the war in the first place. (“admit that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride”). Lay down your arms and save yourselves.
“You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better. I repeat then that, by the original compact of Government, the United States had certain rights in Georgia, which have never been relinquished and never will be; that the South began war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or title of provocation.”
—Your own papers have told you the opposite, but secession was illegal, and so the U.S. never gave up its rights to federal buildings in the south. You seized those buildings before the war even began, without provocation (and yet now you resist and complain that we might come into Atlanta and do the same after years of the provocation of war).
“I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds of thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands upon thousands of families of rebel soldiers left in our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You depreciate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds of thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance.”
—Here Sherman answers Atlanta’s argument that it is inhumane to make war on civilians. He points out that the south was quite happy to make war on civilians in the neutral states; innocent women and children were forced out of their homes, and was not concerned that they had nowhere to go and nothing to eat. You, Atlantan manufacturers and farmers and merchants, sent ammo and supplies into neutral civilian areas to make sure that those peoples’ homes were destroyed (and you didn’t offer them the chance to peacefully evacuate first). The people of the neutral states were actually innocent, because their states were neutral and they were not contributing to the war effort. Justice is a two-way street, Sherman is saying, and you can’t demand it if you don’t respect it yourselves.
“But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.
But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then I will share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”
—What’s done is done. Sherman is not here to debate with the town. Ending the war demands that Atlanta be rendered unable to contribute to the war effort, and so it will be occupied and destroyed. When peace comes, there will be no lingering retribution—Atlantans will return to their city, rebuild their lives, and enjoy the full protections of Sherman himself, who will support them with the same single-minded determination with which he must now fight them.
“Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta. Yours in haste,
W.T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.”
—The evacuation order is not rescinded, and it’s your responsibility to care for the people as best you can, not Sherman’s. His responsibility is ending the war that is necessitating so much death and violence and grief on all sides.
So we see here that Sherman’s position is not quite that of “war is hell so anything I do is justified”, nor is it a kind of sick glee in the excesses of war, nor a vindictive desire to hurt the southerners in his path. It is rather an extraordinarily practical and objective position: war inevitably causes destruction and death and the only way to end the destruction and death is to end the war. The war can only be ended when the people are unable to make war, and so you must do whatever it takes to stop those who are contributing to the war effort. The more thoroughly you destroy the people’s ability to make war, the shorter the war is, and the fewer casualties you’ll experience overall. If you want to end a war, wage it thoroughly so you will be successful and your enemy will surrender as quickly as possible.
Sherman was a pro-southern man. He admired its society, and he supported slavery of black Americans. On the eve of the war, in 1859, he took a position teaching at a military academy that is now Lousiana State University, and he was very happy there. But he was an American first. When the south broke the law, and disregarded the Constitution by seceding, Sherman left Louisiana and volunteered for the Union army. It seems hard to process, but it was in part Sherman’s love of the south that led him to destroy it—only by ending its capacity to wage war could Sherman win the peace that would enable him to support and help the south once more.
We’ll wrap up next time with later and contemporary assessments of Sherman’s letter to Atlanta.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In part 2 of our short series on the (in)famous letter of General William Sherman to the city of Atlanta in September 1864, we look at the letter he first received from the city fathers on September 11. It’s odd that Sherman’s reply to this letter can be so famous while the letter from the city languishes in obscurity.
You’ll recall that Atlanta had officially surrendered to Sherman’s army on September 2nd, after Confederate General Hood had ended his defense of the city and withdrawn his army. Sherman set up camp in nearby Jonesboro, and about a week later let the city know that he planned to burn all public buildings, machine shops, depots, and arsenals in Atlanta, so that it could no longer support the Confederate war effort. Sherman ordered the city to evacuate all citizens.
Atlanta was very important to the Confederacy; it was the largest railroad hub in the South and one of the largest manufacturing centers. It was crucial to moving soldiers to and from battle, and to war production. Destroying its capacity to make war was Sherman’s first priority.
The city fathers responded to the order to evacuate on September 11, stating:
“SIR: We the undersigned, Mayor and two of the Council for the city of Atlanta, for the time being the only legal organ of the people of the said city, to express their wants and wishes, ask leave most earnestly but respectfully to petition you to reconsider the order requiring them to leave Atlanta.
At first view, it struck us that the measure would involve extraordinary hardship and loss, but since we have seen the practical execution of it so far as it has progressed, and the individual condition of the people, and heard their statements as to the inconveniences, loss, and suffering attending it, we are satisfied that the amount of it will involve in the aggregate consequences appalling and heart-rending.”
—In the second paragraph they are saying that they anticipated how hard this would be on the citizens of Atlanta but they went ahead and began the evacuation (“the practical execution of it so far as it has progressed”). But as the evacuees came forward to complain of their hardships and suffering, the city fathers stopped the process because the terrible consequences would only multiply (“aggregate consequences”) as evacuation proceeded, and it would be too appalling too continue.
“Many poor women are in advanced state of pregnancy, others now having young children, and whose husbands for the greater part are either in the army, prisoners, or dead. Some say: ‘I have such a one sick at my house; who will wait on them when I am gone?’ Others say: ‘What are we to do? We have no house to go to, and no means to buy, build, or rent any; no parents, relatives, or friends, to to to.’ Another says: ‘I will try and take this or that article of property, but such and such things I must leave behind, though I need them much.’ We reply to them: ‘General Sherman will carry your property to Rough and Ready, and General Hood will take it thence on.’ And they will reply that: ‘But I want to leave the railroad at such a place, and cannot get conveyance from there on.’”
—It is mostly women and children who are still in Atlanta, in various states of weakness and illness. They have nowhere to evacuate to, and don’t want to leave behind all their possessions, which would leave them as even poorer refugees. If they could at least take some valuables they’d have something to sell to get food and lodging. Promises that their things will be taken to a depot at Rough and Ready, west of Atlanta, are empty because people headed to other places will have no way to get there to pick up their things.
“We only refer to a few facts, to try to illustrate in part how this measure will operate in practice. As you advanced, the people north of this fell back; and before your arrival here, a large portion of the people had retired south, so that the country south of this is already crowded, and without houses enough to accommodate the people, and we are informed that many are now staying in churches and other out-buildings.
This being so, how is it possible for the people still here (mostly women and children) to find any shelter? And how can they live through the winter in the woods—no shelter or subsistence, in the midst of strangers who know them not, and without the power to assist them much, if they were willing to do so?”
—Sherman’s advance over the previous summer has already pushed thousands of refugees south of Atlanta, so there is no room for the entire city to now evacuate as well. Shelter has run out, and thus the evacuation order would be forcing women and children to live in the woods, with winter approaching, and no one able to help them find better shelter or food.
“This is but a feeble picture of the consequences of this measure. You know the woe, the horrors, and the suffering, cannot be described by words; imagination can only conceive of it, and we ask you to take these things into consideration.
We know your mind and time are constantly occupied with the duties of your command, which almost deters us from asking your attention to this matter, but thought it might be that you had not considered this subject in all of its awful consequences, and that on more reflection you, we hope, would not make this people an exception to all mankind, for we know that no such instance ever having occurred—surely never in the United States—and what has this helpless people done, that they should be driven from their homes, to wander strangers and outcasts, and exiles, and to subsist on charity?”
—Here they appeal to Sherman as a soldier and an American. As a soldier, he knows the brutality of war. Perhaps he has not stopped to consider, in his rush to move his army, how brutal the evacuation would be. As an American, he is implored not to execute the first mass evacuation of civilians in U.S. history. What have innocent civilians done, that they should be punished for this war? Let soldiers fight soldiers, and leave the innocent alone.
“We do not know as yet the number of people still here; of those who are here, we are satisfied a respectable number, if allowed to remain at home, could subsist for several months without assistance, and a respectable number for a much longer time, and who might not need assistance at any time.
In conclusion, we most earnestly and solemnly petition you to reconsider this order, or modify it, and suffer this unfortunate people to remain at home, and enjoy what little means they have.”
James M. Calhoun, Mayor
E.E. Rawson, Councilman.
S.C. Wells, Councilman.
—Most of the population, if allowed to stay at home, could provide for themselves and not be a burden on anyone.
One feels the city fathers are concluding by saying that if he lets Atlanta alone, Sherman could travel east to the sea without worrying about Atlanta rising up. They will be barely surviving, and in no shape to launch any attacks. The city is neutralized—why kill it as well?
The appeal to protect innocent civilians is the strongest, and is the backbone of this letter. In the next post, we’ll see how Sherman answered it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )