William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (May1861-March 1864): The Problem of Occupation

shermanThe next section (continued from last post) of William T. Sherman’s Memoirs cover the first two and a half years of the Civil War, including Sherman’s involvement in the First Battle of Bull Run, his nervous breakdown and pessimism while working to expel Confederates from Kentucky, the Battle of Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign, and the Chattanooga Campaign.  The final of these were significant from Sherman’s theory of warfare because its epilogue, the Meridian campaign was led by Sherman and largely involved putting into practice total war.  Since the war’s front lines moved so quickly in the Tennessee and Mississippi campaigns, Sherman often found himself confronting the question of what to do with the cities and towns that he helped seized.  The dilemma seemed to be one between sustaining democratic values and democratic governments, property rights while at war.  Ultimately, as proven by the orders he gave during the Meridian campaign, warfare cannot be compatible with these values.  I suspect Sherman is correct on this point.  At least, modern history has seem to prove it.  I do not know much about the Durutti Column and other efforts to fight wars with democratic values.  But the Durutti Column was fighting a war of defense and was rooted in communities with a functioning anarchy.  Sherman was trying to suppress a rebellion.  In most cases, wars are fought against a people and Sherman’s logic is necessary.  A much better approach is to eliminate war, a goal a soldier like Sherman had little interest in thinking about.

As for the Battle of Bull Run, Sherman is skeptical about labeling it a Confederate victory at all, being really a rumble between two undisciplined armies.  “Both armies were fairly defeated, and whichever had stood fast, the other would have run.”  (199)  In the aftermath of the battle he gained some respect for Lincoln, who reviewed the troops, due to his ability to speak to the troops honestly but “full of feeling.” (207)  At the time, Sherman asked Lincoln to ensure that he never takes a top-level command, thinking instead that he would do better as part of the institution rather than its head.  Sherman certainly believed that he excelled under the leadership of Grant and faced his most traumatic times while in sole command.  That trauma came not long after Bull Run, when Sherman took command of a little more than a thousand troops in Kentucky.  In despair, he predicted that the suppression of the Confederacy in that area would take more than 60,000 troops (he later states 200,000 for the “center”).  He does not say much of anything about his frustrations of late 1861, but does document in detail how he his superiors underestimated the power that would be required to put down the rebellion.  This period certainly contributed to his reputation as a “lunatic.”  But as in many things, the lunatic is often proven right.

Often, Sherman does not write his narrative down from the perspective of the 1870s.  Especially in regards to the memory of battles (which is may be right to mistrust) he relies on his orders, letters, and formal reports to commanders.  He included them into his memoirs unedited and intact.  I was often surprised at how enjoyable and literary some of these official correspondences were.  Although written under incredible stress and sorrows, Sherman includes useful commentary (often praising his troops performance), recommendations, and personal touches.  I wonder how many other Civil War generals were able to produce such reports.  I cannot imagine some of those Southern aristocrats producing much that we would want to read 150 years later in the aftermath of a battle.  Anyway, the battle of Shiloh is given to us completely through these reports.  He only adds a defense of Grant’s performance at the end.

Between Shiloh and the Vicksburg campaign, Sherman had the chance to get a feeling for the occupation of enemy territory.  His opinion that the Southerners need to be dealt with harshly as enemies emerges very early.  In August 1862 he wrote: “This is no trifle; when one nation is at war with another, all the people of one are enemies of the other: then the rules are plain and easy of understanding.  Most unfortunately, the war in which we are now engaged has been complicated with the belief on the one hand that all on the other are not enemies.”  He adds that “not only are they unfriendly, but all who can procure arms now bear them as organized regiments, or as guerrillas.” (286)  He then recommends the wholesale looting of occupied territories of cotton, currency, and bullion.    On the same month, he gave detailed notes to the quartermaster in occupied Memphis to seize rents (but not properties) “because the United States assumes the place of trustee.” (295)  Of course he saw this as all logical and the proper implementation of the Confiscation Act, but he is nevertheless innovative in his brutal honesty about the nature of modern war.

In September 1863, Sherman extends this logic to that of the state itself, when he comments in a private letter to General Halleck, on occupation.  The heart of his argument is that no government should be established in Louisiana until the war is over.  Sherman claims knowledge of the local conditions from his time living and working and serving in New Orleans.  “They had a government so mild and paternal that they gradually forgot they had any at all, save what they themselves controlled; they asserted an absolute right to seize public moneys, forts, arms, and even to shut up the natural avenues of travel and commerce. They chose war.”  (361)  The elite cannot be easily replaced and must be forced to accept the new conditions (primarily the end of slavery).  “A civil government of the representative type would suit this class far less than a purely military rule.” (362)  The poor whites, which Sherman paints with a broad brush, are untrustworthy and easily manipulated by the elite.  The “Union men” are timid and prone to demagoguery.  They are not capable of forming a government.  The “young bloods” are basically dumb jocks who are only cut out to strive for fruitless valor on the battlefield.  In short, “a civil government . . . would be simply ridiculous.” (363)  Sherman knew that political power was backed by the gun and therefore he recommends the maintenance of a military government in Louisiana.  The justification for this requires no more than that “as a nation the United States has the right, and also the physical power, to penetrate to every part of our national domain, and that we will do it. . . that it makes no difference whether it be in one year, or two, or ten, or twenty.”  (365)  Sherman identified the horrifying truth of the state and inadvertently makes the case for its abolition.

The first volume of Sherman’s Memoirs ends with his narrative on the Meridian campaign in Mississippi, which was planned and executed from the beginning as an exercise in total war by destroying the infrastructure of southern Mississippi.  But given that the Atlantic campaign and the “march to the sea” is next, I will reserve the remainder of my thoughts on this till then.

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One response to “William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (May1861-March 1864): The Problem of Occupation

  1. Pingback: William Tecumseh Sherman: “Memoirs” (Conclusion) | Neither Kings nor Americans

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