William Tecumseh Sherman: “Memoirs” (Conclusion)

I have spent the last few days reading through Sherman’s Memoirs (here, here, and here).  My major observation was that Sherman was both an innovator of modern warfare (bureaucratic, total, and ruthless) and an interpreter of state power.  One element that makes him so modern is his belief that military power is the core of a state’s ability to express its will.  He gives lip service to democratic values, but sees them as irrelevant in the application of power, especially military power.  I want to conclude with a few additional issues to round out this discussion of Sherman’s writings.


Bureaucratization of War
Before the war, Sherman ran a commissary and later a military academy in New Orleans.  It is thus not suprising that a major focus of his thought was on the logistics of war.  In many ways, he saw war as a numbers game.  On the campaign to seize Atlanta, Sherman wrote: “Giving two thousand as a fair proportion of prisoners captured by us for the month of June (twelve thousand nine hundred and eighty-three in all the campaign), makes an aggregate loss in the rebel army of fifty-nine hundred and forty-eight, to ours of seventy-five hundred and thirty — a less proportion than in the relative strength of our two armies, viz., as six to ten, thus maintaining our relative superiority, which the desperate game of war justified.” (534)  In fact, almost every chapter ended with tables of losses, killed, wounded, missing.  I am certain some of this was due to the institutional demands and the regular reporting.  Losses had to be reported up the chain of command.  But Sherman went farther than simple reporting and saw the war as essentially the maximization of power, supplies, weapons, etc.

Use of Black Soldiers
Chapter 22 of Sherman’s Memoirs considers the campaign in the Carolinas.   It is also the first time that Sherman (in his writings) considers the question of race or gave any thought to the future of black Americans after the war.  Due to the passage of the 13th Amendment and the wide use of black troops in the Union Army, Sherman was under pressure to incorporate black troops into his armies systematically leveling much of the South.  Halleck gave directions to Sherman on December 30, 1864, more or less ordering him to make use of black workers.  Halleck was incredibly concerned about the politics of this, given the changing winds in Washington on the status and role of former slaves.  Sherman, according to some influential people, “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the negro” leading to his violation of “wishes of the Government.”  (728)  Of course, Sherman responded that the military necessity trumps the concerns of civil government.  Sherman explains his skepticism (unwilling to accept any racial bigotry he may have embraced) as largely a numbers game again.  Recruiters will recruit someone and may use force or underhanded means to recruit blacks instead of whites.  This will not increase the size of the army. (729–730)  I am not sure if this is true or false.  All the textbooks I read seem to agree that black soldiers did complement the army significantly at a time when it was in need of manpower.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sherman’s theories of maximizing state and military power reached a limit when it came to the recruitment of blacks.
It is in this period the Sherman issued his famous “Special Field Order, No. 15,” which is reprinted in his memoirs.  Sherman uses it as his answer to critics.  It was dealing with the problem of thousands of blacks fleeing to Sherman’s army during and after the “March to the Sea.”  In this sense, it might have been an attempt to bury a problem.  The provision it offered to former slaves (forty acres of land, seized from the planter class) was radical and was at the heart of the most revolutionary ideas of Reconstruction – that the end of slavery required an economic revolution in the planter South.  Whatever inspired his choice, the words he used remain a significant memorial to the racial vision of Reconstruction.  “By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the nergro is free, and must be dealt with as such.  He cannot be subjected to conscription, or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of my department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe.  Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and otehr mechanics , will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States.” (731)  In any case, it is clear that Sherman thought that this order closed the question on his views on race.  He did not address it in a focused way again.

Theory of War
Sherman includes in the end of his memoirs a summation of his thoughts about war (Chapter 25).  It is worthy of a brief summary and serves to wrap up this series on Sherman.  His opening point is that the Civil War was about the future direction of the nation and at the heart of the war were “moneyed interests.”  For this reason, the war would need to be long and bloody.  Thus, the initial calls for 75,000 “ninety-day” men” was reckless and likely based on politicians raising hopes among the people of a short war.  The U.S. regular army was simply too small to maintain peace.  He follows with a call for a reorganization of the army, and the creation of a larger permanent military force.  The army, reconstituted, must be an autocracy.  “In the United States the people are the ‘sovereign,’ all power originally proceeds from them, and therefore the election of officers by the men is the common rule.  This is wrong, because any army is not a popular organization, but an animated machine, an instrument in the hands of the Executive for enforcing the law, and maintaining the honor and dignity of the nation.” (877)  He openly scorns any suggestion that power can from “from below” in a military.  Sherman’s next discussion is on the mode of recruitment.  Sherman believed in the need for a well-paid, professional, volunteer army.  Much of the rest of the his essay considers questions of logistics.  He predicts the growing importance of earthwork fortifications and the decline of classical sieges.  At the heart of all of his concerns is that even as the army was demobilized that militarization remains a part of the national culture.  “For the very reason that our army is comparatively so very small, I hold that is should be the best possible, organized and governed on true military principles, and that in time of peace we should preserve the ‘habits and usages of war,’ so that , when war does come, we may not again be compelled to suffer the disgrace, confusion, and disorder of 1861.” (896)

I enjoyed reading Sherman for his ruthless honesty about the militarization of the state in modern times.  It we extend his ideas to their logical conclusion it is hard to see how individualism and grassroots democracy can be sustained as long as a state holds possession of all military power.

William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs”, The Atlanta Campaign “War is Cruelty”

Continuing with my reading of William T. Sherman’s Memoirs, today I will focus on Sherman’s application of total war.  I have come to realize that we can understand the U.S. government’s mad pursuit of terrorism with relentless drone strikes or the aggressive effort to bring Edward Snowden to hell for exposing the crimes of the Obama administration by revisiting William T. Sherman.  In many ways, the Atlanta campaign, the forced removal of the citizens of Atlanta after its fall, and his subsequent “march to the sea” defines Sherman’s career.  He is both respected and hated for these acts.  Unfortunately, much of the hatred for Sherman seems to come from Southern apologists.  I want to suggest that we can look at Sherman not so much as a tyrant or lunatic but instead as someone who fully accepted the logic of the state and violence.  He epitomized Weber’s suggestion that the state is simply that which monopolizes violence and power.  Unable to accept alternatives to itself, it had to come down brutally on competitors.

shermanThe key dialog in this section of Sherman’s Memoirs are between Sherman, the Confederate General J. B. Hood commanding the remaining Confederate armies in the Atlanta area, and mayor of Atlanta James M. Calhoun.  As in other sections of his book, Sherman simply recreated the original documents, with very little commentary.  Sherman was unwilling to celebrate for too long his victory at Atlanta.  He immediately set his sights on how to exploit the victory to destroy the South’s ability to resist.  In a letter to Grant, he wrote “We ought to ask our country for the largest possible armies that can be raised, as so important a thing as the self-existence of a great nation should not be left to the fickle chances of war.” (587)  Later in the same paragraph when he insists that the ruthless plundering of the countryside of Georgia will ensure that his “army will not starve” he suggests the next step in the war should be the “utter destruction of Wilmington.” (588)  I am not sure the classic reading that Sherman was plunged into a sort of heart of darkness through his experiences in the war.  He was not saying much that was not the logical extension of ideas he already expressed in the early years of the war.

He first informed his superiors of his plans to vacate Atlanta and destroy much of its infrastructure (particularly government buildings) on September 20, 1864 when he reported on talks he had with General Hood.  He reports that “it is sufficient for my Government to know that the removal of the inhabitants has been made with liberality and fairness.”  But he also states the “real reasons” for the exodus.  These are (1) use of houses for military storage, (2) limit the need for a garrison, (3) “we have a right to it,” (4) to avoid feeding the poor, (5) pro-Confederate residents will cause trouble.  His target was clearly the white population.  (In a letter to Hood, he stated that slaves could stay or go their own way.)

The correspondence between the Confederate leaders and Sherman on this issue are wonderful for its brutal honesty.  The brutality of the removal, he reminded Hood, is nothing more than the necessary consequence of the war, which was pushed on the U.S. by the rebels.  For every wrong committed by Sherman, he could point out many other examples committed by both sides.  Indeed, he believed there was nothing unique about his policy toward the citizens of Atlanta.  Hood remains horrified, in part because he seems to truly see Sherman as an agent of a conquering government.  “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 to make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race.” (598)  In contrast to these vile words, Sherman was cold and logically (and seemingly largely indifferent to the role of race and slavery as a cause of the war).

The logic of war (brutality) and the logic of the state were connected in Sherman’s mind.  In response to the arguments about the legitimacy of successive, Sherman posited that the state is eternal and had an inescapable need to assert itself.  “You cannot qualify terms 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. . . 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. . . . 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.” (601)

The March to the Sea is simply an extension of Sherman’s logic.  In his orders to his troops, he stated that the purpose was “to strike a blow at our enemy that will have a material effect in producing what we all so much desire, his complete overthrow.” (651)  During the execution of the March to the Sea, Sherman was proud of how disciplined (how state-like, if you will) the destruction was.  The pillaging, foraging, burning, and destruction was all completed with the maintenance of military order.  From time to time, soldiers had to be innovative in their approaches and while “irregular” they were never performed without discipline.  This is one of the frightful elements of total war.

marchSherman is completely correct, in the same way that Mao was, that political power is an extension of the ability to maximize military power and supplant all other competing centers of power.  Sherman does not waste time justifying his actions with a “cause.”  The war he helped win did lead to a second American Revolution, the rewriting of the Constitution, and the end of the most vile institution in American history.  Sherman speaks little on this, outside of generally calling the United States a “great” country.  Patriotism and a national story is for the people on the bottom.  For those who wield power, the weapon is its own justification.  Had Sherman learned this while a farmer or worker, he may have become an anarchist.  But he was a soldier.