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.