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.

Ambrose Bierce, “Bits of Autobiography” and “Selected Stories”: Tocqueville in the Year 4930

Rounding out the Library of America volume collecting the majors works of Ambrose Bierce is his Bits of Autobiography and eight additional stories not published in Can Such Things Be? or In the Midst of LifeBits of Autobiography was not a focused effort by Bierce to tell his life story.  Instead, it is a collection of fragments written between 1881 and 1906.  The eight additional stories were published over the same period of time.  The most significant of these short stories is Ashes of the Beacon,” which is essnetially a political tract summarizing Bierce’s position on democracy, revolution, anarchism, and class conflict, although it is framed in the structure of a historical monograph from the distant future.  (In this way, it is not unlike Jack London’s The Iron Hell, published at a simliar time, emerging from a simliar context, although with a very differnet interpretation.)


When I was reading Bits of Autobiography last night, I was thinking of my younthful fascination with military history.  I had a small library, now mostly all liquidated, on the American Civil War and the Second World War.  Thinking back, I was reading some quite scholarly works at the time, but the vast majority of what I read came from my local cow country library and local bookstores, neither of which maintained a large selection of academic history.  What I was interested in were the battles and the generals and the brilliant tactics and massive blunders.  In short, I was training to become an armchair general.  This interest quickly died out when I attended local cow country community college.  I suppose I simply found more things of interest in my classes.  Maybe this is something many young males go through.  Bits of Autobiography like In the Midst of Life proves how utterly vapid this type of historical writing is.  What Bierce teaches us is that the violence on the battlefield is not controlled by a god on the battlefield.  Generals did not command troops movements like on a board game.  Perhaps it is the tendency to assume hierarchical structures that give the privledged perspective to the generals in so much popular military history.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought.  The arrows are so precise and clean.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought. The arrows are so precise and clean.

On one event in the savage mess that was the battle of Chikamauga: “A good deal of nonsense used to be talked about hte herorism of General Garfield, who, caught in the rout of hte right, nevertheless went back and joined the undefeated left under General Thomas.  There was no great heroism in it; that is what every man should have done, including the commander of the army.  We could hear Thomas’ guns going–those of us who had ears for them–and all that was needful was to make a sufficiently wide detour and then move toward the sound.”  (681)

Maybe the alternative is to horrible to face.  Armies are institutions, contructed by men of course, designed to take away ones autonomy.  Much of Bits of Autobiogaphy considers the dreadful marching, the long miserable days at camp, and the blistered feet.  But as well as people are trained for war, the line between bravery and cowardice is a thin one.  On the defeated men after the first day of the battle of Shiloh: “These men were defeated, beaten, cowed.  They were deaf to duty and dead to shame.  A more demented crew never drifted to th rear of broken battalions.  They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by the proveost-marshall’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank.  An army’s bravest men are its cowards.  The death which they would not meet at hte hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” (665)

So we replace this reality with valor, great heroes, and a belief that brilliance, effort, courage, the right cause, or “strategy” will win the battle for us.  Unfortunantly, when you combine the complexity of human psychology and the known and unknown unknowns battle, like life, is just a game of chance.  Better to believe in the brilliant god on the battlefield than to believe in fate.

There are a few chapters on Bierce’s post-war occupations and his enterance into the field of journalism as well.

Of the final eight stories, I will only introduce one “Ashes of the Beacon.”  This is actually worth reading as a political essay as it makes a rather good case for the ultimate failure of republicanism.  Two thousand years after the fall of the “Conneted States of America” a historian from a time when government is much more honest about its role (“To us of to-day it is clear that the word “self-government” involves a contradiction, for government means control by something other than the thing to be controlled.”) documents the causes of the decline of that republican civilization, much like how contemporary historinas might look back to the fall of the Roman Republic.  Mostly, however, I was reminded of Tocqueville’s warning that democracy will tend to lead to the promotion of self-interest.  This next bit is from Bierce, not Tocqueville: “When men or nations devote all the powers of their minds and bodies to the heaping up of wealth, wealth is heaped up.  But what avails it? . . . The result might easily have been forrseen and doubtless was predicted by patriots whose admonitations have not come down to us.  Denied protection of the law, neither property nor life was safe.  Greed filled his coffers from teh meafer hoarsds of Thift, private vengeance took the place of legal redress, mad multitudes rioted and slew ith virtual immunity form punishment or blame, and the land was red with crime.” (811, 814)

Bierce wrote this account during one of several visible peaks in the perpetual conflict between American labor and capital.  In the early 20th century, massive strikes challenged the power of capital and new labor organiations such as the Industrial Workers of the World.  As I have been arguing in this blog, there is a basic anarchism in the American political and literarcy traditions and it is not the difficult to see. That said, Bierce is correct that much of the most visible anarchist agitation of the turn of the last century was centered in immigrant communities and rooted in traditions of European anarchism, even as the U.S. was forming its own indigenous overtly anarchist tradition with the writings of Volatirine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman.  Bierce looked at events like the assassination of President McKinley as evidence that anarchism was the direct result of the self-interest and disrespect for heritage that is characteristic of democracies.  “The field of the anrchist’s greatest activity was always a republic, not only to emphasize his impartial hatred of al government, but beacuse of the inherent feebleness of that form of government, its inability to protect itself against any kind of aggression by any considerable number of its people having a common malevolent purpose.  In a republic the crust that confined hte fires of violence and desition was thinnest.” (808)

I am not going to blame Bierce for failing to see anarchism as a solution to the problems of a democratic republic, because he poses the question in the correct terms.  Self-government does seem to be a contradiction in a republic (actually in all state structures).