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, “In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians) Part 1 (1892): Jeffersonian Democracy at War

The stories in In the Midst of Life were published individually in the 1880s and 1890s, when the United States was undergoing a re-imagining of the Civil War as a conflict between brothers, rather than the libretory revolution.  Of course, this shift in historical memory took place at the same time that racial boundaries hardened through disfranchisement and Jim Crow.  This moral distance from the issues of economic exploitation, racism, and slavery is striking in Ambrose Bierce.  We can perhaps forgive him because he is so strikingly modern in his interpreation of warfare.  The first half of In the Midst of Life is made up of 15 stories of the experiences of soldiers during the American Civil War.  None touch on the profound issues of the war.  Bierce is interested in the mundane, the ironic, and the banal happenings of military life.  That is not to say that these are not tragic events.  From the perspective of the grand military writers, these everyday hanging of spies, shooting at scouts, or the slow death of wounded soldiers are banal.  Bierce makes them the heart of his stories.  In this way, he foreshadows how war will be understood in the 20th century: indifferent and egalitarian. This is the dilemma of warfare in a democratic era.  If we are all equal before the law and before our creator, how do we prove our quality.  Our failures are a measure of something lacking in ourselves, not in an system of structured inequalities.  We want to believe that training, skill, gallantry, honor, or strength translated into martial victory.  In an era of democracy, we have only ourselves to blame for our failings, including our defeat on the battlefield.  The realities of war, however, are also democratizing.  A cannonball or bullet is just as likely to hit my neighbor as me.  His death, or mine own, is just as likely.  Warfare becomes brutish mathematics.  However, one need only watch a late 20th century war film to see examples of honor, valor, or skill winning out.  It is this tension that Bierce powerfully explores in In the Midst of Life.


David Simon talked about Paths of Glory and made the interesting point that even books and films that try to be anti-war often tend to praise warriors and suggest their nobility.  This, he suggests, undermines the anti-war spirit.

There is some of this spirit in Bierce, but as he believes that the indiscriminate nature of the violence in the American Civil War was still running oddly against a people eager to show their valor whenever possible.  In “A Horseman in the Sky” a private for the Union Army meets his father on the opposing side as a Scout.  He kills his father, but not before taking in the beauty, actually the divinity, of the equestrian scene.  In “A Son of the Gods” a brave scout doomed to die, exhibits a suicidal bravado.  “He stands erect, motionless, holding his sabre in his right have straight above his head.  His face is toward us.  Now he lowers his hand to a level with his face and moves it outward, the blade of the sabre describing a downward curve.  It is a sign to us, to the world, to posterity.  It is a hero’s salute to death and history.” (32)  In “Killed at Resaca” we learn that women played no small role in encouraging this reckless valor.  In this story, one of the bravest and most reckless men in the unit dies.  With his death the narrator finds a letter from his girlfriend saying “I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.” (51)

Bierce puts us in the realm of total war and machine war, where killing is indiscriminate, executions are everyday events (In the famous “Occurance at the Owl Creek Bridge” the murdered Confederate sympathizer was entrapped.), and women and children experience war first hand.  The story “Chickamauga” gives us a deaf-mute child walking through the battlefield, finding his idealistic, boyhood concept of war shattered by finding a dead woman near the battle.  “There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman–the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood.  The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles–the work of a shell.” (25)  In the similarly themed “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, a young officer is horrified to find he is expected to shell guns located near his home.  After the “affair” he finds his wife and child dead in the basement.

Notice with me that none of the stories describe battles.  They only describe “occurrences,” “affairs, and “events.”  They are objectively extraordinary.  Men put in a position where they need to shoot their father or risk the lives of their children, men sent on one-way trips to “scout” the enemy lines and wounded men desperate for the means to kill themselves populate these stories.  In the context of mechanized and indifferent warfare, these occurrences are horrifyingly commonplace.

Bierce reminds us that war has no business being romanticized.  I might add that the barricade or the revolution is no less brutal and indiscriminate.  Where I want to part ways with Bierce is in his moral indifference.  Although war has become brutally egalitarian (at least before the age drones, when a technologically superior foe can murder his enemies without any risk of recompense – and still get medals for valor), struggle is not without purpose.  I wonder how former slaves who served in the war read accounts like Bierce’s.  I suspect they would have felt familiar with the natural equality modern war creates, but wondered why Bierce extended that equality to the divergent purposes of the two armies.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible.  In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible. In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

What has been our response to modern war?  No longer can our heroes be drawn at the human level.  In medieval romance, a knight could be presented heroically.  The longbow and musket put an end to that.  The general, hitherto, seen as running the battle like a god, has become a bureaucrat measuring death and destruction with mathematical precision.  Without these heroes we have created superheroes.  They are difficult to kill, reviving the possibility of valor.  Often they are deinstitutionalized as well.  Unfortunately, these models are perfectly useless for our really existing struggles.