It’s important to admit bias up front, and I will tell you that I went into this with a strong sense of near-adulation. Sherman has long been my greatest hero among American generals (and it’s a short list). I have no use for Civil War literature that waxes nostalgic for the “lost cause” of wealthy Southern Caucasians, nor can I stomach the revisionist notion that the war was really just a sad, sad misunderstanding that might have been averted with a little more discussion. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an historic necessity with material roots. Marxist historian George Novak wrote that the opportunity to avoid war and let the Industrial Revolution march forward unfettered by slavery was lost when the slave owners firmly declined all offers to compensate them for “their” slaves and let them go free, so that progress and humanity might take a great leap forward. And so I am a great fan of Sherman’s. His march through Georgia was correct and righteous, and the anger his soldiers unleashed upon the state that began the whole process in a premeditated and aggressive manner, South Carolina, was well placed.
Now that all of that has been dealt with, I can talk about his written record.
Sherman’s memoir is remarkable. He was one of those rare beings, both a soldier and an incredible scholar (in the mold of Lewis and Clark, perhaps). He headed a military academy in Louisiana when the South seceded, and after giving a moving farewell speech to his students–the man gives a sense of being capable of really creating personal bonds, while at the same time knowing that if he has to say goodbye forever, he’ll do it–and went to Washington to seek orders.
Sherman is an outstanding writer, and his voice comes through loud and clear. I confess my affection for him is marred slightly by his horrific perspective (probably not unusual, but this guy never did anything halfway) toward the American Indian. I decided enough was enough, and skipped forward to the Civil War. My husband, whom I will call Mr. Computer, was also reading it, as we had accidentally procured two copies, and he did the same.
The opening years of the war are incredibly frustrating to study. McClellan had been a big-deal general during the war against Mexico, and he was initially placed in charge, while Grant and Sherman lingered in the background out west, each having left the military under a cloud, Grant for his drinking during the Mexican war, and Sherman as having been perceived as crazy. (Today I think a nice bottle of Xanax or Valium would’ve done wonders for the man in peace time years, but I believe he merely suffered from anxiety, and there’s a lot of that out there)!
By reading Sherman, one does not get an account of the whole Civil War; he can’t rightfully provide such a thing, because this is a memoir, so he writes about the places he went and the battles in which he took part. He is lavish in his praise of competent or even excellent officers, and takes pains to mention as many as possible by name, sending them down in history as heroes alongside himself.
His most famous contribution, the 3-campaigns-in-one march of some 425 miles, from the siege of Atlanta, to its invasion, and his willingness to tell the truth and avoid the senseless pussyfooting of his predecessors, who had stupidly believed that by firing over the heads of the Confederates, they could scare them into submission, is an inspiration. He understood that in order to win a war and have it be over, the gloves must come off, and ugly things had to be done. He limited his attacks to Confederate soldiers until the local population began to sabotage his efforts, at which point, without hesitation, he burnt local homes, measure for measure. Inside the city, he endeavored to destroy any and all infrastructure that would aid the enemy, since Confederate weapons, clothing, and food were nearly all warehoused in this city. He personally supervised the destruction of the railroads that would otherwise keep supplies moving between Atlanta and the field, and cut his own supply line, a gutsy move unheard of previously. He soon learned not to trust Cavalry to destroy the railroads, because they’d just tear the tracks off, and someone else would put them back on. Sherman supervised the heating of the rails till they were white-hot and pliable, and created a tool for bending them around the trunks of trees, or into knots when no trees were nearby, so that no one would ever use them again.
Sherman has an unfairly tainted reputation regarding the Black people of the South, perhaps because he discouraged newly-freed families from following his train. The issue was a logistical one; he had enough food for his soldiers, thanks to their resourcefulness in foraging, and he welcomed single Black men to assist in noncombatant ways in order to free up his soldiers. (He was not willing to arm his Black enlistees, and was pleasantly surprised when he found others had successfully done so later). But when someone from Washington came down and privately interviewed former slaves to see who they trusted and who they didn’t, they gave their unilateral trust to Sherman. This is the proof for me, that although he was later unsure they were ready for the ballot before they became literate (with which I disagreed), he treated them with kindness and they revered him, viewing him alongside President Lincoln, as their liberator.
Grant was so eager to have Sherman back to help him fight Lee across the Potomac that he nearly boarded him and all his men onto ships once he reached the sea. Sherman talked him out of it, saying that he must go THROUGH the Carolinas in order for those insulated in die-hard South Carolina to see the might of the American army, and understand that resistance truly was futile. The newspapers (and Sherman’s feelings toward the press were as plain as everything else; on the one hand, I do love a free press, but they were publishing his battle plans, which were supposed to be secret, and so I can understand his hostility toward them!) of the South printed lies, saying that the South was winning its quest for separation, and Sherman felt that personal experience was the only thing that would really convince those who had first seceded, who had fired on Fort Sumter, and perhaps since they started all this, it was appropriate that they not be spared the privations that the people of Georgia, who were much less enthusiastic toward the Confederacy, had experienced.
Grant was smart enough to listen to him, and let him follow what he considered the best course of action. Lincoln was a true friend and leader who knew when to stop delegating. Again and again, lies came to him about Grant, that he was drinking again, etc. and should be removed, and Lincoln, who was well and truly done with the likes of McClellan, Pope, and Burnside, said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights”. I mention this, not as a digression but because Grant and Sherman were hand in glove. This partnership, this blending of mind and purpose, is part of what made victory possible.
Sherman and his men fought their way through woods, swamps, over quicksand, through areas previously considered impenetrable, and unlike many high-ranking officers, he gave himself no perks that he did not share with his men (apart from the rare invitation to dinner with a Union family). At the very end of his memoir, he devotes perhaps 20 or 30 pages to what constitutes effective leadership, and one thing I was struck by is that he believes a commanding officer should ride up front, because the men leading it have pride in the fact that they are leading, and that disorder and bad behaviors are limited to the rear. In short, he is safer with the men in front, and he has to see what is ahead to draw the correct conclusions about what should be done next. He sleeps on the ground, just like his men. At one moving point, he and his men sought refuge from a storm by sleeping in a church, and some of the soldiers found carpets and made him a little bed up by the altar. Sherman told them to give that bed to their division leader, because he was used to sleeping hard. “Then I fell down on a pew and was instantly asleep”.
After Lincoln’s assassination by a Confederate sympathizer, and attempts upon the lives of Seward, Secretary of War, and others, newly-minted President Johnson suddenly knocked Sherman’s legs from beneath him. Without a hint or clue as to why, Sherman was suddenly vilified, and the orders to his subordinates NOT TO OBEY HIM were released to the press. Such lack of appreciation for a man who gave his all to the Union took my breath away. Apparently Secretary of War Stanton, who replaced Steward once he was injured, was filled with paranoia and behaved both irrationally and unfairly. This was primarily his doing, and Sherman knew it. He reported to Grant, and ONLY to Grant.
Upon reaching Washington DC, each leading general paraded with his army before a massive crowd, and Sherman had his rightful place on the review stand once he reached it. He passed down the line, shaking hands along the line of others who’d been seated there…until he reached Secretary Stanton. At this point, he states that he publicly brushed past the outstretched hand offered him, thus returning the public insult that had been dealt him in the press. He snubbed the guy in as public a manner as possible, and I once again wanted to cheer. Well done.
“War is war, and not popularity seeking”, he responded to someone who questioned his destruction of Georgia, and the sieges that left rebel cities on the brink of starvation. And he was right. It can’t be over until someone has the courage to wage real war. His frankness and his affection for his troops, even though he knew some of them would fall, or maybe even more so because of it, was deeply moving, and I came away feeling that I had read one of the best memoirs ever.
One more thing I’d add, for those who get the edition that I read: if you flip to the last page, it says 490. Hmmmm. The book appears to be longer, but then, there’s a lot of small print, where he documents everything meticulously, using primarily the telegrams and letters from himself to his superiors and vice-versa.
But there’s something more. This was originally a two volume set. It’s less expensive to buy just one book, but it remains two volumes under one cover. Once you reach the FIRST page 409, There is a page that says VOLUME II and then you start on page 1 again, so that you are actually reading over 800 pages.
Put together with Southern historian Shelby Foote’s less-apt and rabidly pro-Confederate trilogy, this was a meal, yet I don’t regret reading them together, since it provided two perspectives (and I am finishing Burke Davis’s book on Sherman’s march to the sea, a smaller volume with a third perspective that is closer to Sherman’s own).
But if you ask me who I believe when facts collide: I believe Sherman.
Post script: Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy is not reviewed on this blog, because I only give space to work I respect and have rated at four or five stars on a one-through-five star scale.