One of the most controversial aspects of the Civil War is the above mentioned topic. Some have gone so far as to suggest that his rampage across the South to be the birth of what we would call modern warfare, that is to say that the war must be carried into the heartlands of an enemy to destroy his capacity to make war, and anyone who contributes in any way to the enemy war effort constitutes and enemy. War was no longer confined to battlefields.
The controversy rages still. Supporters say that General Sherman was a hero who did what had to be done to end the war and reunite the country, lest it go on and on. Die-hard Southerners instead believe that Sherman was a war criminal who used dishonorable means to force the South to submit, whatever the cost to the civilians caught in the middle. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
Was the March justified? If it was not, by what rule or principle? If Sherman was a war criminal, what exactly was his crime? Is it right in any sense of the word to burn crops and kill livestock to reduce the enemy's ability to resist? Is it fair the lay the blame for modern warfare on the shoulders of one man considering that the Civil War laid the groundwork for war in the 20th century in so many ways?
Sherman is still a demon to many in the South, which is purely hypocritical considering I have spoken to die-hard rebs (I lived in Virginia for five years) who call the man a war criminal with one breath but defend the actions of Quantrill's Raiders with the next. Quantrill's Raiders murdered 150 unarmed men and boys (boys, by the way, means that they were CHILDREN) in their attack on Lawrence, Kansas. How can this be justified? Are actions deplorable if committed by the enemy and somehow always justified if committed by one's own side? If someone is a die-hard Confederate, how do they justify the actions of a guerilla when those actions were deplored by the Confederate Government? It has been suggested to me by those whose company I don't much care for that Quantrill's actions were justifiable because he was fighting for a good cause, and that the cause of Southern Independence was worth any atrocity that might be committed. After all, you can't break an omelets with breaking 150 defenseless eggs.
But then Sherman is the war criminal. The South may hate his guts, but Sherman never hated them back. Sherman loved the South. He loved Southerners. He lived in the South for many years. He wanted to show mercy at a time when Radical Republicans were looking for vengeance. His voice was among the loudest calling for an amicable reunion. Sherman even voiced sympathy for the Southern call for state's rights. He believed that some matters are better left for the states to dictate for themselves rather than the U.S. Government. That said, he believed that secession was going to far. Sherman thought that there was nothing, let alone slavery discussed in terms of expansion and economics that could be a justifiable reason to risk the downfall of the nation. Sherman, by the way, was not troubled by the concept of slavery. He cared nothing for blacks, and figured that whatever the South did with them was just fine. He didn't, however, believe that the attempts by Northern politicians to curtail the expansion of slavery into the west gave the South the right to secede. When Sherman, at the end of the war, met face to face with Confederate Joseph E. Johnston, Johnston was elated. Sherman was his friend, and Johnston also knew that Sherman's love of the South would make for a less-than-vengeful attitude towards the disbanding of his army. Johnston was right. Sherman's terms to Johnston were favorable to say the least, and many veterans of Johnston's command viewed Sherman in a very friendly light. To many Southerners, Sherman was a hero who just happened to wear a blue uniform.
Still, Sherman was a loyal soldier of the United States. He took very seriously his oath to 'defend the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.' He was not amused at his friends who broke that oath and became the very enemies in question. Sherman wanted the South back in the Union. He wanted his country whole again. That meant winning the war.
Sherman's mission to burn crops, slaughter livestock, destroy Southern industry, and wipe out the Southern rail system was brutal, and there is no way around that. But was it necessary? Was Sherman a criminal, or a man who got cozy with the needs of war? If he hadn't reduced the ability of the South to continue the fight, what would have happened? The war would almost certainly have gone on longer. How many more would have died? How many die-hard Confederates would not be alive today because their ancestors would have been killed in the war in 1866?
Here is another question that bears asking: If Sherman had been a Confederate general and had undertaken such a destructive march across the North, how would the South feel about him then? Would he be a man who did what he had to do and thus his actions would have been justified? Does the South hate him not so much for the destruction he caused than for the fact that he beat them and hastened their defeat? Is right or wrong based not on action but on whose side you're on?
The war ended in its time, and a great reason for this is the South could not continue the war because of the actions of Sherman behind their lines. Call him a criminal, but the March to the Sea brought him little pleasure. He talked publicly about the South needing to be taught a lesson (so to speak), but like so many others, the public man and the private man were quite different. He loved the South, as stated before, and was torn apart by his need to destroy it. But he thought that there was no other way if the war was to end any time soon and his old Southern friends were to be his countrymen again. He talked much to both Lincoln and to Grant about how much he despised the need to punish the South, even as he was telling the newspapers that he felt no sympathy for them.
“War is hell” and guess who said that? Perhaps Sherman thought that laying waste to a place he loved and was home to many of his friends was hell. Perhaps this cannot be explained by right or wrong. Perhaps there is no fair or unfair here. In the end, the war had to end. The country had to be made whole. Just like Agamemnon who sacrificed his own daughter to gain the winds for his ships to sail to Troy and destroy it, Sherman had to look in the mirror and realize that he had to destroy something he loved for the sake of a country he loved more.
Nothing about that war was fair. Little about any war is. As much as his name is demonized in the South even today, I can only sit and ponder the emotions the man must have felt inside in places he didn't talk about as he sat on his horse and watched Atlanta burn to the ground.
In my opinion, such as it is, the man was no demon, he was a soldier. He was no war criminal, he was a loyal American. He was not a vicious destroyer, he was a man who wanted his country to survive. He wanted the United States to reunite. Of course, we did just that.