Rethinking General Sherman’s March to the Sea

Here’s Dr. Todd Groce, President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, giving an outstanding presentation to the 2016 Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a terrific summary not of the march itself but of Sherman’s goals and whether he was within the rules of war.

The video’s description reads, “Todd Groce talked about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s background, his ‘March to the Sea’ campaign, and how General Sherman is remembered. He described Sherman’s method as ‘hard war’ rather than total war, and argued that the targets for destruction were carefully selected to diminish Southern resolve to continue the conflict. ‘The March to the Sea: Rethinking General Sherman’ was part of the four-day conference titled ‘Atlanta, the Shenandoah, and the Turn to Total War,’ held at the Hilton Atlanta/Marietta Hotel and Conference Center.”

http://www.c-span.org/video/?407815-5/general-shermans-march-sea

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4 comments

  1. His justification for Sherman is the later lionization of LeMay et al for the destruction of Japanese cities and Vietnamese hamlets. Yet, for some reason, we don’t see Americans lionizing non-American entities willing to attack civilians to win their war. I think this is special pleading.

    1. Maybe so, Pat, but we have to remember Sherman didn’t attack civilians. He attacked the infrastructure and food source used to support the confederate armies. The confederacy’s tax in kind made it impossible to differentiate between food to support confederate armies and food to support confederate civilians. Perhaps I was too young, but I don’t recall lionization of anyone for destruction of Vietnamese hamlets. I only remember criticism for that. As to the WWII bombing campaign, I did a paper on that for Air War College, and it’s a very complicated topic that would take a monograph to discuss, so I’m going to leave that alone right now. Suffice to say you have a point that I recognize, but there’s also a very good reason for it.

      In any event, as I said you have a point, and it’s well taken. We tend to excuse what our side does as we excoriate what the other side does.

      A good example is the confederate heritage apologist movement. They tell us confederate soldiers should be honored because they fought for what they believed in and they were willing to die for what they believed in. Well, the very same can be said for the 9/11 hijackers, and we rightly don’t honor them. If that’s insufficient reason to honor the 9/11 hijackers, what makes it a sufficient reason to honor confederate soldiers?

      1. And what you said in your first sentence is quite right. After saying that Sherman pursued “hard war” rather than “total war”, he then gives total war examples as following-on Sherman. There were reasons Sherman did not simply incinerate people in their homes. In addition, some of the other post-Sherman hard war efforts he describes were unsuccessful. Sometimes burning peoples homes convinces them to surrender to Grant other times it persuades them to join the National Liberation Front.

        1. But when the NLF assassinated village elders and murdered others it didn’t drive people in the other direction. Go figure.

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