Hard War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The letter written by Union Army general William T. Sherman is in response to correspondence received from Atlanta mayor James M. Calhoun and Atlanta city council members E. E. Rawson and S. C. Wells asking Sherman to refrain from evacuating the citizens of Atlanta, Georgia. It was written days after Sherman’s troops successfully defeated Confederate forces in the city and were in the process of evacuating the remaining citizens before destroying it and continuing with their campaign through the state.

General Sherman’s now famous campaign through Georgia to the coast, often called Sherman’s March to the Sea, resulted in vast damage to civilian property and business as well as to military targets such as railroads. Sherman adopted the “total war” strategy whereby his men were ordered to destroy property and consume civilian supplies in order to hurt Southerners physically and psychologically and also to demoralize Confederate forces and reduce citizen support for the enemy, bringing a swifter end to the war.

This collection of documents also contains Sherman’s exact orders delivered to his army as they prepared to leave Atlanta and continue their campaign to the port of Savannah. Taken together, Sherman’s response to Calhoun and the Atlanta city council and his orders to his men illustrate the philosophical underpinnings of his aggressive combat strategy; they also illustrate his reservations and desire to protect those he saw as innocent from the violent tactics he was prepared to use in an effort to bring a swift end to the war.

Summary Overview

The letter written by Union Army general William T. Sherman is in response to correspondence received from Atlanta mayor James M. Calhoun and Atlanta city council members E. E. Rawson and S. C. Wells asking Sherman to refrain from evacuating the citizens of Atlanta, Georgia. It was written days after Sherman’s troops successfully defeated Confederate forces in the city and were in the process of evacuating the remaining citizens before destroying it and continuing with their campaign through the state.

General Sherman’s now famous campaign through Georgia to the coast, often called Sherman’s March to the Sea, resulted in vast damage to civilian property and business as well as to military targets such as railroads. Sherman adopted the “total war” strategy whereby his men were ordered to destroy property and consume civilian supplies in order to hurt Southerners physically and psychologically and also to demoralize Confederate forces and reduce citizen support for the enemy, bringing a swifter end to the war.

This collection of documents also contains Sherman’s exact orders delivered to his army as they prepared to leave Atlanta and continue their campaign to the port of Savannah. Taken together, Sherman’s response to Calhoun and the Atlanta city council and his orders to his men illustrate the philosophical underpinnings of his aggressive combat strategy; they also illustrate his reservations and desire to protect those he saw as innocent from the violent tactics he was prepared to use in an effort to bring a swift end to the war.

Defining Moment

The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 and resulted in the death of more than 750,000 individuals and the devastation of many cities and towns. In 1864, General William T. Sherman, then serving as second in command of the Union armies under Ulysses S. Grant, was placed in charge of an extended campaign, beginning in Tennessee and moving southeast through Georgia to Atlanta and the port city of Savannah and then north to the Carolinas.

At the onset of Sherman and Grant’s Southern campaign, a year before the end of the war, Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln was facing sharp opposition from Democratic candidate George B. McClellan, whose platform included a promise to recognize Southern independence in hopes of ending the war through a peace agreement. Public opinion had begun to turn against Lincoln and the Union war effort, and an increasing number of voters supported granting Southern independence rather than continuing the war. Sherman and Grant’s progress in the Southern front was therefore essential to rally support for the war effort. After more than three years of difficult fighting, both Grant and Sherman had personally experienced the hardships of war and were prepared to utilize unconventional tactics in an effort to gain a Union advantage.

The initial goal of Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was to cut off supply lines to Southern forces originating in Atlanta as Grant and another wing of the Union Army confronted the bulk of Confederate forces in Virginia. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign began in May of 1864 as a series of battles throughout Georgia, with the goal of seizing and destroying the city and then proceeding south to Savannah at the coast.

In May of 1864, Sherman encountered heavy resistance in the Battle of Resaca against Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston’s forces, incurring heavy causalities and failing to make progress against the Confederate lines. Similarly, the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in June resulted in more than three thousand Union deaths and drew heavy criticism from political opponents of the war effort. Although Sherman was pushing Johnston’s forces back, his progress was slow and his armies were dwindling from attempts to invade heavily entrenched Confederate battalions. The tide began to turn at the end of the summer, however, as Confederate president Jefferson Davis replaced the conservative General Johnston with the more aggressive General John Bell Hood. Despite Hood’s aggressive tactics, Sherman was able to gain the upper hand and his armies scored major victories in July. At the decisive Battle of Jonesborough on August 31, Sherman’s army drew Hood’s Army of Tennessee away from Atlanta, leaving it unprotected and opening the way for Union soldiers to take the city.

Sherman remained at his camp on the outskirts of the city for more than a week before issuing an order that the citizens of Atlanta were to evacuate. Once warning had been given, Sherman’s men destroyed and burned the majority of Atlanta, sparing churches and hospitals, before continuing with the Georgia campaign toward Savannah.

The motivations and humanitarian consequences of Sherman’s tactics have been written about frequently in historical analyses, but the result of his victory in Atlanta was significant for the future of the Union. Success in the Georgia campaign convinced many voters that success was possible in the war effort and support for Lincoln’s platform increased. A number of historians have theorized that Lincoln would not have won reelection in November 1864 if not for the success of Sherman’s March to the Sea and his victories throughout Georgia.

Author Biography

William Tecumseh Sherman was born in Lancaster, Ohio, and was one of eleven children born to prominent Ohio lawyer Charles R. Sherman and his wife Mary Sherman. He was given the middle name Tecumseh in honor of the famous Shawnee leader who fought for Native American independence in the early nineteenth century. William Sherman’s father died unexpectedly in 1829, and as his mother was unable to cope with raising eleven children on her own, William was sent to live with Senator Thomas Ewing, a family friend. Ewing used his influence to secure Sherman’s acceptance to the prestigious West Point Academy, where Sherman graduated sixth in his class in 1840 and was then assigned to an artillery regiment.

Sherman spent thirteen years serving in the army, but he did not distinguish himself during the Mexican American War, serving primarily as an administrator in California. In 1850, Sherman married his guardian’s daughter, Eleanor (Ellen) Ewing and became an official member of the Ewing family. Sherman retired from the army in 1853 and attempted to support his family through a variety of activities, including pursuing a career as a lawyer, but he failed to achieve any significant success outside of the military.

Sherman was working for a St. Louis-based streetcar company at the dawn of the Civil War and volunteered for service. He was commissioned as a colonel and led the attack at Bull Run, which was a major defeat for the Union forces. During his service, Sherman befriended Union major general Ulysses Grant, who eventually became his superior. Grant placed Sherman in charge of the Army of West Tennessee and the two men fought together at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Sherman was shot twice and lost two horses during the battle, but he never surrendered, and his performance won the respect of Grant and resulted in Sherman’s promotion to major general.

In 1864, Lincoln placed Grant in charge of all Union armies, and Grant enlisted Sherman as his second in command. Sherman’s March to the Sea resulted in a key Union victory in Atlanta and additional victories as the army proceeded south, eventually taking the port city of Savannah. Sherman’s role in this bold offensive made him a Union hero and a household name throughout the country. In addition, his approach of “total war” during his march became an important concept in the fields of military tactics and ethics.

Following the Union victory in the Civil War, Sherman’s correspondence and writings indicate that he was weary of fighting and of the military life, yet he remained with the military as commander of the Missouri district and deployed troops to protect the transcontinental railroad workers from Indian attacks. It was during this time that Sherman became outspoken on the matter of the government’s Indian policy. Sherman was a supporter of President Andrew Jackson’s policies to relocate American Indians to reservations, and he believed that all Indians should be placed on reservations and forced to remain there. Sherman and fellow Civil War veteran General Philip Sheridan played a major role in the US Army campaigns to eliminate resistance among the Comanche, Kiowa, Lakota, and Cheyenne tribes. Using Sherman’s total war tactics, the army worked to force the remaining members of these tribes onto reservations by 1870.

Though he was a famous figure in the United States, Sherman refused to enter politics and preferred to remain in leadership positions within the military. After his retirement in 1884, Sherman was asked to run for president by a number of military leaders and politicians in Washington, but he declined, famously remarking that he would not serve even if elected. Sherman died in 1891 in New York City and was buried in Missouri, near members of his extended family.

Document Analysis

Major General William Sherman began his advance on Atlanta in August of 1864, and though he encountered significant early resistance, Confederate forces retreated on September 1. At the time, Sherman was stationed near the town of Lovejoy, Georgia, which was the site of the Battle of Lovejoy on August 20 and was a key victory for Sherman’s army. On September 8, Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 67, which officially gave the command for the citizens of Atlanta to abandon their homes and businesses and leave the city. Mayor James Calhoun, realizing the hardship that the evacuation would cause to the citizens of his city, wrote to Sherman, supported by several Atlanta city council members, requesting that the general refrain from enforcing the evacuation order.

On September 12, Sherman personally drafted a response to Mayor Calhoun and the council members explaining why he would not cancel the planned evacuation of the city. Sherman’s letter to Calhoun explains the reasoning behind his strategy of total war, which involved punishing not only enemy combatants, but also all noncombatants who supported enemy forces, either directly or indirectly. Though Sherman was aware that the evacuation of Atlanta would be a devastating hardship for its citizens, many of whom did not directly support the Confederate war effort, he stated that his orders to evacuate the city were “not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest.”

During the first two years of the Civil War, Sherman, like many Union officers, ordered their soldiers to avoid harming the citizens of Confederate states and to limit their aggression toward those who played an active role in the Confederate war effort. As the war continued, Sherman and many other Union generals found that they were repeatedly attacked or had their supplies and munitions compromised by groups of Southern citizens who employed guerrilla tactics to undermine Union forces. Additionally, the Union generals realized that civilian support in the form of food and shelter allowed Confederate forces to withstand extended attacks in their own territory, which ultimately prolonged the war. “Now that war comes home to you,” Sherman argued in his letter to Calhoun, “you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent carloads of soldiers and ammunition… to desolate the homes of hundreds of thousands of good people.”

Sherman explains much of his reasoning to Calhoun in his response. In once section, Sherman writes, “The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes is inconsistent with its character as a home for families.” What Sherman wanted to convey was that the manufacturing, agricultural, and economic resources of the city were considered by him part of the overall war machine that supported the Confederate cause. “I cannot impart to you what we propose to do,” Sherman wrote, “but I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away.”

Sherman wanted to avoid stationing significant numbers of his soldiers in the city to guard it against returning Confederate soldiers, so his intent was to destroy the manufacturing capabilities of the city such that the Confederates would not be able to use it as a supply port. Sherman intended to remove Atlanta as a potential safe haven by damaging the city’s infrastructure and its capabilities to a sufficient extent that it would need to be rebuilt over a long period before it could again serve as a source of comfort and supply to the enemy forces.

Sherman’s letter to Calhoun is the source of one of his most famous quotes, “War is cruelty,” sometimes misquoted as “War is hell,” which is often cited as part of the central underpinnings of his military strategy. Sherman believed that it was hypocritical to try and conduct war in a “refined” or “civilized” manner, as war was essentially a violent and destructive process. Further, he believed that any attempt to reduce the impact of a war only undermined the effort needed to achieve victory. It was Sherman’s intention that the people of Atlanta and all Southern citizens would be subject to what he saw as the realities of warfare such that they would embrace a Union victory and submit to complete surrender. In Sherman’s opinion, any compromise that did not guarantee total victory for the Union would only permit the continued instability of the country, forcing the United States to, in his words, “reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war.”

Toward the end of his letter, Sherman wrote, “You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable.” Sherman offered no solution for the citizens of Atlanta except in that he guaranteed them safe passage if they chose to evacuate the city. To end the war, Sherman said, all of the Southern citizens would have to admit, “that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.” Sherman goes on to say that the Union Army was not interested in the wealth or property of the Atlanta for its value. “We don’t want your Negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your lands, or anything you have,” Sherman wrote, adding that the only thing they demanded from the citizens was “a just obedience to the laws of the United States.” This, Sherman asserts will be won, even if he and his soldiers needed to destroy the South in order to achieve it.

Sherman’s southern campaign was only beginning when his forces took control of Atlanta, and over the next month, they continued marching south through the state to the coast and the port city of Savannah. In the cultural legacy of the Southern states devastated by Sherman’s campaign, his total war tactics have been condemned as war crimes that violated even the most basic moral standards. While it has been factually shown that Sherman’s forces decimated property throughout Atlanta and purposefully destroyed any business or facility that might provide materials or aid to combatants, the popular mythology of the event holds that Sherman’s men also committed numerous acts of violence against citizens, including public beatings, murder of unarmed civilians, and widespread rape. More comprehensive analyses indicate that while crimes of this nature occurred in some cases, they were not widespread and rumors of Sherman’s war crimes were perpetuated by Confederate propaganda. Whether the Union Army’s actions have been exaggerated in historical recounts, the destruction and suffering caused by Sherman’s campaign in Atlanta and states further south was considerable and left a lasting mark on the culture of the region.

In addition to Sherman’s memoirs and correspondence from the period, which have helped historians to preserve the philosophical motivations behind his military strategy, historians have also studied the orders issued by Sherman to his soldiers, including the now infamous Special General Order 67, which called for the forced evacuation of Atlanta. Another set of military orders is the Special Field Orders No. 120, which were issued on November 9, 1864, and contain specific instructions to his army regarding the procedures that would be used as they began the Savannah Campaign, Sherman’s March to the Sea.

The specific orders issued by Sherman indicate that while he was committed to his philosophy of total war, he asked his men to limit their destruction in areas where the citizens provided no resistance. In addition, Sherman explicitly instructed his soldiers to take supplies and provisions from those who were wealthy, while exercising caution in taking needed supplies from the poorer citizens they encountered.

Sherman’s forces numbered more than six hundred thousand men, with nearly three thousand wagons in addition to cavalry and peripheral personnel. As the armies left Atlanta, they did not carry sufficient provisions with them to survive the trek to Savannah and were instead ordered to “forage liberally” from the surrounding territory. Sherman instructed his soldiers not to enter the homes of any citizens along their route, but he gave them permission to take food from farmland as needed in order to maintain a supply of food and water for ten days. Sherman also gave the army freedom to take any horses, mules, or other needed supplies, but again he cautioned his men in regard to their treatment of the citizens: “In all foraging, of whatever kind,” Sherman wrote in the sixth item in the Special Orders, No. 120, “the parties engages will refrain from abusive or threatening language.” Further, Sherman ordered that his soldiers should leave the citizens with sufficient food, supplies, and equipment to maintain themselves.

While the specific orders issued by Sherman indicate a level of concern for the citizens of Georgia that exceeds the image perpetrated in Confederate historical accounts, he remained committed to his policy of forcing the submission of the populace as well as the Confederate soldiers. Sherman also issued an order to his corps commanders to destroy any buildings, mills, or other manufacturing facilities as they see fit in the course of their march. Here, Sherman’s philosophy of total war is at the forefront, as he intended to render all of the towns and cities along his march unable to lend aid of any type to rebel forces.

With regard to slaves, Sherman gave his soldiers permission to enlist as many “able bodied Negroes” as they saw fit during their march, but he cautioned that the commanding officers should be careful not to take so many extra persons as to place too high a demand on their supplies. Sherman was not concerned with the abolitionist goals of the war effort, and he drew his primary commitment to the war from what he viewed as the more important concerns of economics and national security. By the end of the war, Sherman had become more dedicated to abolition, perhaps in part because he was asked to meet with black abolition leaders and had been widely praised by former slaves who viewed him as a savior. In 1864, when Sherman issued these orders to his men, he shared the belief held by many on both sides of the civil conflict that the lives of African Americans were of less absolute worth than the lives of white men. Sherman also recommended that each marching unit should create a “pioneer brigade” to march in front of the other soldiers, and should, if possible, utilize African Americans in this unit (as this was the unit that was most likely to incur heavy casualties in the event of a battle).

In both his direct orders to the soldiers under his command and his response to Mayor Calhoun’s plea, Sherman’s primary focus was to bring the war to an end as expediently as possible. “I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war,” Sherman wrote in his response to Calhoun, adding “I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.” Sherman’s total war strategy, though surely increasing the suffering of the citizens of Atlanta and elsewhere along his march, ultimately shortened the war by destroying the morale of the citizens who emotionally supported the soldiers fighting for Confederate independence. Sherman’s tactical strategy made him a hero in the North and infamous throughout the South.

Essential Themes

Sherman’s letter to Calhoun and the Atlanta councilmen and his written orders to his men as they began the Savannah campaign, display Sherman’s attempts to balance his personal sense of justice and the prevailing attitudes regarding fairness and morality in conflict, with a desire to bring a rapid end to the war. By 1864, soldiers on both sides of the conflict had been wearied by continued fighting and had seen numerous friends and fellow soldiers die. The Civil War resulted in more casualties than any other war in American history, and the Union Army suffered greater causalities in many of the major battles of the war, which were waged entrenched in Confederate territory against an enemy using guerrilla fighting tactics in their home region.

Sherman’s letter and memoirs from the era reveal a man who was deeply tired of the continued struggle and longed to end the war quickly by whatever means necessary. In the end, he believed he was forced to compromise his principles to make progress in the war effort. In addition, the length and terrible carnage of the Civil War had engendered deep hatred on both sides, with combatants increasingly fighting with a sense of vengeance against their enemies. Sherman’s orders to his army clearly reveal that he was still committed to reducing the negative impact of the war on those who did not stand in the way of the Union cause, but he had also come to believe that victory required forcing Confederate citizens into submission.

Another interesting facet of Sherman’s writings from the period concerns his overall view of abolition and this goal of the war effort. Sherman, like many men in his era, believed that “negroes” were of lesser value than white men. While abolition was a major drive in the Civil War, Sherman’s beliefs in the inferiority of African Americans and the acceptance of these sentiments by many of his soldiers clearly indicate that abolition was not foremost in the minds of many who fought for the Union cause. To Sherman and many others, the economic and political benefits gained by preventing secession were far more important than freeing slaves or fighting for human rights on behalf of African Americans. Sherman mentions, by way of explaining his opposition to the Southern position, his belief that if the South were allowed to secede, the United States would suffer the fate of Mexico, one he describes as “eternal war.” Here, Sherman echoes the fear of many who took up the Union cause: allowing secession of Southern states would forever leave the Union in a weakened position, potentially unable to defend itself as a country and doomed to generations of conflicts with the Confederates.

Bibliography
  • Campbell, Jaqueline Glass. When Sherman Marched North From the Sea: Resistance on the Confederate Home Front. Greensboro: U of North Carolina P, 2003. Print.
  • Caudill, Edward, and Paul Ashdown. Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory. Lanham: Rowman, 2009. Print.
  • Trudeau, Noah Andre. Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea. New York: Harper, 2009. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Flood, Charles Bracelen. Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War. New York: Harper, 2004. Print.
  • Hoogenboom, Lynn. William Tecumseh Sherman: The Fight to Preserve the Union. New York: Rosen, 2004. Print.
  • Marszalek, John F. Sherman’s Other War: The General and the Civil War Press. Memphis: U of Memphis P, 1999. Print.
  • Moody, Wesley. Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2011. Print.
  • Simpson, Brooks D., and Jean Vance Berlin, eds. Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman 1860–1865. Greensboro: U of North Carolina P, 1999. Print.
  • Whilelaw, Nancy. William Tecumseh Sherman: Defender and Destroyer. Greensboro: Morgan, 1996. Print.
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