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The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865

by Mark Grimsley
Cambridge University Press, 244 pp., $29.95

Robert E. Lee: A Biography

by Emory M. Thomas
Norton, 472 pp., $30.00

In 1994, one hundred and thirty years after General William T. Sherman’s army set forth on its march from Atlanta to the sea, Sherman’s legacy remained vivid and bitter in the South. A proposed monument to Sherman’s soldiers at Bentonville, North Carolina, where one of the last battles of the Civil War took place, ran into a firestorm of local opposition. Sherman was “more evil than Ivan the Terrible or Genghis Khan,” declared the Secretary of Cultural Resources for North Carolina. His soldiers deserved no monument, agreed the state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Monuments should be erected to heroes. These were no heroes. They were thieves, murderers, rapists, arsonists, trespassers.”

These words are a fair sample of opinion among guardians of the lostcause legend in the South. The Sons of Confederate Veterans celebrated their defeat of the plan for a monument (Bentonville Battlefield is a state park) as a glorious victory by the heirs of those who should have won the war. The American Civil War is a highly visible exception to the adage that victors write the history of wars. No defeated nation has had more numerous and ardent champions than the Confederacy. And no victorious general since Genghis Khan has a worse historiographical reputation than Sherman. In recent years, however, his devil image has undergone considerable transformation outside the ranks of neo-Confederate partisans.

Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War is the latest and best study to strip away the myth and explore the reality of Sherman’s attack on the Southern civilian economy and population as a means of winning the war. Grimsley maintains that the actions of Sherman and other Union commanders were “seldom the wanton, wholesale fury of legend” but rather struck a “balance between severity and restraint” and were “indeed discriminate and roughly proportional to legitimate needs.” Compared with the policies of Philip II of Spain against the Dutch in the sixteenth century, with those of the British in Ireland and of all armies in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century, or with the murder and bombing of civilians by both Axis and Allies in World War II, “the restraint of Union armies in the Civil War acquires fresh salience.” This argument will not change the minds of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But it will impress fair-minded readers.

Several historians have portrayed Sherman as the progenitor of modern “total war,” which reached its climax in World War II.1 By 1864 Union military leaders, especially Sherman, concentrated on the destruction of Southern railroads, factories, farms, and anything else that sustained the Confederate war effort. The emancipation of slaves was part of this “total war” against Southern resources, for the slaves made up most of the South’s labor force and their liberation would cripple the Confederacy’s economy. Sherman’s recognition that the civilian population can be as important in war as armies themselves is regarded as a harbinger of the future. “We are not only fighting hostile armies,” he said, “but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

Sherman also practiced psychological warfare against enemy civilians in a manner that supposedly anticipated total war in the twentieth century. The terror that his soldiers provoked among Southern whites “was a power,” he wrote, “and I intended to utilize it…to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and to make them fear and dread us…. We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South, but we can make war so terrible” and “make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.”2

These words make Sherman sound like an advocate of total war. But Grimsley challenges this notion. He accepts the thesis of Mark Neely that true total war is war “without any scruples or limitations” that “breaks down the distinction between soldiers and civilians, combatants and noncombatants,” war in which soldiers give no quarter, take on prisoners, and make no discrimination between taking the lives of enemy soldiers and enemy civilians, “and this no one in the Civil War did systematically.”3 As Grimsley makes clear, the killing or even rape of white civilians in the South by Union soldiers was extremely rare. Compared with ethnic cleansing by Serbian armies in Bosnia, Union armies in the South were models of decorum. Sherman’s soldiers destroyed a great deal of property, to be sure. But Allied bombers in World War II destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives as well. That was total war.

Grimsley searches for a different label to describe the kind of conflict the American Civil War became by 1864. His solution is “hard war,” characterized by a military policy of “directed severity.” These phrases, however, are less important than the story that gives them meaning. And Grimsley tells that story more clearly than anyone else has so far done. In lucid, straightforward prose grounded in thorough research he analyzes the evolution of Union strategy through three main phases. The first was a policy of “conciliation,” premised on a belief in the essential loyalty to the Union of a silent majority of Southern people. The passions of the moment, so the argument went, had stampeded them into the secessionist camp. But if the Union government and its armies pursued a policy of firmness tempered by restraint, that silent majority would gradually be won back to loyalty. The deluded fire-eaters who had taken the South into rebellion and the armies they had raised were the enemy, but the mass of Southern people were not. Thus Northern commanders invading the Confederacy in the first year of the war issued strict orders against pillaging and placed guards around Southern civilian property to enforce these orders. Above all, the Lincoln administration and Congress pledged in 1861 not to touch the most sensitive property of all—the slaves.

None other than William Tecumseh Sherman was initially an outspoken advocate of the conciliation policy. In the summer of 1861 he deplored the marauding tendencies of Union soldiers in Virginia. “No goths or vandals ever had less respect for the lives and property of friends and foes, and henceforth we ought never to hope for any friends in Virginia.” As late as July 1862, when Sherman commanded Union occupation forces in the Memphis area, he punished some of his men who took mules and horses from farmers. Such “petty thieving and pillaging,” he wrote, “does us infinite harm.” He authorized military police to shoot soldiers who stole or vandalized private property. “This demoralizing and disgraceful practice of pillage must cease,” he declared, “else the country will rise on us and justly shoot us down like dogs and wild beasts.”4 William Sherman’s brother John, a powerful senator from Ohio, even went so far in August 1862 as to rebuke the general for “your leniency to the rebels” who were “bitter enemies to be…conquered by confiscation…by terror, energy, audacity, rather than by conciliation.”

John Sherman’s words foreshadowed a new policy—one that his brother would soon embrace wholeheartedly. Several factors produced this turn toward “hard war.” The first was loss of faith in those presumed legions of Southern Unionists ready to reassert their control once Northern armies conquered Southern territory and defeated Confederate armies. Northern forces did conquer thousands of square miles of territory and win several battles in the first half of 1862. But few Unionists came forward. Instead, guerrilla raids behind Union lines burned railroad bridges and ripped up the tracks, fired into Northern supply boats on the western rivers, attacked Union picket outposts, and ambushed Northern soldiers unless they moved in large groups. These activities convinced William T. Sherman as well as other Union officers that, in Sherman’s words, they must act henceforth “on the proper rule that all in the South are enemies of all in the North…. The whole country is full of guerrilla bands…. The entire South, man, woman, and child, is against us, armed and determined.” 5

By 1862, also, the rank and file of Union soldiers had grown tired of the “kid glove” policy of leaving untouched the property of Southern civilians whom they suspected of rebel sympathies and of harboring guerrillas and snipers. Like all soldiers in all wars who have found themselves hungry, cold, and hated in enemy territory at the end of long and precarious supply lines, they helped themselves to crops and livestock owned by enemy civilians and fence rails for fires to cook this booty and to keep warm. As one Union soldier in western Tennessee put it in August 1862, “this thing of guarding rebels’ property has about ‘played out.”’ In the same month orders went out from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck in Washington to General Ulysses S. Grant in Mississippi: “Take up all active [rebel] sympathizers and either hold them as prisoners or put them beyond our lines. Handle that class without gloves, and take their property for public use…. It is time that they should begin to feel the presence of the war.” 6

Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation in 1862 gave the coup de grâce to the policy of conciliation. By July of that year Lincoln had become convinced that emancipation was inevitable, as he told the Cabinet when he informed them of his decision to issue an emancipation proclamation. In an account of the meeting written ten years later Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s secretary of the Navy, said that according to Lincoln,

Decisive and extreme measures must be adopted…. We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example and strike at the heart of the rebellion…. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.

In January 1863, after Lincoln had issued the Proclamation, Halleck pronounced the epitaph of the conciliation policy: “The character of the war has very much changed within the last year,” he wrote to Grant.

Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is the equivalent of a white man put hors de combat…. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels…. We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them.7

The end of conciliation did not lead immediately to the “hard war” of 1864–1865. Grimsley describes an intermediate stage variously labeled “war in earnest” or “a vigorous war policy.” Its chief characteristic was an expansion of foraging for supplies by Northern forces fighting deep in enemy territory. Union armies also practiced the age-old military policy of “area denial”—destruction of food and forage they did not consume in order to deny it to the enemy. Such legitimate and authorized activities often got out of hand; as has been the case with armies throughout history, the line between foraging and pillaging grew so thin that it sometimes disappeared altogether.

  1. 1

    John Bennett Walters, Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War (Bobbs Merrill, 1973); James Reston, Jr., Sherman’s March and Vietnam (Macmillan, 1984).

  2. 2

    John Bennett Walters, “General William T. Sherman and Total War,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 14 (1948), pp. 463, 470; Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, 2 vols., 2nd edition (Appleton, 1886), Vol. I, p. 368, Vol. II, pp. 249, 354.

  3. 3

    Mark E. Neely, Jr., “Was the Civil War a Total War?” Civil War History, Vol. 37 (1991), pp. 14–15, 27.

  4. 4

    War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901), Series I, Vol. 17, part 2, pp. 88–89, 81.

  5. 5

    Walters, Merchant of Terror, pp. 57, 58, 59, 60.

  6. 6

    A. Fisk Gore to Sister Katie, Aug. 5, 1862, A. Fisk Gore Papers, Missouri Historical Society; War of the Rebellion: Official Records, Series I, Vol. 17, part 2, p. 150.

  7. 7

    Gideon Welles, “The History of Emancipation,” The Galaxy, 14 (1872), 842–843; The War of the Rebellion: Official Records, Series I, Vol. 24, part 3, p. 157.

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