Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee; drawing by David Levine

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.

These exercises became more frequent in the last year of war as Union armies sliced through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the interior of Georgia and South Carolina, and other regions that had previously escaped “the hard hand of war.” With Grant now in command of all Union armies and Sherman in command of his largest mobile field army, “the Union strategy of 1864–1865 aimed at both the destruction of rebel armies and the destruction of rebel war-making capability.” This was not a policy of wanton devastation of all property. Rather it was “directed severity”—the targeting of resources capable of sustaining armies. This “combination of severity and restraint,” Grimsley maintains, resulted from “a basic morality” that still prevailed among Union soldiers “even in 1864, after years of warfare…. Public and quasi-public property like rail-roads, warehouses, and factories received the rough ministrations of Federal troops more often than private property. Plantations—the lairs of the slave-holding aristocracy—were targeted far more often than small farms.” Although “not averse to destruction,” Union soldiers “wanted to see the hard hand of war descend on those who deserved it, and usually only in rough proportion to the extent of their sins.”

But what about all those houses that Yankee troops burned, especially in South Carolina, leaving only their chimneys standing as “Sherman’s sentinels” over hundreds of miles of ruined countryside? What about the burning of Atlanta, Columbia, and other towns? Grimsley concedes that Union soldiers did occasionally burn, loot, and pillage private property of no military value. But they burned far fewer houses in reality than they did in Southern memory—an interesting fact discovered by James Reston, Jr., in 1982, when he retraced Sherman’s route through Georgia and encountered locals who said Sherman burned everything in his path, but then proudly pointed out all the fine examples of antebellum architecture in the neighborhood.8

In South Carolina, however, reality approached myth. “The truth is,” Sherman wrote as he prepared to enter South Carolina, “the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance on South Carolina. I almost tremble for her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.” Union soldiers put hundreds of houses to the torch in South Carolina. They gleefully renamed the village of Barnwell “Burnwell.” But to Grimsley this proves his thesis of directed severity. Northerners considered South Carolina the cockpit of secession, the home of the hottest fire-eaters, the state that started the war by firing on the American flag at Fort Sumter. A Union soldier was heard to say as he entered South Carolina: “Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it shall end!”9 When the army crossed the border into North Carolina the “wanton destruction” stopped, Grimsley notes, thus underscoring the “substantially directed nature of the severity that had preceded it” and furnishing “one of the strongest proofs of the sense of discriminating righteousness that animated the Federal rank and file.”

Most Sons of Confederate Veterans will not appreciate this sense of discriminating righteousness. Many of them will probably find fuel for their loathing of Sherman in Michael Fellman’s biography—though that is far from Fellman’s purpose. His title is significant: not General Sherman, but Citizen Sherman. It is a personal rather than a military biography. Indeed, it is a psychological biography, not psychobiography in the style common a generation or more ago that was unrelentingly Freudian and often reductionist, but an effort informed by educated insight to understand what made this complex man tick. As such it offers a valuable and fascinating portrait of a multifaceted Sherman, many of whose facets are missing from the numerous other biographies of him.10

But Fellman sometimes succumbs to the temptation to personalize events that have a larger military or political origin. Sherman of course figures prominently in Grimsley’s account of the evolution of a hard-war policy. But factors external to his personality, or anyone else’s, provide the main explanation for a policy that was militarily rational. Fellman recognizes these external dynamics of war. But for him the barely suppressed “rage” at the core of Sherman’s personality—stemming from the early death of his father, antebellum failures, a rocky marriage, a nervous breakdown in 1861, and consequent “self-loathing”—was the engine of Sherman’s determination to wage a ruthless war of destruction. Thus we have a chapter, entitled “Rage at the South: Psychological Warrior,” in which Sherman

let loose a ferocity from within himself toward Southern civilians…. When he had been low he plunged all the way into clinical depression. Now, when he was high, he was manic in his intensity, sleeping little…[and using] his manic energy to create a multimedia juggernaut that went bulldozing through the South. He made himself into a force of nature.

Fellman has researched his subject thoroughly and writes with verve. Readers will find much of his account fascinating: Sherman’s early days in Ohio as a virtual member of the family of the prominent politician Thomas Ewing after his father died when he was nine; his unsettled marriage to Ewing’s philanthropically minded daughter Ellen; his years as a banker and lawyer after he resigned his first army commission; his “loving authoritarian paternalism” toward his six children; his disdain for politics and politicians; his hatred of the press; his breakdown under the stress of command soon after rejoining the army as a colonel in 1861 and his recovery and transformation with a superb performance at the battle of Shiloh; his unabashedly racist attitudes toward blacks and Indians; and his love-hate relationship with Southern whites.

But Fellman has a tendency to over-interpret his evidence and to exaggerate the irrational in Sherman’s personality. Within the compass of a few pages we read of Sherman’s “rage, ruthlessness, cold psychological calculation,” his “traumatized” childhood and “deeply stressful marriage,” his “tumultuous” and “endlessly restless” life filled with “fury, fear, hurt, and longing” as well as a “lifelong series of depressions.” The puzzled reader may well wonder how, with Sherman holding high command, the North ever won the Civil War.

Like most marriages, Sherman’s had its ups and downs. Fellman tells us more about the downs than the ups. He also tells us more about Sherman’s relations with other women than the evidence may support. “One does not know how many women he chased,” Fellman writes, “…but judging by the available evidence Sherman must have been a very energetic womanizer.” What kinds of evidence? Sherman loved the theater; his wife did not; so he often accompanied actresses to post-performance suppers. He liked to kiss young women on the cheek.

In 1873 the fifty-three-year-old Sherman and a beautiful twenty-six-year-old sculptress named Vinnie Ream “became lovers.” Fellman knows they did because Sherman’s letters to her have survived. In one of them, written after he had moved his headquarters from Washington to St. Louis, Sherman said he missed Ream and wondered “who now has the privilege of toying with your long tresses, and comforting your imaginary distresses.” In another he told her to burn his letters (she did not) “for in wrong hands suspicion would not stop short of wrong—which we must not even think of.” Did Sherman mean that they must not even think of doing wrong, or that they must be careful not to arouse suspicion? It is not clear, but Fellman assumes the latter. Sherman encouraged Ream to find a husband of her own age, and when she did so in 1878 he wrote her that he was “prepared to act as your Father and give you away in marriage.” Sherman and his wife attended the wedding.11

At age sixty, according to Fellman, Sherman began an eight-year affair with Mary Audenreid, a woman in her thirties. She was the widow of his aide who died in 1880; “within six months she took him to bed.” Many readers are likely to conclude that Sherman did his best to stay out of her bed. His letters to her were full of fatherly advice that she marry a young man, for “the mating of a young woman and an old man is simply an outrage against humanity…. I really feel to you as I do to Elly or Rachel [his daughters], to caress and love you as a child rather than as a woman…. I am very fond of you and want your love, affection, and veneration, but nothing that can cast a shadow on your after life…. I must play the part of father, not that of lover.12

Sherman clearly liked to flirt with younger women and he basked in their adulation. Whether he went further is less clear. Interestingly, the same was true of Robert E. Lee. He also “maintained a lively, witty, and sometimes sensuous correspondence with a series of clever young women,” explains Emory M. Thomas in his excellent new biography of the premier Confederate hero. Lee addressed one of his correspondents as “my beautiful Talcott.” To another he wrote in 1844, when she was eighteen and he was thirty-seven: “Oh Markie, Markie, When will you ripen.” To still another woman friend who had recently married, Lee wrote a playful letter asking how she felt on her wedding night: “Did you go off well like a torpedo cracker on Christmas morning?”

Thomas acknowledges that Lee was flirtatious and enjoyed “fantasies” about younger women, but that these relationships were “probably ‘innocent,”‘ that his wife (with whom Lee had seven children) knew about them, and that Lee was “faithful and dutiful to his wife throughout his married life.” This is probably true. But Lee’s letters to women are uncannily similar to Sherman’s. If the two generals had switched biographers, Fellman might have found Lee guilty of adultery while Thomas would have found Sherman “probably innocent.”

In any case, Thomas has written the best and most balanced of the many Lee biographies. That is saying a lot because Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume R. E. Lee (1934–1935) is one of the classics of Civil War literature. In many ways, especially in its analysis of Lee’s generalship, Freeman’s biography remains unsurpassed. But for Freeman, Lee could do no wrong. He was a hero without blemishes. The index of his biography includes the following entries under Lee’s “Personal Characteristics”: abstemiousness, boldness, calmness, charm, cheerfulness, courtesy, dignity, diligence, fairness, faith in God, generosity, goodness, good judgment, grace, heroism, humility, integrity, kindness, mercy, modesty, patience, poise, resourcefulness, sincerity, tact, wisdom.

It was inevitable that the pendulum would swing from this Godlike portrayal to the sharply critical analyses of Lee by Thomas Connelly in The Marble Man (1977) and Alan Nolan in Lee Considered (1991). They depict a Lee who lost the war by overconcentrating the South’s military resources in the Virginia theater to the neglect of the West and who bled his army white by his offensive tactics; a Lee who talked out of both sides of his mouth by affirming Unionism while preparing to leave the Union and who professed to oppose slavery while owning slaves and fighting to preserve the institution.

Thomas steers a skillful course between hagiography and idol-smashing. He is especially persuasive in his analysis of the tension in Lee’s character between self-discipline and freedom, control and independence—a tension which generated the energy and determination that fueled Lee’s extraordinary military success both as a junior officer in the Mexican War and as a commanding general in the Civil War, but left him “always wanting something.” Lee “acted out a paradox: duty set him free” but “because he accepted, even venerated, the various rules, regulations, and conventions that bound him, though he knew or sensed his need to be free, Lee’s life was tragic.”

Steven Woodworth’s analysis of the partnership between Lee and Jefferson Davis concentrates not on the tragedy of Lee’s life but on the causes of Confederate defeat—which was for many white Southerners then and now the ultimate tragedy. These causes lay not in the personal relationship of the Confederate president and his premier military commander. While outsized but thin-skinned egos on both sides provoked personal breaches between Davis and several of his other top generals, most notably Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Lee maintained the most cordial of personal as well as professional relations with Davis. He did so by a combination of tact, deference, and firmness that subtly nudged Davis in the direction that Lee wanted him to go. The general managed the president as skillfully as he managed his army.

Woodworth writes lucidly about the nature of this relationship. But his main purpose is to set forth the military strategies of Davis and Lee. For while the two men got along very well personally, they had contrasting views of the strategy necessary to win the war. This difference, Woodworth maintains, planted the seeds of Confederate defeat. Woodworth neatly captures the difference in a sentence that is almost an aphorism: “For Davis, the war could be won simply by not losing, for Lee…it could be lost simply by not winning.” Davis favored a defensive strategy of attrition that would conserve the Confederacy’s limited resources and force the enemy to consume its resources by repeatedly attacking, thereby suffering heavy casualties and eroding the will of the Northern people to sustain an increasingly costly effort to destroy the Confederacy.

Since “winning” the war required the South only to hold out against Northern efforts to invade, conquer, and obliterate the Confederacy, such a Fabian strategy seemed to make sense. But Lee had a different vision. A long war of attrition, he believed, favored the North with its greater population and resources. The Confederacy’s only hope was to conquer a peace by “a series of crushing battlefield victories that destroyed the will of the North to continue prosecuting the war.” Because of his initial successes in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25–July 1, 1862), at Second Manassas (August 29–30, 1862), and subsequently at Chancellorsville (May 1–4, 1863), Lee gained such prestige that he won Davis’s consent for two invasions of the North in quest of those crushing victories. He came to grief at Antietam (September 17, 1862) and Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), battles that cost Lee’s army 40,000 casualties, which the South could ill afford.

Woodworth delineates more clearly and sharply than any previous scholar the contrasting strategic ideas of Davis and Lee. But perhaps he draws the distinction too sharply. It was Davis, after all, who approvingly used the term “offensive-defensive” to describe his own conception of strategy, which he shared with Lee—though the general did place more emphasis on the “offensive” part of it. In practice the Confederate strategy at any given time in the war seemed more a pragmatic consequence of situation and opportunity than of theory. And Woodworth’s conclusion that Confederate defeat derived mainly from failure to pursue consistently one strategy or the other—it seems not to matter which—strikes one as a bit lame. Nevertheless, Woodworth has done an important service in pointing out what was a real difference, in degree if not in kind, between Davis’s and Lee’s concepts of strategy.

The American Civil War abounded in ironies, though this aspect is largely lacking in Woodworth’s study. Emory Thomas, on the other hand, is sensitive to the ironies in Lee’s career. His brilliant generalship and daring offensive tactics won spectacular victories that kept the Confederacy alive and came close to winning the war on more than one occasion, but at a high cost in casualties that progressively weakened his army. Lee regarded slavery as wrong, but was trapped by a commitment to white supremacy that could envision no alternative status for black people and by allegiance to the society in which he was born, and which considered slavery right. Lee felt an intense loyalty to the United States, which he served as a soldier for thirtytwo years before 1861, but when Virginia left the Union so did he, because he could not “raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”

Thomas misses another irony of Lee’s career—one that goes a long way toward explaining the evolution of Union military policy into Mark Grimsley’s “hard war.” When Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, the Confederacy was on the verge of defeat. Union conquests in the West had brought fifty thousand square miles of Confederate territory under Northern control and had caused profound discouragement in the South. George McClellan’s large Army of the Potomac had approached to within six miles of Richmond, and the Confederate government had packed its archives and treasury on trains to evacuate the capital. If the war had ended the Confederacy in the summer of 1862, slavery and the antebellum Southern social order would have remained largely intact and the Southern infrastructure relatively undamaged. But Lee’s counteroffensive in the Seven Days battles and other major victories during the next year ensured a prolongation of the war, the emergence of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan to top Union commands, the abolition of slavery, the “directed severity” of Union policy in 1864–1865, and the Götterdämmerung of the Old South. Here indeed was the tragic irony of Robert E. Lee: his success produced the destruction of everything he fought for.

This Issue

December 21, 1995