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

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.