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Sherman's Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War

Sherman's Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War

by Matthew Carr

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“To know what war is, one should follow our tracks,” General William T. Sherman once wrote to his wife, describing the devastation left by his armies in Georgia. Sherman’s Ghosts is an investigation of the "tracks" left by the wars fought by the American military in the 150 years since Sherman's infamous “March to the


“To know what war is, one should follow our tracks,” General William T. Sherman once wrote to his wife, describing the devastation left by his armies in Georgia. Sherman’s Ghosts is an investigation of the "tracks" left by the wars fought by the American military in the 150 years since Sherman's infamous “March to the Sea.”

Sherman’s Ghosts opens with an epic retelling of General Sherman’s fateful decision to turn his sights on the South’s civilian population in order to break the back of the Confederacy. Acclaimed journalist Matthew Carr then exposes how this strategy became the central preoccupation of war planners in the twentieth century and beyond, offering a stunning and lucid assessment of the impact Sherman’s slash-and-burn policies have had on subsequent wars, including in the Philippines, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan.

In riveting accounts of military campaigns and in the words and writings of American fighting men and military strategists, Carr finds ample and revealing evidence of Sherman’s long shadow. Sherman’s Ghosts is a rare reframing of how we understand our violent history and a call to action for those who hope to change it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On November 15, 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led 60,000 troops on a 700-mile march through Confederate territory. In their wake they left a trail of destruction that has since become the stuff of military legend. In assessing the influence of Sherman on 20th-century war, Carr (Fortress Europe) argues that his greatest contribution lies not in the march itself—though his tactics did inform Patton's Third Army and MacArthur's Pacific campaign—but rather in Sherman's willingness to wage war against civilians. Though he stops short of repeating the claim that Sherman ushered in the age of total war, Carr finds that Sherman's concept of "indirect warfare"—avoiding direct battle and instead disrupting the enemy's economy and communications while terrorizing civilians in order to bring about a swifter end to conflict—has become a lasting characteristic of American warfare, from the Philippine War of 1898 to Vietnam and the Gulf War. Even today's modern warfare, wherein the military claims to engage in decisive "surgical strikes," is in certain ways very similar. Yet seeing a fundamental morality and limit to Sherman's tactics, Carr believes the general himself would have condemned these later campaigns. Much has been made of Sherman's insistence that "war is hell." Time, it seems, has only proven Sherman more correct. Photos. (Mar.)
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Literary Review

Library Journal
★ 02/01/2015
Carr (Fortress Europe) challenges the reader by asking the question: If Sherman represents the enduring symbol of military barbarism, to what extent have America's subsequent wars followed the template that he created? The author's concern is not with military operations, strategies, and battles per se, but rather with Washington's wars on innocent civilians. Carr devotes half of his treatise to Sherman's capture and depopulation of Atlanta, his brutal "March to the Sea" (Savannah), and his devastating swing through the Carolinas. There are grim but insightful examples of the multifarious relationships between the occupied (including slaves) and the occupiers, whose actions ranged from unbridled foraging and arson to examples of gallantry on the part of federal troops in defense of those most vulnerable. Carr moves on to the Civil War's end, the "unreconstructed South," and Sherman's subsequent "Hard War" campaigns against Native American tribes out West. He finally considers Sherman's influence on a succession of U.S. theater commands, such as the bloody antiguerilla tactics employed in the Philippine insurrection of 1898–1902 and the horrendous noncombatant casualty lists caused by predator drone warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. VERDICT A powerful, if disturbing reflection on America's past and contemporary military policies. Recommended for political and military historians, Pentagon theorists, antiwar proponents, all public libraries, and general readers.—John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs.
Kirkus Reviews
William Tecumseh Sherman's brutal March to the Sea was not the first military rampage against civilians—even in the United States—but it continues to attract attention and comments from military leaders.Veteran journalist Carr (Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent, 2012, etc.) begins with Sherman's biography, emphasizing his 1864-1865 southern campaign and equally harsh tactics during the Indian wars that followed. Although the book's second half ostensibly discusses his legacy in America's subsequent wars, it turns out to be a grim account of military hypocrisy in the service of mass slaughter. Sherman considered civilians essential to enemy war-making capacity. His troops mostly destroyed property, but this was not the case during the Philippine insurrection (1899-1902), during which soldiers murdered civilians en masse. Similar atrocities in Vietnam were dwarfed by the immense toll from indiscriminate bombing during World War II and the Korean War. Carr reminds readers that Sherman's campaign produced minuscule deaths compared to the vicious Grant-Lee battles in Virginia. As America has grown intolerant of military casualties, leaders have eagerly adopted high-tech weapons (smart bombs, drones) whose operators work far from the enemy. These weapons turn out to kill a surprising number of bystanders, rendering America's admirable, winning-hearts-and-minds anti-insurgency paradigm obsolete a mere decade after it was adopted. Sherman might have disapproved of the current tactics. When outraged contemporaries denounced Sherman's march as a barbarous throwback, this "reflected a widespread assumption that warfare between ‘civilized nations' had undergone a process of moral advancement in the nineteenth century." In fact, the "principle of civilian immunity was firmly embedded in the West Point tradition to which Sherman belonged." Carr not only examines the campaigns and career of Sherman; he also attacks the mindsets and assumptions that have continued to allow America to rationalize its wars.

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New Press, The
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5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Carr is a journalist who has written for Esquire, the New York Times, The Observer, and Marie Claire, among other publications. He is the author of Blood and Faith (a New York Times Editors’ Choice) and The Infernal Machine, both available from The New Press, as well as the acclaimed memoir My Father’s House. He lives in Derbyshire, England.

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