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Sherman's Mississippi Campaign
By Buck T. Foster
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
During the first year of the American Civil War, William T. Sherman considered proper treatment of noncombatants and their property to be his soldierly duty. He took great care in seeing that his policies and the conduct of his men did not trample upon the perceived rights of secessionist or unionist civilians. He handed out harsh punishment to men who did as little as steal fence rails for their campfires or take liberally from the countryside.
By the end of the war, however, most Southerners saw Sherman as a "brute" for his harsh treatment of Southern civilians and his destruction of property across the Confederate States. His "bummers" became notorious for their ability to strip the land of valuable goods, and Southerners greatly abhorred them. Many historians have credited Sherman with creating the policy of "total war" and being the originator of modern warfare. Although recent works have rightfully concluded that Sherman was not the first general to promote a harsher attitude toward civilians, he nevertheless moved war in that direction to a far greater degree than any of his contemporaries. How and why did Sherman move from one mind-set to the other?
The pivotal circumstances in Sherman's transformation came because of his dealings with guerrillas along the Mississippi River and his participation in the Vicksburg campaign in 1862 and 1863. Because of the partisans' menace to Union depots, communications, and supply lines, coupled with the Confederate populace's support of these raiders, Sherman developed a harsher, more encompassing policy toward Southern civilians. Just after the fall of Vicksburg, while in Jackson for the second time, Sherman conducted a campaign of destruction to render an entire region unusable to the Confederate army. The Meridian campaign, some six months later, was, however, his preliminary attempt to subjugate an entire state and served as his proving ground for later campaigns into Georgia and the Carolinas. Sherman adapted his experiences learned during the first three years of the war into a new technique that he designed to end the war as quickly and bloodlessly as possible. He wanted to remove the enemy's ability and will to fight without the need for the destruction of the opponent's army or the capturing and garrisoning of large areas of the Confederacy.
Although he attended West Point, Sherman did not derive his principles from his experience there. Most professional officers, many of whom had attended West Point, had studied the works of Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini. Although many historians contend that Jomini's works had little influence on these officers because The Art of War was not translated into English until later in 1854, most military tacticians and strategists of the period drew upon this work for their own writings. Jomini contended that the violence between two enemy armies on the battlefield had few limitations but that civilians away from the fighting should not be included. Commenting on acts of guerrilla warfare, he wrote that actions against civilians should "display courtesy, gentleness, and severity united, and, particularly, deal justly." "Absolute war," in his opinion, should remain an action reserved for belligerents, and he made no mention of the expansion of such a strategy to the civilian population. Jomini held that there was a definite wall between warring armies and the common population. His comments about guerrillas also implied condemnation of their style of warfare. Sherman agreed with Jomini that noncombatants should receive different treatment than soldiers.
After the Battle of First Bull Run, Sherman wrote to his wife about the depredations that some of his command had committed. "If he [a private] thinks right he takes the oats [and] corn, and even burns the house of his enemy," he wrote angrily. "No goths or vandals ever had less respect for the lives [and] property of friends and foes." Sherman thought these types of infractions were detrimental to the Union cause. When he became commander of the Department of the Cumberland later that year, he compensated civilians for all property secured for the Federals' military use in the state of Kentucky. He thought this was the best way to keep border state civilians from straying to the Confederate side. A Northern newspaper declared that Sherman's policy had "produced a marked change in favor of the Union cause."
In July 1862, Sherman wrote to Major General Henry W. Halleck about an incident involving a group of guerrillas attacking a forage train. He believed that they were a band of local citizens from the nearby settlement of La Grange, Tennessee, so he ordered that twenty-five of the "most prominent" men from La Grange be captured and sent to Columbus, Tennessee, as prisoners. "I am satisfied we have no other remedy for this ambush firing than to hold the neighborhood fully responsible, though the punishment may fall on the wrong parties," he concluded. Sherman had no way of knowing exactly who was responsible for the attack, but he insisted that the local people knew the guilty parties. If they refused to assist in the apprehension of the culprits, then they would suffer the consequences.
The following month, because of the irregularity of Union supply shipments to the Western theater and the Confederate cavalry's destruction of supply lines and storage facilities, the Federal government began to endorse foraging to offset this shortfall in provisions. General-in-Chief Halleck issued orders to Ulysses S. Grant that read: "As soon as the corn gets fit for forage get all the supplies you can from the rebels in Mississippi. It is time they should feel the presence of war on our side." That same month, the War Department issued General Orders 107 and 108, upholding the idea that, if private property was seized in an "orderly manner" and not "pillaged," its confiscation "for the subsistence, transportation, and other uses of the army" was officially acceptable. The Union army had allowed this type of action before 1862.
Sherman did not like the idea put forth by General Orders 107 and 108. Believing that liberal foraging would lead the men down the path toward outright pillaging, he issued an order that the "demoralizing and disgraceful practice of pillaging must cease else the country will rise on us and justly shoot us down like dogs and wild beasts." He insisted that, while his command was on the move in enemy territory, the cavalry capture and punish any stragglers engaged in destructive activity.
That same month, however, Sherman became concerned about guerrilla cavalry constantly attacking his supply lines and destroying Union provisions. They attacked isolated Federal garrisons and scattered their soldiers. When a larger force moved out to meet the bandits, the partisans dispersed in all directions, mingling with the populace. Sherman, therefore, began to view Southern citizens differently, especially when they lived in areas where the guerrillas operated frequently. "All the people are now guerrillas," he wrote angrily to Grant, "and they have a perfect understanding" of what they were doing.
Sherman decided that if these bushwhackers hid among the local citizens, the Union army should retaliate against those who concealed them. "If the farmers in a neighborhood encourage or even permit in their midst a set of guerrillas they cannot escape the necessary consequences," Sherman warned. "It is not our wish or policy to destroy the farmers or their farms, but of course there is and must be remedy for all evils." Sherman remained steadfast in his belief that wanton destruction of private citizens' property was wrong, but the "exigencies of the war" forced him, he believed, to take a new approach. He continued to insist that, although it was not his "policy to destroy the farmers and their farms," those who resided in the areas around partisan troop activity were "accessories by their presence and inactivity to prevent murders and destruction of property." Therefore, they should properly expect just retribution. Sherman was not the only Union general moving away from the conciliatory stance. Those commanders who contended with guerrillas in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and western Virginia were also growing tired of the nuisances.
Guerrilla raids on Union supplies and firings upon boats along the Mississippi River continued to anger Sherman when his troops garrisoned Memphis in 1862. In September he wrote his brother, U.S. senator John Sherman, in frustration: "It is about time the North understood the truth; that the entire South, man, woman, and child are against us, armed and determined." Knowing that he had the confidence of his brother, he spoke freely. Sherman loathed the irregular troops' actions, and because the civilian population aided their cause, he grew upset with these people as well.
Sherman did not believe that all Southern civilians were at war with the Union army. The real enemies, he thought, were those citizens who supported the Confederate forces. Because of this aggravation, Sherman began to take his pursuit of guerrillas and the punishment of those assisting them to the next level. The next step consisted of striking at points near to where the attacks had taken place.
Two days after his letter to Senator Sherman, the general ordered Colonel Charles C. Walcutt of the Forty-sixth Ohio Volunteers to the town of Randolph, Tennessee, from where, the day before, bushwhackers had fired upon the Union supply ship Eugene as it carried cargo south to Memphis. He instructed Walcutt that he thought "the attack on the Eugene was by a small force of guerrillas from Loosahatchie, who by this time have gone back, and therefore you will find no one at Randolph; in which case you will destroy the place, leaving one house to mark the place." Sherman could not capture those directly responsible for the sniping, but, as an example to others, he decided to punish those who assisted in or did not prevent the attack on the boat. "Let the people know and feel that we deeply deplore the necessity of such destruction, but must protect ourselves and the boats," he told his subordinate. "All such acts as cowardly firing upon boats filled with women and children ... must be severely punished." Sherman considered such bushwhacking beyond the scope of proper military conduct, and thus he felt justified in using any means within his power, including the destruction of civilian property, to stop such actions.
Sherman informed Grant of the action at Randolph and warned that he intended to threaten the enemy with harsher actions if they persisted in their boat attacks: "[I] have given public notice that a repetition will justify any measures of retaliation, such as loading the boats with guerrilla prisoners where they would receive fire, and expelling families from the comforts of Memphis, whose husbands and brothers go to make up those guerrillas." These were not hollow threats. Sherman had already issued a special order empowering the provost marshal to prepare a list of thirty inhabitants. In the event a boat received fire on the Mississippi River near Memphis, ten families from the list would leave the city.
In October an attack on the river craft Catahoula compelled Sherman to intensify his retaliation on the wrongdoers. Hoping that harsher action would end the harassment, he sent Walcutt to "destroy all the houses, farms, and corn fields" from Elm Grove Post Office to Hopefield, Arkansas, a distance of roughly fifteen miles. Furthermore, he made good on his promise to expel Memphis citizens. After three subsequent guerrilla attacks along the river, he sent several families out of the city beyond Union lines. These tactics seemed to work; partisan attacks subsided for several months.
While moving south from Memphis down the Mississippi on transports in December 1862 as part of the Vicksburg campaign, Sherman continued his policy of punishing those who sniped at river craft. He penned an order to his men that, if fired upon, the troops should land and "attack the property and stores [and take any supplies] useful to the United States." They should burn "the neighboring houses, barns & c." and dispose of any enemy personnel in the area. The marauders would end their attacks on riverboats, or they and their families and friends would feel the repercussions. Sherman later described his transformation in 1862 to a friend: "[Early in the war,] I would not let our men burn [a] fence rail for fire or gather fruits or vegetables though hungry. We at that time were restrained, tied to a deep-seated reverence for law and property. The rebels first introduced terror as part of their system. ... No military mind could endure this long, and we were forced in self-defense to imitate their example."
That winter and spring, during the campaign to take the Mississippi River fortress, Sherman learned another important lesson that would prove extremely valuable in his later campaigns and would change the way that he would conduct war against the Confederacy. He had observed the two battling armies at Shiloh earlier that year and saw what bulky, slow-moving supply wagons could do to an army's celerity of movement. "[Don Carlos] Buell had to move at a snail's pace with his vast wagon trains, [while Braxton] Bragg moved rapidly, living on the country," he noted. Sherman remained unsure, however, whether a Union army could live off the hostile country as successfully as the enemy's army had done in its own territory.
By late December, Grant had moved into northern Mississippi from western Tennessee with his Army of the Tennessee, stretching his supply lines to nearly sixty miles from his starting point. A combination of strikes on his supply and communication lines by Confederate cavalry leaders Major General Earl Van Dorn at Holly Springs and Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest at other locations in northern Mississippi isolated the Union force from its base. Grant immediately ordered his men to live off the countryside, hoping that he could reestablish his lines before continuing on the campaign. He was surprised to observe that his army lived well on the northern Mississippi farmlands. He remarked to Halleck that, out to fifteen miles from his principal position, "everything of subsistence of man or beast has been appropriated for the use of our army." Grant later commented in his memoirs, "I was amazed at the quantity of supplies the country afforded. It showed me that we could have subsisted off the country for two months instead of two weeks."
Sherman understood that, without having to guard a supply or communication line, he could free the men previously used to protect that line for use on the battlefield. Furthermore, the Union army could subsist in unfriendly country at the expense of the enemy, while simultaneously removing valuable provisions from Confederate use.
In addition, Sherman came to appreciate Grant's philosophy about the importance of Confederate resources. Grant believed that the destruction of enemy supplies "tended to the same result as the destruction of armies." Sherman had already tried a variation of this tactic when he had punished the Confederate citizens for aiding the guerrillas and destroyed their supplies, thereby keeping such goods from the irregulars' use. Now he understood that he would have to take his actions even further to obtain his desired goal — the end of attacks on the Mississippi River.
In April 1863 the Federal government would set forth a distinction between civilians and combatants inhabiting the Confederacy in its General Order 100, "Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field." Article 22 read in part that there is a "distinction between the private individual belonging to a hostile country and the hostile country itself, with its men in arms. The principle has been more and more acknowledged that the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor as much as the exigencies of war will admit." The key factor was war necessity, and as Article 28 pointed out, there was also a right of retaliation. General Order 100 only served to further outline what General Orders 107 and 108 had defined in 1862.
Excerpted from Sherman's Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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