“Even the dumb kids liked the Civil War.”- Willie Smith, Oedipus Cadet (1990)
As one whose interest in the Civil War extends back to the Centennial Year when our family (a carload of no-good Yankees) visited Atlanta in the summer of 1966, it's been an interesting coincidence to be living here in the Atlanta area during the Sesquicentennial anniversary of General William Tecumseh Sherman's 1864 Campaign on Atlanta and subsequent March to the Sea.
To begin my private festivities, I stopped by Tunnel Hill Heritage Park in north Georgia near Chattanooga, to visit one of the historic sites of the campaign. The park includes the Clisby Austin House (shown left), the place where Sherman alluded to his intentions to wash his feet in the salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The old Western & Atlantic rail tunnel through Chetoogeta Mountain (shown above)– from which the park gets its name – is also a significant in the history of Atlanta, because its construction (completed in 1850) opened up the city of Terminus (Atlanta's original name) as a growing rail center.
When I am not traipsing all over Georgia looking for historical sites with my trusty copy of Brown and Elwell's Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia, I have been reading B.H. Liddell-Hart's Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American originally written in 1929. Liddell-Hart (1895-1970) was considered a prominent military historian of his day and thinks that Sherman was the military genius of the War Between the States.
Because some of Sherman early commissions as officer were in the South and at the outbreak of the war he was president of the Louisiana Military Academy, Sherman unlike most Northerners, did not underestimate the South. Moreover, he understood the role of economics in the impending war. If the South seceded, the Mississippi River would be cut off to Midwesterners who wanted to export goods to other markets. This same attention to economics influenced his early realization that defeat of the South had to be more than a military one.
Liddell-Hart's book is a unique blend of psychological profile of Sherman and an analysis of Civil military strategy. Given Liddell-Hart's British background (he was wounded fighting at the Somme in World War I), there is this perspective you would not get from an American-born historian, especially when he draws comparisons to Vicksburg and Gallipoli. According to Liddell-Hart, Sherman – except with his feelings toward the press and politics – had a heart underneath his gruff exterior. As the military commander of the city of Memphis after it fell into Union hands in 1862, Sherman ignored the ban on selling cotton allowing small farmers to maintain their livelihoods. He also kept the local judges and law enforcement in local hands in order to keep the civil foundations for a faster post-war recovery. But Sherman's demeanor hardened after the death of his nine-year old son, who died of typhoid after visiting his father at the front in 1863.
In his inimitable, borderline-flowery style, Liddell Hart writes about Sherman's approach to the war:
To subdue men without killing them is possible in two ways. First, by holding them in physical bondage, which is trying for the warden—like a master who has to stay in himself in order to keep boys in as a punishment. Second, by the threat or act of destroying their possessions, which is to place them in economic bondage. Sherman appreciated the superior advantage of this method and with relentless logic was now to apply it. Moreover, embracing the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, he was even ready in theory as his letter reveals, to fulfill it by economic sterilization of the unfit. That his practice stopped short of this was because it was not practicable to replace them by more fit producers. Accepting, therefore, the need to preserve them his aim was to press them to the point and not an inch further, that would suffice to wring an acknowledgment of defeat.
In this philosophy of war there was not room for vindictiveness and no excuse for post-war penalization.* To the mass of his countrymen Sherman appeared to be a bundle of contradictions; they could not reconcile his objection to the war with his ruthless conduct of it, not this again with his (liberal) “peace terms” of 1865.
Even though I am only midway through reading Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American, the historical point where Sherman is preparing to begin his Atlanta Campaign, I am more understanding why Sherman is so reviled in Georgia (more so in 1966 than now). His defeat of the South was total to the point of “economic sterilization.” But to Sherman's credit, the Civil War did end after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. There was no Civil War II, though the hostilities had only just begun. How different things might have been if the victorious North had not been vindictive afterwords. A lesson for all victors?
*This is similar to the bad terms forced upon Germany after World War I, which was a major factor that led to World War II.