Was General Sherman Smeared?

by Fred Ray on November 16, 2014 · 62 comments

This being the 150th anniversary of Sherman’s March to the Sea, the venerable New York times has an article questioning just how bad Uncle Billy really was. Seems we have a new crop of historians who think that the Southern demonization of him was unwarranted, a sour grapes myth by the defeated Confederates perpetuated by movies like Gone With The Wind.

The marker near the picnic tables at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is the fruit of a reassessment of Sherman and his tactics that has been decades in the making. Historians have increasingly written that Sherman’s plan for the systematic obliteration in late 1864 of the South’s war machine, including its transportation network and factories, was destructive but not gratuitously destructive. Instead, those experts contend, the strategy was an effective and legal application of the general’s authority and the hard-edged masterstroke necessary to break the Confederacy.

They have described plenty of family accounts of cruelty as nothing more than fables that unfairly mar Sherman’s reputation.

“What is really happening is that over time, the views that are out there are being challenged by historical research,” said John F. Marszalek, a Sherman biographer and the executive director of the Mississippi-based Ulysses S. Grant Association. “The facts are coming out.”

To do this you have to ignore, reinterpret or dismiss a lot of real history, but this unfortunately seems to be the trend in academia today.

… contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war — railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins and warehouses.

Really? What is one to make, for instance, of the forced deportation of several hundred women factory workers from the mills at Roswell, half of them under 17 and some as young as nine? This was done not by some out-of-control subordinate but on Sherman’s express orders. Or the indiscriminate bombardment of Atlanta, and its subsequent torching? Are these not facts also, or do we just ignore them? Or does the word “primarily” mean we ignore the rest?

Two other articles in the Times look at who burned Atlanta, which was firmly in Federal hands at the time.

One by Philip Leigh, whose book I recently reviewed, and another by historian Megan Kate Nelson. Both come to the same conclusion – it was Sherman’s men, and although he might not have explicitly ordered it he turned a blind eye and made no serious attempt to stop it.

So it seems to me that modern historians are doing pretty much the same thing they accused the Southerners of – trimming the facts to fit a predetermined narrative. Substituting one myth for another isn’t good history.

{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob November 16, 2014 at 1:37 pm

well primarily is usually defined as for the most part. So it’s certainly not saying that no civilians were harmed.


John Foskett November 16, 2014 at 3:47 pm

On the “indiscriminate bombardment” of Atlanta, this smacks of the Moby Dick-like quest of Steven Davis to prove that this was one of the world’s greatest war crimes. Just curious – how many civilians were left at that point? (I’ve seen the number 3,000). How many were killed? (I’ve seen the number 25). What if Sherman had been able to completely invest the city and produce starvation instead? I can hear the outrage now. The Confeds want the happy result of “we’re going to force you to conduct a siege by fortifying this city but we’ll wag our fingers in righteous indignation if you attack the place we’ve chosen to inject into the front lines.” What Sherman said in response to the hypocritical communication from Hood…..


Phil Leigh November 17, 2014 at 8:12 am

1. Anyone accusing Stephen (not Steven) Davis of a “Moby Dick-like quest” to distort the history of Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta should be prepared to cite facts contrary to those of Davis that Davis himself failed to consider.

2.* Sherman* admitted that the Rebel defense lines were an average of about one and a half miles from the city center and that he deliberately shot over those lines to target civilians. (Wire from Sherman to Halleck on July 21, 1864)

3. Russell Bonds in “War Like a Thunderbolt” estimates there were ten thousand civilians remaining in Atlanta when Sherman *ceased* his bombardment. (page 283).

4. Stephen Davis estimates that a couple of dozen civilians were killed and scores more wounded. (Page 248 of “What the Yankees Did to Us”) Davis’s estimate is much lower than the approximate 500 killed and 700 wounded that had been printed in the southern press at the time and reflects Davis’s intentional avoidance of distortion. (page. 244)


Fred Ray November 16, 2014 at 6:37 pm

No question that the Federals indiscriminately shelled Southern cities (e.g. Atlanta, Petersburg, Charleston) altho it was in theory prohibited by the Lieber Code. The number of civilian casualties was not high (no one has an accurate figure) but OTOH there was absolutely no military necessity to shell the civilian areas of the city except to make war on the civilian population. Not to mention burning their houses later. Evacuating these cities was simply not an option — where would they have gone?

Point being — justify it if you like, but admit the facts.


John Foskett November 17, 2014 at 2:56 pm


Regarding the Lieber Code:

Art. 19.
Commanders, whenever admissible, inform the enemy of their intention to bombard a place, so that the noncombatants, and especially the women and children, may be removed before the bombardment commences. But it is no infraction of the common law of war to omit thus to inform the enemy. Surprise may be a necessity.

Nothing therein states that it is a violation, especially where a military force has decided to set up its defenses around that place (which happened to be a vital military/logistical strong point).


Phil Leigh November 18, 2014 at 6:19 am

Sherman provided no warning and it is hard to make a case that the omission was a necessity.

Five weeks of bombardment was inconsequential militarily. A delay of one or two days to permit noncombatants to evacuate would have made no difference to the overall impact.


Phil Leigh November 17, 2014 at 7:32 am

Your points are well taken, Ray. I applaud your point that modern historians are doing the same thing they accuse southerners of doing by trimming the facts to suit a preferred narrative.

While I cannot speak to what happened on the March, there is not a shadow of doubt that a great many Atlanta residences were destroyed by Sherman’s men during the November 1864 inferno.

Even US Captain Orlando Poe, who was ordered to supervise a limited destruction, estimated that 37% of the city was demolished. After Sherman left, the Georgia governor sent a militia officer named William Howard to prepare an assessment. Howard spent four days systematically walking through Atlanta preparing a map of every house left standing. Within a half mile radius of the city center only 400 homes remained where there had once been 3,600.


John Foskett November 17, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Since we’re in the business of editing, it’s “Fred”, not “Ray”. I know – you were just addressing him by his last name.


Dennis norton November 17, 2014 at 8:15 am

Let’s bash the Southerners, again… And as for JF’s comment above “What if Sherman had been able to completely invest the city and produce starvation instead?”… He in fact did that!!! Maybe not in Atlanta, but his trip from Atlanta was totally devastating to the peoples of the area. ALL of their harvested foods, livestock, fowl, etc – you name it – were stolen thus leaving the people with NOTHING to eat!!! I have many ancestors that lived in his path (Laird, Maddox, Norton, Rice, Dennard, Dial, Harper to name a few) and it infuriates me how people can minimize the path of destruction. On November 16, 1864, my ancestors were left penniless with no means to feed their families. General Sherman was heartless and was justified in his mind that it would save lives in the long run. I wonder how he would feel if his family had been left in such a condition as our ancestors of the south.


guitarmandanga November 17, 2014 at 11:44 am

Part of the trouble is “popular lore” versus “documented history.” At the local level, people view the former as “what really happened” and the latter as “make-believe.” Historians, by contrast, have to *attempt* to be objective and look at sources critically; thus, they tend to downplay the former, unless there is documentation to support it, and to champion the latter. Otherwise—in their view—do you really have history, or just a pleasant fairy-tale?

At one end of the spectrum, there are those who argue, “Southerners caused the war, held slaves, etc., so anything they said HAS to be a lie.” On the other end, there are those who argue, “The Yankees were the invaders, so anything they said HAS to be a lie.” What is the average historian to do? If you take every second- or third-hand tale from aunt Ruthy/uncle Joe as the gospel truth, then you’re going to have a devil of a time when you run up against primary sources from Coporal So-and-so of the 459th Illinois that contradict that truth.

Living in Georgia, it’s always been a source of amusement/bemusement to me that pretty much every single little hamlet/village/cow field in the middle and the southern parts of the state has a “Sherman” story (i.e., “he didn’t burn [insert building name here] because the owner was a Mason,” or, “he didn’t burn [insert town name here] because he had a girlfriend here,” etc.)…even places that the existing documentation shows he didn’t go anywhere near. Equally amusing is the mind-jarring juxtaposition of chambers of commerce/historical societies telling visitors with one breath, “General Sherman burned everything here when he came through,” and then in the next breath, “Have you seen our beautiful antebellum houses?” (!)

(Not sure if this really answers the questions posed, or sheds any light on the matter. For the record, I despise General Sherman, not for the usual reasons [i.e., those above], but for others, such as the way he treated his son when he became a Catholic, the way he treated his wife, his spin-doctoring of Shiloh, etc.)


John Foskett November 17, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Those are valid criticisms of Sherman. Here’s what seems to be missing in all of the commentary regarding his bombardment of Atlanta. Let’s say you’re Sherman. Your friend Hood has chosen to make his stand at Atlanta. Your objective is to defeat Hood and take Atlanta. What’s the “acceptable” tactics?


guitarmandanga November 17, 2014 at 11:47 am

…And in fairness to the revisionists, let’s be honest here, how many Southerners base their “history” of the “devil Sherman” on what they’ve read in “Gone With The Wind”? A fair number, I’d reckon.


Phil Leigh November 17, 2014 at 1:14 pm

And in fairness to southerners, let’s be honest. How many northerners base their “history” on movies like Roots?


guitarmandanga November 17, 2014 at 11:52 am

Lastly (I’ll shut up after this), although I don’t doubt that the commentators here have done their research/homework and know what they’re talking about, I would suppose there are a large number of Southerners who, while insistent on the atrocities committed by “Uncle Billy,” are equally insistent that the horrid tales of slave narratives are largely manufactured, and that things “weren’t really that bad” in the Old South. It would be far more believable if everyone said, “Slavery sucked, and so did Sherman,” or, alternatively, “Slavery didn’t suck so bad, neither did Sherman”…but, of course, no one is doing this. ; )


John Foskett November 17, 2014 at 3:02 pm

One could ask the residents of Chambersburg.


jackie m November 17, 2014 at 4:24 pm

If you’re going to talk about atrocities, let’s not forget the boys out West, namely, Partisan Rangers, the likes of Turner, Morgan, Mosby. They were not involved in child’s play, and meant business, and they were sanctioned by the Confederate government (Partisan Ranger Act).

Let’s face it, BOTH sides had dirt on their hands—fighting in a major war is destructive, gruesome, and there is NOTHING pretty about it. There’s no “gentlemens’ war,” there’s no fairness, but hopefully, after the dust settles, the main goal has been accomplished.

Wars will always be with us—human nature dictates it . . .unfortunately.


Phil Leigh November 17, 2014 at 4:43 pm

The chief difference was that Chambersburg was retaliation for the *previous* destruction of southern property in the Shenandoah Valley by Union General Hunter…not to mention Sherman in Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi and the desolation perpetrated by Union soldiers during the Red River Campaign.


James F. Epperson November 17, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Destruction of property that might be used by the enemy is a sad fact of war. If you aren’t willing to put up with it, perhaps you should not start the war in the first place.


Phil Leigh November 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm

The point is that the damage done by the Union army in Atlanta, and elsewhere, went beyond the destruction of potential military assets.


James F. Epperson November 17, 2014 at 11:53 am

I believe the Lieber Code specifically allows for the bombardment of a defended city (Article 19).

None of the actions brought up in the original post took place during the March to the Sea, BTW.



Phil Leigh November 17, 2014 at 6:36 pm

So it it’s legal, it’s moral?

Slavery in 1861 was legal, and therefore moral?


James F. Epperson November 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm

One could argue—in fact, I would—that very little in war is moral, so the legalities are almost all that matters.

The Confederacy wanted to play at war like a parlor game, not like the existential exercise it usually is.


Phil Leigh November 18, 2014 at 6:40 am

“The Confederacy wanted to play at war like a parlor game, not like the existential exercise it usually is.”

It was not just the Confederacy. George McClellan felt the same way. That is one reason Radical Republicans wanted him removed from command and partly explains why he was Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 Presidential election.

The war could have been mostly fought in a manner desired by Lee and McClellan. Little Mac was just not the right guy to lead the North.


Nonetheles, the thread is drifting off topic. My response to Fred’s article is that the statement in the Georgia Historical Society’s marker that Atlanta’s residential districts were spared by Sherman’s army is false. A considerable number of Atlanta residences destroyed.


James F. Epperson November 18, 2014 at 7:07 am

“McClellan felt the same way.” Indeed. I don’t see him in many paintings of Appomattox.

The new marker does not say what Phil seems to imply it says. The precise statement (taken from a photograph) is: “After destroying Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts, …” That is indeed an accurate statement. Were some homes destroyed? Absolutely so. But not nearly as many as has been claimed in the past.


Phil Leigh November 18, 2014 at 8:45 am

The statement in the marker is false because it implies that residential homes were not destroyed in significant numbers. The truth is that a great many Atlanta residences were destroyed by Sherman’s troops during the November 1864 inferno.

I have provided documentation above, but more is available in the article I wrote that Fred Ray references in his post.


Phil Leigh November 18, 2014 at 9:12 am

“‘McClellan felt the same way.’Indeed I don’t see him in many paintings at Appomattox.”

He could not have been at Appomattox because Lincoln permanently removed him from command in November 1862. The pertinent point is why he was removed. One reason is that he declined to wage war on civilians. That does not mean that he failed to lack other necessary qualities for winning the war. But it does demonstrate your statement that motivation “to play the war like a parlor game” without abusing civilians was not a belief limited to the Confederacy.

Finally, Lincoln replaced McClellan with Burnside who also fails to show up at Appomattox paintings as well even though his troops destroyed Fredericksbug.


James F. Epperson November 18, 2014 at 9:24 am

The pertinent point, Phil, is that he was removed because he wasn’t a very good general, which is why he wasn’t at Appomattox. One reason he wasn’t a very good general is that he wanted to make war without hurting anybody, which IMO is kind of a stupid idea. The fact that the Confederates had the same view as Mac doesn’t make it any less stupid.

It was very natural for the Confederacy—as the resource starved underdog—to want to fight a limited war; that gave them the best chance to win. They were foolish to think they could keep the genie in the bottle once they let it out.


Phil Leigh November 18, 2014 at 10:04 am

The flip side of that is that it was unilaterally advantageous for the Yankees to abuse civilians as it became increasingly evident that the Confederacy could not retaliate. At root, it is a “might makes right” philosophy.


James F. Epperson November 18, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Actually false. Widespread abuse of the civilian population never occurred (see “Hard Hand of War” and Neely’s books for discussions of this); what did occur was understood to be counter-productive to the Union war effort and was usually not done as a matter of orders, but contrary to orders. (Yes, there are exceptions.) For example, a lot of the excessive damage done to Atlanta was not ordered, as you seem to understand in your column. Compared to other civil conflicts in history, the impact on the non-combatant population in our Civil War was actually very mild, and there were “atrocities” perpetrated by both sides. I’m quite willing to play “Dueling Atrocities” if you want to.

“You might as well appeal against a thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. War is cruelty, there is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”


Phil Leigh November 30, 2014 at 8:04 am

The damage in Atlanta was extensive, whether one chooses to label it civilian abuse or not.

The extent of the estimated damage varies widely, but there is little doubt that Sherman’s soldiers destroyed a great many homes.

The best *low end* estimate is the claim by Captain Orlando Poe who was placed in charge of what was supposed to be a limited demolition. He estimated 37% of the city was destroyed. However, there is good reason to doubt his truthfulness since he wrote an engineering superior in Washington that by the time the letter arrived, “Atlanta will have ceased to exist.”

An Indiana soldier’s diary simply records, “We utterly destroyed Atlanta.”

After Sherman left, Georgia’s governor sent a militia officer named Howard to prepare an assessment. He spent four days methodically walking throughout the town. Eventually he prepared a map of every house left standing, because it was easier than mapping those that were destroyed. Within a half mile radius of downtown only 400 homes remained where there were once 3,600. He estimated that about 90% of Atlanta’s buildings had been destroyed.

Seven residents who returned after Sherman provided written records, including Howard above.

Another was Zachariah Rice, who returned just four days after the federals left. He noted that “most all of the residences in the city have been burned that were unoccupied.” Since, nearly all residents were compelled to evacuate in September, Rice’s comment implies that most homes were destroyed.

Similarly, civilian James Crew returned about two weeks after the Union soldiers left. He wrote his wife of December 1, “At least two-thirds [of the city] has been destroyed.”

A reporter for the Augusta Chronicle & Sentinel wrote on December 15, “about three fourths of the buildings have been torn down or burned and about nine-tenths of the property value destroyed.”

On the approach to Atlanta towns north of the city, including Cassville, Rome, and Marietta, were burned. Once Marietta homes got caught up in the blaze some soldiers tried futilely to stop the spread. A youthful staff officer named Hitchcock commented to Sherman:

“[The town will] burn down, sir.”

“Yes,” said Sherman. “Can’t be stopped.”

“Was that your intention?”

The general answered indirectly, “Can’t save it…There are men who do this,” motioning to a nearby group of soldiers. “Set as many guards as you please, they will slip in and set fire.

Shortly after entering Atlanta after Marietta, Wisconsin Corporal Harvey Reid wrote, “I don’t believe that Sherman contemplates burning anything but public buildings, but it is very evident that acts of vandalism will be winked at…[T]here are plenty who will not be slow to avail themselves of such tacit license.” A few days later Reid wrote, “many soldiers set fire to the houses they had been occupying as they left them.”

Similarly, a Connecticut captain wrote “for three days the fires have been raging like a furnace…and…have spread considerably among the residences…”

After a doctor for the 7th Illinois regiment marched into town he wrote, “Many houses had been burned and all day long the fires kept increasing in number.” An Ohio captain recorded, “no sooner did we arrive than the boys commenced burning every house in [the northwestern] part of town…[and]…soon that part of the city was gone.”

James F. Epperson November 17, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Phil, that is eventually the case for all sides in all wars. Do you really want to play “Dueling Atrocities”?


James F. Epperson November 17, 2014 at 6:43 pm

(The threading here is defeating me—my 6:40 p.m. comment was a reply to Phil’s 6:35 comment.)


Brett Schulte November 17, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Sorry. I’ll see if I can find out where to up the threading to a higher number.



James F. Epperson November 17, 2014 at 9:15 pm

It’s a two-edged sword—if the threading goes too deep, you get posts that are two words wide 🙁


Brett Schulte November 18, 2014 at 8:36 pm

No doubt! But two threads deep is definitely not enough, so I bumped it a bit. I’m afraid it’s based on total width as a possible item that restricts max threading.


James F. Epperson November 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm

This is a LOT better—Thanks!


Josh Liller November 18, 2014 at 7:24 pm

If you asked the average person why Sherman is controversial or a war criminal they would probably say the destruction on the March to the Sea first then second the burning of Atlanta. Even his march through South Carolina and the burning of Columbia is greatly overshadowed by Georgia (unless maybe you or your ancestors live/lived in SC) and the Meridian Campaign even moreso (unless you have an eastern MS connection).

The average person probably has no idea Sherman even shelled Atlanta and, if so, why that action would be controversial. I think the massive intentional destruction of cities in World War II (by both sides) makes Sherman’s shelling of Atlanta pretty trivial by comparison.

Probably less well-known to most folks, the guerrilla/partisan warfare, especially in TN and MO, also make most of the acts by Sherman’s army seem mild.

Has anyone written a book that compares & contrasts Sherman’s actions in MS, GA, and SC to guerilla/partisan acts in the same war or with other wars (especially WW2)? Or have any of the books on the March to the Sea (or Sherman biographies) really delved into the plethora of claims about the March to the Sea to see what claims really hold up?


James F. Epperson November 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm

I’d recommend “The Hard Hand of War,” by Mark Grimsley.


Josh Liller January 24, 2015 at 7:56 pm

I read “Hard Hand of War” in December and thought it was outstanding. I daresay that book should be required reading for anyone interested in the Civil War, second only to “Battle Cry of Freedom.”


Phil Leigh January 21, 2015 at 12:40 pm

If you want to understand what happened in Atlanta, I recommend “What the Yankees Did to Us” by Stephen Davis.


Fred Ray November 18, 2014 at 9:06 pm

Also see “Punitive War” by Clay Mountcastle. It deals with Union reprisals against civilians when dealing with guerrillas.

Seems to me we’ve come full circle in this thread, to once again defining our way out of admitting things. That seems to be quite common these days — don’t like the crime stats? Just redefine them up or down until you get the numbers you want.

Same here — did Sherman’s men torch much of Atlanta? Sure, but it wasn’t his *primary* objective. Did several hundred teenage girls get abducted and deported at Roswell? Did he shell the city without military justification? Sure, but it wasn’t *widespread.* Saying that it could have been worse, as Grimsley did, is not the same thing as denying that by 1864 the war was being deliberately conducted against the people of the South as well as their armies. Lincoln was going to win by the end of his term, and the gloves were off. These were not isolated incidents but part of a deliberate policy. Justify it if you like but let’s tell the truth.


Josh Liller November 20, 2014 at 7:09 pm

“by 1864 the war was being deliberately conducted against the people of the South as well as their armies”

During much of World War II war was deliberately conducted – by both sides – against the civilian population as well as against their militaries. In WW1, the nature of war didn’t allow that as much as WW2 but it was still done (unrestricted submarine warfare, Germans in Belgium, Austrians in Serbia, Russians & Austrians & Germans along the Eastern Front) and surely would have been done even more if possible. See also the concentration camps – no, not the Holocaust but those in Cuba Insurrection and the Philippines Insurrection and the Boer War.

What Sherman did – and what his contemporaries in the war did, except for some of the guerrillas – pales in comparison to so much that later. In particular, almost all of his actions were targeted at property not people (the shelling of Atlanta is obviously an exception, but one which others have pointed out was allowed under the “rules of war” at the time). Furthermore, it was perceived as an important tactic to break the Southern rebellion and, as the victims were participating in an unjustified armed insurrection against their sovereign and legally elected government, arguably much of it is morally justifiable. Sherman’s men stole food and burned homes, but they did not rape and murder civilians nor burn homes while their residents were still inside.

One of the biggest knocks against the tactics of Sherman, etc? That their destructive tactics may not have been effective; the massive bombing of German and Japanese cities is widely argued to have failed at impacting morale and much of the debate over the atomic bombs hinges not on whether atomic weaponry is a war crime in and of itself but whether the bombs were needed to bring an end to the war. A study of something like desertion rates in GA troops in 1865 or the impact on Lee’s logistics from Hunter’s and Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah would be needed to show if an argument can be made that Sherman’s ends justified his means.


James F. Epperson November 18, 2014 at 9:22 pm

OK, let’s tell the truth.

The shelling of Atlanta was entirely justified by the laws of war under which Sherman was operating.


Phil Leigh November 19, 2014 at 4:32 am

To stay on the truth let’s admit that Sherman had no excuse for omitting the advance notice to non-combatants required in the Leiber code before shelling Atlanta.

Let’s also admit that Sherman’s troops destroyed more than a small number of Atlanta homes when they left.


James F. Epperson November 19, 2014 at 6:25 am

There is no such requirement. From the text: “But it is no infraction of the common law of war to omit thus to inform the enemy.”

I have no idea how many homes in Atlanta were destroyed, but I am fairly certain it was more than were necessary, and less than commonly believed.


Phil Leigh January 3, 2015 at 11:55 am

Jim seems to be making a false implication by selectively quoting from the text of Article 19 of the Lieber Code. The full article is as follows:

Art. 19.
Commanders, whenever admissible, inform the enemy of their intention to bombard a place, so that the noncombatants, and especially the women and children, may be removed before the bombardment commences. But it is no infraction of the common law of war to omit thus to inform the enemy. Surprise may be a necessity.’

There was no need for surprise. Indeed, there was no good reason for failing to give non-combatants a chance to evacuate *as the Lieber Code clearly intended.”


James F. Epperson January 4, 2015 at 12:22 pm

(Geez, Phil, it took you five weeks to respond?)

No selective quotation, no false implication. The Article (IMO) does not require “surprise” as a necessary ingredient of an unannounced bombardment. The last sentence is offered as a single example—one among many—of why an announcement might not be made, not as the only example. The direct statement that failure to notify is no violation remains. The military situation may be fluid enough that getting a message through the lines is not practical.

How do I reach that conclusion? I’m reading a book (“Lincoln’s Code”) which is about the evolution of the laws of war in the American experience. Lieber was very much a hard war man, an attitude formed by his own experience fighting Napoleon (he was at Waterloo). He very much believed that the best way to mitigate the horrors of war was to make the war short—to be hard on the enemy.

Besides, what is the basis for the claim that “[t]here was no need for surprise”? Sherman may have felt differently, in 1864, than Phil does today.


Phil Leigh January 21, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Jim said “No selective quotation, no false implication. The Article (IMO) does not require “surprise” as a necessary ingredient of an unannounced bombardment.”

Jim’s claim that he did not provide a selective quotation of Article 19 of the Lieber Code is simply false. He only quoted the second of the short three sentence article, thereby omitting important context.

At least presently he correctly notes that his interpretation is merely an *opinion*. I’m satisfied to let readers of the entire article reach their own opinions.


Phil Leigh January 21, 2015 at 12:55 pm

It is important to note that 17 years earlier General Winfield Scott was castigated in the US Congress and Europe for bombarding Vera Cruz during the Mexican War even though – unlike Sherman at Atlanta – he gave advance notice in order to allow noncombatants to evacuate.


James F. Epperson January 21, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Actually, it is totally unimportant to note what happened at Veracruz in 1847. Scott was operating under different rules than Sherman was. And Phil might want to consider that much of the criticism Scott faced was based in political animus, whether domestic or international.


James F. Epperson November 19, 2014 at 8:33 am
Phil Leigh January 21, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The Vera Cruz bombardment is “totally unimportant” only if the rules applicable to Sherman’s Atlanta bombardment were *importantly* different than those applicable to Scott at Vera Cruz. How were they *importantly* different?


James F. Epperson January 21, 2015 at 5:43 pm

The Lieber Code—the laws of war as applicable to Sherman in 1864—had not yet been written.


Phil Leigh January 21, 2015 at 7:43 pm

With all due respect, that dodges the question which requests that Jim explain the *important* ways that the “rules” applicable to Scott at Vera Cruz differ from those pertinent to Sherman at Atlanta. *When* article 19 of the Lieber Code was adopted is irrelevant unless the terms of the article differ significantly from the prior convention.

So far it appears the only important change from Vera Cruz in 1847 to Atlanta in 1864 is the attitude of the (mostly Yankee) politicians who lamented the attacks on enemy non-combatants in the Mexican War but had no objections to similar attacks on southern civilians during the Civil War.


James F. Epperson January 21, 2015 at 8:39 pm

The frank answer is that you should read “Lincoln’s Code.” IIRC, there was no unitary, specific “law of war” under which Scott was operating. Nothing like the Lieber Code or today’s UCMJ. There were many authors on the law of war, the most recent generation of which (Vattel, et al.) very much were interested in making war less violent and cruel. Lieber had a different outlook.

The most significant difference between Lieber and those who came before him is the notion of “military necessity,” which held that almost anything done pursuant to the operational goals of a military force was legitimate.


Phil Leigh January 23, 2015 at 9:41 pm

Frankly you should read Davis’s “What the Yankees Did to Us” to learn about the Yankee burning of Atlanta in November 1864 and Sherman’s unmerited omission of advance notice to enemy noncombatants in the city prior to the July – August 1864 bombardment.

Any objective reading of Article 19 of the Leiber Code must conclude that the burden of proof is on those defending Sherman’s omission if it is to be excused as a military necessity. A claim that “almost anything done pursuant to the…goals of a military force” is an acceptable excuse is a stretch requiring a bungee cord. Under such a vague, low (and unjustifiable) standard the massacre of African-American soldiers could be excused.


James F. Epperson January 24, 2015 at 10:16 am

Unfortunately, Phil, you don’t get to decide what is an “objective reading.” IMO, the language is very clear: “But it is no infraction of the common law of war to omit thus to inform the enemy [of an impending bombardment].” Sherman was under no obligation to tell the Confederates what was coming, regardless of the (non-)issue of surprise.

I’m sure the coming of the war to Atlanta was hard on the local population. War is supposed to be a hard thing to endure. It’s not supposed to be pleasant.


Phil Leigh January 24, 2015 at 9:33 pm

A redacted version is an unreliable basis for a “very clear” interpretation when Article 19 is only three sentences.

But, at least Jim’s selective quotation lets slip that the Lieber Code is based upon prior “common law.” That is why Jim was asked to describe any significant differences – which he has failed to do – between Article 19 and the standards applicable to General Scott when Scott bombarded Vera Cruz during the Mexican War. Even though, unlike Sherman at Atlanta, Scott provided advance notice many leaders from northern states castigated Scott’s action.

Finally, it the current US Army Field Manual provides an interpretation of Article 19 and prior common law that is at variance with Jim’s “very clear” opinion when stating, “The officer in command of an attacking force must, before commencing a bombardment, except in cases of assault, do all in his power to warn the authorities.”


James F. Epperson January 25, 2015 at 9:53 am

For the umpteenth time, Phil, whatever the modern army manuals may say has no bearing on Sherman’s actions. He was bound by G.O. 100, not the current US Army manual.

If you want a thorough explanation of the differences between whatever it was Scott had to work under and what Sherman had, you’ll have to read the book I’ve cited. I’m not going to copy multiple pages of text for you. I tried to outline it briefly.

Our difference appears to be very simple to explain—You seem to think the sentence, “Surprise may be a necessity,” is the only example of a reason why notice prior to bombardment might not be given. I disagree. Part of my reason for disagreeing is that there is no record of Lieber being concerned/worried/upset/whatever that Sherman gave no notice. He did express such concerns about other occasions when officers crossed the line or skated close to it.

I’m done. I’ve made my case. I seriously doubt if anyone else is reading this. I’ve turned off the notification option, so I won’t see your reply.


Phil Leigh February 15, 2015 at 7:05 pm

My computer rebelled long ago by putting alerts to Jim’s follow-ups into a junk folder.

Jim has yet to explain any important differences between the regulations applicable to Scott in the bombing of Vera Cruz in the Mexican war and those applicable to Sherman in the Civil War. Given his preference for citing (misleading) excerpts (out of context) of the Leiber Code to justify Sherman’s evasion of advance warning, he surely should be able to provide excerpts to the book he cites as supposedly providing those differences.

The bottom line is that any objective interpretation of the applicable article of the Leiber Code puts the burden of explanation on Sherman, and those defending his action, for avoiding advance warning. That is the only reason I cited the present Army Field Manual, in order to underscore the lack of objectivity to Jim’s Sherman-serving interpretation.

As for documenting the extensive damage to Atlanta homes by Sherman’s troops, I have provided lengthy excerpts from eyewitnesses that can be more thoroughly explored by anyone seeking the truth in Steve Davis’s *What The Yankees Did to Us.*

While I cannot speak to any claims about the March to the Sea, the time is long past when historians should stop whitewashing Sherman’s culpability for the damages suffered to Atlanta dwellings during his army’s evacuation of the town.


Christopher K. Coleman April 14, 2015 at 7:16 pm

Late to the gate on commenting on this entry, but I agree with Fred that revisionist historians are whitewashing Sherman’s violations of human rights; nor was it just southerners who criticized Sherman’s scorched earth campaign. There were Union officers at the time who were appalled by his barbaric actions and encouragement of subordinates to do so, but they were shunted to backwater posts and effectively silenced by Sherman and his supporters.


Phil Leigh June 10, 2016 at 7:25 pm

After the Georgia Historical Society installed an historical marker on the grounds of the Carter Center claiming that Sherman’s men did not destroy Atlanta dwellings, President Carter knew better and asked them to remove it. The historical society complied.



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