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General Sherman: Hero or Monster?

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman (between 1861 and 1865)

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman (between 1861 and 1865)

William Tecumseh Sherman

The name William Tecumseh Sherman to this day brings forth a variety of emotions, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line your heritage or sympathies lie. To many in the North, he is the general who brought swift and decisive victory for the Union by his use of "total war" on the Confederate population. He is also considered nothing short of the devil for the exact same reasons by southerners of that era and even to this day.

From the Union perspective, Sherman and fellow general U.S. Grant personally believed that in order for the war to truly come to a close, the Confederacy would have to be beaten not only on the battlefield but economically and psychologically. This included burning crops, killing livestock, destroying transportation, and consuming supplies. Sherman believed that by bringing the common Confederate citizen to the brink of starvation and psychologically drained, the South would have no alternative but to capitulate. Sherman said, “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

Another aspect of this “total war” concept was that, in the process of suffering from this type of warfare, the Confederate soldiers would begin deserting by the thousands to come home to the aid of their families. This would render the Confederate Army short of manpower, a commodity the Confederates could not spare at this point in the war. Sherman also truly believed that in applying this tactic of warfare, he not only was saving the lives of his men by keeping them from actual combat, but he was also in a sense keeping the Confederates from combat, conversely saving their lives as well.

Sherman, at the outset of the war, was actually a military instructor in Mississippi and had strong feelings for his southern comrades, and even believed that the liberation of the slaves was not a good idea. He did, however, believe that the South should be punished and that justice and righteousness would be delivered by the application of total war.

His tactics saved the lives of men on both sides, it showed the strength and tenacity of the Union Army, and it brought a swifter end to the war.

From the Confederate standpoint, however, Sherman is not seen in the same light. In fact, to this day he is considered next to the devil himself as the epitome of evil by many southerners. To southerners of his era, this type of warfare was not “gentlemanly” and not how civilized men fought wars. There are those in the South that still blame Sherman and his men for crimes they did not commit, and even for actions in areas that he didn't even march through. But his type of warfare was the "shock and awe" of the 19th century and southerners have never forgotten him.

General William T. Sherman before the Atlanta Campaign astride his favorite horse "Duke"

General William T. Sherman before the Atlanta Campaign astride his favorite horse "Duke"

What is crucial to understand is that, regardless of your stance on Sherman, he was not anything other than what he claimed to be. He never apologized for his actions and truly never felt the need to do so. He stood by his convictions to the end and even believed in truly reuniting the country; indeed, the only animosity he held for the South after the war was voiced in the comment: "We accepted their challenge, and now for them to whine and complain of the natural and necessary results is beneath contempt. But for the more manly, who are now engaged in building up, I feel friendship and respect." Even his main nemesis of the war, Joseph E. Johnston (who at Sherman's funeral refused to don his head-covering in the bitter cold even when he himself was in ill health) said, "If I were in his place and he standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat." Johnston died five weeks later.

The details are out there, and I urge readers to put away any prejudice and look at the facts of history before they pass judgment on the man. Almost every pro-southern site I visit claims that history has the facts wrong, and tends to invent things for which there is little to no documentation. Conversely, many on the other side completely ignore many of the atrocities that were committed by Sherman's "bummers" with his full knowledge and raise the man to hero status without even knowing the facts or why.

So in the end, really, the question really depends on one's knowledge of the facts or one's reliance on heritage passed down through the ages. To many, even some southerners, Sherman was a true hero. A no-nonsense and brilliant strategist whose actions, while harsh and unconventional for the time, probably were some of the most critical episodes of the Civil War. To some, he can never be forgiven for the harsh, brutal, and cruel actions he enacted against southern citizens, could be considered a racist, and regardless of the circumstances, will continue to be the personification of evil itself.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.