Friday, September 12, 2014

Sherman's Letter To The Mayor of Atlanta (Atlanta from

On this date in 1864 General William Tecumseh Sherman sent a letter to James M Calhoun, Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia containing a passage well-known to Civil War aficionados and students of the general's career:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war.

What prompted Sherman to express these sentiments in a letter to the mayor of a city his army had occupied ten days earlier? 

In early May 1864, Sherman's army began a campaign from its base at Chattanooga, Tennessee with the capture of Atlanta, a key Confederate manufacturing center and rail hub, as its goal.  After four months of marching, maneuvering and fighting (though despite Sherman's bloodthirsty rhetoric he avoided committing his troops to battle more than most Civil War generals) against the Confederate forces commanded at first by Joseph E Johnston and then later by John Bell Hood, Atlanta fell to the Union forces on September 2.  As the Confederates withdrew they set fire to some buildings and an ammunition train which exploded causing extensive damage (it is this event that is the setting for Rhett Butler's dramatic rescue of Scarlett O'Hara and her sister in Gone With The Wind).

(Mill and train destroyed by Confederates)

Although Sherman now had possession of Atlanta, the Confederate army under General Hood still existed and was in a position to possibly cut his supply line which ran back to Chattanooga.  This led Sherman to decide that the civilian population of Atlanta must be evacuated as he could not reliably supply it and did not want to be burdened with the need to do so.  His evacuation order came on September 7, 1864 and triggered several rounds of correspondence between Generals Sherman and Hood as well as Mayor Calhoun over the ensuing days (the entire exchange can be found here).  These letters provide a good insight into Sherman's strategy and state of mind at the time. 

Sherman's letter of September 7 to Hood announces his intent to evacuate and proposes a truce to facilitate movement for those people who want to go in the direction of Hood's army:.  Of particular interest is his approach towards the handling of black "servants":

If you consent I will undertake to remove all families in Atlanta who prefer to go South to Rough and Ready [a station on the rail line outside Atlanta], with all their movable effects, viz, clothing, trunks, with their servants, white and black, with the proviso that no force shall be used toward the blacks one way or the other. If they want to go with their masters or mistresses they may do so, otherwise they will be sent away, unless they be men, when they may be employed by our quartermaster. Atlanta is no place for families or non-combatants, and I have no desire to send them North if you will assist in conveying them.
On the 9th Hood responded accepting Sherman's proposal but then at the end of his letter adding two sentences that clearly left Sherman irate:

And now, sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war. In the name of God and humanity I protest, believing that you will find that you are expelling from their homes and firesides the wives and children of a brave people.  

Sherman's reply the following day addresses almost exclusively those closing sentences.  He points out that it is not "necessary to appeal to the dark history of war when recent and modern examples are so handy" citing the many instances in the recent campaign when Johnston and Hood forced the evacuation of civilians, destroyed their property and placed women and children in harm's way.  Sherman closes by calling Hood a hypocrite:

Talk thus to the marines, but not to me, who have seen these things, and who will this day make as much sacrifice for the peace and honor of the South as the best born Southerner among you. If we must be enemies, let us be men and fight it out, as we propose to do, and not deal in such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity. God will judge us in due time, and He will pronounce whether it be more humane to fight with a town full of women, and the families of "a brave people" at our back, or to remove them in time to places of safety among their own friends and people. 

The next day Mayor Calhoun along with two city councilmen injected themselves into the discussion requesting "most earnestly, but respectfully" that the General reconsider his evacuation order.  They write of the hardships being imposed by the order when "Many poor women are in advanced state of pregnancy; others now having young children, and whose husbands, for the greater part, are either in the army, prisoners, or dead." and laying out the practical difficulties once they reach a countryside already filled with refugees from the earlier phases of the campaign:

This being so, how is it possible for the people still here (mostly women and children) to find any shelter? And how can they live through the winter in the woods? No shelter or subsistence, in the midst of strangers who know them not, and without the power to assist them much, if they were willing to do so. This is but a feeble picture of the consequences of this measure. You know the woe, the horrors and the suffering cannot be described by words; imagination can only conceive of it, and we ask you to take these things into consideration. 
 The writers are almost apologetic about disturbing Sherman with their request:

We know your mind and time are constantly occupied with the duties of your command, which almost deters us from asking your attention to this matter, but thought it might be that you had not considered this subject in all of its awful consequences.

Given Sherman's personality it is unlikely in any circumstance he would have changed his mind but it is certain that after Hood's letter of September 9 he would never change it.  Thus, Sherman's letter of September 12 which is of interest for more than just its most famous passage.  The letter starts calmly:

I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of the distress that will be occasioned by it, and yet shall not revoke my orders, simply because my orders are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace, not only at Atlanta but in all America. To secure this we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war we must defeat the rebel armies that are arrayed against the laws and Constitution, which all must respect and obey. To defeat these armies we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose.
Sherman then lectures the Mayor about the responsibility of the citizens of Atlanta for the terrible war:

You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home is to stop the war, which can alone be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

The first sentence of this passage strikes us as odd but comports with Sherman's views: he was a Union man, not an emancipationist:

We don't want your negroes or your horses or your houses or your lands or anything you have, but we do want, and will have, a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and if it involves the destruction of your improvements we cannot help it.

Responding to their tales of woe, Sherman accuses them of not being troubled when the tables were turned:

I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi we fed thousands upon thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition and molded shells and shot to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, and desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes and under the Government of their inheritance.
He closes by bestowing a benediction:

But, my dear sirs, when that peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter. Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them and build for them in more quiet places proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta.

                                                                                                                  Yours in haste
                                                                                                                  WT Sherman

On November 15, 1864, after wrecking much of what remained in Atlanta, Sherman's army left the city on its March To The Sea reaching Savannah on December 21.    


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