William Tecumseh Sherman
last several weeks have seen a seeming bull market in anti-Southern
libel. David Brion Davis, the eminent historian, told us in the
New York Times that a) slavery was very, very bad, and b)
that, tragically, after the heroic moral exercise of 1861-1865,
evil Confederate ideology won a "victory" in the North.
This terrible fact has haunted us right down to the last five or
ten minutes. That’s why we’ve all been suppressing the fact
that slavery was very, very bad.
loveable international conference on racism in Durban has generated
a lot of copy this week, as well. The participants found time to
entertain a complaint about the state flag of Mississippi. That
is much more fun for them, I guess, than minding their own business
would be. There are also sundry problems much closer to Durban.
Farm murders in South Africa, for example, which even Professor
Davis might concede are very, very bad. No matter.
of course, The Atlanta Paper – hereinafter called The Atlanta Paper
– lately ran an
essay on the good points of General Sherman. It turns out we
have been much too harsh on the genial invader, a mistake traceable
perhaps to some long-standing Southern distemper, leading to an
unwillingness to look at truckloads of evidence showing Sherman
to have conducted his march through Georgia "pretty much by
is interesting, but "the book" – the Union War Department’s
General Order #100 -- was written by Francis Lieber, a German immigrant
of mushy liberal-nationalist views, which centered on state-worship.
Thus Lieber: "the state stands incalculably above the individual,
is worthy of every sacrifice, of life, and goods, of wife and children,
for it is the society of societies, the sacred union by which the
creator leads man to civilization, the bond, the pacifier, the humanizer,
of men, the protector of all undertakings" und so weiter.
As often happens with quasi-Hegelian mystifications about the state,
the code rested in practice on pure positive law. Anything done
by a commander in the field could be justified under the rubric
of "military necessity." So Sherman’s men could burn and
pillage (and worse) to their heart’s content, while staying within
the fraudulent limitations.
for the War, According to Sherman
had in mind to write a short account here of Sherman’s contribution
to the U.S. doctrine of Total War. But my reading led me to an equally
interesting aspect of the General’s outlook, and Total War will
have to wait. I refer to Sherman’s general view of the war as such.
Adams’s recent book, When
in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession,
has stirred up the animals and discomfited certain libertarian reviewers.
Many reviewers claim the worth of the book turns entirely upon whether
or not a particular thesis in it is valid. (I do not agree.) That
thesis is that the "Civil War" came over revenue, or broadly,
over issues of political economy, and not over slavery as such.
such a reading undermines the war as a great moral crusade, it has
met with stiff resistance. Now it is interesting in light of this
controversy to take Sherman as our witness to the war’s unfolding.
What did Sherman – that strange character who emerged as the greatest
union-saver of them all – think the war was all about?
strangely enough, all of Sherman’s concerns involved economics,
geopolitics, or the glorious union. As secession loomed, Sherman
wrote to his brother John Sherman, the future Senator, on December
1, 1860 that "If Texas should draw off, no great harm would
follow – Even if S. Carolina, Georgia, Alabama & Florida would
cut away, it might be the rest could get along, but I think the
secession of Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will bring war
– for though they now say that Free Trade is their Policy yet it
wont be long before steamboats will be taxed and molested all the
way down" (Sherman’s
Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865,
eds., Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin [University of North
Carolina Press, 1999], p. 15).
was then serving as superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary
of Learning and Military Academy in Alexandria, La., and thought
himself in a good position to gauge the ideas and temper of Southerners
as the crisis developed. On December 9, he wrote to his brother
that "it would be folly to liberate or materially modify the
condition of the Slaves." On the other hand, "if States
secede on this pretext, it will be of course only the beginning
of the end. Slavery is common to all the Southern States – Let secession
once take place on that point, and let these States attempt to combine
they will find that there are other interests not so easily reconciled
– and then their troubles will begin" (p. 16, my emphasis).
letters of December 25 and January 5, 1861, he told correspondents
that "it is not slavery" behind the breakup of the union
but "anarchy," which he equated with an excess of "Democratic
spirit" (pp. 27, 30). On January 8, he assured his father-in-law,
Thomas Ewing, that "Slavery is not the Cause but the pretext"
(p. 32). To his wife, on January 20, Sherman observed that "Down
here they think they are going to have fine times. New Orleans a
free port, whereby she can import Goods without limit or duties,
and Sell to the up River Countries. But Boston, New York, Philadelphia
and Baltimore will never consent that N. Orleans should be a Free
Port, and they Subject to Duties" (p. 46). Thus, it was essential
to blockade New Orleans to prevent such a ghastly outcome.
repeated this last theme to his brother on February 1: "They
want free trade here – to import free, and send their goods up the
Rivers free of all charges but freight & insurance – New York,
Boston, Phila. & Baltimore could not afford to pay duties if
New Orleans is a Free port" (p. 50).
addition, Sherman believed the union to be unbreakable, legally
and metaphysically. Writing to his brother on March 21, he sorted
things out thus: "On the Slavery Question as much forbearance
should be made as possible, but on the Doctrine of Secession, none
whatever" (p. 63). For Sherman, secession was treason, and
that was that.
uninterested was Sherman in fighting for emancipation that he could
write David F. Boyd, April 4, 1861, that slavery "is and was
no cause for a severance of the old Union, but [I] will go further
and say that I believe the practice of slavery in the South is the
mildest and best regulated system of slavery in the world now or
heretofore" (p. 65).
late February 1861, Sherman left Louisiana to take up a commission
in the Union army, serving first in Missouri and Kentucky. He was
already predicting a long and costly war. On August 3, he wrote
his wife: "The simple chances of war, provided we adhere to
the determination of subduing the South, will of course involve
the destruction of all able bodied men of this Generation and go
pretty deep into the next" (p. 126). Sherman’s defenders like
to say he was prone to exaggerate, that he was blowing off steam
in his letters. Fine. The war "only" cost North and South
620,000 deaths. What a bargain.
for what did Sherman think it reasonable to fight such a
war: tariff revenues, control of the Mississippi River, and the
nationalist theory of the union. It is interesting that such an
important union-saver should have come so close to the views of
Charles Adams on what was at stake. It might be said, "Oh,
that’s just one man’s opinion" – but Sherman spoke for a substantial
cross-section of northwestern opinion. Such people did not share
the motivations of those in the Yankee belt, consisting of New England
and the areas of settlement directly west of New England.
ethnic "Yankees" did care about slavery. But by themselves
they could never have had a war about slavery, or anything else.
The pivotal role of the Old Northwest puts crass political-economic
interests right on center stage. Neo-mercantilism and continued
internal improvements for the Great Lakes region seem a poor reason
for killing so many Americans. No wonder those who love the War
of Northern Aggression need a moral crusade to beautify an otherwise
final note: one of the first acts of the Confederate Congress was
to pass legislation guaranteeing free navigation of the Mississippi
River to North and South alike in perpetuity. This failed to defuse
Northern anxieties about their trade routes. As for the metaphysics
of perpetual, involuntary union, I leave that to another occasion.
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the
Ludwig von Mises Institute and
a columnist for Antiwar.com.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com