William Sherman publicly expressed his views on official Northern war policy, claiming that the rules of civilized warfare would be observed by his forces. Despite the assurances, his theory of collective responsibility led him to “the wreaking of vengeance upon a town because it happened to be near the scene” of a recent attack on his command. His total war theory “placed in his hands a weapon, simple in its application, to strike back at his enemy with telling blows.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
The Minds of Adolf and Josef Sherman
“[Sherman wrote Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase [in August 1862], not only to set the government straight as to where its cotton policy was leading, but also to clear up his own thinking about the war. [He] summed up to the Secretary:
“This is no trifle when one nation is at war with another, all the people of one are enemies of the other; then the rules are plain and easy of understanding.” He assured Chase that at the outset of the war there was apparently no understanding of such a simple matter, and he continued:
“The Government of the United States may now safely proceed on the proper rule that all men in the South are enemies of all in the North; and not only are they unfriendly, but all who can procure arms now bear them as organized regiments, or as guerillas. There is not a garrison in Tennessee where a man can go beyond the sight of the flagstaff without being shot or captured.”
Thus did Sherman strip war of all the rules of conduct voluntarily subscribed to by the nations of the civilized nations of the nineteenth century and set up a single very simple one – that all of the people of the South were enemies of those in the North, and the Union armies might therefore proceed on the “proper” rule that no line was to be drawn between the military forces of the South and the noncombatant civilian population.
Sherman here stated, in simple language, the basic principle upon which the waging of total war rests and upon what efforts to justify it are founded.
Sherman [described] his helplessness [before Southern cavalry raids on his forces] in a report to General Grant as early as August 1862. He pointed out the difficulty of coming to grips with the enemy . . . The elusiveness of Southern units brought from Sherman a characteristic recourse to generalization, as he assured Grant: “All the people are now guerillas, and they have a perfect understanding.”
[Sherman] wrote his brother in September: “It’s about time the North understood the truth. That the entire South, man, woman and child, is against us, armed and determined.”
It was evident that this time that Sherman was determined to consider the resistance encountered . . . as the treacherous acts of the civilian populace. He was to shut out any thought that his troubles were caused by Confederate cavalry. It mattered not that he had not investigated or weighed the evidence to establish the truth of the proposition – he had convinced himself that it was true, and that was what he would act upon.
Sherman had been searching around for some means of crippling those he was coming to hate, and as early as July 31 , a few days after he took command at Memphis, he wrote to his wife . . . “We are now in the enemy’s country, and I act accordingly. The North may fall into bankruptcy and anarchy first, but if they can hold on, the war will soon assume a turn to extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people.”
[His brother Senator] John Sherman had written the General shortly before the Union army occupied Corinth . . . “However delay, defeat or a much longer continuation in the barbarity of rebel warfare will prepare the public mind in the North for a warfare that will not scruple to avail itself of every means of subjection.”
(Merchant of Terror, General Sherman and Total War, John Bennett Walters, Bobbs-Merrill, 1973, pp. 57-61)