Sherman's War Against Civilians
It was North Carolina Governor Zeb Vance’s opinion that Sherman “was a despoiler when there was no need to despoil and one who came very close to being a monster.” Lincoln had unleashed a conqueror and scourge upon Americans in the South; Davis and Lee remained firm in their belief that war should be confined to hostile armies fighting to a conclusion, and not waged upon defenseless civilians.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Sherman’s War Against Civilians
“Vance’s ideas of warfare were obtained from his earlier reading of Chancellor [James] Kent, one of the idols of his erudite Professor [David] Swain at Chapel Hill. In dealing with Sherman and Lee, he cited Kent’s commentary on plunder and depredations on private property. Kent said such conduct had been condemned by the wise and virtuous of all ages and usually was severely punished by “commanders of disciplined troops who had studied war as a science, and are animated by a sense of duty or love of fame.”
Kent said, as Vance cited him, that when a commander went beyond these limits wantonly, and seized private property or destroyed dwellings or public buildings for civil use, when it was not clearly indispensible for the purposes of war, he was sure “to be held up to the general scorn and detestation of the world.”
Vance mentioned also that Kent was studied by Sherman at West Point. He cited Major-General Henry W. Halleck in similar vein on the usage respecting private property, and brought out much evidence, like a lawyer presenting his case, capping it with similar or more severe quotations from the code prepared by the government to control the armies of the United States.
The propriety of Sherman’s military methods will always be debated, as will be, perhaps, the question of their efficacy in the broad picture of war. They kept alive pockets of bitterness in three States for more than a century. If they hastened the end of active war, they delayed the return of true cordiality. The British Field Marshall Montgomery of World War II appeared to doubt their military value when he compared Sherman’s activities to Sir Redvers Henry Bullers, commander of the British forces in South Africa, in burning the homes of the Boers, for which the Boer women, left homeless, never forgave the British.
Sherman probably could have won his campaign as easily by fighting the weakened Confederate armies without wanton devastation of the country, or, as Vance charged, the slaughter of animals unneeded for food, and without making his name perhaps permanently abhorred, especially by the women in a large area of the country, as Buller’s was with the Boers.”
(Zeb Vance, Champion of Personal Freedom, Glenn Tucker, Bobbs-Merrill, 1965, pp. 376-377)