ALBANY, Ga. — When Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched his troops from Chattanooga, Tenn., into Georgia in May of 1864, he made an ominous promise to President Abraham Lincoln.
“I will make Georgia howl,” Sherman famously declared.
The Civil War’s most infamous general kept his word, leaving in his wake the howls of Georgians who watched helplessly as their homes and properties were destroyed, their livestock and valuables taken, and the infrastructure of their cities left in ruins.
Sherman’s utter destruction of Atlanta and his subsequent 300-mile March to the Sea at Savannah resulted in, by the general’s own estimate, $100 million in damages (an amount equal to $1.38 billion in 2010 dollars) and rendered 300 miles of railroad tracks useless. Sherman’s troops seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules and 13,000 head of cattle during their deadly march and left hundreds of thousands of pristine Georgia acres in ashes.
As the country reflects this year on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War’s opening volleys, few names are as passionately discussed — especially in Georgia — as the general who laid waste to so much of the state. He is revered as a military genius in the North, celebrated as a tactician whose strategy brought a swift end to the bloody conflict.
Southerners, though, revile Sherman as a war criminal, a man whose barbaric tactics were last used in the Dark Ages and later copied by Nazis in their quest to conquer the world.
“I consider Sherman to be a war criminal of the most vile type,” James King, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization’s Albany Camp 141, said. “Statements made by Sherman indicate that he had no regard for the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and no respect for civil rights and liberties of Southern civilians.
“Sherman and his 75,000 Union troops exhibited a total lack of character and morals, and were no more than common criminals as they burned, plundered, stole, destroyed, murdered, tortured and raped their way across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah and then to South Carolina, where their conduct appears even more heinous, inexcusable and vile.”
Such sentiment is common across the South, especially among those who celebrate the service of their Confederate ancestors as members of the SCV. There are some, however, who take a more neutral stance.
“People’s take on Sherman tends to depend on their perspective,” said Villa Rica history professor Ernest Blevins, whose relatives fought on both sides during the conflict and who is one of a small number of was descendents with dual memberships in the national Sons of Confederate Veterans and Sons of Union Veterans organizations.
“The truth is, he was doing his job, and unfortunately for the South, he did it well. Books I’ve read suggest his strategy was to break civilian morale in the South and thus break the Confederacy. That’s exactly what he did. How people perceive that strategy depends on whether they were on the winning or losing side.”
Confederate Commanding Gen. Robert E. Lee was among the noted detractors on the losing side.
“No greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetuation of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed and defenseless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country,” he wrote.
By contrast, Lee offered: “We make war only on armed men, and we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth.”
No matter one’s take on Sherman’s strategy, none will deny its effectiveness.
The man whose name is anathema in Georgia, graduated from the Military Academy at West Point in 1840 and was teaching military science at what is now Louisiana State University when Southern states seceded from the Union. He left for a Union commission and commanded a brigade in the first major battle of the war at Bull Run, Va. He later led a division at Shiloh.
Sherman subsequently laid waste to lands in Louisiana and Mississippi before planning his siege of Georgia through what was known as the “scorched earth” principle. His supply line in Chattanooga was being challenged by Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, though, so he detached two of the armies under his command — to be led by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas — to deal with Hood while he marched his remaining forces of 62,000 into Atlanta.
From May to September of 1864, Sherman and his troops devastated Georgia’s current capital, at the time a strategic rail center in the South. A month later, as he prepared to continue his destruction in a march from Atlanta to Savannah, he looked back on what had been a teeming city.
“Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city,” Sherman wrote in his “Memoirs.”
With no regular supplies to rely on, Sherman and his men “lived off the land,” taking food, livestock and valuables from the homes and plantations that stood in their path. In addition to the 22,000 head of livestock, military historians Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones estimate Sherman and his army confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, in addition to other stores.
But there is evidence Union officers turned their heads as their men took non-martial valuables and inflicted damage on many of the civilians and slaves they encountered. Brent Wilburn, whose ancestors owned a plantation near Savannah, said a story of such atrocities has been handed down through the generations in his family.
“My aunt has letters that describe what took place, but I’ve heard those stories all my life,” Wilburn said. “Evidently my family members who lived on the plantation fled to the Okefenokee Swamp and either hid or took their family silver with them to keep it out of the hands of Yankee soldiers. Their slaves stayed behind.
“There was apparently some sort of rivalry among the slaves who worked the fields and the ones who worked inside, so the lower slaves in the pecking order told the Yankee soldiers one of the inside slaves knew where the family’s silver was hidden. She either did not know or would not tell the soldiers, and they broke her fingers in an effort to get her to talk.”
Sherman and his troops left Atlanta on Nov. 15, 1864, and arrived in Savannah on Dec. 21. He received supplies from the U.S. Navy and was joined by Gen. William Hazen for the Battle of Fort McAllister outside Savannah. The Union troops captured the installation in 15 minutes.
Sherman notes in his memoirs the ominous message he sent to Confederate Gen. William Hardee: “I am justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah ... and shall wait a reasonable time for your answer before opening with heavy ordnance,” he wrote. “Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault ... I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army ...”
Hood did not surrender. Instead he and his men used the time allotted to escape, so Sherman and his troops marched into Savannah unchallenged. The Union general sent the following telegram to Lincoln on Christmas Eve: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah.”
Emboldened by his success in Georgia, Sherman and his troops headed north for the Carolinas, covering a 450-mile swath in an astounding 50 days. Along the way the Union troops continued their scorched earth strategy, and by the time they met up with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, the war was all but over.
“People tend to look at what Sherman and other generals did, and they look too closely at the details,” said Charles Lunsford, who for more than a decade traveled the national lecture circuit as a spokesman for the SCV. “They tend to forget that these men’s actions came at the behest of President Lincoln. He sent orders to completely destroy the South, to loot it, to plunder it, to burn it.
“After the South was destroyed, the government made laws designed to keep the South poor, to keep it from rising. And it worked. It was the 1950s before our region started to recover. The thing Northerners don’t seem to want to talk about is that Lincoln and his generals acted in a way to put down the very thing we celebrate on the 4th of July. Lincoln did the same thing George III tried in the Revolutionary War, only he succeeded.”
Lunsford said Northern historians have downplayed the criminal actions of both Sherman and Lincoln.
“The treatment of Southerners by the Northern troops is the 500-pound gorilla that’s an embarrassment to Northern writers,” he said. “It’s always been easy for me to debate them or college professors from the North because all their talking points come from sycophants who won’t acknowledge that Lincoln was the only U.S. president guilty of coup d’etat.
“He was a war criminal who eventually got what he deserved. Northern writers seem to forget the Declaration of Independence and work overtime to beatify their assassinated president. History was oppressed and propagandized for more than 100 years.”
King, like so many other Southerners, agrees with Lunsford’s assessment.
“Sherman, Sheridan, Lincoln, Hunter, Butler and other Union politicians and military officers should be tried posthumously as war criminals and their dastardly deeds made known to Americans,” he said. “It is my opinion that the Southern states should be paid reparations by the federal government and a public admission and apology for war crimes should be forthcoming.”