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The Scourge of War:
The Life of William Tecumseh Sherman

by brian holden reid
oxford, 640 pages, $34.95

If William Tecumseh Sherman is known for one thing, it is the scorching of Atlanta in November 1864 as he and his army set off on their March to the Sea. Like so much else that is associated with Sherman, the popular image of ruined Atlanta is an exaggeration. (About 70 percent of the city’s housing stock remained standing, which is not what the famous sequence in Gone With the Wind suggests.) But Sherman saw the spectacle as an apocalypse and wrote in his memoirs of turning as his soldiers marched away to see “Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” No wonder Southerners would reserve in their hearts a special place of hatred for Sherman. Even as he marched, Confederate president Jefferson Davis accused Sherman not only of an “infamous disregard of the established rules of war, but of the common dictates of humanity.” Seventy years later, ­Sherman’s march across Georgia was compared by the Southern Agrarians to “the inroads of a Genghis Khan or an Attila.”

The thought of Sherman smirking while Atlanta burned made it easy for the partisans of the Lost Cause to paint him as a monster. But it also allowed the first wave of twentieth-­century Sherman biographers, burdened with the memory of World War I, to assume that Sherman was a dark genius who had foreseen the hellish inferno of “total war.” Basil Liddell Hart in Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (1929) and Chicago newspaperman Lloyd Lewis in Sherman: Fighting Prophet (1932) believed that, as the Civil War was the first “modern war,” so was “Sherman the first modern general” and “the prototype of the most modern age.” In subsequent decades, Sherman could be described, in the words of T. Harry Williams, as “the prophet of total war . . . whose operations foreshadowed the panzer dashes and the strategic bombing” of World War II.

The Vietnam War provided yet another context for casting Sherman in the role of infernal apostle. James Reston, the famed New York Times columnist, drew a straight line from Sherman “to Dresden, ­Hiroshima, and Vietnam.” The late Charles ­Royster (who had served in Indochina as an intelligence officer) wrote in 1991 that Sherman was the remorseless preacher of grinding-machine ­warfare: “Once set forth, the words fixed themselves in the minds of others . . . and made it impossible to think about war without also thinking that . . . war had no certain limits.”

But the attribution of war-­terrorism to Sherman rang false to Civil War historians who, especially in the 1990s, began questioning how a war fought with single-shot muzzle-loading rifles and smoothbore artillery that could barely knock down a brick wall could be anything like “total war.” Joseph Glatthaar, in The March to the Sea and Beyond, noticed that most of the destruction wrought by Sherman in Georgia fell on “key military targets” such as railroads, machine shops, and cotton. It was when Sherman’s men moved into South Carolina that they lost restraint. South Carolina had started the war, and there, as one Ohio officer wrote, “Our army did not feel bound by the ordinary restraints of human warfare.” But even there, Yankee malevolence is an exaggeration, especially since in South Carolina, Confederate soldiers seemed to have lost any sense of restraint themselves. Mississippi cavalryman William Nugent, retreating before Sherman’s advance, wrote that Confederate cavalry “have become lawless to an alarming extent” and “steal and plunder indiscriminately regardless of age or sex.”

Increasingly, Sherman’s biographers have moved to absolve him of any connection to modern theories of war. John Marszalek insists that he “was no villain,” nor even the first “to wreak destruction on an opposing society” in addition to its armies. And Robert O’Connell cautions that, for all Sherman’s “firehose” language, the March to the Sea “was accompanied by none of the rape and slaughter” that would become the trademark of twentieth-century warfare: “Sherman was a hard and determined man, but not a cruel one.”

Brian Holden Reid’s The Scourge of War is the tenth biography of William Tecumseh Sherman to appear in the last twenty-five years—a period that has seen new histories of Sherman’s Georgia and Carolinas campaigns, plus fresh editions of Sherman’s letters and his 1875 Memoirs. Of them all, John Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (2007) stands preeminent, and Marszalek has in fact produced a new edition of Sherman’s Memoirs.

Holden Reid, a British subject who teaches in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, is skeptical of the provincialism that characterizes many American histories of the Civil War. The moment one places the March to the Sea in the overall context of nineteenth-century warfare in Europe and elsewhere, the impression of Sherman’s unprecedented brutality fades away. Holden Reid believes that little of the suffering experienced by Southerners at Sherman’s hands matches “the conduct of French troops in Calabria, Italy, in 1806–11 . . . with mass executions and deportations”; or the “privations, pain, and heartbreak endured during the siege of Genoa, Italy, in 1800, where 15,000 starved to death”; or Portugal in 1810 and Russia in 1812, where “people were forced to destroy their crops and property by their own side.” It is one of the besetting sins of American historiography of the Civil War that so little of this comparative context is ever deployed, despite the fact that it elucidates many of the seeming contradictions of military policy in both the Union and the Confederacy.

Holden Reid’s Sherman is not “a ruthless, utterly heartless, and ­unprincipled destroyer,” nor a “proto-fascist” guilty of “preferring dictatorship and showing ‘dictatorial’ tendencies himself.” He was “highly-strung” and liable to “jump to logical extremes and could draw erroneous conclusions,” which when combined with his talents as “a fascinating talker and a brilliant writer” could lead him into overstatement and contradiction. But he was also a wide and perceptive reader in subjects from international law to military theory, as able to quote Henri Jomini (one of the most famous—and overrated—military writers of the day) as Emmerich Vattel, the international jurist. When Confederate general John Bell Hood protested Sherman’s order that Atlanta’s civilian population be evacuated after the city’s capture, Sherman tartly instructed him that this order fell quite within the parameters of prevailing international law. “See the books,” he directed Hood.

Holden Reid’s “starting point” for The Scourge of War is “Sherman’s character.” It is true, Holden Reid concedes, that you cannot reduce a military leader to his “personal attributes.” Nevertheless, there is a certain sine qua non: There must be personal courage, stamina, and “a powerful intellectual cast of mind.” Holden Reid does not mean that generals should be intellectuals in the academic sense. The military intellectual “is a very distinct subspecies,” whose “members pursue ideas in a very particular habitat of violence” and “search out answers to very specific problems posed by war.” Those problems fall into three broad categories: the tactical (what happens on the battlefield), the operational (how an army is brought to the battlefield), and the strategic (encompassing the large-scale direction of operations and the matching of those operations to the demands of economics and governmental policy).

As a tactical leader, Sherman was reasonably competent—as he demonstrated in retrieving his division from near-chaos at Shiloh in 1862—but not outstanding, as he showed to his embarrassment at Chickasaw Bluffs in 1862 and Chattanooga in 1863. His long suit was operational and strategic. He understood that the campaign against Atlanta was key to the reelection of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1864, which in turn was key to the North’s victory in the war; just as clearly, he understood that the March to the Sea was ­necessary to the destruction of ­Confederate home-front morale. “He hoped,” as Holden Reid explains, “to launch a preeminently psychological assault that would widen the fissures of social and political disunity” in the Confederacy.

It was a novel plan among American military leaders in Sherman’s day, whose professional education at West Point was overwhelmingly devoted to engineering rather than the mechanics of war, and who tended to subscribe to the notion that wars were won tactically, by a climactic battle or two. Those with eyes to see had learned otherwise from the example of Winfield Scott in the Mexican War, where Scott subdued Mexican resistance by operations rather than tactics—seizing key geographical points by continuous campaigning, and thus enervating the Mexican political leadership. Ulysses Grant understood this; so did Robert E. Lee. But no one showed it to more dazzling effect than Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas, where he sapped the Confederate will to fight by seizing one major ­geographical point after another, while avoiding pitched battles. “Sherman was by no means the first commander to ­understand the psychologically ­paralyzing effect of strategic advances into an enemy’s hinterland,” Holden Reid writes, “but he perfected the technique.”

Sherman’s qualities were best displayed in his attention to a key feature of operations: logistics, the art of supply. In legend, Sherman’s March was a gigantic picnic in which Union soldiers lived off the land and foraged for their food instead of being tied, as invading armies ­usually are, to railroads and bases. But actually, Sherman strode through Georgia with a supply train that stretched for twenty miles. He had calculated to the nicest point what he could afford to carry with him. It included two hundred rounds of ammunition per man and two hundred rounds of artillery ammunition for each of his sixty-five artillery pieces, and it entailed weeding out the “sick, wounded, and slackers” from his force before setting out.

Sherman was atypical, not just of American military leadership in the 1860s, but of American culture as a whole. Born in 1820 as the son of a Whig lawyer in Ohio, he was only nine when his overworked father succumbed to typhoid. His father’s law partner, Thomas ­Ewing, was a political figure who owed much of his prominence to the elder Sherman, and so took in the young Sherman as a foster son. This was not an unusual practice at the time. What was unusual was that the ­Ewing family was Roman Catholic, and when the boy turned ten, he was baptized by a priest who held monthly instructional classes for the other Ewing children.

Catholicism never came easily to Sherman. Nominated by his foster father to West Point, he quickly showed all of his adult propensities—his garrulousness, his ability to absorb and retain huge amounts of information, his love of performance—but not religious observance. When he married one of the Ewing siblings, Ellen, in 1850, it was a Catholic wedding, conducted in Washington at Blair House by the president of Georgetown College, Fr. James Ryder. But Sherman never shared Ellen’s devotion to the Catholic faith, and he rebuffed all her efforts to draw him into the fold. When he was appointed in 1862 to command of the Military District of Memphis, he attended services at the local Episcopal church, but largely in order to ensure that the rector prayed for Abraham Lincoln rather than ­Jefferson Davis. He refused to permit “wandering preachers” to minister to his soldiers, barking that “200 pounds of powder or oats are worth more to the US than that amount of bottled piety.”

The death of his nine-year-old son, Willy, in 1863 wiped out what Holden Reid calls any “residual religious belief he may have casually entertained.” Thomas Sherman, the son who became his father’s next favorite, triggered an eruption in 1878 when, after studying for a law career, he announced that he instead intended to become a Jesuit priest. Sherman railed against “that ­insidious whispering set of priests” who had won his son away from him. But there was nothing he could do. “All my children inherit their mother’s faith,” Sherman ­eventually conceded, “and she would have given anything if I would have simply said Amen; but it was simply impossible.” When he lay comatose on his deathbed in 1891, the ­Sherman children arranged for Fr. James ­Byrnes to administer extreme unction; Tom Sherman presided at the funeral Mass, and the old ­terror of the Confederacy was buried in consecrated ground next to Ellen and Willy.

Though Sherman fought for the Union, he was always sympathetic to the South and despised abolitionists as “bringers of anarchy.” Only at the end of his life did he make any room for the freed slaves as citizen equals. It is peculiar that Holden Reid makes so little of this, or of the most damaging ­incident in Sherman’s wartime career—the abandonment of fugitive slaves at Ebenezer Creek, where one of his corps commanders, J. C. ­Davis, removed a pontoon bridge Union soldiers had used and stranded five hundred slave refugees who were then either captured by ­Confederate cavalry or drowned attempting to swim the creek. ­Sherman was not present at the incident, but weeks later he defended his subordinate as “an excellent soldier,” and, with utter obtuseness, insisted that Davis lacked “any hostility to the Negro.”

Yet Holden Reid’s concluding chapter, “Weighed in the Balance and Not Found Wanting,” is a gem of scholarly military analysis worth the price of the book. (Its only rival is the section devoted to Sherman in Victor Davis Hanson’s The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day.) Sherman was not a man of instinctive malice, but he usually saw other people outside his family as logical abstractions and treated them that way, as though no questions of suffering or outrage had any bearing. Yet he was a great soldier who knew, as all great soldiers really do, that war is only looked upon “as all glory” by those who have never seen it, whereas in truth, “it is all hell.”

Allen Guelzo is a senior research scholar in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University.