Sherman’s letter to Atlanta: what did he say?

In part 3 of our short series on Union General Sherman’s (in)famous September 1864  letter to the city fathers of Atlanta, we take a good look at what Sherman actually said in reply to the Atlantans’ request that he call off the evacuation and occupation of the city. Sherman had ordered the city evacuated before his soldiers came in and burned all public buildings, eliminating the city’s ability to make war. The town leaders wrote back saying that evacuating without a place to go would basically be a death sentence to the citizens of the town, especially the women and children, and that there was no reason to harm innocent civilians.

Now we look at Sherman’s reply, of which only two sentences are usually quoted as summing up his position. Here is the full text of his September 12, 1864 reply to Atlanta:

“GENTLEMEN: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders removing all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of the distress that will be occasioned, any yet shall not revoke my orders, because they were not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace, not only in Atlanta, but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are now arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey. To defeat those armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose. Now I know the vindictive nature of our enemy, that we may have many years of military operations from this quarter; and, therefore, deem it wise and prudent to prepare in time.

The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes is inconsistent with its character as a home for families. There will be no manufactures, commerce, or agriculture here, for the maintenance of families, and sooner or later want will compel the inhabitants to go. Why not go now, when all the arrangements are completed for the transfer, instead of waiting till the plunging shot of contending armies will renew the scenes of the past month? Of course, I do not apprehend any such thing at this moment, but you do not suppose this army will be here until the war is over. I cannot discuss this subject with you fairly, because I cannot impart to you what we propose to do, but I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away, and I can only renew my offer of services to make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible.”

—I have broken this long paragraph in two. In the first, Sherman says he is not concerned with the well-being of Atlantans, but with ending the war, which impairs the well-being of millions of Americans north and south (he is not concerned with “the humanities of the case [of Atlanta alone], but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest”). Achieving peace by ending the south’s ability to make war is the best way to ensure that no more civilians anywhere have to suffer. To win that peace, the southern army must be defeated, and that can only be done by destroying the civilian war effort and war industry that provides those soldiers with food, guns, transport, etc. (“we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose”).

In the second paragraph, Sherman answers the town’s statement that it is civilian, not connected to the war, and innocent of any action that would justify its occupation and destruction, and the evacuation of its citizens. Sherman counters that the business of Atlanta is war—that all of its ” manufactures, commerce, [and] agriculture” are part of the war effort. Shells and ammunition are manufactured in the city by city residents. Goods are sold to the army by civilian retailers. Civilian farmers grow crops to feed southern soldiers. If the city was concerned about protecting its citizens from war, Sherman is saying, it should have made them remain civilians rather than devoting the city to war production. When you fuel the war, you are a combatant. You are making it possible for the war to go on. You know this, Sherman says, so why not take this opportunity to evacuate safely, rather than waiting until soldiers enter the town and there will be unavoidable deaths? You know I’m not going to wait out the rest of the war outside Atlanta; the army is going to move. Get out now before it does.

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. This feeling assumes various shapes, but always comes back to that of Union. Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war, I and this army become at once your protectors and supporters, shielding you from danger, let it come from what quarter it may. I know that a few individuals cannot resist a torrent of error and passion, such as swept the South into rebellion, but you can point out, so that we may know those who desire a government, and those who insist on war and its desolation.”

—The first two sentences are often quoted. Let’s look at the entirety of this passage, in which Sherman makes a few points. First he answers the town’s pleas that civilians will suffer from evacuation. Yes, says Sherman; that’s what war does—it brings destruction and death and there’s no bright side. That’s why he is risking his own life every day to end the war. Second, he reiterates that peace will only come with southern surrender—the U.S. cannot have a peace that allows the Confederacy to remain. Peace means ending the illegal (because unconstitutional) secession of the southern states and restoring the union. The moment any southerner accepts this, and stops making war or contributing to the war effort, s/he becomes an American again and Sherman will support their full rights and defend their safety. But surrender must come first.

“You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

We don’t want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your hands, or any thing that you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and, if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.”

—There is no way to fight a kind and considerate war where no one gets hurt. The only way to live in safety and peace is to not make war. Sherman knows that southerners are naturally resistant to an enemy that comes into their land to take their land and property; but that’s not why he is there. He doesn’t want to possess southern wealth, he wants to destroy it, because it enables the south to make war. Don’t let everyone suffer this destruction just because you are too proud to admit you were wrong to start the war in the first place. (“admit that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride”). Lay down your arms and save yourselves.

“You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better. I repeat then that, by the original compact of Government, the United States had certain rights in Georgia, which have never been relinquished and never will be; that the South began war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or title of provocation.”

—Your own papers have told you the opposite, but secession was illegal, and so the U.S. never gave up its rights to federal buildings in the south. You seized those buildings before the war even began, without provocation (and yet now you resist and complain that we might come into Atlanta and do the same after years of the provocation of war).

“I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds of thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands upon thousands of families of rebel soldiers left in our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You depreciate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds of thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance.”

—Here Sherman answers Atlanta’s argument that it is inhumane to make war on civilians. He points out that the south was quite happy to make war on civilians in the neutral states; innocent women and children were forced out of their homes, and Atlanta was not concerned that those women and children had nowhere to go and nothing to eat. You, Atlantan manufacturers and farmers and merchants, sent ammo and supplies into neutral civilian areas to make sure that those peoples’ homes were destroyed (and you didn’t offer them the chance to peacefully evacuate first). The people of the neutral states were actually innocent, because their states were neutral and they were not contributing to the war effort. Justice is a two-way street, Sherman is saying, and you can’t demand it if you don’t respect it yourselves.

“But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.

But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then I will share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”

—What’s done is done. Sherman is not here to debate with the town. Ending the war demands that Atlanta be rendered unable to contribute to the war effort, and so it will be occupied and destroyed. When peace comes, there will be no lingering retribution—Atlantans will return to their city, rebuild their lives, and enjoy the full protections of Sherman himself, who will support them with the same single-minded determination with which he must now fight them.

“Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta. Yours in haste,

W.T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.”

—The evacuation order is not rescinded, and it’s your responsibility to care for the people as best you can, not Sherman’s. His responsibility is ending the war that is necessitating so much death and violence and grief on all sides.

So we see here that Sherman’s position is not quite that of “war is hell so anything I do is justified”, nor is it a kind of sick glee in the excesses of war, nor a vindictive desire to hurt the southerners in his path. It is rather an extraordinarily practical and objective position: war inevitably causes destruction and death and the only way to end the destruction and death is to end the war. The war can only be ended when the people are unable to make war, and so you must do whatever it takes to stop those who are contributing to the war effort. The more thoroughly you destroy the people’s ability to make war, the shorter the war is, and the fewer casualties you’ll experience overall. If you want to end a war, wage it thoroughly so you will be successful and your enemy will surrender as quickly as possible.

Sherman was a pro-southern man. He admired its society, and he supported slavery of black Americans. On the eve of the war, in 1859, he took a position teaching at a military academy that is now Lousiana State University, and he was very happy there. But he was an American first. When the south broke the law, and disregarded the Constitution by seceding, Sherman left Louisiana and volunteered for the Union army. It seems hard to process, but it was in part Sherman’s love of the south that led him to destroy it—only by ending its capacity to wage war could Sherman win the peace that would enable him to support and help the south once more.

We’ll wrap up next time with later and contemporary assessments of Sherman’s letter to Atlanta.

Next time: Atlanta wins

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