Sherman’s letter to Atlanta—the reaction
Welcome to the last post on our series on General William Sherman’s September 1864 letter to the town leaders of Atlanta. We’ve seen that Sherman told the town leaders he would not cancel his evacuation order, which he issued because he planned to enter the city and burn all public buildings and war manufacturing businesses. The fire required to do this would obviously also destroy some homes and damage others, and so Sherman gave the city time to evacuate. The mayor and other officials wrote Sherman asking him to rescind this order because it would harm innocent women and children who would have to leave their homes and have nowhere to go with winter coming on. Sherman replied that he would not rescind the order, and that reply has become infamous to later generations.
That’s because it has been paraphrased as a “war is hell” statement—Sherman saying that because war is about destruction he has no compunctions about destroying civilians. We’ve seen that what he really said was that war is about destroying the enemy’s capacity to make war. The faster he can do this, the faster the war will end and everyone can go back to living in safety and peace. His other point is that the South has not hesitated to make war on civilians in the neutral states, and Atlanta was critical in the attacks on neutral civilians, and so Atlanta cannot now take a pious stance about protecting civilians. War is about suffering on all sides, civilian and soldier, and so the war must end, and so Atlanta must burn. Once this is done, and the march to the sea complete, the war will end and Sherman can go back to what he wants—supporting and helping and protecting the southern states that have returned once more to the Union.
Few people bother to read famous documents, and so few people actually read the text of Sherman’s letter, and so most people believe it expresses a callous or gleeful attachment to war. They think it is Sherman saying, Screw you, rebels—I’m coming for your women and children and you can all burn! The fact that the town leaders refused to evacuate when given the chance meant that there were civilians in Atlanta when it was burned, and there was loss of life. Some vindictive Union soldiers without personal integrity or honor were allowed to set fire to private homes with women and children in them both before and during the official destruction. But the fact that all loss of civilian life could have been prevented was conveniently overlooked by later southern historians, who simply focused on the carnage and helped create the image of Sherman as a south-hating demon whose memory must be reviled in perpetuity.
In fact, a story I have shared before is that I knew an elderly woman who went on a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi River in the late 1970s and she played the big pipe organ on the boat and got a commemorative certificate for her efforts. On the certificate was written: “This certificate allows the bearer to play the organ on any riverboat so long as she shall live—but shall be revoked forever if the bearer is ever heard to play ‘Marching through Georgia.'” “Marching through Georgia” was a song written after the war to commemorate Sherman’s “march to the sea”. So hatred of Sherman was a precious souvenir handed down through the generations in the south, right down to the present-day.
The ironies are many: Sherman offered a chance to evacuate civilians which no southern general ever offered civilians in the neutral states; he burned the buildings he targeted and moved on; he was a loyal supporter of the south before and after the war; and, last, he loathed the song “Marching through Georgia” and skipped many parades of Union soldiers on war anniversaries because the soldiers’ bands would always play it when they marched past him.
We’ll close this series with one bit of truth to counter another myth: Sherman did say “war is hell”—just about. On April 11, 1880, long after the war, he made a speech in Ohio in which he said, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” He can’t have been the first person to utter those words, but his statement is memorable because it is a view he truly held, and expressed in his letter to Atlanta.