Victor Davis Hanson: The Essay Is About Sherman's March, But Is He Really Writing About Iraq?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Victor Davis Hanson, on his website (May 21, 2004):

General William Tecumseh Sherman--a quirky, difficult, and much misunderstood man--deserves a place on the roll call of great liberators in human history. More than any other person, he destroyed the institution of American slavery and the Southern aristocracy that was interwoven with it. In the late fall of 1864 he marched an army of over 60,000 rural, voting Americans--mostly farmers from the Midwest--into the heart of the Confederacy, a patrician society based on bound labor. Sherman’s agrarian citizen-soldiers upended that world of slaves and masters, instantly liberated tens of thousands, and helped therein to destroy forever the idea of privileged nobility in America. In a 300-mile march covering less than 40 days these armed men changed the entire psychological and material course of our national history.

Make no mistake about it--Sherman waged total war. After taking and burning the city of Atlanta, he set off across the heart of Georgia on his way to the Atlantic coast. Moving without an unwieldy supply chain, his men lived off the land. Earlier Northern battlefield successes had neither destroyed Southern morale nor dented the Confederacy’s ability to field new armies. Union forces had gotten to within a few miles of the Confederate capital in Richmond yet the South had not sued for peace and did not, in fact, feel it was beaten.

This army, however, was aimed at the heartland of the Southern aristocrats--their land and slaves--and left them impotent and discredited before their helpless women and children. Facing little opposition once they left Atlanta, Sherman’s men destroyed the very infrastructure that supported slavery and upheld the slaveholding elites--plantations, communications, factories, and government facilities. Southern military officers put great capital in the idea of the sanctity of the Southern homeland. They deemed themselves great raiders and marauders, who harassed fixed garrisons and terrorized timid populations. Sherman, however, gave the Confederacy the raid of its life. The central objective could be summed up quite simply: Freeing the unfree and humiliating the arrogant.

As the war dragged on, President Lincoln and his Union generals persisted in the idea of unconditional surrender and with it the end of slavery. Facing the specter of an egalitarian nation where race and class would lose their power to command, recalcitrant Southern elites dug in deeper for their Armageddon of 1864. There was no tomorrow in defeat, so the entry of Northern invaders created an understandable panic over the end to an entire way of a century-old existence. Many Southerners lived far removed from the mainstream of North American mores. Defeat, the planters believed, would mean surrender to a foreign culture antithetical to their existing hierarchies. It would wash away status gained at birth, and allow neutral, heartless markets to govern the opportunity of all citizens. Success and status would be found solely in profit, not in inherited reputation. An all-powerful and distant federal government, not local oligarchic councils, would to a far greater degree dictate how money was raised and spent.

Sherman’s men delivered much of what the South feared: not only because they were ordered to, but because gradually they became driven, by an ideological furor, to destroy the nature of Southern aristocracy. At the outset, the Midwesterners Sherman led really knew almost nothing about slavery or slaves. Indeed, most Northerners had never seen a Negro or a plantation; many were, in the abstract, racists. But once Sherman’s men observed the conditions in which slaves were kept unfree, and the ideology and venom of the so-called master class, there arose among these small farmers from the mid-American frontier a powerful repulsion. Very quickly, Sherman’s young troops came to abhor the rich Georgians they overran. A soldier from Illinois was only too happy to burn Atlanta; it "and every other Southern city deserve nothing better than general destruction," he wrote, for "buying and selling" other human beings.

Enlisted men talked agitatedly of the exploitation they saw, and their officers nodded in agreement. Given that almost all the regimental commanders of Sherman’s forces had been promoted from within the army, and that almost 50 percent of the army’s captains and 90 percent of its lieutenants had also served as enlisted men, there was an unmatched familiarity between officer and soldier--and thus a deep populism embedded in the ranks. A Southern witness in the Carolinas wrote of the unanimity of spirit and cause within Sherman’s army:

"The officers and men are on terms of perfect equality socially. Off duty they drink together, go arm in arm about the town, call each other by the first name, in a way that startles. . . . A friend heard a private familiarly addressing a Brigadier General as ‘Jake.’ Miss Lee saw another General taking hold with his men to help move a lot of barrels on a wharf. He took off his coat and worked three hours, like a common porter. This seems strange to us, accustomed to the aristocratic system.”....

Historians operating with the modernist assumption that idealism is only a veneer for self-interest, that war is always amoral rather than on occasion utilitarian, and uncomfortable with absolute notions of good and evil, have downplayed the actions of Sherman’s soldiers as political avenging angels. But the root of the fearsome spirit and success of Sherman’s Union soldiers in Georgia was their collective fervor for emancipation and destruction of the tyrannical Southern ruling class. Sherman and his Midwestern farmer-fighters had a keen appreciation that the landed lords of the South, for all their proclamations about states’ rights and the preservation of liberty as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, had championed secession mostly to preserve and expand their own vast estates and multitudes of slaves. Property and position, not ideas, were the ultimate issue of this war. This Sherman, almost alone of Northern generals, understood.

After Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas, every child of the South knew that the will of the Confederate people, as well as their army, had been crushed. Yet, Sherman killed very few, and with genuine reluctance. Rapes during the march were almost unknown. But he and his men were harshly unkind to the elitists running the Southern plantations. In the process, these soldiers did more than any abolitionist or liberator ever born in our country to guarantee the American proposition that each man is as good as another.

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Sheldon the Duke of Otsego and Warren - 7/9/2007

I wish to draw the author's and reader's attention to the fact that there is in fact a new American Aristocracy. For more information see the discussion group at