by Victor Davis Hanson
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.”
Sherman–despite his occasional railings about the dangers of the mob–was himself a man of strong populist impulses. In a letter to Washington shortly before he began his march, Sherman wrote that “this movement is not purely military or strategic . . . it will illustrate the vulnerability of the South. They don’t know what war means, but when the rich planters of Oconee and Savannah see their fences and corn and hogs and sheep vanish before their eyes they will have something more than a mean opinion of the ‘Yanks.’”
It cannot be emphasized enough that the society Sherman’s men found was the polar opposite of the rural Western towns from which they came. True, the slave owners so overrepresented among the South’s military and political leaders were not truly characteristic of Southern society. For example, there may have been only 10,000 or so really large slaveholders in the South. About 75 percent of the South’s white population had never had any connection with African chattels at all. Only 385,000 out of some 6 million citizens who lived in the Confederacy or border areas sympathetic to the South were themselves currently slave owners. Nevertheless, morally, economically, ideologically, and culturally, slavery and the aristocratic culture it built were at the center of Southern life, and accepted and supported by most Southerners, especially in the face of Northern criticism.
When Sherman and his soldiers reached Savannah, the symbols of class hierarchy disgusted most of the Northerners. There was, for instance, the “Patrician Church” that reserved middle and front seats for the well-born. “All other persons are invited as cordially to attend and occupy the remaining seats.” When Northerner Henry Hitchcock spied Wade Hampton, the millionaire slave-owning Confederate general, at the final armistice between Sherman and Confederate commander Joe Johnson he exemplified the loathing Sherman’s men felt for the plantationists:
Hampton’s whole demeanor was marked with the easy ‘well-bred’ essentially vulgar insolence which is characteristic of that type of “gentleman”; a man of polished manners, scarcely veiling the arrogance and utter selfishness which marks his class, and which I hate with a perfect hatred.
Sherman’s march took on the appearance of an ideological crusade that professed that collective Confederate defeat must be synonymous with individual ruin. Like their 44-year-old “Uncle Billy,” the rank and file recruits were convinced that they were in a total war with haughty purveyors of real evil. Sherman’s fiery rhetoric and personality had now permeated the entire army. The troops’ simmering spirit of retribution was present when the advance guard of Sherman’s army rode into Madison, Georgia, in a heavy rain during the morning of November 20, 1864. The town was in the richest part of the state, inhabited by the Confederacy’s most successful planters and merchants. Rice Bull of the Union army described Madison as the most beautiful town on the entire march: “The many fine residences were built in the same manner of all the better class of Southern homes, extensive piazzas in front with tall fluted columns reaching almost to the top of the house.”
Upon arrival, General Henry Slocum’s men quickly looted the stores, burned the courthouse, and torched several of the “better class of Southern homes.”Then they demolished the slave pens. Rice Bull editorialized: “We felt that the people of these seemingly prosperous cities were more responsible for the war than those whose farms we had overrun since leaving Atlanta. We wanted to impress on them some idea of the power and magnitude of the Army they so hated and despised.”
Among the Southern elite, the system of great cotton plantations based on involuntary labor was self-characterized as a sort of noble Jeffersonian agrarianism. It was passed off as a natural path to creating wealth without the volatility and exploitation of free men inherent in Northern industrial capitalism, or the precarious hardship of Western homesteading. How, other than through the use of ignorant slaves, could Americans farm the vast estates so essential in providing rice, tobacco, and cotton to the republic? These were crops, the Confederate sophistry went, that were grown in the muggy, tropical climate of the Deep South, where the African Negro was naturally at home and could be protected by Christian slave masters.
The pragmatic Sherman scoffed at these paternalistic rationalizations. He demonstrated how much he thought cotton was really worth to the United States when one head of local Confederate forces in South Carolina offered to cease burning cotton if Sherman’s men would in turn stop torching estates. Sherman replied: “I hope you will burn all the cotton and save us the trouble. We don’t want it; it has proven a curse to our country. All you don’t burn, I will.”
The self-reliant mechanical classes of the North would create more wealth than the Southern elites ever could with their slave pyramids, Sherman concluded. The North had its own farmers (who actually did their own labor), and the South had produced few industries. In a prescient letter to a Southern colleague on the eve of the war, Sherman warned:
“You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people, but an earnest people and will fight too, and they are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it. Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? . . . The North can make a steam-engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on earth–right at your doors. You are bound to fail.”
An Illinois soldier in Sherman’s army noticed while on the march that Southern train wheels squeaked from lack of oil, glass telegraph insulators seemed in short supply, and rail iron appeared to be of substandard quality. He summed up the omnipresence of such shoddy materials: “In fact, the whole mechanical system of the South was an importation.”
The material and cultural impoverishment of the Southern states, together with class distortions that accompanied the institution of slavery, were unmistakable. Southerners thus eventually retorted that they owned slaves for non-economic reasons. “Slavery is the natural and normal condition of society,” wrote the Virginia apologist George Fitzhugh. “The situation of the North is abnormal and anomalous. Capital exercises a more perfect compulsion over free laborers than human masters over slaves; for free laborers must at all times work or starve, and slaves are supported whether they work or not.” The South, Fitzhugh argued, was in effect offering a safety net for 4 million residents at the private expense of the planters. Slavery was to be seen as a noble social burden borne by Southern leaders. And so “selfless” plantation owners actually would prove willing to kill other Americans to retain that charitable responsibility.
It is surprising how astute the rank and file of Sherman’s army soon were about such Confederate hypocrisy, and how cognizant they were of the effect of their own march against Southern hierarchy. “’Tis the educated class of the South caused all this trouble. The poor unlettered masses, and they constitute almost all the population, have been from time immemorial their dupes and instruments.” Another agreed: “Each planter was at the head of a little aristocracy in which hardly a law touched him. This didn’t content these people; they wanted ‘their rights,’ and now they are getting them.”
In eerie echoes of Karl Marx, the planters and their apologists argued that capitalism made veritable slaves out of free laborers. Northern workers preserved their rights of citizenship, but in turn wasn’t voting a meaningless abstraction? In the twisted logic of the South, Northern wage earners onlythought they were free. In reality they were no more in control of their destiny than slaves on plantations who were at least guaranteed food and shelter, and could not be unemployed or deprived of their homes.
The plantation class also embraced the notion of natural slavery. Enslavement of the naturally less gifted by race was beneficial to both master and servant–the former avoided degrading manual labor, and could devote ensuing leisure time to the arts, politics, and war for the benefit of the state; while the latter was relieved of worry over future sustenance, and steered into the mindless work for which–by nature–he was most fit and happy. Slave owners were indeed subject to an array of customs and protocols designed to protect the slaves’ welfare. (These guidelines were, of course, not always followed.) That way, the entire hierarchy in the South could hum as one well-oiled machine, the interconnected cogs of slaves and poor whites being managed by a few all-knowing plantation princes.
Such was the society and all of its pretenses that were utterly destroyed by the Midwestern invaders. The South’s slaves proved eager to be free, and willing not just to leave but to fight for their liberation. By the end of his march about 25,000 blacks had followed Sherman–often to the chagrin of the general who worried how they were to be fed and clothed with their families in addition to his troops while on the move. The Union army’s embrace of the slaves, their angry shooting of the bloodhounds used to track escapees, their physical destruction of the plantation infrastructure, their psychological humiliation of the plantation class–all this helped to shatter both the material and psychological foundations of an oppressive aristocratic state that could not be reconstituted again.
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.
© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson