His march through Georgia has been gravely misunderstood ― as has Israel’s strategy in Gaza.
William Tecumseh Sherman 150 years ago took Atlanta before heading out on his infamous March to the Sea to make Georgia “howl.” He remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood figures in American military history. Sherman was an attritionist, not an annihilationist — a strategist who believed in attacking the sources that fuel and field an army rather than butting heads against the army itself. To review his career is to shed light on why the Israeli Defense Forces were both effective in Gaza and hated even more for being so effective.
Much of the South has hated William Tecumseh Sherman for over a century and a half, but not because his huge army killed thousands of young Confederate soldiers (it did not). Grant did that well enough in the horrific summer of 1864 outside Richmond. Rather, Sherman humiliated the plantationist class by staging three long marches during the last twelve months of the Civil War — from Tennessee to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Savannah, and from Savannah up through the Carolinas. In each of these brilliantly conducted invasions, Sherman, with a few notable exceptions, sought to avoid direct fighting with Confederate forces, either outflanking opposing armies that popped up in his way, or entrenching and letting aggressors wear themselves out against his fortified lines. He did enormous material damage, as he boasted that his enemies could do nothing to impede his progress — humiliation being central to his mission.
Instead of fighting pitched battles, Sherman was interested in three larger strategic agendas. War in his mind was not a struggle between militaries so much as between the willpower of entire peoples, distant though they be from the battlefield. One chief aim was iconic. Sherman sought to capture cities or traverse holy ground that might offer his forces symbolic lessons that transcended even strategic considerations. He wanted to capture the important rail center of Atlanta before the November 1864 election and thereby ensure that the war would continue under a reelected Lincoln rather than be negotiated into a meaningless armistice by George McClellan. By taking the South’s second-most-important city, Sherman reminded the Union that the northern strategy was working and that Lincoln, as the architect of it, deserved support.
Marching through the heart of Georgia to Savannah also reminded the Confederacy that it could not stop a Union army from going pretty much where it pleased — even into the heretofore untouched southern heartlands. The much-hyped March to the Sea took on an almost messianic character in dissecting the Confederacy, as Sherman torched plantations and freed slaves. His so-called bummers praised their “Uncle Billy” and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they tramped through Georgia. Sherman was interested in such theatrics as part of a larger moral lesson that “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.” He was particularly keen on reminding those who start wars that they must bear the consequences of their ideologies.
Accordingly, Sherman was most eager to go into the Carolinas, despite the forbidding terrain and the ordeal of winter, in part to pull up behind Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia, but also in part to humiliate the Confederacy by brazenly marching into the very birthplace of secession.
The Sherman way of war had another important symbolic aspect. Sherman often derided the mythography of the southern “Cavalier” class, by which he meant the notion that southern aristocratic manhood might offer such displays of martial prowess that the Confederacy’s disadvantages in matériel and manpower would be rendered irrelevant. As an antidote to the Rebel yell and the luster of a Wade Hampton or a Bobby Lee, Sherman formed the core of his forces not from high-born Yankees but from hardscrabble Midwestern farmboys. The latter enjoyed camping out and had the skills to live off the land far more than did southern cavalrymen. By entering the southern heartland with such rural regiments, Sherman was also signaling to the Confederacy that its pride in the martial supremacy of a rural South was a myth.
His point was to show them that farmboys from Illinois or Ohio were just as tough fighters as Tidewater horsemen or the impoverished rural folk of northern Georgia. Sherman felt that part of the appeal of the Confederacy had been the mythology about its landed gentry, and he felt it essential to expose this as hollow and superficial; after all, he was in Georgia, while Georgian units were not in Ohio: “My aim, then, was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
It is often alleged that Sherman was a terrorist, on the grounds that he favored collective punishment, or destroying the property of innocent civilians in order to make “war and individual ruin synonymous terms” both for those who had started the war and for those who supported it. Sherman certainly burned plantations, freed slaves, destroyed railways, tore down telegraph lines, and stripped the country bare of its post-harvest bounty. But the ruin he spread was not a Dresden or a Nagasaki. Instead, he made an effort to be selective, in that his two prime targets were Confederate government property — arsenals, public buildings, state factories — and the estates, businesses, and plantations of the very wealthy, who, as a tiny percentage of the southern population, owned the vast majority of its slaves. He was not so much a killer as an avatar of ruin and humiliation.
His brutal methods were aimed at instructing the civilian South that those who had precipitated the war surely deserved its harshest penalties. Only when the luminaries of the Confederacy saw that their bellicose rhetoric had brought them personal ruin would they be willing to curb their enthusiasm for secession: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
Sherman envisioned his wave of unapologetic ruin as dividing the populace and sowing dissension, and thus encouraging tax delinquency, desertion at the front, and loss of confidence among the elite. In all of these aims, he was largely successful.
The brutal Sherman way of war did not spare civilians from the general misery. Yet another purpose was to remind the southern populace that because they had largely followed their privileged leaders into a hopeless war against a far larger, more industrial, and wealthier Union, they too could not escape the collateral damage that followed from the targeting of plantations and Confederate property.
Sherman accepted southern hatred, but he assumed that after he left the Deep South, civilians would start to see a logic to his devastation: The homes and property of the middle classes and poor were largely spared, the infrastructure of the wealthy and of the state were not. That ruthless selectivity would spawn endless arguments among southerners over who was to blame for such destruction — well beyond Sherman himself. Certainly, for all the popular hatred, Georgians and Carolinians were far more likely to be alive after Sherman left than Virginians were after Grant was finished.
The Israeli army was eerily Shermanesque when it went into Gaza. The IDF targeted the homes of the wealthy Hamas elite, the private sanctuaries of the tunnels, and the rocketry and other infrastructure of the Hamas terrorist state. The homes of civilians who did not have rockets in the backyard or tunnels in the basement were usually not hit, and that sent a telling Shermanesque lesson. Long after the international media’s cameras have left, Gazans will argue over why one man’s house was leveled and another’s was not, leading to the conclusion more often than not that one was being used by Hamas, either with or without its owner’s consent, while the other was not. But all Gazans suffered amid the selective targeting — as did all Georgians and Carolinians for their allegiance to a plantationist class whose own interests were not always the same as those of the non-slave-owning white poor. Fairly or not, the IDF was reminding the people of Gaza that while it tried to focus exclusively on Hamas, such selectivity was often impossible when Gazans followed such reckless leaders who deliberately shielded themselves among civilians.
The IDF taught the supposedly fearsome Islamic warriors of Hamas, who adopted the loud bells and whistles of primordial killers and who supposedly love death more than life, that nondescript Israeli conscripts, through hard training and with the help of sophisticated technology, were in fact far deadlier than a man in a suicide vest or an RPG-wielding masked bandit. The IDF, then, like Sherman, sought to dispel the romantic notion that a uniformed conscript army cannot fight a warrior culture, or that it becomes so baffled by insurgencies and asymmetrical warfare as to be rendered helpless. The IDF went into the heart of Gaza City and came out largely intact after defeating all those it encountered.
Sherman was obsessed with separating bellicose enemy rhetoric from facts on the ground. He believed that unless humiliation was a part of defeat, a tribal society of ranked hierarchies would always concoct myths to explain away failure. southern newspapers boasted that Sherman was a Napoleon trapped deep in a Russia-like Georgia and about to be cut apart by Confederate Cossacks. Yet when his Army of the West sliced through the center of the state, Sherman smiled that some southerners had suggested that he go instead over to South Carolina and attack those who “started” the war.
Again, once the IDF is out of Gaza, civilians will ask their leaders what the tunnels and rockets, the child tunnel-diggers, the use of human shields, and all the braggadocio were supposed to achieve. What will Hamas tell its donors, when it requests money for more cement and rebar? That it wishes to build schools and hotels and not more instruments of collective suicide?
Sherman welcomed the hatred he earned from the South. He understood well the dictum of Machiavelli that men hate far more those who destroy their patrimonies than those who kill their fathers. He accepted that humiliating the South was a far graver sin than destroying its manhood, as Grant had done from May to September 1864 in northern Virginia. Lee at least could say that brave southerners had killed thousands of Grant’s troops in defense of their homeland; Sherman’s opponents, like Generals Hardee, Hood, and Johnson, could not brag that very few northerners died marching through Georgia or the Carolinas.
Sherman’s rhetoric was bellicose, indeed uncouth — even as he avoided killing as many southerners as he could. He left civilians as mad at their own leaders as at him. For all that and more, he remains a “terrorist,” while the bloodbaths at Cold Harbor and the Crater are not considered barbaric — and just as the world hates what the IDF did in Gaza far more than the abject butchery of the Islamic State, which at the same time was spreading savagery throughout Syria and Iraq, or than the Russians’ indiscriminate killing in Ukraine, or than what passes for an average day in the Congo.
Sherman got under our skin, and so does the IDF. Today we call not losing very many soldiers “disproportionate” warfare, and leaving an enemy’s territory a mess and yet without thousands of casualties “terrorism.” The lectures from the IDF about the cynical culpability of Hamas make the world as livid as did Sherman’s sermonizing about the cowardly pretensions of the plantationist class.
We tend to hate most deeply in war those who despoil us of our romance, especially when they humiliate rather than kill us — and teach us the lesson that the louder and more bellicose often prove the more craven and weak.