William Tecumseh Sherman and the Moral Impetus for Victory

Author’s Note: This is the first of three articles for The Objective Standard dealing with military history and its lessons for the modern day. The articles are adapted from my book in progress, Nothing Less than Victory: Military Offense and the Lessons of History. The second article will consider the British appeasement of Germans in the late 1930s, and the ideas that disarmed the British and prevented them from stopping Hitler when they could have. The third will consider the lessons of the victory over Japan in World War II.

The response of Americans to September 11, 2001, was of an entirely different caliber than their response to December 7, 1941. In contrast to “the Greatest Generation,” Americans of the third millennium made no formal declaration of war, and did not unleash their weapons against those governments that had openly incited, financed, and celebrated fifty years of similar attacks. The American military offensive trained diplomatic envoys rather than missiles at the ideological, financial, and military center of the militant totalitarian Islamists. The political centerpiece of worldwide jihad—the Islamic Republic of Iran—remains untouched and is capitalizing on the vacuum in Iraq to bolster its power. This is not a situation forced upon us—it has been chosen. If Americans have not directed their forces toward the heart of the threats facing them, it is not because they cannot do so. It is because they think they should not do so.

History tells us that it need not be this way. Since time immemorial people have faced military attacks by motivated foes, and have had to choose between marching into an enemy’s own territory or retreating into defensive maneuvers. One case in point may be found at a turning point in our own nation’s history—the American Civil War—in which an ideology of slavery led to a deadly rebellion against the U.S. Constitution. Next to Iran, of course, the Confederacy was a paradise of rationality; the parallels between the two cultures do not extend to the death-worship emanating from Tehran. But the Civil War does offer a powerful lesson about how to win a war: by destroying the psychological and material foundations of an enemy’s will to fight.

The first shots in the war were fired by southern gunners against a Union garrison on April 12, 1861. For three years armies marched and countermarched between horrific battles, which slaughtered thousands but allowed neither side to prevail. A conflict that many thought would be settled quickly grew into a nightmare that butchered more than 600,000 young men. To restore the constitutional authority of the federal government, the North needed an integrated understanding of means and ends—of a military goal to be attained and a strategy to attain it—pursued with vigor against the heart of the South. For three years President Lincoln sought a general who could understand this—and do it. He found that man in General Ulysses S. Grant, who formulated a successful strategic vision and empowered the Union armies to use it. But it was Grant’s southern commander, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who thrust a dagger into the heartland of the South and brought the Union to victory.

By 1864 the northern Army in Virginia had failed to break the deadlock with the Confederates under Robert E. Lee. But Grant and Sherman, commanding the armies to the west, had taken control of the Mississippi River, and had cleared a path into the South. When Grant assumed command of all the Union armies in March of 1864, and proceeded to tie Lee down in Virginia, Sherman marched into the South. He moved from Tennessee into Atlanta (September 1), across Georgia to Savannah (November 12 through December 22), and then northward through the Carolinas (beginning February 1, 1865). He tore up rail lines, burned plantations, and utterly destroyed the material and psychological foundations of the southern war effort. By April—five months after leaving Atlanta—the war was over.

Sherman’s march demonstrates how a forthright, confident, singular offense, directed against the center of the aggressor’s power—and armed with moral certainty in one’s own cause—can extinguish the fire behind the war. Sherman understood an important truth: that to return the nation to constitutional government, freedom, and peace, the North had to break the southern will to fight by bringing the consequences of war into the South. The southern slave society had to be shocked to its roots, its material ability to support the army destroyed, its claim to virtue and honor unveiled as a fraud, and the bankruptcy of the southern aristocracy made undeniable.

This is a lesson of timeless importance. As we today face attacks by a highly motivated, worldwide movement of suicidal warriors, we urgently need to reconsider our goals and our strategy for attaining them. To do this, we must reexamine the nature of the conflict, the nature of our goals, and the nature of our enemy. This process is essential to waging the right war in the right way against the right regime—and winning it. In this regard, there is no better example than that set by Sherman. . . .

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Further Reading

The most energetic writing about Sherman is by Victor Davis Hanson. See his Soul of Battle (New York: Anchor, 1999); and Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Live, and How We Think (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

Among the many histories of the Civil War:

Bruce Catton’s Civil War (3 vols.) (Troy, MI: Phoenix Press, 2001).

B. Catton, Grant Moves South: 1861–1863 (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1990).

D. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

S. Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (3 vols.) (New York: Vintage Books, 1986).

H. Hansen, The Civil War (New York: Signet, 2002).

J. M. MacPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000).

J. M. MacPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Many vital documents have been collected in: H. S. Commager, Fifty Basic Civil War Documents (Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co, 1982).

For the strategic ideas Sherman was versed in, see Baron de Jomini, Summary of the Art of War, translated by Capt. G. H. Mendell (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1873). De Jomini, a general under Napoleon, was regarded as the premier strategic thinker of Sherman’s day.

Another military classic from the period is Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by M. Howard and P. Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2nd ed. (New York: Meridien, 1991), examines the history of strategy as an “indirect approach” to a military campaign.

For a discussion of the ideas that influenced the North, see G. M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War; Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union, reprint ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1993).


1 T. E. Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), p. 334; also in Eicher, Longest Night, p. 49.

2 H. S. Commager, Fifty Basic Civil War Documents (Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co, 1982), pp. 26–28.

3 G. Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), vol. I, p. 107.

4 McClellan cites the higher figure in a letter to Simon Cameron, secretary of war, 9/13/1861, in The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan (New York: Ticknor Fields, 1989).

5 A classic essay on Vicksburg: J. B. Mitchell, and E. S. Creasy, Twenty Decisive Battles of the World (New York: Macmillan, 1964), ch. 19.

6 Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1886), vol. II, pp. 127–32, in Commager 1982: 151–53.

7 W. T. Sherman, “The Grand Strategy of the Last Year of the War,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by R. U. Johnson and C. C. Buel (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956), vol. IV, p. 249.

8 Sherman, “Grand Strategy,” in Battles and Leaders, vol. IV, p. 257.

9 Letter from Grant of 9/12/1864, in W. T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, vol. II (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), p. 113.

10 Letter to Grant of 9/20/1864, in Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 115.

11 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by M. Howard and P. Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 74.

12 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 30.

13 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 32.

14 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 28.

15 Sgt. Rice C. Bull, Soldiering (San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1977), p. 173.

16 B. H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (New York: Da Capo, 1993), p. 323.

17 Letter to Grant of 11/6/1864, in W. T. Sherman, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860–1865, edited by B. D. Simpson and J. V. Berlin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), p. 751.

18 J. E. Cooke, Wearing of the Gray: Being Personal Portraits, Scenes and Adventures of the War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959), p. 511.

19 F. Clemson, A Rebel Came Home: The Diary and Letters of Floride Clemson, 1863–1866 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), p. 54, in Eicher, Longest Night, p. 719.

20 L. R. Buck, Shadows on My Heart: The Civil War Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck of Virginia, edited by E. R. Baer (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1997), p. 57.

21 Buck, Shadows, pp. 206, 230.

22 Secessionists never in the majority; see D. Williams, Johnny Reb’s War: Battlefield and Homefront (Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2000), p. 45, note 3.

23 Early County [GA] News, April 5, 1865, in Williams, Johnny Reb’s War, p. 43.

24 S. Watkins, “Company Aytch” or, A Side Show of the Big Show and Other Sketches, edited with an introduction by M. Thomas Inge (New York: Plume, 1999), pp. 6–7.

25 Sherman, Letter to brother John Sherman, 1/28/1864, Sherman’s Civil War, p. 596.

26 Letter to George H. Thomas, 10/2/1864, Sherman’s Civil War, p. 730.

27 Letter to Henry W. Halleck, 10/19/1864, in Sherman’s Civil War, p. 734.

28 Letter to Halleck, Camp on Big Black, MS, 9/17/1863, in Sherman’s Civil War, pp. 543–50.

29 Letter to Roswell M. Sawyer, asst. adj. general of volunteers, 1/31/1864, in Sherman’s Civil War, pp. 600, 602.

30 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 186.

31 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 189, in Eicher Longest Night, p. 765; cited from J. D. Cox, The March to the Sea, Franklin and Nashville (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1882).

32 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 191.

33 Letter to Gen. Wm J. Hardee 12/17/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, pp. 210–11.

34 Sherman’s Civil War, p. 772, in MacPherson, Ordeal, p. 463.

35 Letter of 12/13/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 201.

36 Letter to Grant, 12/24/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 224.

37 Grant, letter to Sherman, 12/27/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 238.

38 H. Hansen, The Civil War: A History (New York: Signet, 2002), pp. 585–86.

39 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 255.

40 Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 255.

41 Letter to Grant of 1/29/1865, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, pp. 260–61.

42 As V. D. Hanson put it, if we “count the bodies” we may form a radically different conclusion about who are the great generals: “The Dilemmas of the Contemporary Military Historian,” in Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society, edited by E. Fox-Genovese and E. Lasch-Quinn (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 189–201.

43 Letter to Halleck, 9/4/1864, Sherman’s Civil War, p. 697.

44 Letter to Halleck, 9/20/1864, emphasis original.

45 John Bell Hood, Letter to Sherman, 9/9/1864, in Sherman, Memoirs, vol II, p. 119.

46 Letter to Hood, 9/10/1864, Sherman’s Civil War, p. 706.

47 Letter to Hood, 9/14/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol II, p. 128.

48 Letter to Hood, 9/10/1864, in Sherman, Memoirs vol II, p. 120.

49 Letter to James M. Calhoun, mayor of Atlanta, et al., 9/12/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, pp. 125–26.

50 For perhaps the first discussion of Sherman and total war, J. B. Walters, “General William T. Sherman and Total War,” in Journal of Southern History, vol. XIV, no. 4 (1948): 447–80.

51 Sherman, Memoirs vol. II, p. 249 (emphasis original).

52 T. Paine, Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings (New York: Meridian, 1969), p. 43.

53 Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein, “‘Just War Theory’ vs. America’s Self-Defense,” in The Objective Standard, vol.1, no.1, pp. 46–7.

54 Related by Grant to Brevet Bridadier-General Horace Porter, U.S.A., in H. Porter, “The Surrender at Appomattox Court House,” in Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, vol. IV, p. 745.

55 Letter to the mayor of Atlanta, 9/12/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 127.

56 Speech given to students at Georgetown University, November 7, 2001: http://www.islamfortoday.com/clinton01.htm.

57 Letter to Halleck, 12/24/1864, Sherman, Memoirs, vol. II, p. 227.

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