In the Autumn of 1864, following the fall of Atlanta, Union Major General William T. Sherman deliberated with General Grant of what to do next. Lieutenant General Hood, the commander of the inferior-strength Confederate army opposing Sherman, moved westward to threaten the long Union supply train stretching from Chattanooga to Atlanta. Sherman proposed to sever his own supply chain, move east to the sea, and force Hood to follow him. Subsidiary to the main effort of the Atlanta campaign, that of capturing rail-lines, vital to the logistics supporting Confederate armies, was the desire of Sherman to wreak devastation throughout the heart of the South, previously untouched by war. Sherman’s March to the Sea, as it had been popularly known was so devastating, that either through myth or reality, the mere mention of Sherman’s name will invite epithets in parts of Georgia to this day.
Central to this legend is the prevalent Southern assertion that Sherman’s march was a war crime. Through the lens of today’s International Criminal Court, the Geneva and Hague Conventions, and counterinsurgency warfare of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to cry “war crime” is an easy escape from a careful, rational consideration of Sherman’s 1864 and the realities of the war.
This author maintains that though Sherman’s campaign through the South brought with it pain and suffering to civilians, it was in absolutely no understanding a war crime. This essay will explore the history of laws governing the conduct of war, It will explain the contemporary context and governing authorities understood in 1864, and will illuminate the actions taken in that campaign in light of the aforementioned considerations.
A Brief History of the Laws of Warfare
It is important to consider the history of the laws of warfare as they have certainly morphed and changed along with the development of humanity. Additionally important to distinguish of course, is the definition of a war crime. Is a war crime something that is a moral constant, unchanged across the continuum of human history, regardless of established law? Is a war crime something that runs afoul of contemporary international standards, or understandings? And in its most narrow of understandings, is a war crime something that violates a combatant nation’s own established laws of warfare?
The Bible informs us of ancient laws that God gave to the Hebrews governing their warfare. The books detailing the history of ancient Israel is rife with specific dictates governing how God wished war to be conducted. In certain occasions, every living thing to include animals was to be killed and the entire city razed to the ground. In other circumstances, only the men were to be killed, the rest of the people enslaved, and the captured cities dwelt in and the booty shared. The Koran also tells of similar stories governing who was to be killed, who was to be enslaved, and who was to be set free.
With the rise of Islam also arose the clash between Muslim East and the Western adherents of the Christian faith. Political and material goals of war were clothed with the garb of the respective religions in order to popularize the struggles. The concept of holy war arose with this clash of civilizations. Virtually any atrocity was allowable because it was sanctioned by God or Allah himself. Those who perished in battle were assured of eternal life as a reward for faithfulness to the cause.
Similarly, with the schisms created by the Protestant Reformation in Europe, battles were intensified due to the religious nature. Additionally, in places like France, due to the large population of Protestant Huguenots, the conflicts took the form of brutal civil wars.
With the rise of secularism spurred on by the enlightenment, wars within Europe took a turn for a more civilized form. Military Historian and Theorist, Martin van Creveld says:
Thus our modern ideas concerning the difference between combatants and non-combatants only date back to the second half of the seventeenth century. It was in this period that war began to be looked on as the business of states acting through their chosen instruments. … People who are not members of the armed forces … are not supposed to take up arms, fight, or resist in any way. In return, their persons are not supposed to be violated by an invading army.
The romantic vision of warfare held by many Americans in the first months of the American Civil War was molded by the wars modeled by enlightened European potentates in which very gentlemanly rules of conflict were followed. Extremely limited engagements were made upon battlefields the singular results of which would more often than not spur the loser to sue for terms of peace from the victor.
Today, the U.S. does not allow foreign countries to have jurisdiction over the individual war-fighters when it comes to matters of war crimes. The U.S. applies its own laws to their combatants. The issue of privately contracted security forces providing services to U.S. diplomats in Iraq during the height of the insurgency in the mid 2000’s highlighted a recent clash in interpretations of war crimes and jurisdiction. The U.S. maintained jurisprudence over these American citizen contractors while the so-called sovereign Iraqi government attempted to extradite some of these contractors for what their jurors deemed as homicides. This persistent ambiguity about war crimes makes it challenging to define what constitutes a war crime today, let alone looking back 150 through the distorting perspectives of World Wars I and II, Vietnam, and other insurgency warfare.
In all history laws governing warfare were very utilitarian. The laws were made to protect one’s own interests. It was considered prudent to spare the life of a captive in the hope that the enemy would reciprocate. Law governing warfare is at its base paradoxical. Much of law is written to encode morality. The very concept of war is morally reprehensible… a necessary evil. The fact that humans have developed laws to govern how war is conducted virtually defines these laws as contemporary understandings… almost as treaties.
The Laws Governing War in 1864
Though the United States was not party to any international law governing land warfare, it did use foreign law in consideration of how to conduct itself on an international scale. One of the sticking points in 1861 was how to regard the Southern rebellion. The South knew its greatest hope of independence lay in international diplomatic recognition and the protections it could receive through the subsidiary trade relationships. To counter that, Lincoln maintained the whole affair was an internal rebellion… yet enacted a blockade of shipping to Southern ports, an act that the international community interpreted through their courts as an act of war between two belligerent nation-states. Similarly, Lincoln, in order to protect Union soldiers, treated surrendering Confederate soldiers as prisoners of war.
The issuance of the emancipation proclamation and use of Negro soldiers in the Union Army, created new problems of law. Routinely, Negro soldiers captured by the Confederates would be enslaved or sometimes summarily executed. To further enforce the legitimacy of the proclamation and to promise retaliation of servitude against Southern prisoners, Lincoln issued General Order Number 100, the Lieber Code. The code was the first issuance of laws governing the conduct of war. Within the code were quite a few articles that legally governed Sherman’s campaign.
Article 21 stated that “the citizen or native of a hostile country is thus an enemy, as one of the constituents of the hostile state or nation, and as such is subjected to the hardships of the war,” while Article 22 promised as much protection to the unarmed civilian “as the exigencies of war will admit.” Article 24 acknowledged that “the private individual of the hostile country is destined to suffer every privation of liberty and protection” and that “protection was, and still is with uncivilized people, the exception.” And Sherman doubtless followed Article 29 to its fullest intent in that “The more vigorously wars are pursued, the better it is for humanity. Sharp wars are brief.”
While the Lieber code seemingly authorizes the destruction of property and equipment that could be used to support the war efforts of the enemy, the Code strictly forbade the destruction of private dwellings and religious places. Article 37 reads: “The United States acknowledge and protect, in hostile countries occupied by them, religion and morality; strictly private property; the persons of the inhabitants, especially those of women: and the sacredness of domestic relations. Offenses to the contrary shall be rigorously punished.”
Finally, the Lieber code completely and unequivocally forbade random violence, looting and destruction in the harshest terms:
All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, all destruction of property not commanded by the authorized officer, all robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense. A soldier, officer or private, in the act of committing such violence, and disobeying a superior ordering him to abstain from it, may be lawfully killed on the spot by such superior.
With the Lieber code then legally governing Sherman’s actions, how did his and his army’s actions compare? In the first place, Sherman officially abided by the code to the fullest measure. In all of his correspondence and orders, Sherman took great pains to give clear instructions to his corps commanders to set limitations of their individual destruction.
In no way did Sherman practice a deliberate campaign of wanton destruction throughout the South. In locations where Sherman had very much supervision and spent a great deal of concentration on dispensing destruction, the devastation was brutal, but precise. In Atlanta, dwellings, churches, and other places of public venue were guarded by soldiers, while the business district was completely razed.
And, while Sherman strictly forbade unwarranted destruction of private property, he did allow reprisals commensurate with the level of guerilla hostility in the regions passed through. Sherman said, “In districts … where the army is unmolested no destruction of … property should be permitted, but should guerrillas or bushwackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.”
Another point of misery caused by the decision of Sherman to cut his supply trains was the foraging off of the land in order to feed the Army. The practice of foraging to supply oneself was well established during Napoleon’s time. Clausewitz spends Chapter 14 of Book 6 discussing the methods of foraging off of the local economy during campaigns. Sherman instructed his corps commanders to forage off local farms to provide for themselves. No limits were set aside from ensuring the residents maintained enough for self-sustenance and progressive discriminations between rich and poor.
Like Lincoln, Sherman himself was struck with compassion for the individuality of suffering. He would sometimes sit by the fire at night after a Southern woman had pleaded with him to protect her livestock from the foragers in the Union Army and “musingly say – ‘I’ll have to harden my heart to these things. That poor woman today – how could I help her. There’s no help for it. … Jeff Davis is responsible for all this.’ But in the morning before starting, he would sometimes see that a supply of provisions was left at the house.”
One cannot discuss Sherman’s March without pausing to consider the destruction of Columbia in comparison to Georgia. It is a certainty that Columbia was by, and large razed, along with many residences and private property. There exists no record of Sherman or any of his commanders under him authorizing or directing this devastation. Most of Sherman’s detractors point to the statement Sherman made in Savannah in the winter of 1864 while planning his march to the north into South Carolina, the first secessionist state, “the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.”
Liddell Hart claims logic dictates that the burning of Columbia was not deliberate policy, but a tragic convergence of factors. The Confederates abandoning Columbia lit the very large cotton supply ablaze almost as the Union vanguard entered the city. Many a Columbian who had not fled attempted to placate the Federals with free dispensations of whiskey. With poorly supervised drunken soldiers and a fire being further spread by a very blustery night, it is not difficult to imagine several of them getting out of control and further ‘encouraging’ the flames. Hart’s ultimate defense is that “generals who plan to burn a city are unlikely to take up their quarters in the middle of it.”
While Sherman in no ways condoned or even permitted unnecessary destruction, it certainly occurred, both in Columbia and elsewhere. But it was most certainly not a condoned practice or even prevalent. “Power can be assumed, as well as entrusted, and in men trained to forage without limit the distinction between forage and pillage is easily obscured. And the pillager disappointed of detachable loot easily finds vent for his feelings in the destruction of fixtures, when the simple conjunction of a barn and a match can relieve them ‘brilliantly’ at little risk of discovery.”
Sherman’s campaign following Atlanta was above all, brilliant and vital in ending the war. While the focus of the political leaders of the day focused on Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, the effect that Sherman had on the will to fight of the Southern Confederacy cannot be underestimated. We may not know for certain how many of the deserters from the various Confederate armies were primarily influenced by their concern for their families’ well-being due to Sherman’s march, but if must have been substantial.
“I think our campaign of the last month, as well as every step I take from this point northward, is as much a direct attack upon Lee’s army as though we were operating within the sound of his artillery. … we are not only fighting hostile armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war as well as their organized armies.” While this “hard hand of war” is not pleasant to contemplate for those on the losing side of the conflict, from multiple points of view, Sherman’s campaign can in no wise be considered a crime of war.
Doswald-Beck, Louise. “The Civilian in the Crossfire,” Journal of Peace Research 24, no. 3 (September 1987): 251-262. http://www.jstor.org/stable/424365
Ecelbarger, Gary. The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
“General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code.” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp [accessed January 11, 2013].
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Sherman, William T. Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
van Creveld, Martin. “The Clausewitzian Universe and the Law of War,” Journal of Contemporary History 26, no. 3/4 (September 1991): 403-429. http://www.jstor.org/stable/260653
von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Witt, John Fabian. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
 Martin van Creveld, “The Clausewitzian Universe and the law of War” Journal of Contemporary History 26, no. 3/4 (September 1991): 412, 413
 James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 386, 387.
 John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 248.
 “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp [accessed January 11, 2013].
 B. H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1993), 335.
 Ibid., 333.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).
 Hart, 333.
 Ibid.,, 339.
 Ibid., 358.
 Ibid., 366-368.
 Ibid., 367-368.
 Ibid., 333-334.
 Ibid., 358.