William Tecumseh Sherman knew the enduring cruelty of war

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It is doubtful the tragic devastation of the Russian-Ukrainian War would surprise William Sherman if he were alive today. The iconic US Army soldier was a war student at home and abroad.

Sherman, who lived from 1820 to 1891, concluded that the war – what the Prussian military theorist Carl of Clausewitz defined as “an act of force to compel [an] enemy to do [one’s] will” – is an integral part of human nature.

“Neither you nor any group of men has the right to say that your labors are lost” Sherman told graduates from the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, “for wars have been, are now, and always will be as long as a man is a man”.

Sherman also understood from experience – what he considered as “the best of all possible schools” – that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

In December 1860, Sherman was superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning, today Louisiana State University. After many professional setbacks in civilian life, Sherman had found his vocation: to instruct cadets in the art of war. Raised by adoptive parents, Sherman was also prepare a house on his own for his wife and children, whom he hoped to move from Ohio to Louisiana.

But the war came when the southern states seceded of the Union and when the insurgents bombarded Fort Sumter in April 1861.

Civil war

At the start of the Civil War, Sherman rejoined the United States Army as colonel of infantry. He assumed command of a brigade in the field, and led his unit well in Bull Run Battle, despite the victory of the Confederate forces. From Bull Run, Sherman rose in rank to command vast Union armies in the field.

Through it all, Sherman witnessed the devastation of war. But contrary to popular myth, he was not indifferent or cruel himself. When Sherman captured Atlanta in September 1864, he insisted that civilians be evacuated from the city and offered to help. City council members protested, lamenting the hardship an evacuation would entail.

A woman looks at the engraved names of Argentine soldiers killed in the 1982 Falklands War on a war memorial marking the 40th anniversary of the war between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands or Falklands Island in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

In his response to Atlanta Mayor Sherman reports horrific losses civilians elsewhere had endured throughout the war, many of which had been suffered at the hands of Confederate soldiers and resulted from Confederate policy. He quoted the hypocrisy of the council’s appeal:

“I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands upon thousands of rebel soldier families left in our hands who we could not watch starve to death. Now that the war is upon you, you feel very different. You belittle its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent wagonloads of soldiers and ammunition… to wage war in Kentucky and Tennessee, and desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who never asked than to live in peace at home. old houses, and under the government of their inheritance.

After evacuating the residents of Atlanta, Sherman’s columns marched out to sea, captured Savannah, and established a new base of operations on the East coast. the the campaign has become infamous in the post-war South for the atrocities that Sherman and his men allegedly committed against civilians, but war crimes allegations are exaggerated. In fact, Sherman prevented his troops from committing greater depredations.

The cruelty of war

The historical pervasiveness and cruel nature of war are facts that even seasoned international relations experts are now confronted with. The truth that “war is hell” – as Sherman probably stated to veterans in 1880 – is no less true in 2022 than it was in 1864.

The new concepts of “hybrid“, “grey zone” and other theories of contemporary warfare – in which lethal violence is less pronounced – are proven wrong in theory and in made. War on the ground always devastates troops, civilians and homes, and determines the fates nations. No one feels these realities more harshly than Ukrainians, whose homes, hospitals, towns and villages Russian military forces are burning to ashes with indiscriminate and deadly firepower.

A woman covers her son with a blanket at the border crossing in Poland.
A woman covers her son with a blanket after fleeing war from neighboring Ukraine at the Medyka border crossing in southeastern Poland, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

The loss of any home was a terrible act of war with which Sherman sympathized. Writing in 1862 to his daughter, Minnie, of Memphis, Tennessee, Sherman describes the cruel nature of war with emotion: “I was forced,” he wrote,

“To drive ‘families’ from their homes and homes and force them to go to a foreign country because of their hostility, and I was today obliged to order the soldiers to lay their hands on the women to force them out of their homes to join their husbands in hostile camps. Think of that, and how cruel men become in war when even your dad has to do such things.

“Pray Every Night” Sherman continued, “that this war can end; not that you want me to go home, but that all our people don’t become thieves and murderers. It is a prayer, one suspects, pronounced by many Ukrainian and Russian children.

“A More Perfect Peace”

Because Sherman grasped the violence inherent in war, he strove to end the civil war quickly. Sherman did not relish human suffering. He did not take pleasure in destroying enemy property. In reality, Sherman was a moralist whose use of state-sanctioned violence stemmed from ethical and humanitarian concerns.

Sherman believed that it was more ethical to destroy enemy infrastructure and material than to kill human beings. Just as he grasped the cruelty of war, Sherman understood the necessity of waging war with overwhelming force, all with the aim of ending hostilities as quickly as circumstances would permit.

A deeper knowledge of William Sherman and armed conflict will better equip Western leaders to confront the true nature of future warfare. So when war invariably comes, Americans will be better prepared to secure the “more perfect peace“for which Sherman hoped – and believed to be the real war”object.”

Mitchell G. Klingenberg is a postdoctoral fellow and instructor in military strategy, planning and operations at United States Army War College.

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