William Tecumseh Sherman. To many, this man is one of the greatest heroes of the Union army during the American Civil War. Although a relatively obscure officer when the war started, by the end of 1864, everybody knew who Sherman was. From the Campaign and Siege of Atlanta, to the infamous “March to the Sea,” to his conquest of the Carolinas, Sherman made a name for himself as a man who helped bring a swift sword into the Deep South, dismantling the infrastructure of the Confederacy, and leaving a path of destruction in his wake. His actions made him famous in the North. Down in the South, he became the Devil incarnate, a villain who brought harsh war not only on Confederate armies, but on the civilian population as well.
To this day, Sherman remains a very controversial figure in American Military History. There are many who view him as one of the greatest generals of the war. However, there are others, mostly but not all from the South, who view him as nothing more than a villain who let his men do about anything during the final campaigns. Indeed, there is no denying that Sherman was a very colorful figure. While he cannot be regarded fully as a hero, can he really be considered a villain as well?
Now, the manner of war that Sherman brought upon the South proved to do its job, whether or not a person may agree with how it was carried out. He basically broke the back of the Confederacy, taking out a major rail hub and manufacturing center for the South. And with the conquest of Savannah, he divided the South in three. In his march through South Carolina in early 1865, he and his army left the state, where the seeds of secession were born, a wasteland, torching everything they came across, stealing whatever they could, and making sure the civilians felt the complete scourge of war before entering North Carolina in March. Throughout the campaigns, he allowed his men to behave somewhat frivolously.
While there is some debate as to how much “conduct unbecoming” an officer or soldier took place, there are some signs that his men may have gone too far. One issue that seems to be contentious amongst historians are the stories that many women were raped by soldiers during the campaigns. Many state that there are only two reports of confirmed incidences of rape during the March to the Sea. Now, that is true. However, it is somewhat impossible to confirm that those two cases were the only cases that took place, since a lot of women would not have reported it happening, especially when it happened to them. In cases of these and other criminal activities, Sherman, wanting to bring harsh war on the South, did seem to turn a blind eye to such incidents.
Another issue with Sherman is that he was a racist. He had no problems with slavery, and loved the South and its people. What he did have a problem with was secession, and the breaking up the Union. But he did not have much fondness for men and women of color. One instance in March of 1865 made his views very plain. After taking Fayetteville, North Carolina, he planned to destroy the textile mills, a source of work for many there. When one of the millworkers pleaded with him not to do so, he responded by saying: “Gentlemen, ni—ers and cotton caused this war, and I wish them both in Hell.” He then ordered the mills destroyed the coming Wednesday.
Another instance took place during the March to the Sea in 1864. As his armies marched through the Georgia countryside, many slaves now freed fell in behind the armies, and marched with them. But when they got to one of the rivers they had to cross, Confederate cavalry came bearing down on them. After the army was safely across the river, the bridges were cut, and the freed blacks were left to the mercy of the Confederates. Now, there are a number of historians that felt Sherman did the right thing in leaving them behind. However, others insist that this showed that he had no love for the black race. However, both sets agree that Sherman would not have shed a tear because he was racist.
Now, regardless of some of the questionable behavior by his men, and his racist views toward African Americans, there is no denying that Sherman achieved what he set out to do, and helped bring the war to its conclusion. So, as to the question of whether he was a hero or a villain, I would subscribe that he was a bit of both at the same time. He let his men go wild during the campaigns of 1864-65, but did caution them to behave themselves when entering North Carolina. He was a racist, but race was not the reason he fought the war. And when the war was coming to an end, you could see that Sherman was willing to give favorable terms to Joseph E. Johnston and his armies. In reality, Sherman was a flawed man who helped to bring total victory to the Union cause.
Trotter, William R. Silk Flags and Cold Steel (The Civil War in North Carolina: The Piedmont), NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1988.