“The Mythology of Hard War”

This is the final week of my survey course on the American Civil War.  One of the subjects we’ve been looking at is the introduction of what Mark Grimsley describes as “Hard War” policy by the United States in 1864.  The class was assigned a section of Grimsley’s book, Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), which allowed us to take a much closer look at Sherman’s “March to the Sea”.  Rather than see the campaign as a foreshadowing of warfare in the twentieth century, Grimsley provides a framework that situates it within the history of warfare stretching back to the Middle Ages.  [It’s always nice to be able to read and discuss the best in Civil War scholarship with my high school students.]  He also speculates that this may account for why Grant, Sherman and the rest of the Union army did not regard the campaign as inaugurating a new kind of warfare.  I’m not sure I agree with that, but nevertheless, Grimsley’s analysis does provide students of the war with a framework with which to analyze as opposed to our popular memory of Sherman and the campaign that is bogged down in strong emotions that tell us very little about the scale of violence and overall strategy. 

Grimsley suggests that our tendency to view the campaign as “indiscriminate and all annihilating” fulfills “a vareity of agendas.”  Here is a short list:

1. Going back to the war itself, “Confederate nationalists portrayed the enemy as demons and blackguards in a bid to create an unbridgeable chasm to reunion.”

2. After the war white Southern Redeemers used the campaign to suggest that a “terrible wrong” had been done to them.  This was paricularly effective throughout the era of military Reconstruction.

3. The campaign also fed into the argument that Confederate defeat was simply the result of the North’s overwhelming resources rather than internal divisions within the Confederate South or mistakes made in Richmond and/or on the battlefield.

4. Sherman’s depredations also made it easier to look beyond the Confederate government’s own policies such as tax-in-kind, impressment as well as “scorched earth” practices carried out by the Confederate army.

5. [I think this one is the most interesting.] “Sherman’s March” also helps to explain the economic disaster that befell much of the former Confederacy after the war.  While images of the campaign suggest complete destruction, this was anything but the case; much of the damage had been repaired within a few years.  The most serious economic losses were the result of the emancipation of slaves, “which wiped out billions of dollars in Southern wealth, and the worthlessness of Confederate scrip, bonds, and promissory notes into which many Southerners had sunk most of their savings.”  Grimsley argues that these economic losses can be traced to the states’ decisions to secede in 1861 rather than Sherman’s men and may point to the extent to which white Southerners resisted blaming themselves for their losses.

47 comments… add one
  • msimons Nov 20, 2009 @ 16:51

    Yes I would

  • toby Nov 20, 2009 @ 11:56

    The great (American) physicist Richard Feynmann said that the 1860s should be remembered not for the Civil War but for the Equations published by the (Scottish) James Clerk Maxwell. These equations showed that electricity and magnetism were the same basic phenomenon, and that light was also a form of electromagnetism. Within a short time, Maxwell's Equations had been used to discover radio waves. Einstein kept a portrait of Maxwell on his wall (as well as Newton and Faraday), and you might say that modern physics began with the Scotsman.

    Incidentally, Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, and the first great debates on Evolution were happening while the war raged.

  • margaretdblough Nov 19, 2009 @ 6:21

    The difficulty with the Lost Cause's defeat due to the North's overwhelming resources is that, ir that were true, in order to justifiy subjecting the South and the rest of the states in the Union to so much in a quixotic crusade, the wrongs that precipitated it would have qualify as being unendurable by reasonable men. In the first place, the manpower was not so disproportionate. The existence of slavery to perform the physical labor and even some of the industrial (Tredegar used slaves) meant that the Confederacy could mobilize white males of military age in a proportion that would be impossible in a free society. As for other resources, in part that was due to conscious economic decisions that had been made in the decades before the war and a far more effective mobilization of those resources by Lincoln's decisions than by Davis. As for the alleged wrongs, the precipitating factor, that was the undisputedly legal and constitutional election of the Republican candidate to the Presidency, following opposition by many to the spread of slavery and advocacy of the abolition of slavery by a much smaller group. However, the latter overlooks the fact that recorded opposition to slavery in this country dates back to 1688. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had declared slavery uncosnstitutional under the state's constitution. Pennsylvania had already taken initial steps toward gradual abolition of slavery and New York wsa on the verge of doing so. Finally, Lincoln's election had a lot to do with the schism that the slave states had precipitated within the Democratic Party at its 1860 convention and their running of a their own presidential candidate.

  • Dan Wright Nov 18, 2009 @ 14:56

    I have not read this book but I find the title very interesting – is there supposed to be a “soft hand” of war?

  • Sherree Nov 18, 2009 @ 10:27


    Among those who followed Sherman's army–and whom you are calling “camp trash” and “ruffians”–are you including the newly freed slaves who followed the army? Just want to know where you are coming from.

    • msimons Nov 18, 2009 @ 14:10

      Anybody who stole, raped, burned or killed civilians and was not in the Union Army.

      • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 18, 2009 @ 14:37

        So … you're including Wheeler's cavalry?

        • msimons Nov 20, 2009 @ 10:51

          Yes I would

      • jeffreysarvey Jan 18, 2010 @ 17:24

        Interesting story concerning the execution of Sgt. Harrison Coe of the 154th New York by elements of the Sixth Georgia Cavalry in the area of Speights Bridge (Green County) N.C.

  • Sherree Nov 18, 2009 @ 6:05


    I agree with your overall point that what became the Lost Cause view of the Civil War definitely prevailed. I will add that this had disastrous consequences for African American men and women, as most contributors to this blog understand. I don't think that it is completely accurate to say that the losers of the war had a lot of time on their hands, though. (Maybe a qualification will work–many of the losers had time on their hands) Most white Southerners were rebuilding their lives, as were white Northerners. Black men and women in the South were trying to stay alive in the bloody years that followed the war, and through more than half of the twentieth century as well. Also, from what I understand, the UDC did not allow white women not from their socio-economic class to join the organization, even if those women chose to do so. If you have information to the contrary, I am interested in what you have to say. You are quite knowledgeable. Also, I have enjoyed your comments. So few women participate in these discussions. I, like you, have no interest in corsets, either, except for the reason you stated: I am grateful that I do not have to wear one.

    To your point that the Civil War was not the first war in American history in which civilians were involved and killed–you are quite correct. Our entire history includes war that involved civilians. In a certain sense, the institution of slavery itself was a war against a civilian population. I think that these aspects of our history explain to a large degree why many African American men and women and Indigenous men and women feel alienated and are not interested in US history. Robert E. Lee is not an admirable figure to African American men and women for obvious reasons. Sometimes, neither is Abraham Lincoln. As I stated before, to my Creek and Cherokee friends, the merits of Andrew Jackson's Presidency is not a topic for discussion. To my Lakota friends, Sherman and Custer are not heroes.

    How we are to integrate all of these disparate elements of our history is a work in progress. We certainly cannot do it by going backwards, however. So it is past time to retire the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. This view of the war created many casualties of history, and led to another one hundred years of suffering for African American men and women.

    • margaretdblough Nov 18, 2009 @ 19:52

      In terms of Southerners with time on their hands, I was thinking more in terms of the leadership levels of now out-of-work generals and politicians. It was a while yet before some of them started making a comeback in the nation's political and military life, and they had a defeat to attempt to rationalize away.

      I wasn't limiting the effects of war on civilians to the US. Historically, many conquered civilian populations' alternatives were massacre or slavery. The religious wars of Europe had devastating effects on civilian populations. The French Revolution developed the concept of the levee en masse. As for the Napoleonic War, anyone who has seen, especially in person, any of Goya's Disasters of War series of prints on the French occupation of Spain has no doubt as to the brutality of that war on the civilian population.

      • Sherree Nov 19, 2009 @ 9:14

        Thanks for your response, Margaret.

        Yes, there are always civilian casualties in every war. I don’t know if the exact number of civilian deaths in the Iraq war is known yet, but I suspect that that number is in the tens of thousands by now.

        The obvious point that many posters are attempting to make in this exchange is that the treatment of the white Southern civilian population by the Union army in the ACW was controlled and not as harsh as is commonly believed. I agree with this point, and would add that the treatment of the white Southern civilian population by the army was reserved compared to the treatment of the civilian population of African American men and women who were slaves. My further point is that Sherman viewed as a successful military leader and liberator only, and Sherman viewed as an oppressive and ruthless conqueror are both damaging ways in which to remember this general. Sherman decisively and successively completed the two tasks that were presented to him in his career: defeat the Confederate Army, and subdue the indigenous populations in the western United States to open the area for expansion, and for the building of the railroad. Clearing the west for settlement involved not only civilian deaths, but atrocities against civilians as well, as did the clearing of the eastern and northern areas of the US under previous US generals. I know that the history is more complex than that, and that context is needed. That is difficult to do in this forum, however. My overriding point is that if Sherman is going to be presented accurately in our history, then his entire career must be considered, not just part of it. That is, in fact, being done by many historians. Sherman was not a demon, and neither was he a nice guy daintily sipping tea. He was a US general who did the jobs delegated to him: one job had a moral imperative, when all was said and done–the ending of slavery; and the other job did not.

        It is not comfortable to contemplate the place that race occupies in our history, but it is necessary. Although the Bear River massacre of the Shoshone in 1863 had nothing to do with Sherman, it did occur during the same time period in which Sherman was establishing his career. When discussing the Civil War, however, we tend to forget the events taking place in the simultaneous segment of the protracted, centuries long “Indian Wars”. In the Bear River massacre, wounded Shoshone women were raped. In addition, infants were murdered. The Sand Creek massacre of the Cheyenne, in which women were again brutalized, occurred in 1864. Meanwhile, in the South, consistent, institutionalized rape of African descended women born into slavery was committed, and the deaths of untold thousands of infants, and of men, women, and children, and the elderly. During the ACW, black men who served in the USCT were slaughtered by Confederates, and sometimes by their fellow soldiers. The Nat Turner Slave Rebellion in Virginia resulted in the deaths of nearly one hundred innocent slave men and women and the enactment of more stringent and brutal laws to control an already brutalized slave population. The New York slave rebellion in 1741 resulted in the execution by burning alive of twenty of the slaves who participated in the rebellion. What connects these events is race.

        The history of this nation (as is the history of every nation) is a violent one–North, South, East, and West–and much of that violence occurred because of race. No section of the country is free of responsibility. The unwillingness to accept responsibility lies at the core of continued racism in our nation, in my opinion. We have the opportunity to correct that now.

        Thank you again for sharing your ideas. My mother worked for the AFL-CIO in Hazelton, PA. It is a beautiful town, and dependent on the coal industry (or used to be) A thin layer of coal dust could usually be found covering a blanket of winter snow.

  • Sherree Nov 17, 2009 @ 12:40


    Unless your indigenous ancestors were from west of the Mississippi, Sherman was not involved with them. As Lee White pointed out, US soldiers and generals throughout US history have taken part in the “Indian Wars”. For the descendants of the Creek and Cherokee nations, the memory and legacy of Andrew Jackson causes the most heartburn, not that of Sherman.

    Thanks for your kind words about my friend‘s relatives.

    • msimons Nov 17, 2009 @ 14:17

      I have them from both sides of the Mississippi. One was Cherokee and the other was from west Texas but the tribe I have not been able to document.

  • Sherree Nov 17, 2009 @ 10:27

    Hi Bob,

    No, I have not read that book. Thanks for the suggestion.

    It is true that moral judgments should not drive an historical narrative. It is difficult to avoid those judgments, however, when issues like slavery and the decimation of indigenous nations throughout US history are considered. It is then that the training of a professional historian comes into play when writing history. Perhaps the best approach would seem to be the one that you mentioned in an earlier post: let the information speak for itself.

    I recently read a book written by friend of mine in which he writes a fictionalized account of his, and his family's experiences after World War II when the “American Indian Termination and Relocation Policy” was instituted. Indigenous communities are still dealing with the legacy of that, and other failed government policies to this day.
    It seems to me that this is due, in part, to yet another area of our history that is invisible to most Americans.

    BTW, the Park Service did a great job here on the mound where indigenous ceremonies are done and prayers are said. The write up on newly installed plaques includes a request that visitors be respectful. Also, the gate to keep people out never went up! So, Bob, keep up the good work in your area of this field. Sherree

  • Sherree Nov 17, 2009 @ 7:53

    What fascinates me about Sherman is that he is at the center of so many contradictions in American history. Without Sherman's military ability, the Civil War might have been lost and slavery not ended. (perhaps) That same ability spelled disaster and ruin for indigenous men and women. In other words, through his military leadership, Sherman was instrumental in helping to free the men and women of one race, and in destroying the men and women of another race. I know that Sherman didn't see it that way. But that is what happened. White southerners were culpable. Indigenous nations were not.

    I haven't read Grimsley’s book yet, but I like his ideas as presented on his blog,. I intend to read his book when I get the opportunity. I don't know about that guy he blogs with, though, lol…..

    • Bob_Pollock Nov 17, 2009 @ 8:18

      Hi Sherree,

      Have you read “The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado” by Elliott West?
      If not , I highly recommend it. I think it is actually an example of what Brooks and Kevin mean when they say moral judgments shouldn't drive the narrative.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2009 @ 8:24

        Excellent recommendation. You may also want to check out his new book on the Nez Perce: http://www.amazon.com/Last-Indian-War-Pivotal-A

        • Sherree Nov 18, 2009 @ 6:29


          If you have not already read it, I would recommend the book “I Have Spoken: American History through the Voices of the Indians” , even though the book is dated (my copy is from 1972. The book is still in print, though) The editor interweaves actual quotes from indigenous men and women and their white contemporaries. The book is arranged with a “moral imperative” in mind. But it is still good reading, in my opinion. Also, another classic is Black Elk Speaks.

          • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2009 @ 6:34

            Thanks for the reference.

            • Sherree Nov 18, 2009 @ 10:29

              You're welcome, Kevin.

              My apologies for not posting in the “reply section” on other replies. I am just getting the hang of this part of the comment option.

  • msimons Nov 17, 2009 @ 10:39

    While all 5 points are true; I shall not excuse Sherman for his actions against the South or the Native American Population of which I have several in my Family Tree. He left SC in such bad shape that my CW Soldier picked up what he could salvage from Spartenburg County and moved west to Arkansas to start a new life.

    Sorry I try hard not to be closed minded on anything but when it comes to Sherman I'm like the ole Gospel song I shall not be moved.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2009 @ 12:08

      No one is suggesting that you should change how you feel about Sherman or anything else for that matter. How you feel about him is different from an attempt to understand what he did and why.

      • msimons Nov 17, 2009 @ 14:27

        He did it because Grant told him too with the tactial blessings of Ole Abe himself. Plus Sherman was just a plain ole mean cuss. He has be quoted as saying ” I'll make SC howl.'

        From a Military Science stand point it was the fastest way to break the South's will and end the war.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2009 @ 15:44

          With all due respect Mike, I recommend that you read something on the subject that might broaden your level of understanding of the origins and scope of Sherman's campaign. Grimsley's book would be a great place to start.

          • margaretdblough Nov 17, 2009 @ 22:29

            Kevin, I find it intriguing that there seems to be this idea that there was this wonderful polite era where people managed to have wars without harming civilians before the American Civil War.

          • msimons Nov 18, 2009 @ 10:15

            Thanks I am trying to read as much as I can it has been over ten years since I taught US history and I am a little rusty at times.

        • margaretdblough Nov 17, 2009 @ 22:27

          Actually, the quote was “make Georgia howl”. In the case of South Carolina, many rank and file Union soldiers blamed the war and all its suffering on the abolitionists and the state that had spend the best part of 40 years trying to break up the Union. Kevin is right. Grimsley's book is an excellent study of the subject.

        • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 17, 2009 @ 22:54

          Actually, he pledged to make Georgia howl. many white Georgians asked him to make South Carolina howl, however. Having lived in Spartanburg, and knowing something about Sherman, I can assure you that Sherman's men did not venture near Spartanburg. After the war, however, it was a center of KKK activity, and a target of Grant's policy in 1871.

    • Leonard Lanier Nov 17, 2009 @ 12:41

      Msimons, I hate to bring this up, but Sherman's March Through the Carolinas did not come anywhere close to Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Spartanburg lies in the extreme western part of the state, while the path of Sherman's two main columns crossed central South Carolina. In fact, the only troops that passed nearby were Confederate, part of Beauregard’s forces headed to North Carolina to reinforce Joseph E. Johnston's Army of the Tennessee.

      Don't feel too bad. Growing up in eastern North Carolina, my maternal grandmother swore that Sherman's army passed right in front of the family home, leading her mother to bury the family silver in the backyard. Just one problem. Sherman's “bluecoats” did not come within eighty miles of Martin County, North Carolina.

      Both these stories illustrate Grimsley's central argument: that the southern memory of Sherman's March matters just as much, if not more, than the actual event. Census figures show that the southern economy recovered fairly well from the war by 1880, but the southern white psyche continues to burn.

      • msimons Nov 17, 2009 @ 14:24

        I understand what your saying Sherman got accused of lots of things he didn't do but He still no saint in my book. MyCW relative I.P. Lynch wrote that the family home was burnt down, all the farm animals gone or shot and left to rot. He caught several chickens and found some personal belongs that his kin had buried. He wrote that folks said it was Sherman scallwags that did it.

        I still give great creedance to the words of Lt Gen Pat Cleburne as I see they have came to pass.

        Surrender means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the War; will be impressed by all the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit subjects for derision. -General Pat Cleburne, CSA

        • margaretdblough Nov 17, 2009 @ 22:24

          Actually, in this case, the losers had a lot of time on their hands and did a very effective job in imposing their version of history, including doing an almost complete rewrite of the events leading up to the war.

        • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 17, 2009 @ 22:56

          Sherman scalawags? You do know that “scalawags” is a postwar term used to denote white southerners who joined the Republican party … and Sherman had very little use for said party …

          Perhaps you need to talk to Richard Dreyfuss about civic literacy. 🙂

          • msimons Nov 18, 2009 @ 9:56

            Sorry I meant that in the informal defination of the word. A better choice would have been Camp Trash or Ruffins that followed behind Shermans Army through the south.

            • Leonard Lanier Nov 18, 2009 @ 11:32

              What phrase, exactly, did your relative I.P. Lynch actually use?

            • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 18, 2009 @ 11:58

              And, as has already been pointed out, Sherman did not go to Spartanburg. So where does that leave this story? “Sherman's scalawags” would mean (“informal definition” or not) white southerners who were under Sherman's command. Say again?

              Now, if you want to say that white southerners trashed Spartanburg, well, that might be true during the KKK period, when the white southerners in question were Klansmen. But I'd stop blaming Sherman for all this. It's starting to look foolish.

          • msimons Nov 18, 2009 @ 14:21

            No other campaign in the entire war has contributed more to keeping alive sectional feeling than Sherman's march through Georgia and South Carolina.


            The Informal use is any Worthless fellow. This author refers to them as Bummers. They burned, raped, murdered and stole from noncombatants in SC and GA.

            • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 18, 2009 @ 14:36

              It seems to me that nothing has done more to keep sectional feeling alive than how some white southerners choose to remember Sherman's marches through Georgia and the Carolinas. No amount of historical research can disabuse them of what they believe happened. I would argue that one could see Sheridan's treatment of the Shenandoah Valley as potentially more destructive to that region.

              Now it's Sherman's Bummers .. who, once again, did not visit Spartanburg. Of course, many people said the same thing about Wheeler's cavalry, and given the generations of slaveholders who could count among their numbers people who murdered, raped, plunders, and stole … just ask their slaves … I wonder why you seem so outraged about a war that white South Carolinans did so much to bring upon themselves, while I don't see the same indignation directed toward either the impact of the institution of slavery or toward the KKK, where the victims were overwhelmingly black. I've offered specifics, you've offered general assertions. That's how these conversations often go.

            • Lizzie Nov 18, 2009 @ 17:50


              I would suggest picking up a copy of Tony Horowitz's “Confederates in the Attic.” It is a quick read and it has a wonderful section of the author talking with an old Atlantian. The old Atlantian was raving against Sherman and how Sherman burned everything to the ground as far as the eye could see. After this instance, the angry Sherman-hater proudly pointed out antebellum houses to the author. What's wrong with this and above all what is my point? I agree with Brooks Simpson. It is all about how Southerners choose to remember Sherman's campaigns.

        • hjs Nov 19, 2009 @ 7:44

          “Surrender means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy”

          Oh boy – if ever there was a war the history of which wa writtin by the losers, it was this one.

      • Richard Nov 18, 2009 @ 21:14

        Part of Shermans Army did pass by my house. Laurinburg, NC at the NC/SC border. Its interesting to here some of the comments regarding Indians. Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, etc were all slave owners. One of the most beautiful places in the world are the mountains of NC in and near the reservation. http://www.rrphillips.com/Confederate_Memorials

    • Marc Ferguson Nov 17, 2009 @ 16:04

      Let's not let facts get in the way!


  • leewhite Nov 17, 2009 @ 7:46

    I still find it interesting that Sherman has been damned so much over the years, but it wasnt anything new, many of the older officers in both armies had practiced a much harder war against the Native Americans in the South East, look at the Seminole Wars and the Creek Wars. Of course the practice would be continued into the West as well, just harder to do with nomadic tribes. So many of these families did the same and much worse to acquire the land that they held in 1864, I know my ancestors that were visited by both armies in 1864, had received their land from the Cherokee holdings, and my patriarch had been involved in several punative expeditions against the Cherokees in the late 1700s.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2009 @ 8:08

      You make such an important point. Our understanding of the Civil War is almost completely void of any external context. It's as if the United States went through the nineteenth century w/o any connection to events in Europe and elsewhere. It's interesting that every episode of Ken Burns's “Civil War” begins with a short narrative of foreign events. I've been thinking about this lately and may post something at some point.

      • toby Nov 20, 2009 @ 5:56

        The great (American) physicist Richard Feynmann said that the 1860s should be remembered not for the Civil War but for the Equations published by the (Scottish) James Clerk Maxwell. These equations showed that electricity and magnetism were the same basic phenomenon, and that light was also a form of electromagnetism. Within a short time, Maxwell's Equations had been used to discover radio waves. Einstein kept a portrait of Maxwell on his wall (as well as Newton and Faraday), and you might say that modern physics began with the Scotsman.

        Incidentally, Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, and the first great debates on Evolution were happening while the war raged.

  • hjs Nov 17, 2009 @ 6:57

    For an alternative viewpoint on “hard war”, check out “Punitive War” by Clay Mountcastle. FWIW, I lean toward Grimsley and away from Mountcastle/Fellman.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2009 @ 7:00

      Thanks Harry. I've seen the book, but haven't had a chance to read it. Of course, Fellman's book is another classic.

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