First to Scorch the Earth: Sherman’s March and American Military Ethics

Sherman’s march during the American Civil War represented a critical break with wartime convention, one that would have a lasting effect on strategic military doctrine.

| March 2015

  • Sherman’s sinister reputation is not confined to the Civil War. More than any military campaign in history, Sherman’s March has become a byword for wartime devastation and cruelty.
    Photo by Fotolia/Juuulijs
  • General William T. Sherman’s legendary march to the sea was more than just a decisive victory for the North in the American Civil War. "Sherman’s Ghosts" by Matthew Carr (The New Press, 2015), exposes how the unconventional destructive strategies of the march became the central preoccupation of war planners in the twentieth century and beyond.
    Cover courtesy The New Press

Sherman’s Ghosts (The New Press, 2015) by Matthew Carr opens with an epic retelling of General Sherman’s fateful decision to turn his sights on the South’s civilian population in order to break the back of the Confederacy. General Sherman’s march embodied the punitive northern strategy of destroying civilian provisions and infrastructure, acts of total war that had a lasting effect on American military strategy. Sherman’s Ghosts is both a rare reframing of how we understand our violent history and a call to action for those who hope to build a less violent future. The following excerpt is from the Introduction, "From Georgia to FM 3-24."

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Sherman’s March

On November 15, 1864, one of the most celebrated and controversial campaigns of the American Civil War began when sixty thousand Federal troops under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman marched out of the burning city of Atlanta into central Georgia. Disregarding conventional military wisdom that an advancing army should not break contact with its line of communications and supply, Sherman had ordered his troops to evacuate the city they had only recently captured and sever the Western & Atlantic Railroad link that connected them to the Union’s nearest supply depot at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Apart from the reduced provisions his soldiers carried with them, Sherman’s army was now dependent for its survival on what they could take from the local population in the hostile Confederate heartlands of the Deep South.

Sherman’s destination, though few of his soldiers realized it at the time, was the city of Savannah, three hundred miles away on the Atlantic coast, where he hoped to be resupplied by the Union Navy and then proceed northward into Virginia to assist his great friend Ulysses Grant, whose armies were locked in a brutal deadlock with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Confederate capital, Richmond. But Sherman also had very specific strategic intentions regarding Georgia itself. For more than a month, Sherman’s army marched through the state known as the granary of the South, seizing or destroying vast quantities of food and provisions, demolishing and burning public and private property, and leaving a trail of devastation fifty to sixty miles wide. On December 21, Sherman’s army captured Savannah in a triumphant conclusion to the “March to the Sea.” In February the following year, Sherman led his army northward into South Carolina.



Here the destruction was more extensive and more explicitly punitive, as his soldiers burned and looted their way through the state that they regarded as the spiritual home of secession before moving on to North Carolina, where the march finally came to a halt in Goldsboro on March 23, 1865. On April 16, the Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston surrendered ninety thousand troops to Sherman at the Bennett Farm near the state capital, Raleigh, thus removing the last major Confederate army from the Civil War. By that time Sherman’s seven-hundred-mile rampage had already begun its transformation into a military legend. In the North, it was acclaimed as a strategic masterstroke that transformed Sherman into a national hero. In the South, Sherman was vilified as a brutal military destroyer, a nineteenth-century Genghis Khan who violated the principles of “civilized warfare” and chose to make war on civilians and noncombatants.

This image of Sherman as the Great Destroyer has been handed down to posterity and reinforced in films, such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, as part of the “Lost Cause” mythologies of Southern victimhood, which present Sherman as the iconic symbol of Yankee barbarity. Today Sherman’s army is still remembered throughout the South as the instrument of vengeful destruction described in the narrative voice-over spoken by Waylon Jennings in the Paul Kennerley song “They Laid Waste to Our Land”: “With hate in their hearts, they moved in a line, cutting a scar through God’s blessed country fifty miles wide / Burning, looting and gutting our land like vultures.”

A Vicious Doctrine

Sherman’s sinister reputation is not confined to the Civil War. More than any military campaign in history, Sherman’s March has become a byword for wartime devastation and cruelty. “In the twentieth century the name of Sherman has taken on an incantatory quality; speak it, and all the demons of destruction appear,” writes the cultural historian Charles Royster. Other historians have depicted Sherman as the spiritual father of total war, the general whose campaigns broke with the polite conventions of nineteenth-century warfare and paved the way for the new forms of military barbarism that followed. In his history of the conduct of war, the former British general and military historian J.F.C. Fuller singled out Sherman as the architect of the “moral retrogression” in warfare that he regarded as a particularly malign consequence of the American Civil War, the “leading exponent of this return to barbarism,” who “broke away from the conventions of nineteenth century warfare, and waged war as ruthlessly as Calvin had waged it with the word.” In a more recent study of battlefield tactics in the Civil War, the British historian Paddy Griffith similarly condemned “Sherman’s doctrine of warfare against civilians” as “one of the more vicious military theories of modern times.”

Sherman’s many admirers have taken a more positive view of the man and his achievements. Some have pointed out the discrepancy between his frequently extreme and intemperate pronouncements and his more restrained actions. Few generals are more quotable, and few of Sherman’s  many aphorisms are more widely quoted than his famous extemporaneous insistence that “war is all hell,” more often rendered as “war is hell”—an observation that  has been endlessly repeated by politicians and soldiers as a justification for intensifying war’s hellishness. Yet Sherman’s defenders have argued that Sherman’s campaigns of devastation were not “total” but a proportionate and relatively unbloody use of military force that was justified on military grounds. In a hagiographic biography written in the 1920s, the British military theorist Basil Henry Liddell Hart hailed Sherman as the unacknowledged genius of the Civil War, whose campaigns anticipated the Nazi blitzkrieg tactics in World II and their subsequent adaptation by General George Patton during his 1944 campaigns in Normandy. For Liddell Hart, Sherman was the “first modern general,” whose methods presented a less destructive alternative to the meat-grinding battles of World War I.

In his study The American Way of War, Russell Weigley described the Civil War as a transformative moment in U.S. military history, in which Sherman’s “strategy of terror” in Georgia and the Carolinas complemented Grant’s “strategy of annihilation” in Virginia. Whereas Grant’s bludgeoning offensives in the spring of 1864 introduced a new strategic concept in American warfare, the “annihilation of armies,” Weigley argued, the “deliberate  effort to undermine  civilian morale through  terrorization”  practiced by Sherman and his fellow general Philip Sheridan had the effect of “enlarging the sphere in which American soldiers saw civilians as possible military targets.”

First to Scorch the Earth

In a personal journey along the route of Sherman’s marches in 1984, the Southern writer and journalist James Reston Jr. attempted to trace a line of descent between Sherman’s campaigns and the Vietnam War. For Reston, Sherman was “the first general of modern human history to carry the logic of war to its ultimate extreme, the first to scorch the earth, the first consciously to demoralize the hostile civilian population in order to subdue its hostile army, the first to wreck an economy in order to starve its soldiers.”

Generals who terrorize civilians and seize or destroy their property are not usually lionized for such actions. Napoléon’s reputation was not enhanced by the brutal counterinsurgency campaigns waged by his armies in occupied Europe. The German and Japanese generals whose armies burned and destroyed towns and villages in the Soviet Union and China during World War II are generally regarded as war criminals rather than heroes, even in their own countries. Yet Sherman has attained an illustrious place in American history because of his campaigns of destruction rather than in spite of them, and his words and actions have often been cited as an inspiration by his successors in the wars that followed. To the popular historian Victor Davis Hanson, “Sherman . . . invented the entire notion of American strategic doctrine, one that would appear so frequently in the century to follow: the ideal of a vast moral crusade on foreign soil to restructure a society through sheer force of arms.”

At first sight, the notion of a “vast moral crusade” as the essence of America’s “strategic doctrine” does not correlate with “strategies of terror” directed against noncombatants, but these two notions have by no means been incompatible. From the Civil War to the “terror wars” of the new century, the U.S. military has bombed cities and residential areas, burned homes, villages, forests, and crops, poisoned wells and rice paddies, destroyed food supplies, and used physical destruction as an instrument of coercion and intimidation against civilians as well as armed combatants. Such practices are hardly uniquely American. Yet few countries have the same ability to present even the most destructive wars as benign and even altruistic endeavors fought on behalf of universal values and principles. As the 2010 National Security Strategy of the United States puts it, America has “spilled American blood in foreign lands—not to build an empire, but to shape a world in which more individuals and nations could determine their own destiny, and live with the peace and dignity they deserve.” This image of U.S. military power is regularly disseminated on Veterans Days and at public ceremonies honoring the military, at museums, war memorials, and military cemeteries.

The elevated moral aura that so often surrounds American war making is not merely the result of propaganda or deliberate obfuscation, though it may fulfill both purposes. But physical destruction in American warfare is often seen as a necessary precursor to a more positive Americanized future—a tendency famously summed up by the response of a U.S. officer to a question about the bombardment of the village of Bến Tre during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” During the American occupation of the Philippines, U.S. soldiers were building roads, schools, and medical clinics in one part of the archipelago while simultaneously razing “insurgent” villages in another. Even as U.S. bombers were incinerating Japanese cities and killing tens of thousands of civilians during World War II, the U.S. armed forces were preparing one of the most progressive military occupations in history. More recently in Iraq, the United States launched a war that was supposedly intended to transform a dictatorship into an exemplary American-style democracy, in which the U.S. military was killing, arresting, and in some cases torturing real or imagined Iraqi insurgents by night, while teams of soldiers instructed Iraqis on local democracy and the formation of neighborhood associations during the day.

Killing People and Breaking Things

In recent years, the belief that American military power is a force for good and that what is good for America is good for everyone else has been called into question by a succession of wars that have generated a great deal of destruction without producing the positive outcomes that were predicted when they began. In two invasions and occupations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military power has failed to achieve decisive victories against militarily weaker opponents, and these less than satisfactory results have prompted an ongoing debate within and beyond the U.S. military establishment about the way in which America fights its wars. On one hand,  there  are the  “population-centric” counterinsurgency (COIN)  doctrines propagated by General David Petraeus and the Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24, which challenge the military to concentrate less on the physical destruction of the enemy and more on protection of civilians, reconstruction, and “military operations other than war.” Others have argued that an excessive concern with minimizing bloodshed and avoiding civilian casualties has weakened the ability of the U.S. military to carry out its core task of “killing people and breaking things” in order to achieve a decisive military victory.



These debates would not have been entirely unfamiliar in what Sherman called “the great problem of the Civil War.” The ideas and practices that he developed in an attempt to solve that problem touch on many issues that have remained pertinent to American wars. The strategic use of physical destruction to change the attitudes and behavior of civilians and noncombatants, the conduct of military occupations, the blurred distinctions between combatants and noncombatants  in irregular warfare, collective punishment as an instrument of counterinsurgency, postwar stabilization, the political and psychological dimensions of modern warfare—all these components of the American wars of this new century were also present in the war that Sherman once fought.

To what extent were Sherman’s campaigns a “modern” form of warfare or an anachronistic regression? Whom did he attack and why? Is it true, as Russell Weigley and so many others have argued, that Sherman’s strategy of terror in the South paved the way for the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima, the free-fire zones of Vietnam, or the My Lai massacre? If so, how? What exactly did that strategy consist of and to what extent have America’s subsequent wars followed the template that Sherman created? His campaigns have already generated a voluminous literature, and I do not claim to have uncovered any new historical material about them. I am not a Civil War historian, and this is not a conventional military history, partly because Sherman’s campaigns were not a conventional military campaign, and also because my primary concern is not with military operations, strategies, and battles but with the broader impact of war—and American war in particular—on civilians. For many years now, I have written about the U.S. military and American wars, most often from a critical perspective.

If this book might be categorized as an antimilitarist military history, it is also to some extent a companion or counterpoint to my earlier history of terrorism, The Infernal Machine. The U.S. Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” There is much of this definition that could be applied to what Sherman tried to do in Georgia and the Carolinas. This does not mean that I wish to indict Sherman as a terrorist—a futile and essentially meaningless exercise. But Sherman embodies a very specific use of military force as an instrument of coercion and intimidation that has often been replayed by the U.S. military and also by other armies. Understanding what he did and what his armies did and didn’t do can therefore tell us a great deal, not only about the Civil War and American war making, but also about the evolution of modern war into attacks of unprecedented violence against civilians. I would like to hope that the following study can contribute to widening this understanding, not only by those who fight wars, but also by those who would like to stop them from being fought.


Reprinted with permission from Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War by Matthew Carr and published by The New Press, 2015.




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