The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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General Sherman always contended that it was. In his correspondence with Hood at the time, in his letters of explanation to Halleck and Grant, and finally in his "Memoirs" published years afterwards, he defended his action vigorously and even angrily, as a military necessity, but always in such fashion as to suggest that he felt it necessary to defend himself and his fame, in the forum of civilization, and to make out a sufficient case of military necessity to excuse that which he felt that humanity shrank from as a cruel and barbaric expedient.
These questions belong to biography and the literature of personal controversy. It is the function of history merely to record the facts. The facts in this case are that Sherman depopulated Atlanta, sending its helpless people into exile, and ruthlessly destroying the greater part of their homes in order, as he himself explained, to contract his lines of defense, reduce the city and all its suburbs to the dimensions of a military post easily held, and spare himself the necessity of maintaining a multitude of provost guards and detailing large bodies of troops to hold a populated place, where very small bodies might hold one depopulated.
It is certain that enormous human suffering resulted from his decree. It is certain that women and children and aged persons perished because of it. Whether it was really a measure of military necessity, or only a measure prompted by ill temper, or a measure intended to save trouble to an invading army, each reader must judge for himself. In judging, the reader should remember that no such thing was done at Memphis or Nashville or Chattanooga; that Grant adopted no such measure after he conquered Vicksburg; that even Benjamin F. Butler, whose disposition it always was to employ all the technicalities of the law in defense of arbitrary measures against his enemies, never for one moment thought of depopulating New Orleans during his occupancy of that city. The depopulation of Atlanta by the fiat of a military commander stands out in relief as the only occurrence of the kind that marked or marred the conduct of the war on either side. It must be judged upon its own merits without parallel or precedent to guide the mind that inquires concerning its humanity or its inhumanity.
In securing possession of Atlanta Sherman had fully accomplished one of the supreme purposes of the campaign which Grant had marked out as the objects of all the operations of all the armies during the summer of 1864. He had indeed accomplished quite all that Grant had set him to accomplish during that season. His success had been completer than Grant's own in fact, for he had overcome the Confederate army in his front and, after a series of hotly contested battles and a brilliant display of grand strategy on both sides, he had completely achieved the objective of the campaign marked out for him. Hood's further resistance was both problematical and well nigh hopeless in view of the enormous disparity of numbers between the two armies.On the other hand Grant had failed in his twin purposes of crushing the Army of Northern Virginia in the field, and making himself master of the Confederate capital city.
In his dispatches to Sherman at the time, Grant fully and generously recognized all this, taking pains even to emphasize the fact that his great lieutenant's success had been completer than his own.
But when he had settled himself in Atlanta, depopulated the town and sent its helpless people into exile, Sherman found himself in a sore predicament. His sole base of supplies was at Chattanooga – a hundred miles away – and his only line of communication with that base was a single track railroad running through a hostile country and subject to interruption at any hour. His enemy occupied a position near Atlanta from which he could not be dislodged without fearful slaughter, and the enterprise of that enemy in attacks upon the Federal line of communications was hourly made evident. Sherman's problem of future operations was an exceedingly perplexing one. But whatever its decision might ultimately be, he prepared himself for it by bringing forward great quantities of provisions and ammunition and strengthening his rear in every possible way. At every station on the line of railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga, he placed small bodies of men, entrenching them to resist cavalry. At important points he built strong blockhouses for further defense.
More important still, in anticipation of a northward advance of the Confederates, he asked for and secured strong reinforcements for Thomas, whom he had stationed at Nashville, with command of all the strategic points in Tennessee and Northern Georgia.
In the meanwhile Sherman himself was watching Hood, and meditating upon the question of what further movements he might undertake with his army at Atlanta, now that he had effectually secured Nashville, Chattanooga and the other strategic points north of his position.
He was also busily engaged in diplomacy. At that time there was widespread discontent at the South with the conduct of the war and not a little despair. To many minds, including those of a number of influential statesmen, the conviction had come that all hope of the ultimate success of the Confederate cause had passed away, and that it was high time to give up the effort and make peace while yet the South's resisting power was great enough to serve as an argument in behalf of favorable terms.
In North Carolina this sentiment took form in the open candidacy of Mr. Holden for the governorship on a platform which advocated the secession of that state from the Confederacy, and the conclusion of peace between the United States and North Carolina as an independent sovereignty entirely free to return at will to the Union.
This was logical enough, but it was of course impracticable. The foundation stone of the Confederacy was the contention that each state was independently sovereign and could withdraw at its own good pleasure from any union or confederacy into which it might have entered. But logic or no logic, law or no law, sovereignty or subjection, it was certain that while war was on the Richmond government would never permit North Carolina to withdraw from the Confederacy and become again one of the United States. The geographical position of North Carolina was such that Confederate consent to such a program would have been Confederate suicide. Nevertheless, and in face of the certainty of Confederate warfare, the candidate who advocated this course received 20,000 votes against his adversary's 54,000.
In Georgia the discontent took a form even more dangerous to Confederate interests. The Governor of that state, Joseph E. Brown, was almost in open rebellion against the Richmond government. On the tenth of September he recalled and furloughed all the Georgia militia that had been serving under Johnston and afterwards under Hood, thus seriously weakening Hood's already inferior force at a time when it stood in peculiar need of strengthening. He still further claimed for his state the right to recall from the Confederate armies everywhere all the Georgia troops that were enlisted in that service. With the scarcely disguised purpose of thus taking Georgia out of the Confederacy and making a separate peace for that state, he issued a summons for the legislature to meet almost immediately.
Further than this, Georgia's most famous statesman and by all odds that state's most influential citizen was Alexander H. Stephens. Mr. Stephens had opposed secession to the bitter end and his selection to be Vice-President of the Confederacy had clearly been dictated by the desire of the politicians to placate him and the multitude of strong Union men who looked to him for leadership. Mr. Stephens had at no time during the war been on terms of intimacy with Mr. Davis. Mr. Davis could not distrust the integrity of such a man, but he always distrusted his sympathy with the plans and purposes of the Richmond Government, and when the grave discontent arose in Georgia, he attributed it largely to the influence of Mr. Stephens's sentiments. For these were everywhere known.
Mr. Stephens believed firmly in the constitutional right of secession, but, in common with many others, and especially in common with the Virginians, he had from the first held that secession was uncalled for by anything that Mr. Lincoln's election in 1860 implied or threatened. He had insisted upon love for the Union as stoutly as Alexander Hamilton himself – for whom Mr. Stephens was named – could have done. Believing as he did firmly in the right of a state to secede and in the paramount obligation of every citizen to yield allegiance to his state, Mr. Stephens accepted Georgia's secession without in the least approving it.
In the autumn of 1864 he was convinced, as many other thinking men at the South were, that the military problems of the war had been in effect decided; that there was absolutely no further ground for hope of Southern success, and that further continuance of the war could mean nothing else than a needless sacrifice of life and of the substance of the people. He made no concealment of these views and the number of Southern men who shared them grew daily greater.
These men felt that in view of the inevitableness of Confederate failure in the end, it was the duty of the Richmond government to seek terms while yet it had something to offer in exchange for terms. Mr. Lincoln's supreme desire, it was well known, was to secure the restoration of the Union. He had often, emphatically, and very eloquently, proclaimed that as the sole purpose of his mind and heart, and had declared insistently his readiness and eagerness to sacrifice all other considerations for the sake of that one object. His influence at the North was so clearly all dominating that there could be no doubt of the ready acceptance by Congress and the people, of any arrangement he might make with the seceding states for their restoration to the Union. Mr. Stephens and those who agreed with him in mind, held that now was the time to recognize facts and take the utmost possible advantage of conditions as they existed. Mr. Lincoln was anxious well nigh to the verge of sacrifice, to crown his lifework by the restoration of the Union, and "the people said 'Amen.'"
While the Southern cause was obviously hopeless of ultimate success the South still had veteran armies in the field, under command of generals who perfectly knew how to use them destructively. It was manifest that if the war were to continue, these armies would inflict vast slaughter – as in the event they did – upon the Federal forces, and enormously increase the already stupendous cost of the war to the North. In brief it was certain that if negotiations should be undertaken then the South could secure better terms than would be granted if the struggle should be prolonged until the South could fight no more. So long as Lee's army was intact – however surely its ultimate destruction could be counted upon – its very existence, and its matchless fighting capacity, must offer to the Washington government a very strong inducement to give lenient terms for the sake of ending the war without the further effusion of blood and the further expenditure of treasure.
In commercial parlance the South at that time had something to trade on – something with which to buy favorable terms of peace; a little later, as these wise men foresaw, she would have nothing and must accept whatever terms her triumphant adversary might see fit to impose.
This condition of things was revealed to General Sherman about the time of his occupation of Atlanta, and he eagerly sought to take such advantage of it as might lead to a prompt ending of the war by the political disintegration of the Confederacy. About that time two men of prominence in Georgia sought permission to enter the Federal lines under safe conduct in order to secure and take home the body of a Confederate officer who had been killed in battle. Both of these men were influential and one of them had been a member of Congress before the war. Sherman not only granted their request but received and entertained them at his headquarters. Having got some inkling of Governor Brown's attitude and state of mind, Sherman seized the opportunity to send messages to that revolting state executive. He intimated to him a purpose presently to march over a great part of the state, and declared that if Governor Brown would withdraw Georgia's quota of troops from the Confederate army, he, Sherman, would confine his men on march to the high roads and pay for all supplies taken from the country. Otherwise, it was plainly suggested, his march would be a desolating one.
The negotiations came to no practical result. The march was made, and the desolation of it was well-nigh unmatched in the world's annals. But the historical fact that such a negotiation was carried on between a Federal commanding general and the governor of a Confederate state, with distinguished and influential citizens of that state for go-betweens, is interesting in itself and still more interesting as an illustration of the condition into which the events of the great struggle had brought the Southern mind.
About this time President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy visited the South and made speeches there not only to the people but to the men of Hood's army. In these speeches he bitterly assailed not only Governor Brown but also General Joseph E. Johnston, plainly suggesting that he regarded both as scarcely better than traitors to the Southern cause. Governor Brown's attitude and action in withdrawing the Georgia militia from Hood's army, in negotiating with Sherman and in summoning the legislature with the scarcely disguised purpose of recalling all Georgia troops from the Confederate armies at the time of their sorest need, legitimately bore such construction, perhaps. But General Johnston's only offense was his inability, with a vastly inferior army, to overcome Sherman and prevent his advance toward Atlanta. Johnston's fighting retreat is very differently judged by all historians and all military critics. General Sherman himself, to the end of his life, always spoke of it as one of the most masterly operations of the war, and no impartial mind can come to any other conclusion after studying the conditions and considering the factors of the problem.
But Mr. Davis's animosity toward Johnston was of long standing and it was implacable. History will scarcely reckon Johnston among the great commanders, but it will always account him a very capable one. Certainly it will reckon his retirement toward Atlanta in presence of Sherman's vastly superior and most capably commanded force, as an enforced retreat conducted with all the skill that any military genius could have brought to bear upon it, and so conducted as to inflict the maximum of injury upon the enemy, while suffering the minimum of hurt in return.
The simple fact, as history sees it clearly, is that Johnston's force was utterly inadequate to check Sherman's advance. He did the best he could and far better than most commanders in like circumstances could have done. He made Sherman's advance as costly and as slow as it was possible for any general with so inferior a force to make it.
But he had not destroyed Sherman's army or prevented its approach to Atlanta. He had not been able to make one man equal to three, and Mr. Davis bitterly resented his incapacity to work these wonders. Mr. Davis had removed Johnston from command and had put Hood in his place. So he told the Confederate soldiers, in his speeches, that a new era was dawning, and explained to them Hood's plan of campaign, which, insane as it was, appealed to their imaginations and fired them with an enthusiasm which meant enormous slaughter in the operations presently to be undertaken by the madman who had replaced a wise and discreet general in command of the Confederate army before Atlanta.
A more important fact is that Davis's speeches, outlining the plan of campaign, were published in the Southern newspapers, copies of which came to Sherman every day. Thus the Federal general learned in advance precisely what his adversary intended to do or to attempt, and was forearmed by the forewarning.
Hood's plan thus revealed to Sherman was to operate toward the north, destroying the Federal general's communication with Chattanooga, and then advancing against the strongholds of Chattanooga and Nashville.
It is doubtful that an insaner plan of campaign than this was ever devised by any man in command of a great army. It left Sherman free to work his will in Georgia. It withdrew practically all resistance from his front, while the threat to his rear which it implied was scarcely worthy of consideration. For with Thomas at Nashville and adequate forces at Chattanooga and elsewhere it was as certain as anything in war can be, that Hood could accomplish nothing in his northward march except his own destruction.
About the beginning of October Hood cut loose from his communications, abandoning every trustworthy and secure source of supply and, leaving his enemy in overwhelming force in his rear, moved northward. It was easy for him to break the railroad line by which Sherman had received supplies, but Sherman had already brought vast stores of food and ammunition to Atlanta and was for the time being quite independent of his communications. He promptly pushed a column out in pursuit of Hood and by signals called General Corse from the northward to the support of a small force that was holding Allatoona. There a sharp fight occurred, ending in a check to the Confederates. General Corse had an ear shot off and a cheek bone carried away by a bullet, but, treating his wounds lightly, he telegraphed to Sherman, "I am short a cheek bone and an ear, but am able to whip all hell yet."
Hood did great damage to the railroad and then continued his march northward. After following him for a while Sherman decided to leave Thomas to take care of him, and himself to begin the march to the sea.
Thomas was amply able to meet and defeat any effort that Hood might make, as the event proved, and Sherman, with no adversary south of him, was free to carry out his purpose of marching through the Confederacy, again splitting it into halves and demonstrating his theory, that all that remained of it was "an empty eggshell which only needs to be punctured." He decided at once to puncture it.