The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Sherman in 1864 (Commentary)

A couple of points raised in General Sherman's letter to the leaders of Atlanta do merit reflection. Sherman first hints at the campaign he foresees:
To defeat those armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose. Now, I know the vindictive nature of our enemy, that we may have many years of military operations from this quarter; and, therefore, deem it wise and prudent to prepare in time.
Then, immediately after the famous "War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it", Sherman describes the war's necessity:
You cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone.

It is easy for us, at such a long remove, to forget what Sherman faced. He saw the very real possibility, nearly forgotten now, of a protracted guerrilla insurrection. [More here.] A history professor of mine used to say, only half in jest, that the North should have let the South secede "and in fifty years, they could have colonized it" -- but Sherman, from his much better vantage, saw the impossibility of this. An independent South would have led almost certainly to an independent West, and given the old European powers a point of entry into the politics of North America. The nation we know, where internal peace has been taken for granted for over a century, was not fated to exist; it was created by men like Lincoln and Sherman, who determined to do whatever was necessary to preserve it, even to the point of dislodging the "old and feeble", many to their deaths, so that their city could be burned.