Was Sherman a war criminal?

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AndyHall

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Two things would elevate any discussion of Sherman immensely.

First, we need to ditch the terms "war criminal" and "war crimes" entirely. They're inflammatory without really explaining much. These phrases were virtually unknown at the time and didn't come into common use until nearly a century later. They also have very specific legal connotations since World War II that simply didn't exist in 1861-65.

Second, understand Sherman's actions in the context of major wars of his day and before. I don't mean to discount the hardships and suffering of those who experienced them firsthand, but neither were they in any way unusual compared to the way "civilized nations" (to use an old term) waged war against each other in the decades leading up to the American Civil War. The actions of Sherman's army in Georgia and South and North Carolina do not stand out much against the backdrop of, say, Napoleon's 1812 campaign in Russia, the fighting on the Iberian Penninsula in that same conflict, or pretty much any long-running civil war, anywhere.
 
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CMWinkler

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I may surprise some people but I agree with Andy. We need to look at Sherman's actions, as I seem to be urging for everyone of the period, to be judged by the standards as they existed at the time. As with the discussion I had with Pat Young about war crimes and crimes against humanity, connected but distinguishable from war crimes, these are modern constructs. As Stephen Davis argues in the linked post, by today's standards, clearly he was. Looking at it from contemporary or comparable campaigns, however, clearly he was not.

Trying to impose such labels is never helpful.
 

KeyserSoze

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If Stephen Davis wants to hold Sherman to standards codified after the Second World War then so be it. Then it is only fair that he hold World War II commanders to the same standards as he holds Sherman to. How can be proclaim Sherman to be a war criminal for murder and ill-treatment of civilians and the destruction of private proplerty for bombarding Atlanta and not proclaim the commanders of the U.S. 8th Air Force and the RAF Bomber command war criminals for the same actions against German cities? How can he proclaim Sherman a war criminal for evacuating civilians and not condem Allied commanders for the same thing? In short, I'll believe that Mr. Davis's charges against Sherman are without bias the day he puts Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur in the dock with him.
 
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28thNewYork

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It is extremely unfortunate that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution chose such a wretched topic title within the context of what otherwise has been a generally balanced, relatively unbiased coverage of the Civil War in Georgia. To its credit, both authors have good "creds", but it appears that each also went to the extreme ends of possible interpretations to provide a "historical" rendition of "Point-Counterpoint".
 

cash

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If Stephen Davis wants to hold Sherman to standards codified after the Second World War then so be it. Then it is only fair that he hold World War II commanders to the same standards as he holds Sherman to. How can be proclaim Sherman to be a war criminal for murder and ill-treatment of civilians and the destruction of private proplerty for bombarding Atlanta and not proclaim the commanders of the U.S. 8th Air Force and the RAF Bomber command war criminals for the same actions against German cities? How can he proclaim Sherman a war criminal for evacuating civilians and not condem Allied commanders for the same thing? In short, I'll believe that Mr. Davis's charges against Sherman are without bias the day he puts Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur in the dock with him.
Not only that, but if he's going to hold Sherman to a later standard, he'll need to hold Lee to that same standard. What does he make of Lee's kidnapping black residents in Pennsylvania to bring them south into slavery?
 

AndyHall

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"It is extremely unfortunate that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution chose such a wretched topic title within the context of what otherwise has been a generally balanced, relatively unbiased coverage to the Civil War in Georgia."

An awful lot of what passes as journalism today is a focus on "telling both sides," without much regard to the merits of either argument. It's lazy, and a lot of media outfits are scared to death of being accused of bias. I would not be surprised to turn on a cable news channel and see a "debate" on whether or not the Earth is really round.
 
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PaulaPerry

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I may surprise some people but I agree with Andy. We need to look at Sherman's actions, as I seem to be urging for everyone of the period, to be judged by the standards as they existed at the time. As with the discussion I had with Pat Young about war crimes and crimes against humanity, connected but distinguishable from war crimes, these are modern constructs. As Stephen Davis argues in the linked post, by today's standards, clearly he was. Looking at it from contemporary or comparable campaigns, however, clearly he was not.

Trying to impose such labels is never helpful.
don't you think some of our generals might have done the same thing, if not for Gen. Robert E Lee's orders.
 
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Patrick H

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Andy is correct about all of this. Furthermore, even if you hold Sherman to WWII standards, he still gets a pass, because his side won. Imagine for a moment that we did not win WWII (thank God we did). Imagine how many pilots, bombardiers, commanding officers of the 8th Air Force, etc. would have been held accountable by the Nazi government. Gen. Chuck Yeager even talked about that in his famous memoir. See what I mean?

We can't judge these people by modern standards, except in the most blatant and heinous of cases. And, even when we do, the victors get to hold judgement and write the history books.
 

diane

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The interesting thing about WWII was that the crimes of the Nazis were so horrific they weren't illegal! There had to be a re-evaluation of war and war crime. Words such as genocide were coined then to describe what had happened and give legal grounds to try the Nazis. There is nothing even remotely similar to their deeds anywhere in the Civil War. From time immemorial, whenever an army passes through they pillage the village and kill everybody. This didn't happen with Sherman - for one thing, he didn't stay long enough to really do hard core damage. When you consider that his army was, whenever it camped, the largest city in the South outside of New Orleans, it's amazing more didn't happen.
 

Patrick H

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The interesting thing about WWII was that the crimes of the Nazis were so horrific they weren't illegal! There had to be a re-evaluation of war and war crime. Words such as genocide were coined then to describe what had happened and give legal grounds to try the Nazis. There is nothing even remotely similar to their deeds anywhere in the Civil War. From time immemorial, whenever an army passes through they pillage the village and kill everybody. This didn't happen with Sherman - for one thing, he didn't stay long enough to really do hard core damage. When you consider that his army was, whenever it camped, the largest city in the South outside of New Orleans, it's amazing more didn't happen.
Good insights, Diane. In particular, I hadn't stopped to consider the sheer size of his passing army. Great insight that more damage wasn't done. I agree with you. Thank you.
 
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ForeverFree

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Andy is correct about all of this. Furthermore, even if you hold Sherman to WWII standards, he still gets a pass, because his side won. Imagine for a moment that we did not win WWII (thank God we did). Imagine how many pilots, bombardiers, commanding officers of the 8th Air Force, etc. would have been held accountable by the Nazi government. Gen. Chuck Yeager even talked about that in his famous memoir. See what I mean?

We can't judge these people by modern standards, except in the most blatant and heinous of cases. And, even when we do, the victors get to hold judgement and write the history books.
Heck, imagine if the US lost and Japan was to hold the US accountable for the huge loss of civilian lives and property in the two atomic bomb attacks? Those bombings make Sherman's march look like a tea party in comparison. Yet very few Americans think about that. I recall one person saying that Sherman's march and Hiroshima/Nagasaki weren't comparable because southerners were "Americans" and the Japanese were not...

- Alan
 
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