Was Sherman a war criminal?

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ForeverFree

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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.
FYI, that is exactly the point made by the historian Stephanie McCurry recently. In June 2011 she attended a conference in Israel in which civil wars throughout history were discussed. She notes in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times:

The level of barbarity and violence reached in the United States pales even in comparison to the other major example of a civil conflict fought conventionally. In the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), there were, in addition to 300,00 battlefield deaths, at least 200,000 extrajudicial killings of civilians-including the purposeful killing of many women and children behind the lines. Three-quarters of them were killed by Franco's forces in mass executions... More than half a million refugees were forced into exile, and many died in French concentration camps... There is little in the American record to compare to this systematic targeting, terrorizing and exterminating of civilians for purposes of political repression...

It is a sad truth that the civil wars of our own time constantly force the Civil War into new perspective. Observers of recent genocidal wars in Africa or Yugoslavia are unimpressed with the violence of the American war. What strikes them most is the level of restraint observed by Union troops in their treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians. What other country, they ask, adopted rules of war in the midst of the fighting? Indeed. It is one of the most impressive and - yes - unique features of our war; that the Lincoln administration was willing to bind itself to a set of regulations limiting the latitude of the Union army in its operations, including in occupied territory and guerrilla warfare. It says something profound.

There are real limits to this view, more than we are yet aware. For the record holds abundant evidence of one kind of violence to which we have yet to do justice: the torture, rape, and murder of enslaved men, women and children by both armies, but especially Confederate forces. While the Spanish have undertaken a belated accounting, in the United States there has been no such effort to estimate the extrajudicial dead. We know of Fort Pillow and other massacres of black POWs. But this number must pale in comparison to the number of noncombatant slaves killed. Official and personal records are littered with casual references: to slaves, including children, beaten to death on plantations, runaways hanged, male slaves executed, insurrections repressed by mass execution, and to torture, mutilation and murder by Southern "scouts," even after the surrender... For these war dead there has been no accounting.​

- Alan
 

Pat Young

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FYI, that is exactly the point made by the historian Stephanie McCurry recently. In June 2011 she attended a conference in Israel in which civil wars throughout history were discussed. She notes in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times:

The level of barbarity and violence reached in the United States pales even in comparison to the other major example of a civil conflict fought conventionally. In the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), there were, in addition to 300,00 battlefield deaths, at least 200,000 extrajudicial killings of civilians-including the purposeful killing of many women and children behind the lines. Three-quarters of them were killed by Franco's forces in mass executions... More than half a million refugees were forced into exile, and many died in French concentration camps... There is little in the American record to compare to this systematic targeting, terrorizing and exterminating of civilians for purposes of political repression...

It is a sad truth that the civil wars of our own time constantly force the Civil War into new perspective. Observers of recent genocidal wars in Africa or Yugoslavia are unimpressed with the violence of the American war. What strikes them most is the level of restraint observed by Union troops in their treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians. What other country, they ask, adopted rules of war in the midst of the fighting? Indeed. It is one of the most impressive and - yes - unique features of our war; that the Lincoln administration was willing to bind itself to a set of regulations limiting the latitude of the Union army in its operations, including in occupied territory and guerrilla warfare. It says something profound.

There are real limits to this view, more than we are yet aware. For the record holds abundant evidence of one kind of violence to which we have yet to do justice: the torture, rape, and murder of enslaved men, women and children by both armies, but especially Confederate forces. While the Spanish have undertaken a belated accounting, in the United States there has been no such effort to estimate the extrajudicial dead. We know of Fort Pillow and other massacres of black POWs. But this number must pale in comparison to the number of noncombatant slaves killed. Official and personal records are littered with casual references: to slaves, including children, beaten to death on plantations, runaways hanged, male slaves executed, insurrections repressed by mass execution, and to torture, mutilation and murder by Southern "scouts," even after the surrender... For these war dead there has been no accounting.​

- Alan
As a younger man I supplied a lot of evidence of human rights violations to the UN Truth Commission of a particular country. That commission's report is now an accepted part of the country's historical memory of its civil war. We don't have that. In fact, we had covered up our own civil war's human rights violations for more than 100 years and left its memory to propagandists.
 

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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.
We live in the 21st Century and people of the 21st Century are entitled to evaluate the past in light of insights gained into human rights abuses by the last 150 years of practice.
 
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Let us look at the most egregious violation proposed by Mr. Davis to demonstrate the problem with his argument:

Murder or ill-treatment of civilians: Union artillery had barely gotten into range of Atlanta when, on July 19, 1864, Sherman ordered a bombardment of the city’s buildings: “No consideration must be paid to the fact they are occupied by families, but the place must be cannonaded.” The Yankee guns fired their first shells on July 20, and within a few days, Confederate newspapers began reporting casualties. One shell wounded a woman and killed the child she was carrying in her arms.

The deaths of civilians in the bombardment of an area held by an enemy military force is not in itself a crime of war. If it was, protagonists in warfare would be encouraged to maintain civilians in place as human shields to protect their positions from attack. Generally we look at whether civilians had time to evacuate the conflict zone and whether the shelling was done solely or primarily for the purposes of targeting civilians.

In the case of the Siege of Atlanta and the battles nearby, tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded. Yet Davis reports that in contrast 25 civilians were killed. He may have additional evidence that civilians were purposefully killed in Atlanta, but he does not state it.
 
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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.
The problem here is that when you say you are looking at it from the standard of "contemporary or comparable campaigns" you are deciding that the best judges of abuse are other generals. This begs the question, why are they the best judges?
 

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FYI, that is exactly the point made by the historian Stephanie McCurry recently. In June 2011 she attended a conference in Israel in which civil wars throughout history were discussed. She notes in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times:

The level of barbarity and violence reached in the United States pales even in comparison to the other major example of a civil conflict fought conventionally. In the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), there were, in addition to 300,00 battlefield deaths, at least 200,000 extrajudicial killings of civilians-including the purposeful killing of many women and children behind the lines. Three-quarters of them were killed by Franco's forces in mass executions... More than half a million refugees were forced into exile, and many died in French concentration camps... There is little in the American record to compare to this systematic targeting, terrorizing and exterminating of civilians for purposes of political repression...

It is a sad truth that the civil wars of our own time constantly force the Civil War into new perspective. Observers of recent genocidal wars in Africa or Yugoslavia are unimpressed with the violence of the American war. What strikes them most is the level of restraint observed by Union troops in their treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians. What other country, they ask, adopted rules of war in the midst of the fighting? Indeed. It is one of the most impressive and - yes - unique features of our war; that the Lincoln administration was willing to bind itself to a set of regulations limiting the latitude of the Union army in its operations, including in occupied territory and guerrilla warfare. It says something profound.

There are real limits to this view, more than we are yet aware. For the record holds abundant evidence of one kind of violence to which we have yet to do justice: the torture, rape, and murder of enslaved men, women and children by both armies, but especially Confederate forces. While the Spanish have undertaken a belated accounting, in the United States there has been no such effort to estimate the extrajudicial dead. We know of Fort Pillow and other massacres of black POWs. But this number must pale in comparison to the number of noncombatant slaves killed. Official and personal records are littered with casual references: to slaves, including children, beaten to death on plantations, runaways hanged, male slaves executed, insurrections repressed by mass execution, and to torture, mutilation and murder by Southern "scouts," even after the surrender... For these war dead there has been no accounting.​

- Alan
THIS. Gosh- when I first started poking around Civil War information- ANY information, what there was of it generally referred to Federal and Confederate movements, soldiers, civilian upheaval, famous people- tragic deaths. Sprinkled through these stories would be sentences ' Quelled slave uprising, 200 slaves put to death ', ' Beat his slave to death ', ' slave accused of rape,hung ', etc- I mean everywhere. ' Slave '. Not person- no name attached like all these other accounts, no outrage like all the folks Sherman is held to have brutalized in popular myth- no gee-gosh, for women having babies by no choice, men felt like a fun time when in other news, Southern womanhood was violated merely because Butler told them to shush, already on the shrew front.

SO many footnotes, all people! ' A sad sidenote of Lee's invasion was the hundreds of free blacks kidnapped and sent south '. Then whoosh- back to The Battle of Gettysburg. If one person takes exception to THAT statement, fair warning, the top of my head is going to pop off, someone is going to have to clean up the mess. It's just crazy- this entire population, but for a few names who put their lives on the line and insisted on not being killed, being heard like normal human beings- our fellow citizens make it through those years with no one offering to charge anyone with any crimes whatsoever on behalf of their murders. Don't anyone tell me African Americans were ' property', ' owners' were free to murder them- our fellow citizens were not chickens.
 

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The problem here is that when you say you are looking at it from the standard of "contemporary or comparable campaigns" you are deciding that the best judges of abuse are other generals. This begs the question, why are they the best judges?
No, I think not. The generals were not the judges, their societies were. These generals were not decried, by their contemporaries, by their societies in General, nor, frankly, by the majoritity of historians. As has been noted here, our own conduct in World War II, would, judged by today's standards be riddled with war crimes.
 
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No, I think not. The generals were not the judges, their societies were. These generals were not decried, by their contemporaries
Sherman was not decried by Southern whites? News to me. In any event, I'm off to an art museum, a contemporary art museum, so I will check back here tomorrow.
 

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We live in the 21st Century and people of the 21st Century are entitled to evaluate the past in light of insights gained into human rights abuses by the last 150 years of practice.
Sure, in many ways. But not in determining whether or not someone was a "war criminal" at the time, especially when that person's actions were acceptable at the time. We can say things, however, like "When judged by the standards of the time, this action may have been acceptable, but it would not be acceptable today."
 
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The problem here is that when you say you are looking at it from the standard of "contemporary or comparable campaigns" you are deciding that the best judges of abuse are other generals. This begs the question, why are they the best judges?
Or those who are well versed in the military law as it existed at the time.
 

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Sherman was not decried by Southern whites? News to me. In any event, I'm off to an art museum, a contemporary art museum, so I will check back here tomorrow.
Actually, Sherman enjoyed a very good reputation among southern whites at the time. It was only after the growth of the lost cause myth that he turned into a raging monster.

http://studycivilwar.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/demon-of-the-lost-cause/comment-page-1/

http://deadconfederates.com/2012/03/03/evilizing-general-sherman/
 
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Shortly after I joined here this subject came up and I said I thought Sherman had purposefully attacked civilians and quickly became the target of quite a bit of criticism. I thus determined to do some more reading and re-address my thoughts on the issue (which, interestingly, seemed to not sit well with some). Having now read a few books on Sherman's campaign in Georgia and South Carolina I can answer the OP question by saying that I do not consider Sherman to have committed any war crimes - by the standards of the day - and also now don't think he purposefully attacked citizens (although abuses of citizens did occur and were not rare). I do think he seemed to have been somewhat less than enthusiastic about enforcing orders regarding private property and perhaps did interpret loosely the military advantage of some places he burned (e.g. courthouses). So, he could have put more control on his bummers and thus been more humanitarian but that doesn't make him guilty of crimes. He was moving rapidly and with his troops spread out over a lot of terrain and the fact that some of them took out their personal revenge on citizens is just one of those bad things that happen in war.

As for Sherman's policies toward the native folk after the war ... well, that's another matter but not relevant to this thread.
 

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John Marszalek is probably Sherman's best biographer - he nominated him for Person of the Year 1864. He holds Sherman's reasons for doing the march the way he did showed Sherman's fighting principles throughout the war, and dates all the way back to the cause of his breakdown in Kentucky. He realized, and it was pretty horrible, he was going to have to kill people he strongly cared about. So, throughout the war he conducts operations with the idea of causing the LEAST amount of death. Here is the CSpan link for Marszalek's really good lecture.

http://series.c-span.org/History/Events/The-Civil-War-Person-of-the-Year-1864/10737443926/
 
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Just out of curiosity. Henry Wirz was executed for his supposed war crimes. Captain Champ Ferguson's crimes war far less severe. I guess to the victors go the spoils... the cover ups...
Wirz and Ferguson were both tried, convicted and hanged for murder, not "war crimes," which was not an actual legal charge in 1865. If you want to argue those cases -- and there's plenty there to argue about -- there are other threads for that.
 
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