Was Sherman a war criminal?

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Bee

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There aren't many things about this war that have great emotional power for me, but this is one. It's a letter from Sherman to Hood, written on the morning Sherman learned of Anna Marie Hood's death from yellow fever.
Geez, Andy, you done messed up a perfectly perfect party-ready make-up, job. Thanks for the mess...and the beautifully touching letter :smile:
 

Tin cup

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There aren't many things about this war that have great emotional power for me, but this is one. It's a letter from Sherman to Hood, written on the morning Sherman learned of Anna Marie Hood's death from yellow fever.


Accept the assurance of my heartfelt sympathy and of great respect.

Truly your friend,

W.T. Sherman


John Bell Hood likely never read this letter; he himself succumbed to the fever four days later, on August 30, leaving ten orphaned children behind (above). Letter reproduced in Sam Hood’s
The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood.
I always thought of Sherman as being mayhem with a heart!

Kevin Dally
 
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Forrest

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War Criminal or war criminal? I think that it is almost a form a presentism to apply this term to actions taken during the Civil War. Scrolling back to the beginning of the thread -- looking for the OP's interpretation of War Criminal/war criminal, and I found this excellent post by @AndyHall which perfectly reflects how I feel on the topic.

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.​
It would be interesting to ask this question (about Sherman's being a war criminal) by comparing him to generals before him, during the Civil War, and after: would Napoleon had been considered a war criminal if captured by Russia? Would Sherman if the South had won? Then look at those leaders who have been shot or hung as war criminals since the "very specific legal connotations" were adopted - would they have been considered war criminals if their side had 'won'? (I'm guessing the Nazis and Japanese would have been okay with the actions of those who we executed, as they generally only executed those who failed to give war-time results). Would their enemies have been executed as war criminals if the side of the actual war criminals had won? e.g-Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery, Stalin... I'm guessing 'yes'.

Up until recent times, the victors have generally defined 'war criminals' as being leaders of the opposition. Now we sometimes hang that tag on our own leaders. I've read that Lincoln wanted results out of Sherman and didn't want to hear the details. To me that implies that a 2016 Lincoln might not have approved of what he suspected a 2016 Sherman might do in order to accomplish such results. I don't think a 2016 Sherman could have existed - we are too squeamish to get our war results that way.
 

Kenneth Almquist

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I went back to the beginning of this thread to look at the article linked to by the OP, but didn't get very far. Davis accuses Sherman of “murder or ill-treatment of civilians,” and tells us that:

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.”​

Davis doesn't cite a source for the quote, but it comes from OR Vol. 38 part 5 pg. 193. Sherman is ordering his army to advance on Atlanta. Here is the paragraph Davis is quoting from:

Each army commander will accept battle on anything like fair terms, but if the army reach within cannon-range of the city without receiving artillery or musketry fire he will halt, from a strong line, with batteries in position, and await orders. If fired on from the forts or buildings of Atlanta no consideration must be paid to the fact that they are occupied by families, but the place must be cannonaded without the formality of a demand.​

It's not a war crime for soldiers to return fire when shot at.
 

O' Be Joyful

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Davis doesn't cite a source for the quote, but it comes from OR Vol. 38 part 5 pg. 193. Sherman is ordering his army to advance on Atlanta. Here is the paragraph Davis is quoting from:
You sir, are accusing Jefferson Davis, a stalwart example of Southern Honor, of relying on the inability of most to be able to verify the quote and the sin of cherry picking? How could this be?:smile:

Great detective work Kenneth.
 
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photoman475

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And wasn't it about the same time that Union troops arrived outside of Atlanta, that Rebel cavalry troops from Jubal Early's command burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania? If Sherman's artillery firing on Atlanta is a war crime, then so is the burning of Chambersburg.

I get rather irritated at how modern standards are applied to past actions as if those participants are expected to foretell the future and then do what is expected of them 150+ years in the future. Do any of us do that today?
 

cash

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You sir, are accusing Jefferson Davis, a stalwart example of Southern Honor, of relying on the inability of most to be able to verify the quote and the sin of cherry picking? How could this be?:smile:

Great detective work Kenneth.
It's actually Stephen Davis, a current historian who did the deed. I'm surprised because Steve Davis is normally very good.
 

Bee

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Entirely too many Davis's involved: Two Jefferson Davis's (one for each side), Wm C Davis, and now Stephen Davis!
 
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O' Be Joyful

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It's actually Stephen Davis, a current historian who did the deed. I'm surprised because Steve Davis is normally very good.
Entirely too many Davis's involved: Two Jefferson Davis's (one for each side), Wm C Davis, and now Stephen Davis!
Arrgh, I plead guilty and should have retreated to the OP. That is what one gets by assuming the worst w/o verifying.
 
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civilken

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It would be interesting to ask this question (about Sherman's being a war criminal) by comparing him to generals before him, during the Civil War, and after: would Napoleon had been considered a war criminal if captured by Russia? Would Sherman if the South had won? Then look at those leaders who have been shot or hung as war criminals since the "very specific legal connotations" were adopted - would they have been considered war criminals if their side had 'won'? (I'm guessing the Nazis and Japanese would have been okay with the actions of those who we executed, as they generally only executed those who failed to give war-time results). Would their enemies have been executed as war criminals if the side of the actual war criminals had won? e.g-Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery, Stalin... I'm guessing 'yes'.

Up until recent times, the victors have generally defined 'war criminals' as being leaders of the opposition. Now we sometimes hang that tag on our own leaders. I've read that Lincoln wanted results out of Sherman and didn't want to hear the details. To me that implies that a 2016 Lincoln might not have approved of what he suspected a 2016 Sherman might do in order to accomplish such results. I don't think a 2016 Sherman could have existed - we are too squeamish to get our war results that way.
if you would have killed or rebel leaders may be nobody would be speaking like this today about Sherman.
 

Forrest

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if you would have killed or rebel leaders may be nobody would be speaking like this today about Sherman.
If I'm understanding you correctly ("if the Union had executed men such as R.E. Lee, Davis, Forrest, etc"), you make a very good point.
 

Andersonh1

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And wasn't it about the same time that Union troops arrived outside of Atlanta, that Rebel cavalry troops from Jubal Early's command burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania? If Sherman's artillery firing on Atlanta is a war crime, then so is the burning of Chambersburg.
Chambersburg was burned largely in retaliation for the many, many Southern towns that had been partially or completely destroyed by that point in the war. Towns like Osceola, Missouri; Athens, Alabama; Meridian Mississippi; or Randolph, Tennessee.

"For 5 days 10,000 men worked hard and with a will...with axes, crowbars, sledges, clawbars, and with fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work as well done. Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists." -- W.T. Sherman
 
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Kenneth Almquist

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After taking another look at the Stephen Davis piece, I realized he goes off the rails even before the out-of-context quote I addressed earlier. As his standard for what constitutes a war crime, he cites the Nuremburg Charter, which states that the tribunals created by that charter have jurisdiction over three classes of crimes, including:

(b) WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;​

This is not a good source for determining what is a war crime because the list of war crimes is intended to clarify the jurisdiction of the tribunals, not to specify standards for conviction. The standard for conviction was whether the accused violated the laws or customs of war as those were understood at the time the alleged crimes were committed.

For example, Davis claims that when Sherman's army built huts using wood belonging to civilians, that was "plunder" and hence a war crime. But I don't believe that seizing supplies for ones troops has ever been considered to be a war crime. The "plunder" considered by the Nuremburg tribunals consisted of seizing stuff and shipping it to Germany.

The writers of the Nuremburg Charter didn't spell this out because it was the job of the judges to figure out what was and was not a war crime. All the writers of the Charter were doing was ensuring that if Germans had seized stuff in violation of the laws of war, the tribunals had the authority to punish the offenders.

In short, despite his reference to Nuremburg, Davis isn't applying the standards used by the Nuremburg tribunals, or any other recognized statement of international law, when he declares Sherman a war criminal.
 

cash

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After taking another look at the Stephen Davis piece, I realized he goes off the rails even before the out-of-context quote I addressed earlier. As his standard for what constitutes a war crime, he cites the Nuremburg Charter, which states that the tribunals created by that charter have jurisdiction over three classes of crimes, including:

(b) WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;​

This is not a good source for determining what is a war crime because the list of war crimes is intended to clarify the jurisdiction of the tribunals, not to specify standards for conviction. The standard for conviction was whether the accused violated the laws or customs of war as those were understood at the time the alleged crimes were committed.

For example, Davis claims that when Sherman's army built huts using wood belonging to civilians, that was "plunder" and hence a war crime. But I don't believe that seizing supplies for ones troops has ever been considered to be a war crime. The "plunder" considered by the Nuremburg tribunals consisted of seizing stuff and shipping it to Germany.

The writers of the Nuremburg Charter didn't spell this out because it was the job of the judges to figure out what was and was not a war crime. All the writers of the Charter were doing was ensuring that if Germans had seized stuff in violation of the laws of war, the tribunals had the authority to punish the offenders.

In short, despite his reference to Nuremburg, Davis isn't applying the standards used by the Nuremburg tribunals, or any other recognized statement of international law, when he declares Sherman a war criminal.
And the Nuremberg Standards wouldn't have applicability to the mid-19th Century anyway.
 
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Bee

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In short, despite his reference to Nuremburg, Davis isn't applying the standards used by the Nuremburg tribunals, or any other recognized statement of international law, when he declares Sherman a war criminal.
My takeaway, is that even when evaluated by 21st century standards -- which would then subject the whole conduct of the war to scrutiny, not just Sherman -- Sherman was judged by skewing the standards.
 

matthew mckeon

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I'm not sure why we think that modern standards would be more stringent than 19th century ones. In WWII, both sides killed hundreds of thousands of civilians with air bombing, while both sides routinely torpedoed civilian ships.

This is not taking into account deliberate targeting and murdering civilians by the Nazis, but normal war practice. If Sherman lived in the 20th century, he would have bombed Atlanta and Columbia, killed thousands of civilians and gotten a medal. By 20th century standards he would have destroyed the mills at Roswell, with an airstrike, with the operatives still inside. By our standards, Sherman barely hurt anyone. By our standards, he would have had a press conference and everyone would have oo'ed and ahh'd over videos of smart missiles blowing up bridges and structures with barely a thought that people are getting killed.

If we judge Sherman by our standards, he's not any kind of criminal, he's not mean enough.
 
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