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A Letter from William Tecumseh Sherman to the Mayor and Councilmen of Atlanta, Georgia, September, 1864

December 31, 2014

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I recently finished S.C. Gwynne’s excellent biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell. Afterward, curious if I had anything else about Jackson on my bookshelf, I picked up Letters of a Nation, a collection of American letters of historic significance. It contains no letters from Stonewall Jackson, but a large section on letters pertaining to slavery and the Civil War (the letter in which Robert E. Lee writes that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country” is interesting and surprising). In that section, there is a letter in which General William Tecumseh Sherman responds to the politicians of Atlanta, telling them in no uncertain terms that he will not heed their pleas to spare Atlanta in his march across the South.

You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

We don’t want your Negroes, or your horses, or your lands, or any thing you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.

Sherman absolves himself of responsibility. This is the nature of the war—of war itself. Famous for his quote, “War is hell,” Sherman aims to bear that out upon Atlanta. It is not a question of morality or even strategy—it is the very nature of war they are asking him to bend. He will not. Winning the war requires that he bring devastation and suffering upon his enemy. He has nothing against the people of Atlanta. They just happen to live at the pressure point, a city of utmost strategic importance in choking the lifeblood and throttling the will of the Confederacy.

He goes on to remind the politicians of Atlanta that it was they, the South, that provoked the North into aggression. It was they that broke the compact upon which the United States was formed.

I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands upon thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and I believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect an early success.

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I have Sherman’s March by Burke Davis in my queue to read soon, so the letter was of interest to me. I cannot imagine the dread and hopelessness it brought to its recipients. In fact, a quick peek into Burke’s book: it opens in November, 1864, with Sherman looking out the window of a commandeered mansion in Atlanta, watching the city burn.

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