Diary, Astute Observations

General Sherman: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

12 September 2010

image From the the Writer’s Almanac: On this day in 1864 Union General Sherman wrote to the Atlanta City Council: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

General Sherman had just captured Atlanta. Along the way, his soldiers had taken part in something known as “total war”: They’d burned down crops, confiscated millions of pounds of corn and feed, and destroyed thousands of horses and mules and cows. They’d wrecked bridges, torn up railroad tracks to make train transport unusable, and they’d destroyed telegraph lines. In late August, they’d forced the surrender of Atlanta, occupied the city, and demanded that it be evacuated.


Atlanta’s mayor protested that evacuation was not necessary, and it was harsh and cruel. General Sherman responded, in a letter on this day: “War is cruelty.”

From Atlanta, General Sherman marched to Savannah, the infamous March to the Sea, where his troops caused about $100 million worth of damage with “total war” tactics.

The following spring, in May 1865, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting.”

In 1879, he spoke to the graduating class at Michigan Military Academy. He told the young cadets trained for battle:

“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. [...] I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”



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