Monday, August 19, 2013

Major General William T. Sherman to Major R. M. Sawyer, January 31, 1864

VICKSBURG, Jan. 31,1864.

A. A. C. Army of the Tenn.,
Huntsville, Alabama.

Dear Sawyer: In my former letters I have answered all your questions save one, and that relates to the treatment of inhabitants known or suspected to be hostile or "Secesh." This is in truth the most difficult business of our army as it advances and occupies the Southern country. It is almost impossible to lay down rules, and I invariably leave the whole subject to the local commanders, but am willing to give them the benefit of my acquired knowledge and experience. In Europe, whence we derive our principles of war, wars are between kings or rulers through hired armies, and not between peoples. These remain, as it were, neutral, and sell their produce to whatever army is in possession.

Napoleon when at war with Prussia, Austria, and Russia bought forage and provisions of the inhabitants, and consequently had an interest to protect the farms and factories which ministered to his wants. In like manner the Allied Armies in France could buy of the French habitants whatever they needed, the produce of the soil or manufactures of the country. Therefore, the general rule was and is that war is confined to the armies engaged, and should not visit the houses of families or private interests. But in other examples a different rule obtained the sanction of historical authority. I will only instance one, where in the siege of William and Mary the English army occupied Ireland, then in a state of revolt. The inhabitants were actually driven into foreign lands, and were dispossessed of their property and a new population introduced.

To this day a large part of the north of Ireland is held by the descendants of the Scotch emigrants sent there by William's order and an act of Parliament. The war which now prevails in our land is essentially a war of races. The Southern people entered into a clear compact of government with us of the North, but still maintained through state organizations a species of separate existence, with separate interests, history, and prejudices. These latter became stronger and stronger, till at last they have led to war and have developed fruits of the bitterest kind. We of the North are beyond all question right in our cause, but we are not bound to ignore the fact that the people of the South have prejudices which form a part of their nature, and which they cannot throw off without an effort of reason or the slower process of natural change. The question then arises, Should we treat as absolute enemies all in the South who differ from us in opinion or prejudice, kill or banish them, or should we give them time to think and gradually change their conduct so as to conform to the new order of things which is slowly and gradually creeping into their country?

When men take up arms to resist a rightful authority, we are compelled to use like force, because all reason and argument cease when arms are resorted to. When the provisions, forage, horses, mules, wagons, etc., are used by our enemy, it is clearly our duty and right to take them also, because otherwise they might be used against us. In like manner all houses left vacant by an inimical people are clearly our right, and as such are needed as storehouses, hospitals, and quarters. But the question arises as to dwellings used by women, children, and non-combatants. So long as non-combatants remain in their houses and keep to their accustomed peaceful business, their opinions and prejudices can in no wise influence the war, and therefore should not be noticed; but if any one comes out into the public streets and creates disorder, he or she should be punished, restrained, or banished to the rear or front, as the officer in command adjudges. If the people, or any of them, keep up a correspondence with parties in hostility, they are spies, and can be punished according to law with death or minor punishment. These are well-established principles of war, and the people of the South having appealed to war, are barred from appealing for protection to our constitution, which they have practically and publicly defied. They have appealed to war, and must abide its rules and laws. . . .

It is all idle nonsense for these Southern planters to say that they made the South, that they own it, and can do as they please to break up our Government and shut up the natural avenues of trade, intercourse, and commerce. We know, and they know, if they are intelligent beings, that as compared with the whole world they are but as five millions to one thousand millions, that they did not create the land, that the only title to use and usufruct is the deed of the United States, and that if they appeal to war they hold their all by a very insecure tenure. For my part, I believe that this war is the result of false political doctrine, for which we are all as a people more or less responsible, and I would give all a chance to reflect, and, when in error, to recant. I know the slave-owners, finding themselves in possession of a species of property in opposition to the growing sentiment of the whole civilized world, conceived their property to be in danger and foolishly appealed to war, and that by skilful political handling they involved with themselves the whole South on this result of error and prejudice. I believe that some of the rich and slave-holding are prejudiced to an extent that nothing but death and ruin will ever extinguish, but I hope that as the poorer and industrious classes of the South realize their relative weakness and their dependence upon the fruits of the earth and good-will of their fellow-men they will not only discover the error of their ways and repent of their hasty action, but bless those who persistently have maintained a constitutional government strong enough to sustain itself, protect its citizens, and promise peaceful homes to millions yet unborn.

If the people of Huntsville think differently, let them persist in this war three years longer, and then they will not be consulted.

Three years ago, by a little reflection and patience, they could have had a hundred years of peace and prosperity, but they preferred war. Last year they could have saved their slaves, but now it is too late, — all the powers of earth cannot restore to them their slaves any more than their dead grandfathers. . . .

A people who will persevere in war beyond a certain limit ought to know the consequences. Many, many people, with less pertinacity than the South has already shown, have been wiped out of national existence.

My own belief is that even now the non-slave-holding classes of the South are alienating from their associates in war. Already I hear crimination and recrimination. Those who have property left should take warning in time.

Since I have come down here I have seen many Southern planters, who now hire their own negroes and acknowledge that they were mistaken and knew not the earthquake they were to make by appealing to secession. They thought that the politicians had prepared the way, and that they could part the States of this Union in peace. They now see that we are bound together as one nation by indissoluble ties, and that any interest, or any fraction of the people that set themselves up in antagonism to the nation, must perish.

Whilst I would not remit one jot or tittle of our nation's rights in peace or war, I do make allowances for past political errors and prejudices.

Our national Congress and the Supreme Court are the proper arenas on which to discuss conflicting opinions, and not the battle-field.

You may not hear from me again for some time, and if you think it will do any good, call some of the better people of Huntsville together and explain to them my views. You may even read to them this letter and let them use it, so as to prepare them for my coming. . . .

We are progressing well in this quarter, but I have not changed my opinion that although we may soon make certain the existence of the power of our national government, yet years must pass before ruffianism, murder, and robbery will cease to afflict this region of our country.

Your friend,
Major Gen'l Comd.

SOURCE: Rachel Sherman Thorndike, Editor, The Sherman Letters: Correspondence Between General and Senator Sherman from 1837 to 1891, p. 228-33

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