A Tale Of Two Loose Cannon: General Sherman and the Abortive Surrender

If you’re like me, multiple viewings of Gone with the Wind have seared the burning of Atlanta into your brain.  Out of the ashes, William Tecumseh Sherman’s army of sixty-two thousand marched southeast, feigning strikes at Macon and Augusta and arriving in Savannah in six weeks, in time to present the city to President Lincoln as a “Christmas present.”  Along the way to the sea, Sherman destroyed the South’s infrastructure: railroads, bridges, cotton warehouses, munitions factories, and arsenals. As his troops foraged for food, they pillaged and sometimes burned farms and plantations, eating their way through the bread basket of the Confederacy. Slaves welcomed the troops as liberators and trailed along, some joining as laborers. Amazingly, former slaves engaged in very little violence against their former masters. Meanwhile, a steady stream of Confederate soldiers deserted, returning home to protect their families.  Sherman did not wage “total war,” but he realized that warfare required more than armies beating up on each other.  The six-week campaign resulted in about 3,000 casualties in comparison to the 51,000 killed, wounded, and missing at Gettysburg.

After taking Savannah, Sherman’s army turned north, marching through the Carolinas with the intention of joining up with General Grant’s army outside Richmond.  Sherman’s forces saved the worst devastation for South Carolina, holding it responsible for starting the conflict; South Carolina was the first state to succeed and South Carolinians fired the first shots at Fort Sumter.  After Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered all the remaining Southern armies to Sherman at Benton Place, North Carolina.

Sherman was a unionist and he believed that the South had broken faith.  He was not an abolitionist, however, and felt little responsibility for the freed slaves.  While some freedmen were hired by Sherman’s army as laborers, Sherman would not allow any to enlist as soldiers. He ordered his officers not to let blacks encumber the marching columns and to feed the troops first.  The result was a disaster as the Union Army crossed over the Ogeechee River and Ebenezer Creek into Savannah.  Union troops cut the pontoon bridges before the blacks could cross.  With the Confederate cavalry charging, many former slaves leapt into the water and drowned. Black freedmen on the opposite shore concocted a makeshift raft, but many former slaves either drowned or were re-enslaved.

This incident and others resulted in a meeting between Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton and black leaders.  Sherman received a spanking from his superior and ended up promising that freed families would be given 40 acres each in the South Carolina rice belt.

Sherman’s indifference to the freedman reared itself again in the terms of surrender he negotiated with Johnston.   The terms of Lee’s surrender to Grant were simple and purely military: a promise by Confederate troops not to take up arms against the government of the United States and the surrender of arms and artillery (other than side arms) to Union troops.  Sherman, thinking he was following the wishes of the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln to act with “charity to all,” and fearful that Johnston would allow his army to dissolve into guerilla bands, gave away the store. The armistice provided that Confederate troops would surrender their weapons to state arsenals, rather than to Union troops; recognized existing state governments, which would pose a problem in West Virginia, among other areas; guaranteed all personal and political rights to the Confederate troops including rights of property, a clause that could be used to reinstate slavery; and a general amnesty. It omitted provision for payment of the Confederate war debt, leaving Confederate leaders hopeful that the South’s obligations would be paid along with the war debt of the United States. (The Fourteenth Amendment eliminated that hope.  It nullified the Confederate war debt.) Washington rightfully repudiated Sherman’s unilateral action, and Stanton sent Grant down to prod Sherman to renegotiate.  Sherman proposed terms similar to those negotiated at Appomattox.  Jefferson Davis ordered Johnston to regroup: disband his infantry to meet up elsewhere and head off with his cavalry to escort Davis. Johnston ignored Davis and happily accepted a purely military surrender on April 26, 1865.

The abortive truce is a tale of two loose cannons.  Sherman exceeded his authority by negotiating political terms, but ultimately acceded to civilian authority.  Johnston saw the hopelessness of the cause and disregarded Davis’ orders.  The event shows why the Constitution anoints the President as the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces and demonstrates why civilian control over the military is critical in a democracy.   Sherman’s miscues were not the first time that a military leader needed to be reminded about civilian control, and they were not the last. Truman’s relief of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War is perhaps the most famous example.

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