Sherman the Defendant
What would have happened to Sherman, had he lived in the 20th century, and…found himself on the losing side?” asked the late Otto Eisenschiml in his January 1964 article in Civil War Times Illustrated, “Sherman: Hero or War Criminal?”
Writing less than 20 years after the last Nuremberg war trial, Eisenschiml found it easy to picture Sherman in the defendant’s box. “An inimical court,” he conjectured, “probably would have sentenced him to be hanged as a war criminal.” But was Sherman a war criminal? Eisenschiml thought so. All the other prominent Civil War generals “good, bad, or indifferent, had fought like gentlemen.” Not Sherman. “This is my opinion,” Eisenschiml wrote, “and unless I am proved wrong, I am going to stand by it.”
People have said an awful lot of things about Sherman–or, more accurately, a lot of awful things. During the war, he was openly mocked for supposedly being a lunatic. (Even the 1864 cartoon shown here, while depicting him as Santa Claus dropping Savannah into Uncle Sam’s Christmas stocking, gives him the wild eyes and distorted features of a madman.) To this day his name remains a curse throughout the South, because of his “hard war” policies that took the war directly to Confederate civilians. But a war criminal? Would a charge that serious really stick to Sherman?
A good test case might be whether or not he was responsible for the conflagration that gutted Columbia, South Carolina, on February 17, 1865. On this matter, it seems that the chief dividing line between historians has always been the Mason-Dixon Line. Our own magazine presents two divergent opinions in this issue. Not surprisingly, the author who finds Sherman guilty is from the South, while the author who exonerates him is a Northerner. But surely the deep emotions of war and sectional loyalty should not prevent us from being able to see the truth, whatever it may be.
Perhaps we should stage a posthumous trial of Sherman, like the one held a few years back for Dr. Samuel Mudd. The trial could center around whether Sherman is culpable for the burning of Columbia, and could be conducted according to the laws and procedures of either a U.S. civilian court or the Hague international war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands. Would the verdict settle once and for all whether Sherman crossed the line from “hard war” to war crimes? Probably not. But it might help separate evidence from emotion.
Jim Kushlan, Editor, Civil War Times
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