Fighting Words Between Sherman and Hood | HistoryNet MENU

Fighting Words Between Sherman and Hood

2/15/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

With Atlanta at stake, William Tecumseh Sherman and John Bell Hood test whether the pen is mightier than the sword.

Through the long summer of 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman kept his sights set on one of the remaining jewels in the Confederate crown: Atlanta. The rail hub fed supplies and reinforcements to the Southern armies, and Sherman resolved to sever that lifeline once and for all. Union artillery rained shells on the city as frightened civilians huddled in their “bombproof” shelters and prayed for General John Bell Hood to repel the invaders. It wasn’t to be. Hood was forced to give up Atlanta on September 1, and Sherman ordered the city’s remaining residents to evacuate. What followed was a combative exchange of letters between two warriors (later published in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion) debating not only the rules of engagement, but the very reasons for the war itself.

Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman to General J.B. Hood

September 7, 1864

General: I have deemed it to the interest of the United States that the citizens now residing in Atlanta should remove, those who prefer it to go south and the rest north. For the latter I can provide food and transportation to points of their election in Tennessee, Kentucky, or farther north. For the former I can provide transportation by cars as far as Rough and Ready, and also wagons; but that their removal may be made with as little discomfort as possible it will be necessary for you to help the families from Rough and Ready to the cars at Lovejoy’s. If you consent I will undertake to remove all families in Atlanta who prefer to go South to Rough and Ready, with all their movable effects, viz, clothing, trunks, reasonable furniture, bedding, &c., with their servants, white and black, with the proviso that no force shall be used toward the blacks one way or the other. If they want to go with their masters or mistresses they may do so, otherwise they will be sent away, unless they be men, when they may be employed by our quartermaster. Atlanta is no place for families or non-combatants, and I have no desire to send them North if you will assist in conveying them South. If this proposition meets your views I will consent to a truce in the neighborhood of Rough and Ready, stipulating that any wagons, horses, or animals, or persons sent there for the purposes herein stated shall in no manner be harmed or molested, you in your turn agreeing that any cars, wagons, carriages, persons, or animals sent to the same point shall not be interfered with….

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

W.T. Sherman

Major-General, Commanding

General J.B. Hood to Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman

September 9, 1864

General…I do not consider that I have any alternative in this matter. I therefore accept your proposition to declare a truce…and shall render all assistance in my power to expedite the transportation of citizens in this direction….And now, sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war. In the name of God and humanity I protest, believing that you will find that you are expelling from their homes and firesides the wives and children of a brave people.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

J.B. Hood

General

Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman to General J.B. Hood

September 10, 1864

General…You style the measure proposed “unprecedented,” and appeal to the dark history of war for a parallel as an act of “studied and ingenious cruelty.” It is not unprecedented… [n]or is it necessary to appeal to…history….You, yourself, burned dwelling-houses along your parapet, and I have seen to-day fifty houses that you have rendered uninhabitable because they stood in the way of your forts and men. You defended Atlanta on a line so close to town that every cannon shot and many musket shots from our line of investment that overshot their mark went into the habitations of women and children….[I] challenge any fair man to judge which of us has the heart of pity for the families of a “brave people.” I say that it is kindness to these families of Atlanta to remove them now at once from scenes that women and children should not be exposed to, and the “brave people” should scorn to commit their wives and children to the rude barbarians who thus, as you say, violate the laws of war….In the name of common sense I ask you not to appeal to a just God in such a sacrilegious manner; you who, in the midst of peace and prosperity, have plunged a nation into war, dark and cruel war; who dared and badgered us to battle, insulted our flag, seized our arsenals and forts that were left in the honorable custody of peaceful ordnance sergeants; seized and made “prisoners of war” the very garrisons sent to protect your people against negroes and Indians long before any overt act was committed by the, to you, hated Lincoln Government….[You] turned loose your privateers to plunder unarmed ships; expelled Union families by the thousands; burned their houses and declared by an act of your Congress the confiscation of all debts due Northern men for goods had and received. Talk thus to the marines, but not to me, who have seen these things, and who will this day make as much sacrifice for the peace and honor of the South as the best born Southerner among you. If we must be enemies, let us be men and fight it out, as we propose to do, and not deal in such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity.

God will judge us in due time….

W.T. Sherman

Major-General, Commanding

General J.B. Hood to Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman

September 12, 1864

General…I see nothing in your communication which induces me to modify the language of condemnation with which I characterized your order….[Y]ou announced the edict for the sole reason that it was “to the interest of the United States.” This alone you offered to us and the civilized world as an all-sufficient reason for disregarding the laws of God and man….If there was any fault…it was your own, in not giving notice…of your purpose to shell the town, which is usual in war among civilized nations….I feel no other emotion than pain in reading that portion of your letter which attempts to justify your shelling Atlanta without notice….I made no complaint of your firing into Atlanta in any way you thought proper. I make none now, but there are a hundred thousand witnesses that you fired into the habitations of women and children for weeks, firing far above and miles beyond my line of defense. I have too good an opinion, founded both upon observation and experience, of the skill of your artillerists to credit the insinuation that they for several weeks unintentionally fired too high for my modest fieldworks, and slaughtered women and children by accident and want of skill….

I am only a general of one of the armies of the Confederate States, charged with military operations in the field, under the direction of my superior officers, and I am not called upon to discuss with you the causes of the present war, or the political questions which led to or resulted from it. These grave and important questions have been committed to far abler hands than mine, and I shall only refer to them so far as to repel any unjust conclusion which might be drawn from my silence. You charge my country with “daring and badgering you to battle.” The truth is, we sent commissioners to you respectfully offering a peaceful separation before the first gun was fired on either side. You say we insulted your flag. The truth is we fired upon it and those who fought under it when you came to our doors upon the mission of subjugation. You say we seized upon your forts and arsenals and made prisoners of the garrisons sent to protect us against negroes and Indians. The truth is, we, by force of arms, drove out insolent intruders, and took possession of our own forts and arsenals to resist your claims to dominion over masters, slaves, and Indians, all of whom are to this day, with a unanimity unexampled in the history of the world, warring against your attempts to become their masters….You say that we turned loose pirates to plunder your unarmed ships. The truth is, when you robbed us of our part of the navy, we built and bought a few vessels, hoisted the flag of our country, and swept the seas, in defiance of your navy, around the whole circumference of the globe. You say we have expelled Union families by thousands. The truth is not a single family has been expelled from the Confederate States, that I am aware of, but, on the contrary, the moderation of our Government toward traitors has been a fruitful theme of denunciation by its enemies and many well-meaning friends of our cause. You say my Government, by acts of Congress, has “confiscated all debts due Northern men for goods sold and delivered.” The truth is our Congress gave due and ample time to your merchants and traders to depart from our shores with their ships, goods, and effects, and only sequestrated the property of our enemies in retaliation for their acts, declaring us traitors and confiscating our property wherever their power extended, either in their country or our own. Such are your accusations, and such are the facts known of all men to be true.

You order into exile the whole population of a city, drive men, women, and children from their homes at the point of the bayonet, under the plea that it is to the interest of your Government, and on the claim that it is an act of “kindness….” This you follow by the assertion that you will “make as much sacrifice for the peace and honor of the South as the best born Southerner.” And because I characterized what you call a kindness as being real cruelty you presume to sit in judgment between me and my God and you decide that my earnest prayer to the Almighty Father to save our women and children from what you call kindness is a “sacrilegious, hypocritical appeal.” You came into our country with your army avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women, and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but you make negroes your allies and desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism to its present position….You say, “let us fight it out like men.” To this my reply is, for myself, and, I believe, for all the true men, aye, and women and children, in my country, we will fight you to the death. Better die a thousand deaths than submit to live under you or your Government and your negro allies….

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

J.B. Hood

General

Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman to General J.B. Hood

September 14, 1864

General…I agree with you that this discussion by two soldiers is out of place and profitless, but you must admit that you began the controversy by characterizing an official act of mine in unfair and improper terms. I reiterate my former answer, and to the only new matter contained in your rejoinder I add, we have no “negro allies” in this army; not a single negro soldier left Chattanooga with this army or is with it now….I was not bound by the laws of war to give notice of the shelling of Atlanta, a “fortified town” with magazines, arsenals, foundries, and public stores. You were bound to take notice. See the books. This is the conclusion of our correspondence, which I did not begin, and terminate with satisfaction.

I am, with respect, your obedient servant,

W.T. Sherman

Major-General, Commanding

With Atlanta now safely in hand and Hood’s army forced into the Georgia countryside, Sherman forwarded his recent correspondence to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, chief of staff of the Union Army.

Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman to Maj. Gen. H.W. Halleck

September 20, 1864 General: I have the honor herewith to submit copies of a correspondence between General Hood, of the Confederate army…and myself touching the removal of the inhabitants of Atlanta. In explanation of the tone which marks some of these letters I will only call your attention to the fact that after I had announced my determination General Hood took upon himself to question my motive. I could not tamely submit to such impertinence, and I have seen that in violation of all official usage he has published in the Macon newspapers such parts of the correspondence as suited his purpose. This could have had no other object than to create a feeling on the part of the people, but if he expects to resort to such artifices I think I can meet him there too. It is sufficient for my Government to know that the removal of the inhabitants has been made with liberality and fairness; that it has been attended by no force, and that no women or children have suffered, unless for want of provisions by their natural protectors and friends. My real reasons for this step were, we want all the houses of Atlanta for military storage and occupation. We want to contract the lines of defenses so as to diminish the garrison to the limit necessary to defend its narrow and vital parts instead of embracing, as the lines now do, the vast suburbs. This contraction of the lines, with the necessary citadels and redoubts, will make it necessary to destroy the very houses used by families as residences. Atlanta is a fortified town, was stubbornly defended and fairly captured. As captors we have a right to it. The residence here of a poor population would compel us sooner or later to feed them or see them starve under our eyes. The residence here of the families of our enemies would be a temptation and a means to keep up a correspondence dangerous and hurtful to our cause, and a civil population calls for provost guards, and absorbs the attention of officers in listening to everlasting complaints and special grievances that are not military. These are my reasons, and if satisfactory to the Government of the United States it makes no difference whether it pleases General Hood and his people or not.

I am, with respect, your obedient servant,

W.T. Sherman

Major-General, Commanding

Halleck’s response, on September 28, assured Sherman that the evacuation order was “fully approved by the War Department” and “justified by the laws and usages of war.” Atlanta had been a bustling city of 22,000 before the fateful summer of 1864. By September only about 3,000 residents remained, and just over half complied with the order: 705 adults, 860 children and 79 black servants. “No force was used,” said Colonel Willard Warner, the officer who oversaw the evacuation, “to compel obedience.”

 

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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