Steven E. Woodworth, Foreword by General Wesley K. Clark, Palgrave Macmillan, 224 pp., $21.95
William T. Sherman made Georgia howl, yet he believed “War is hell!” In this volume of the Great Generals series, Steven Woodworth makes a brief but convincing case for Sherman’s inclusion among America’s top commanders and history’s top generals. The primary reason: He recognized the new scope for warfare that modern technology had created.
The French Revolution inaugurated an age of mass armies. The Industrial Revolution endowed them with rifled firepower and steam-powered mobility. The result in Europe was the constraint of maneuver in favor of murderous frontal engagements: Solferino in 1859, Koeniggraetz in 1866, Gravelotte-St-Privat in 1870. By contrast, Woodworth establishes Sherman as the key figure who expanded maneuver from the tactical level to the strategic dimension in a technological age.
Sherman was never a battle captain at the level of Ulysses Grant or Robert E. Lee. He lacked tactical virtuosity. He lacked the ability to sense an opponent’s intentions. He lacked the instinct for the jugular that led commanders such as Grant and Lee to take ultimate risks attempting to finish a defeated enemy. But from Shiloh in 1862 to Chattanooga in 1863, Sherman developed an unflinching understanding of his limitations and transformed them to positives. Instead of matching himself against an enemy’s strengths, he sought vulnerabilities. If these did not exist on the battlefield, he simply expanded his area of operations. Perhaps more than any Civil War general, Sherman understood that this was a war on a continental scale. Probing for weak spots at tactical and operational levels, even as Grant did with such virtuosity during the Vicksburg Campaign, was, to his mind, a mere palliative.
Given an independent theater command in 1864, Sherman proved his point. The Atlanta Campaign featured his moving large forces over long distances in the face of daunting geographic and logistic challenges. Confederate General Joe Johnston reacted like a checker player forced into a chess game. With the South’s outer defenses breached, Sherman thrust into its vitals. The March to the Sea and the Carolina Campaign that followed targeted not armies, but transport networks, manufacturing capacities and, above all, morale— the beginnings of “total” warfare. Sherman’s ultimate object was to show the futility of resistance—not by rapine and plunder, but by “shock and awe.” In this, Woodward persuasively argues, Sherman prefigured and suggested the methods and objectives of mobile war as practiced in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.