Tuesday, June 26, 2007

General Sherman and the Strategy of Total War

This week's U.S. News and World Report looks at the "Secrets of the Civil War." One of the articles is a piece on the historical debate over Union General William T. Sherman's scorched-earth strategy of utter destuction of the enemy:

Speaking at the 1880 reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union general best known for his destructive march through the Confederacy's heartland uttered the words that would be reshaped for posterity: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys," the 60-year-old William Tecumseh Sherman declared, "it is all hell."

Remembered more pithily as "War is hell," the phrase distilled a sentiment that Sherman had voiced on many occasions, including once before the mayor and town council of Atlanta after he had brought that key Confederate city to its knees. The fact that this grand master of scorched-earth devastation abhorred war was, in his mind, neither an irony nor a contradiction. Sherman simply saw his approach to war as the best way of limiting its lethal potential.

Others, and not only partisans of the Confederacy, see it differently. To them, Sherman's devastating march through the South opened the way to the kind of warfare that culminated in World War II. Called total war, it goes beyond combat between opposing military forces to include attacks, both deliberate and indiscriminate, upon civilians and non-military targets. But was Sherman truly responsible for the strategic rationale that we now associate with the bombings of London, Dresden, and even Hiroshima? It is a question that historians continue to debate.
Read the whole thing. Civil War history is not my specialty, but it's an interesting hypothesis as to whether Sherman's strategy of complete destruction in defeating the Confederacy opened the way to a new strategy of total war in the 20th century.

While I'm on the topic of military history, check out the online poll going on over at The Oxford Medievalist 's blog, "Who Was the Greatest Military Commander." I suggested Douglas McArthur, mainly because my knowledge of military history going back over the centuries is pretty limited.

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