William Tecumseh Sherman

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War is Hell!

William Tecumseh Sherman (8 February 182014 February 1891) was a Union general during the Civil War. He succeeded General U.S. Grant as commander of the Western Theater of that war in the spring of 1864. He later served as commanding general of the army (1869 - 1883). He is best known for his destructive "March to the Sea" through the state of Georgia and is widely regarded as an early advocate of "Total War".

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You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it...
You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better.

If they want eternal war, well and good; we accept the issue, and will dispossess them and put our friends in their place. I know thousands and millions of good people who at simple notice would come to North Alabama and accept the elegant houses and plantations there. If the people of Huntsville think different, let them persist in war three years longer, and then they will not be consulted. Three years ago by a little reflection and patience they could have had a hundred years of peace and prosperity, but they preferred war; very well. Last year they could have saved their slaves, but now it is too late.

All the powers of earth cannot restore to them their slaves, any more than their dead grandfathers. Next year their lands will be taken, for in war we can take them, and rightfully, too, and in another year they may beg in vain for their lives. A people who will persevere in war beyond a certain limit ought to know the consequences. Many, many peoples with less pertinacity have been wiped out of national existence.'

- Letter to Maj. R. M. SAWYER (Vicksburg, January 31, 1864)[1]

  • You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.
    • Comments to Prof. David F. Boyd at the Louisiana State Seminary (24 December 1860); quoted in The Civil War: A Narrative (1986) by Shelby Foote, p. 58; also in The Civil War : A Book of Quotations (2004) by Robert Blaisdell
  • I regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash — and it may be well that we become so hardened.
    • Letter to his wife (July 1864)
  • Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.
  • Hold the fort! I am coming!
    • Signal to Gen. John M. Corse at Allatoona (5 October 1864)
It is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
  • I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers ... it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
    • Letter (May 1865)
I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.
  • War is Hell.
    • This quote originates from his address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy (19 June 1879); but slightly varying accounts of this speech have been published:
    • I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
      Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
    • Variants:
    • There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell.
    • Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all Hell!
  • I can make this march, and I will make Georgia howl!
    • Telegram to General Grant, as quoted in Conflict and Compromise : The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and The American Civil War (1989) by Roger L. Ransom
  • I hereby state, and mean all I say, that I never have been and never will be a candidate for President; that if nominated by either party I should peremptorily decline; and even if unanimously elected I should decline to serve.
    • Interview in Harper's Weekly (24 June 1871)
  • I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.
    • Telegram sent to General Henderson in 1884; quoted in Sherman's Memoirs, 4th ed. 1891. This is often paraphrased: If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.

Letter to Atlanta (1864)

Letter to the City Council of Atlanta (12 September 1864)
  • You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling.
  • You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.
  • You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better. I repeat then that, by the original compact of government, the United States had certain rights in Georgia, which have never been relinquished and never will be; that the South began the war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or title of provocation. I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands and thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect an early success.

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If the people raise a great howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.
  • An army is a collection of armed men obliged to obey one man. Every change in the rules which impairs this principle weakens the army.
  • Courage — a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to endure it.
  • Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and defeat.
  • Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other always.
    • A reference to rumors that plagued both men during the Civil War — that Sherman was unstable and Grant was a drunkard.
  • I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah.
    • Letter to President Lincoln
  • I can handle a hundred thousand men in battle, and take the City of the Sun, but am afraid to manage a lot in the swamp of San Francisco.
  • I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast.
    • Variant: If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.
  • I will accept no commission that would tend to create a rivalry with Grant. I want him to hold what he has earned and got. I have all the rank that I want.
  • I make up my mind from facts and reasoning, and not to suit any body but myself. If people don't like my opinions, it makes little difference as I don't ask for their vote or solicit their opinions.
  • I think I understand what military fame is: to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.
  • I would make this war as severe as possible, and show no symptoms of tiring till the South begs for mercy.
  • If forced to choose between the White House and the penitentiary for four years, I would say the penitentiary, thank you.
  • If the people raise a great howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.
  • If you get blown up I don't care!
    • To a Confederate prisoner ordered to dig for land mines.
  • My aim, then, was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom.
  • The carping and bickering of political factions in the nation's capitol reminds me of two pelicans quarreling over a dead fish.
  • The legitimate object of war is a more perfect peace.
  • The scenes on this field would cure anyone of war.
  • This war differs from other wars in this particular: We are not fighting armies but a hostile people, and must make young and old, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.
  • Vox populi, vox humbug!
  • War is the remedy our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.
  • War is, at its best, barbarism.

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