Sherman Behaving Badly

It’s always disheartening to read reports of your favourite generals and presidents saying horrible things on the subject of race, but given the times, there’s a distasteful story for just about every personality in the war, North and South. Today, it’s Sherman:

Blinded by his implacable racism, Sherman could see no worthwhile moral or legal debate to be had over slavery. History had forced this institution on the South, Sherman thought, and its continued prosperity depended on embracing it. “Theoretical notions of humanity and religion,” he flatly declared, “cannot shake the commercial fact that their labor is of great value and cannot be dispensed with.” Further, Sherman believed that slavery benefited both races. In 1854 he assured his brother that blacks thrived in the Southern heat and later told David F. Boyd, one of his professors at the Louisiana military academy and eventual friend, that he considered slavery in the South “the mildest and best regulated system of slavery in the world, now or heretofore.”

Still, slavery did trouble Sherman in one way: He grew increasingly worried that the political fight over it would threaten the stability of the Union. However, while he occasionally singled out Southerners for overreacting to antislavery sentiment — once writing that they “pretend to think that the northern people have nothing to do but steal niggers and preach sedition” — Sherman overall displayed a clear sympathy for their side in the growing schism. He was emphatic in an 1859 letter to his wife that the South should make its own decisions regarding slavery and then “receive its reward or doom.” Sherman thus anticipated Jefferson Davis’ famous plea of two years later that the South simply be left alone.

One of the things I love about Sherman was his pragmatism. He disagreed with the root cause of the war, but once the South went in for treason, he embraced the waging of it wholeheartedly. Ironic then, by his quote above of letting the South decide its own doom, that he wound up as the angel that avenged its choice.

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