What were the arguments supporting the Union army's policy of destruction in Georgia and Virginia?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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By 1864, the Civil War had dragged on for more than three years, with immense human cost. The Union Army's policy of total war was a response to this, and was construed as an effort to bring the war to as swift an end as possible by striking at the South's ability to wage war. William T. Sherman's march through Georgia targeted infrastructure, especially railroads, and cotton stores as a matter of wartime expediency. But Sherman took it even further, burning crops in the field, killing or requisitioning livestock, and destroying Southern cities. One of these cities was Atlanta, which was left a smoldering ruin in the wake of Sherman's forces. Sherman's letter to the mayor of Atlanta justifying his evacuation order to the city's population provides perhaps the clearest and most cogent defense of his policy of total war:

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. 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 alone be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

As Sherman's letter indicates, his mission was not only to destroy the South's material ability to wage war, but to force the South through force and terror to submit to the Union. After three long years, he saw no other way. His march through South Carolina, the "cradle of secession" was almost as destructive. Philip Sheridan's devastation of the Shenandoah Valley, which actually happened before Sherman's March, had the same aim. He destroyed crops crucial to the Confederate war effort while terrorizing the local population. The campaigns were also highly demoralizing to Confederate troops in the field, who heard reports of their homelands being devastated and deserted to see to their families. 


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