Why does Civil War historian Shelby Foote call William Tecumseh Sherman "the first truly modern general"?

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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William Tecumseh Sherman came into his own as a military commander at a time when military technology was rapidly advancing and imperial competitions were evolving.  As the means with which armies destroyed each other became more advanced and lethal, Sherman was one of the first to begin to adapt his tactics and approach towards war to match the new realities.

Shelby Foote specifically refers to Sherman as one who “recognized that civilians were the backers up of things”.  That is to say, that the traditional scruples and chivalries of traditional European style warfare could not survive the realities of the new technological and tactical situations presented by the Civil War, and if victory was the true goal (and in what war wouldn’t it be?) then war against civilians was not just an unfortunate consequence of hostilities, but a practical necessity.

Sherman’s March is infamous for its brutality, and Sherman himself for his seemingly callous indifference to the suffering his armies inflicted.  But in reading through his quotes and hearing them on the PBS Ken Burns series (highly recommended), one notices that he doesn’t speak with a great deal of enmity or hatred for southerners or the South, as some generals did, and I almost expected him to as it would more easily explain his actions and approaches to war.  But Sherman was simply more of a pragmatist, “modern” in the sense that he realized war had changed and there was no sense in acting otherwise.

Sherman was modern in another sense as well, in that the tactics he adopted and perfected, as well as the military rationale behind them, transformed US military doctrine.  In the modern day wars we have fought, from World War I to the present, civilians and their property suffered greatly, and largely without apology.  The wholesale bombing of German cities regardless of civilian deaths, and sometimes with only marginal military benefit, suggests a continued belief over time in the principles of fighting Sherman practiced.  His practice of total war was the forerunner to its more ugly cousin - scorched earth policies, which harmed civilians in new and devastating ways, and has proved itself a successful tactic.

Thanks in no small part to Sherman, gone for good were the days of overtly chivalrous displays of wartime patriotism and honor by commanders, in favor of more deadly and effective means of prosecuting war.

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