Gen. Sherman (IX): His wartime communications with the enemy

Gen. Sherman (IX): His wartime communications with the enemy

More from good old General Sherman to continue our celebration of Confederate Defeat Month:

In Afghanistan some American soldiers were shocked that members of government forces sometimes would talk over the radio with their Taliban enemies across the front lines.

I thought of that when reading the Civil War letters of General William T. Sherman, which one of you recommended recently after I began dipping into his memoirs. Given his performance in torching a wide swath of Georgia and South Carolina, no one would call Sherman a Confederate sympathizer, or even doubt his strong loyalty to the cause of the Union.

Yet during the Civil War, Sherman communicated several times across the lines. Sometimes these were fairly stiff communications, as when in August 1862 he wrote, "not officially," to respond to a complaint from Confederate Gen. Gideon Pillow (the great liar of the Mexican War) that 400 of Pillow’s slaves had been taken from his plantation near Helena, Arkansas. Sherman’s view was that the Rebs were getting a taste of their own medicine — they had rebelled against authority, and their slaves were now following their example. Even so, he reassured Pillow that, "At present I know of none of your negroes in or near Memphis."

He was softer when he wrote to Thomas Hunton, an old West Point friend living in Mississippi who also wanted his slaves returned to him. "We are enemies, still private friends," he observed. "In the one Capacity I will do you all the harm I can, yet on the other if here, you may have as of old my last Cent, my last shirt and pants." But he still wouldn’t help him.