- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
I know, it sounds like a joke — the idea that General William T. Sherman’s march across Georgia in November and December of 1864 was a classic counterinsurgency campaign. I can hear you mutter, What’s next, the leadership tips of the Emperor Nero?
But, seriously: The more I read Sherman’s memoirs and letters, the more I came to believe that in that campaign he consciously was practicing what should be called counterinsurgency. Now, it wasn’t the caricature of COIN we sometimes see, of a hearts and minds effort to indiscriminately protect the people. I call that stuff "Rodney King COIN," in which the commander haplessly pleads, "Can’t we just all get along?" I believe that Gen. Peter Pace, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, kind of took a step down this road in his handling of Iraq, when he said that what we needed was for Iraqis to love their children more than they hated each other.
Sherman, mulling his next move after he took Atlanta, decided that a march across Georgia would serve not just a tactical but a strategic purpose: "I propose to demonstrate the vulnerability of the South and make its inhabitants feel that war & individual Ruin are synonimous terms." General Grant was a bit skeptical that it was possible to take 60,000 troops across the state without any supplies, but Sherman reassured him: "I can make the march and make Georgia howl." He also would be taking the offensive, so "instead of guessing at what he [the enemy] means to do he would have to guess at my plans. The difference in war is full twenty five percent." (Lincoln later said the whole enterprise made him anxious, and General George McClellan, then running for president against Lincoln, privately predicted that "Sherman would come to grief" somewhere in Georgia.)
What Sherman carried out was not "hearts and minds" but a tough-minded approach that discriminated between friends, neutrals, and hostiles. The first two groups were to be judged by their actions, and aided. Military protection would be offered to friends when available. Hostiles were to be punished, to feel "the hard hand of war," as he put it.
Sherman made this approach explicit in an order issued to his corps commanders on Nov. 10, 1864, just as the march was getting underway. "In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested, no destruction of such property [mills, houses, cotton-gins] should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless, according to the measure of such hostility."
More generally, he told his subordinate commanders that they should be "discriminating … between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor and industrious, usually friendly or neutral."
For about four weeks, Sherman was out of communication. The only word that arrived North was what was seen in Southern newspapers and passed onward.
The march was not a battle. The major physical task of the campaign was to rip the heart out of the railroad system in Georgia, the better to impair the rapid movement of forces in the South and West who might come to the aid of Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Sherman marched with 60,000 troops, many of whom were constantly out in small groups foraging, but had only 103 killed and 428 wounded. "Our march was most agreeable, and we were not at all molested by Guerillas," he wrote upon reaching Savannah.
There had been some fears that Sherman wouldn’t be able to cross Georgia without bringing his supplies with him, but the movement turned out to be a month-long feast. "We started with about 5,000 head of cattle and arrived with over 10,000 — of course consuming mostly turkeys, chickens, sheep, hogs and the cattle of the country…. We have lived Sumptuously."
Once in Savannah, Sherman wrote to nearby Unionist farmers that he would provide them with ammunition to protect themselves. If rebels attacked them, he added, he would retaliate. He also would provide protection when they brought their produce to market. Finally, he said, he would instruct his commissary to purchase from them cattle, hogs, sheep, and other animals.
As he rested in Savannah and planned his next move, in his letters to his superiors, he emphasized the political nature of his work and turned his eyes toward South Carolina, which he saw as the center of the rebellion. "We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war."
So, the campaign was perhaps not what people now think of as counterinsurgency, but it certainly is an example of the use of military forces not against other forces but against the people, in order to achieve a goal that primarily was political. And that strikes me as a kind of counterinsurgency campaign.