Sherman: ‘We Should Enflict Exemplary Punishment’

December 29, 1863 (Tuesday)

“Should you wish to communicate with me, telegraph at Lancaster, Ohio”
-William Tecumseh Sherman, December 21, 1863

Sherman is about to become Sherman
Sherman is about to become Sherman

And they did. General Sherman found the rare opportunity to go home for Christmas – the first time in over twenty years. His oldest son had recently died, and his presence was sorely needed. He understood that his time at home did not sever his ties from his duty or army. He arrived at home on Christmas Day, and the next found him scrawling messages to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck.

“I will be at Cairo [Illinois] and down the Mississippi by January 2, and strike Grenada and Shreveport, if the admiral [David Dixon Porter] agrees,” wired Sherman. “I left my command ragged, but in splendid fighting order.”

In a longer letter written the same day, Sherman went into greater, and much more macabre detail. “I propose to send an expedition up the Yazoo, above Yazoo City,” he began, “to march back to the Grenada road and do a certain amount of damage, and give general notice that for every boat fired on we will destroy some inland town, and, if need be, fire on houses, even if they have families, for I know the secessionists have boasted that although we have the river, still it shall do us no good.”

The Federals had wrested control of the Mississippi from the Rebels with the capitulation of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, but that did not mean the guerrillas and even local citizens sat idly by and permitted the free flow of Union ships up and down the river. All too often, one or a small group of them would open fire upon the vessels. This was Sherman’s lex talionis.

He reasoned that there was a “complicity between guerrillas and the people, and if the latter fire on our boats loaded with women and children, we should retaliate.” He also proposed that after his venture up the Yazoo, he would take 8,000 men up the Red River “as high as the water will permit, and make them feel their vulnerability.”

Fairly approximate map showing Sherman's ideas as well as CS armies and points of interest.
Fairly approximate map showing Sherman’s ideas as well as CS armies and points of interest.

Three days later, on this date, Sherman went into even more detail in his letter to General Grant. His revenge would be harsh and systematic, holding specific areas responsible for specific deeds. He had written to Admiral Porter, and requested “accurate accounts of all damages to steam-boats on the Mississippi, with the localities where they occurred.”

He then parceled out his reprisals. “I think that we can hold the people on Yazoo and back responsible for all damages above Vicksburg,” he started, “the country on Ouachita [Washita on the map] for all damages between the mouth of Red and Arkansas on the west bank, and finally the rich country up Red River for the more aggravated cases near the mouth of the Red River. We should planters pay in cotton not only for the damages done, but the cost of our occupation, and in case of failure to pay we should inflict exemplary punishment.” He did not say what this exemplary punishment might be, but it’s safe to assume that it would involve fire.

After promising to return from this expedition by the time the railroads were open, which he supposed would happen by early spring, he turned from revenge to encouragement bordering on treason. “You occupy a position of more power than Halleck or the President,” wrote Sherman. “There are similar instances in European history, but none in ours. For the sake of future generations risk nothing.” There were, of course, words to bolster Grant into striking in a large scale the way that Sherman was to strike on a field much smaller. “Let us risk, and when you strike let it be as at Vicksburg and Chattanooga.”

Recalling their talk in Louisville before Christmas, Sherman continued: “Your reputation as a general is now far above that of any man living, and partisans will maneuver for your influence; but if you can escape them, as you have hitherto done, you will be more powerful for good than it is possible to measure.”

All of this was to coax Grant into demanding control of the entire Mississippi River – “from Cairo to the mouth, for we must treat the river as one idea.” This was a line he also took up with Halleck on the 26th. “Ought not General Grant’s command to be extended accordingly?” asked Sherman. This would push out Nathaniel Banks, commanding the Army of the Gulf in New Orleans, but Sherman suggested they simply give him Texas.

I'll see what I can do, Cump.
I’ll see what I can do, Cump.

Turning now to Grant, Sherman continued. “I wish you would urge on Halleck to give you the whole Mississippi.” When the Federal armies held only portions of the river, it was understandable to Sherman that different commanders and separate commands might be used to effect. But now, “the navigation is one and should be controlled by one mind.”

What Sherman most wanted to do was concentrate his troops. In order to do this, he conceded that they might have to relinquish territory, pulling troops from what he saw as pointless outposts, brining them to the front lines. “We may then be able to draw more men from [General Stephen] Hurlbut by neglecting Corinth and the railroad.” Let the Rebels have their small and strategically meaningless hamlets – he wanted to hit the Rebel armies.

As he explained a few days earlier to Halleck, “I do not believe in holding possession of any part of the interior. This requires a vast force, which is rendered harmless to the enemy by its scattered parts. With Columbus, Memphis, Helena, and Vicksburg strongly held, and all other forces prepared to move to any point, we can do something, but in holding the line of the Memphis and Charleston road, inferior points on the Mississippi, and the interior of Louisiana, a large army is wasted in detachments.”

Sherman was calling for brutal and relentless warfare, and he was planning on being such an exemplar in his coming campaign up the Yazoo River.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p497-498, 527-528. []
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Sherman: ‘We Should Enflict Exemplary Punishment’ by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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4 thoughts on “Sherman: ‘We Should Enflict Exemplary Punishment’

  1. Yikes! Calling Gen. Sherman “aggressive” would be a gross understatement. I am learning much about Sherman.

    1. Sherman would go much further in a letter sent to (or from???) Vicksburg in january 1864.

      “If they want eternal war, well and good; we accept the issue, and will dispossess them and put our friends in their place. I know thousands and millions of good people who at simple notice would come to North Alabama and accept the elegant houses and plantations there. If the people of Huntsville think different, let them persist in war three years longer, and then they will not be consulted. Three years ago by a little reflection and patience they could have had a hundred years of peace and prosperity, but they preferred war; very well. Last year they could have saved their slaves, but now it is too late.
      All the powers of earth cannot restore to them their slaves, any more than their dead grandfathers. Next year their lands will be taken, for in war we can take them, and rightfully, too, and in another year they may beg in vain for their lives. A people who will persevere in war beyond a certain limit ought to know the consequences. Many, many peoples with less pertinacity have been wiped out of national existence.” – W.T. Sherman

      1. Sherman was indeed really really cranky about this. There were more letters, as well. For a week or so (around this time) it was all he would write about. Even in letters that had nothing to do with Mississippi, etc, he would go on at length about this. Real fun guy.

  2. Although many Southerners would not have thought of W.T. Sherman as a real fun guy,journalists travelling with the Federal army found that at more casual moments in camp, Cump could be drawn to talk about many issues of the day.

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