Remembering Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’

It has passed virtually unnoticed in the UK, but this year is the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of one of the most famous military campaigns in history:   William Tecumseh Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ from Atlanta to Savannah.     I have a particular interest in this anniversary, having written a book on these campaigns and philosophy of war and their subsequent influence on the ‘American Way of War’ which is due to be published in the States by New Press next year:

For those that don’t know, the March to the Sea began on March 15 1864, when Sherman led his army out of the burning ruins of Atlanta towards the city of Savannah, 250 miles away on the Atlantic coast.     Sherman’s ultimate objective was Virginia, where the Army of the Potomac under the command of his great friend Ulysses S. Grant was locked in a bloody confrontation with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Both Grant and Sherman had launched a simultaneous two-pronged invasion of the South from the East and West in the spring of that year, with the aim of finally crushing the Confederacy and bringing the war to an end.   In Virginia things hadn’t worked out as planned; after a series of shockingly violent battles with Lee’s army that had inflicted massive casualties on both sides, Grant’s campaigns had weakened but not broken the Confederate defensive system.

While Grant attempted to bludgeon Lee’s armies into submission, Sherman had spent the summer advancing cautiously down   the Chattanooga-Atlanta railroad towards Atlanta, taking pains to avoid direct confrontations with Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tenessee that might have left his own forces stranded in enemy territory.

In July Sherman’s army laid siege to the ‘gateway to the South, and   on September 2, his forces entered Atlanta, conceding a major victory to the Union and guaranteeing Lincoln’s re-election in the forthcoming elections.   By that time the Union and Confederate armies in Virginia were locked into static trench warfare, and it was Sherman who now had room for manouevre.     Having seized Atlanta, Sherman could have taken his 100,000-strong army through a shorter and more direct route to Virginia through Tennessee.

Instead he took the unusual decision to reduce his army to just over 60,000 and abandon the city he had just captured, forcibly evacuating its population and breaking contact with his supply line.   Rather than pursue the Army of Tennessee, which was then under the command of John Bell Hood, he chose to lead his stripped-down forces the long way round through the undefended heartlands of Georgia and the Carolinas.

His objective, as he described it to Grant in typically blunt Shermanlike fashion, was to ‘make Georgia howl’, by wrecking the state’s ability to supply the Confederate armies with food and war materiel.     But his campaigns also constituted what seemed to some   observers at the time to be a new and amoral form of psychological warfare,   and to others a regression to an era of ‘uncivilized war’ that had supposedly been superseded, in which military operations were explicitly directed against civilians and non-combatants.

It was true that Sherman, like many Unionists, saw the attitudes and behavior of the civilian population as a crucial component of the Confederate war effort.   More than any other Union general, he had an astute understanding of the new overlapping relationship between the civilian and military dimensions of modern warfare, which were only just becoming apparent in the American Civil War.

Both sides began the conflict with the idea that it could be won through a Napoleonic ‘decisive battle’, and they were soon disabused of this notion as battles came and went without bringing a noticeable strategic advantage to the victors.     In these circumstances Sherman came to see the civilian population as a strategic objective in its own right.

In leading his army through the heart of the South, he intended a) to deal a psychological demoralizing blow to the Confederacy by demonstrating that its government was unable to defend its people and that its cause was hopeless b) to make Southern civilians pay a price for supporting the war by showing that ‘war and individual ruin are synonymous terms’ and c) to make the population feel the power of the federal government in such a way that it would not be inclined to engage in rebellion in the future

Marching in two wings approximately 20 miles apart, Sherman’s army rampaged through Georgia virtually unopposed, living off the land and wrecking railroad lines, depots and anything else that had any military use to the Confederacy:

In keeping with his orders to ‘forage liberally’ off the population, his army also seized food supplies and livestock and slaughtered livestock that they didn’t need for themselves:

These actions, perhaps not surprisingly,   transformed Sherman into a hate figure in the South, and the loathing directed towards him intensified after the war, as the image of Sherman the Great Destroyer was handed down through posterity through films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, and exaggerated and blown out of all proportion by ‘Lost Cause’ mythologizing till Sherman was variously described as a combination of proto-Nazi and Attila the Hun.

Personally, I do not, and never will, approve of military violence against civilians, but I have little sympathy with the demonisation of ‘Billy the Torch’ in the South.   Numerous historical studies of the March to the Sea and its sequel in the Carolinas have made it clear that Sherman’s campaigns were never as destructive or as violent as they were made out to be at the time – or since.

Depictions of Sherman’s marches as ‘genocide’ on neo-Confederate websites like the Southern Nationalist Network wilfully exaggerate the impact of his campaigns or the intentions behind them. The intemperate Sherman was certainly prone to violent and sometimes genocidal pronouncements, but there was a vast difference between what he said and what he actually did.

For all the considerable hardship that the largely defenseless population of Georgia and the Carolinas suffered in the course of his campaigns, the destruction that he inflicted was calibrated and limited and designed to inflict sufficient hurt on the South to force it to give up fighting and abandon secession, but not to alienate Southerners to the point where they would be unwilling to accept the authority of the government in the aftermath of the war.

Southern vilification of Sherman has long been an essential and also politically convenient component of ‘Lost Cause’ mythology, that presents the Confederacy as a victim of ‘Yankee barbarism’ that fought nobly in defense of a noble cause. Southerners have often depicted Sherman as the epitome of the brutality and amorality of the Lincoln administration, for whom the ends always justified the means.

But what is disturbing about Sherman’s campaigns is the contradiction between the inherent brutality in targeting women, children and the elderly as legitimate objects of ‘psychological’ war, and Sherman’s own belief that such methods were more humane than the butchery that he himself witnessed on the battlefield.

Southern myths of ‘Celtic’ and ‘chivalrous’ Confederate warfare tend to gloss over or enoble the horrific battlefield slaughter that disgusted Sherman.   They also tend to pass lightly over the fact that for all the constitutional and ‘nationalist’ justifications for the war, the Confederacy fought in order to uphold one of the most barbarous and tyrannical social systems in history.

Last but not least, the condemnations of Sherman invariably ignore the savage violence that was directed against the freed slaves and their Republican supporters after the Civil War during the so-called ‘Redemption’ period, which states across the South successfully carried out a counter-revolution that held the racist order in place for the best part of a century.

These consequences are recognized in the commemorative plaque erected in Atlanta last month by the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia Battlefields Association, which claims that ‘ contrary to popular myth,   Sherman’s army primarily destroyed only property used for waging war.’     The plaque also notes that Sherman’s soldiers ‘liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path, Sherman’s “hard hand of war” demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.’

All true, despite the fact that Sherman himself was a white supremacist who did not want blacks in his own army and did not believe that they should have the right to vote.   But the anniversary plaque certainly suggests a more mature evaluation of his campaigns than the anger and bitterness which still percolates through neo-Confederate websites.

Mythologizing continues to emanate from more mainstream circles.   Thus the Macon Telegraph claimed last month that Confederate cannons forced Sherman’s cavalry to withdraw from the city, thus sparing Macon from Sherman’s ‘torch.’   The article’s characterization of Macon as one of ‘Sherman’s failures’ completely ignores the historical fact and also the strategy and tactics that Sherman’s campaigns embodied.

In fact, Sherman’s cavalry commander Judson Kilpatrick had no interest in capturing or torching Macon or any other city in Georgia, apart from Savannah, and even that objective was not considered essential. Sherman marched his army in two wings so that his opponents could not second-guess his destination and therefore could not concentrate against him.   For this reason Kilpatrick was ordered to carry out a feint attack on Macon, but not to capture it.

Sherman recognized that it was not necessary to actually capture Confederate cities in order to make them militarily useless; it was sufficient to cut the transportation lines that connected them and leave them stranded.     Tactically, his campaigns anticipated the armoured manouevre warfare of World War II, in which mechanized armies sought to destroy their opponents through rapid ‘deep penetration’ of their defensive lines, concentrating on the destruction of command-and-control, logistical and supply networks in order to avoid the loss of life that sieges and assaults on heavily-defended cities entailed.

Such tactics have been a consistent feature of American warfare, from MacArthur’s ‘island-hopping’ campaigns in the Pacific and Patton’s slashing advances into Brittany to the ‘hail Mary punch’ campaign devised by ‘Stormin Norman’ Schwarzkopf uring the First Gulf War.

The ridiculous depiction by one of the Macon Telegraph‘s commenters that Sherman’s army was the ‘ISIS of its time’ is so far removed from anything that his army did or intended to do that it would be laughable, were it not for the fact that there are Southerners who still believe such nonsense.

Sherman’s campaigns are troubling precisely because Sherman was not a monster, but a sensitive, intelligent and humane American general, who nevertheless came to regard unarmed civilians as a legitimate objective that could be attacked in order to ‘shorten war’, and eloquently and persuasively expressed the view that attempts to mitigate the violence of war were counterproductive and even hypocritical, and that cruelty and brutality in the short-term were ultimately more humane and moral than protracted military confrontations that killed tens of thousands of uniformed soldiers on ‘the battlefield’.

It was true that Sherman mostly concentrated his efforts against property rather than people, even though such property sometimes consisted of food that civilians as well as soldiers depended on.

Other armies and governments have adopted a very similar philosophy, with far more destructive consequences, in counterinsurgency campaigns and the bombardment of cities and population centres, in blockades and sanctions aimed at the enemy population as well as its government.

Again and again, such actions have been justified, like the March to the Sea, as an attempt to ‘save lives’ and ‘shorten war’.   The US Army is no exception, and American generals and politicians have frequently invoked Sherman’s famous declaration that ‘war is all hell’ as a justification for intensifying its hellishness.

For all these reasons, the March to the Sea is worth revisiting and remembering, and not only in Georgia or South Carolina, because the motives and actions behind it can tell us a great deal not only about the American Civil War, but about the evolution of war in the twentieth century and beyond, and because the moral and ethical issues that they raised are still surprisingly pertinent to the wars of our own era.





My Father’s House: Official Re-Launch!

After more than a decade out of print, my 1998 memoir My Father’s House: In Search of a Lost Past officially comes into existence today as a self-published e-book.     It’s available at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and other outlets at £3.99 ($6.99).     My Father’s House is my most personal book, and a book that I’ve always been particularly proud of, so I’m really pleased that 21st century has given me the opportunity to re-introduce it to a new generation of readers.

Here is the book description:

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In 1995 Matthew Carr returned to Guyana in the Caribbean, where his parents’ marriage had broken up nearly thirty years before, in order to investigate the mysterious death of his father Bill Carr in 1991. A popular and charismatic English lecturer, a lover of DH Lawrence, Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold, and a left-wing political activist with a strong public presence in West Indian politics, Bill Carr was also a violent alcoholic who beat his wife and children, and whose alcohol-induced mayhem forced his family to return to England without him in 1967.

In the ensuing decades little was known of the life he led in a country whose single claim to international fame in all that period was the ‘Jonestown massacre.’ Apart from a single visit to England a few years before his death, Bill Carr had, it seemed, cut himself off from his family and his country and chosen to live a life of exile with a new family in his adopted country. His son’s decision to return to Guyana for the first time since 1967 was partly prompted by the confused circumstances that preceded his father’s death, in which he seemed to express a wish to return to his native land.

What began as an exploration of a lost West Indies childhood in Jamaica and Guyana and an investigation of his father’s chaotic and contradictory personality, became a compelling and extraordinary journey into the racial politics and history of the Caribbean, and Guyana in particular. Why did so many people remember Bill Carr so well when his family remembered him so badly? Why had his father cut himself off from his family so completely and so brutally? Why had he wanted to return? What caused his death?

Alternating between meetings with his father’s friends, colleagues, enemies and family members, Carr sets out to answer these questions and reconcile their memories with those of his family. The result is a striking combination of family history, travelogue, and colonial history that recalls Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, in which the story of Bill Carr’s steep descent into masochistic self-destruction mirrors the collapse of Guyana under the post-colonial dictatorship of Forbes Burnham.


And here are some reviews that it received at the time:

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‘ Bill Carr embodied all the idealism and sickness of the colonial mind and his son’s narrative is a monumental exploration of the paradoxes of Empire. It is written as if from the pen of a novelist, superbly plotted with a marvellous sense of the intricacies of character and a panoramic view of British and colonial history. Matthew Carr has made astonishing art of his father’s wreckage.’ David Dabydeen, The Times

‘Matthew Carr embarks, literally, on a journey in search of his father. His book combines the skills of a gifted travel writer, a novelist and a biographer. The result is a high-class creation that unfolds with the excitement of a detective story.’
Richard Gott, The Independent

‘ …almost impossible to categorize. A personal biography, it reads at times as a socio-political history and at others as a gripping novel.’ The Times

‘ …an honest and decently written memoir, and Carr junior’s motive in writing it is exemplary.’
The Mail on Sunday


And here is a review that the e-book has just been posted on Amazon:

[stextbox id=”alert”]My Father’s House is a deeply affecting, fluent and insightful meditation on memory, family, and personal identity. It reminded me a great deal of John Irving’s wonderfully melancholic novel about childhood memory, Until I Find You. In both books, the main character goes on a journey to try and discover the truth of childhood memory, and make sense of the contradictions and gaps in their personal history. Along the way, they are forced to contront the flawed humanity of their loved ones, and the positive and negative ways in which their parents continue to shape their sense of identity. As such, My Father’s House unfolds as part travel log, part mystery, part philosophical meditation, part auto-ethnography. Either way, it is brutally honest, beautifully written, and deeply engaging. I was genuinely moved by its eloquence, its tenderness and its profound insight into the fragilities of human relationships. The final chapter provided a particularly satisfying end to a wonderful narrative that will have universal appeal. It’s one of the best books I have read in recent times. Buy it. Read it, and prepare to be moved.[/stextbox]


Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent

It’s been more than a year since my last book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent came out, and it has yet to receive a single review in any mainstream publication in the UK.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind any readers of this blog that immigration is a ‘hot’ political topic, and that much of the ‘debate’ about it is shaped by a torrent of lies, prejudice and misinformation emanating from the politicians and the media.

In my book I’ve tried to give some different perspectives.     I’ve tried to give voices to people who normally aren’t heard.   I spent two and a half years traveling round Europe’s ‘hard borders’ to try and do this.

Here is the result, in the UK edition…


And the American…

And here are some reasons why you might want to get it for someone for Xmas:

‘ Matthew Carr has dug beneath this humanitarian citadel to expose how atavistic fears, racism, and paranoia, fed by cowardly and callous politicians, are blighting the lives of asylum seekers and other “aliens”.     Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill would turn in their graves at this denial of human dignity.   [A] measured and moving account of the hypocrisy at the heart of European human rights.’ – Geoffrey Robertson QC

‘Employing a personable, readable style, the author shares vignettes from his extensive travels along Europe’s outer reaches, from the African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to the Greek archipelago to the Slovakian-Ukrainian border. . . His focus on the human consequences of global inequality transcends ideological distinctions. An unflinching look inside.’ –Kirkus Reviews

‘Fortress Europe shines a light on Europe’s hidden war against immigration, whose devastating human cost is often ignored. Through powerful first-hand reporting from the front lines, Matthew Carr reminds us that migrants are not barbarians at the gates but human beings who, like us, aspire to a better life.’ – Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them

This stirring, authentic account of the refugee experience comes from Carr”s face-to-face interviews and passionate observation of current hot topics sure to spark debate, including human trafficking.’ – American Library Association.   Booklist Editors’ Choice: Adult Books for Young Adults 2012

‘An inspiring and thoroughly researched book, not afraid of communicating a clear political message and expressing severe criticism, Fortress Europe provides much room for discussion not only on EU immigration policies, but also on the norms, values and principles on which Europe builds itself and against which it is measured.’ – Inez von Weitershausen.   LSE Blogs.  

‘ Carr has some humane and sensible suggestions, the most important being that Europeans pay attention to their own history, and not just the blood-soaked ethnic warfare part. The EU only broke down its interior borders after a prolonged period of worry on the part of rich northern nations that they would be overwhelmed by over-breeding, low-income southern Europeans. Look how that turned out.’ – Brian Bethune, Macleans Magazine

‘ Carr”s message is clear: “If borders can be hardened, they can also be softened.” He argues that the EU must begin dismantling the “walls” built on fear and prejudice if it wants to stay true to the values on which it was founded. With its eye-opening depictions, strong moral position and thought-provoking proposals, there is no doubt that this book will appeal to a broad public, nurturing critical discussions about border-related policies and practices and the future of the “gated continent”. – Council for European Studies.    

‘ What are the humanitarian consequences of European strategies to protect their own borders? This book provides contemporary and historical context and contends that European immigration policies and so-called “hard borders” have a role in explaining instability and border conflicts in poorer states.’ – Christian Science Monitor ‘ 23 books I wish Obama and Romney would read.’

‘ This disturbing but hopeful book humanizes the face of 21st-century immigration.’ – Publishers Weekly

‘The unique virtue of the book lies in Carr”s reporting from the brutal frontiers of the new Europe: Ukrainian border towns where illegal trafficking thrives, Spanish territories in Morocco where would-be immigrants are shot dead or left to die in the Sahara after attempting to scale razor-wire fences, Italian and Maltese islands where overfilled boatloads of Africans drown by the hundreds.’ – Foreign Affairs

‘Matthew Carr’s Fortress Europe exposes the racism and brutality that are the result of immigration border controls. He details the treacherous routes taken by migrants in order to evade detection, the squalid prison-like detention centres in which they are held, and the relentless harassment they face at the hands of some of the most affluent states in the world.’ – Socialist Review

‘ An eye-opening journey…a world the regular traveler will never see,’ Philippe Sands

‘ Americans would do well to travel with Matthew Carr inside Fortress Europe to understand the ugly resentments, reactions, and anti-immigrant backlash that are shifting Europe dangerously from its social democratic foundations. ‘ – Tom Barry, author of Border Wars

‘ Fortress Europe is a wake-up call to anyone who cares about the future of our civilization in the turbulent age of globalization.’ – Anouar Majid, author of We Are All Moors





‘Fortress Europe’: talk at Housmans

Next Wednesday I’ll be at Housmans bookshop in London, talking about my new book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent with Liz Fekete, executive director of the Institute of Race Relations and the author of the terrific A Suitable Enemy.    

That’s Wednesday 7 November at 7 o’clock.   Drop by if you’re in the area.  Further details are available here.