Notes From the Margins…

What’s so interesting about William Tecumseh Sherman?

  • April 02, 2015
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There are a lot of books to read, and for those of you that like to spend time, maybe too much time, on the internet, there is a lot of stuff to read that isn’t in books and which doesn’t even give you time to read them.     As if it wasn’t enough trying to consume and digest the torrent of information pouring in from a thousand sources on a daily basis, there are shows and series to watch and catch up with, and somewhere in the middle of all that there is something that used to be called life.

So why, when your brain is already creaking under the strain of all this information and infotainment, would you want to read my book Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War, which was published in the States last month by New Press?   A fair question, which I will try to answer.   First of all, it has a great cover:


Think of what you could do with a cover like that in your home.   You could stand it up beside you in the kitchen when you’re cooking supper, and wonder why a picture of an American Civil War general has been juxtaposed with America’s wars in Iraq.     You could frame it and put in on your bedroom wall so that you could contemplate it every night just before you go to sleep.   You could   take it with you on holiday and hold it up by the beach or the swimming pool so that passersby could look askance at you and perhaps give you a wide berth.

Ok, I can hear you saying, but why should I read it?   Well, first of all William Tecumseh Sherman is one of the most fascinating figures in American military history.     His most famous campaign was the scorched earth ‘March to the Sea’ through Georgia, followed by an even more destructive rampage through the Carolinas, in which his army targeted the morale and economic resources of the Southern civilian population. Sherman’s Ghosts takes a new look at these campaigns.     This is what the blurb says:

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“To know what war is, one should follow our tracks,” General William T. Sherman once wrote to his wife, describing the devastation left by his armies in Georgia. Sherman”s Ghosts is an investigation of the “tracks” left by the wars fought by the American military in the 150 years since Sherman”s infamous “March to the Sea.”Sherman”s Ghosts opens with an epic retelling of General Sherman”s fateful decision to turn his sights on the South”s civilian population in order to break the back of the Confederacy.

Acclaimed author Matthew Carr then exposes how this strategy became the central preoccupation of war planners in the twentieth century and beyond, offering a stunning and lucid assessment of the impact Sherman”s slash-and-burn policies have had on subsequent wars, including World War II and in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan.

In riveting accounts of military campaigns and in the words and writings of American fighting men and military strategists, Carr finds ample and revealing evidence of Sherman”s long shadow. Sherman”s Ghosts is a rare reframing of how we understand our violent history and a call to action for those who hope to change it.


If Sherman was just a military monster or thug or a brutish pillager, as the Confederacy once regarded him, then there wouldn’t be much to say about him.   But Sherman is nothing of the kind.   Sensitive, mercurial, depressive, intellectual, and ruthless – he was also a general who abhorred war, a democrat who distrusted democracy, and a reactionary patriot who believed that the American system of government was the best on earth and yet feared continually that his country might disintegrate into ‘anarchy.’

Sherman’s decision to make war on civilians – and the moral and ethical arguments that he put forward to justify them –   were a response to the new strategic problems of modern wars between nation-states that he observed in the American Civil War.   Sherman has been variously described as the inventor of ‘total war’ and the apostle of limitless destruction, and a throwback to an earlier form of ‘primitive’ or ‘medieval’ warfare that preceded the supposedly ‘rule-based’ warfare of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But Sherman was a practitioner of calibrated ‘benevolent destruction’ that was entirely geared towards the achievement of very specific politico-military objectives.   In analysing what he did and why he did it, I wanted to understand why armies make war on civilians, and also to consider the extent to which Sherman’s understanding of modern war has – or has not – been integrated into America’s subsequent wars.

Obviously this subject is likely to be of interest to Civil War buffs and students of military history, but I also wrote the book as an ‘anti-militarist military history’ in order to bring my arguments to a wider readership that doesn’t necessarily know much about General Sherman or the American Civil War.   Given that military history can be a little esoteric for some readers, I’ve kept it short and concise. And if you still aren’t convinced, then here are some excerpts from the reviews so far, such as the following:

“A provocative, and at times maddening, argument about one of the most brilliant and destructive military minds in American history.”
—Clay Mountcastle, author of Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals

‘a grim account of military hypocrisy in the service of mass slaughter,Kirkus Reviews.

‘Carr (Fortress Europe) challenges the reader by asking the question: If Sherman represents the enduring symbol of military barbarism, to what extent have America’s subsequent wars followed the template that he created? The author’s concern is not with military operations, strategies, and battles per se, but rather with Washington’s wars on innocent civilians.’ Library Journal

There are also some longer reviews, such as this one, from Jonathan W. Jordan at the Wall Street Journal: (the mostly hostile comments are interesting too)

‘This year, British writer Matthew Carr takes on the story of Sherman”s March with an admittedly “unconventional history.” In “Sherman”s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War,” Mr. Carr describes the influence of Sherman”s strategy on American military operations from Reconstruction to the war on terror. Mr. Carr deplores Sherman”s methods.

While stopping short of classifying Sherman as a terrorist—”a futile and essentially meaningless exercise,” he concedes—he compares Sherman to Japanese and German ravagers of World War II and excoriates the indirect approach to war, then and now. As he puts it: “Sherman embodies a very specific use of military force as an instrument of coercion and intimidation that has often been replayed by the U.S. military and also by other armies.’

And this, from the great Civil War historian James MacPherson in the New York Times:

‘Carr categorizes his book as “an anti ­militarist military history.” In that respect, Sherman”s legacy reinforces Carr”s message that war is indeed “hell” and its supposed glories are “moonshine,” as Sherman said after the Civil War in a speech that impugned “those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated . . . [but] cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.” Perhaps Sherman should be categorized as an anti ­militarist general.’

And this, from Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl (retired), David Petraeus’ former advisor during the Iraq ‘surge’, in The American Scholar (subscribers only):

‘ Military historian Russell Weigley’s 1973 masterpiece, The American Way of War, posits that Americans have developed a distinctive brand of armed conflict that focuses on the complete destruction of the enemy….Weigley succinctly states that ” the strategy of annihilation became characteristically the American way in war.” Following in Weigley’s enormous footsteps, British journalist Matthew Carr attempts in his new book to explain the how and why of this strategic shift. His is a worthy effort.’

Not all these reviewers are entirely favourable.   There are things I’ve written that they didn’t agree with, and things they’ve written that I don’t agree with.   But my book was intended to promote argument and debate, and these reviews make it clear that it has.

So there it is.   The truth may not be out there but my book is.   It’s only published in the US at the moment, but you can still get it from the usual sources.   So join in the argument.   Treat yourself or the one you love most to a copy of Sherman’s Ghosts.   Put in on your beach reading list this summer.

Because maybe you don’t want to read about war.   Perhaps you agree with General Sherman, who once said ‘ I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.’

But John Bolton’s savage column advocating the bombing of Iran last week in the New York Times is another reminder of the militarists in the US – and elsewhere – who have never been anywhere near a battlefield yet still ‘cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.’

In the 21st century war and militarism continue to menace our world, just as they did in the last century, at a time when we need more than ever to devote our energies to more positive outcomes.     In these circumstances, we need to remember what war is and what it has been and also understand how it came to be what it is.    

Someone once said that politics is too important to be left to politicians.   I would add that war is too important to be left to generals and students of military history.   That’s why I wrote Sherman’s Ghosts.

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  1. Richard Carter

    2nd Apr 2015 - 11:24 am

    That does look interesting, Matt: my copy’s on order now and I look forward to reading it!

    • Matt

      2nd Apr 2015 - 11:48 am

      Glad to hear it Richard! Be interested to hear what you think of it.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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