The Sword Was Mightier Than the Pen

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2002, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in December, 2002.

A funny thing happened on the way to Atlanta. The warriors – William Tecumseh Sherman, 43, lean, tough, methodical, ruthlessly efficient and with a passion for order, and John Bell Hood, 32, impetuous, reckless and incredibly brave (strapped on his horse because of his wounds) – took time out from the business of killing to engage in relatively civil correspondence, but not too civil.

Their letters were couriered through the lines under flags of truce. It started after the bombardment of Atlanta on August 9, 1864, which far exceeded in intensity anything prior to that date and which resulted in the terrible deaths and maiming of many civilians. Hood charged that Sherman’s actions “violated all rules of civilized warfare.” (An oxymoron?)

Sherman replied that civilians had no business in Atlanta. Later, Hood offered to exchange prisoners, a proposal that Sherman turned down on the grounds that freed Confederates would find immediate use in Hood’s army, whereas freed Federals would have to be sent away from Sherman’s army to their own regiments — a bonehead decision that consigned thousands of loyal and brave Union soldiers to Hell on Earth (Andersonville).

Sherman then advised Hood (September 7) that the citizens of Atlanta would have to leave the city in “the interest of the United States,” but also for their own good. Hood responded (September 9) by agreeing (“… I have (no) alternative …“), but adding that Sherman’s proposal “… transcends in studied and ingenious cruelty all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war” and protesting against the same “ in the name of God and humanity.”

Excerpt from the Atlanta Cyclorama depicting the Battle of Atlanta

Sherman responded on September 10 by charging that Hood, as well as Confederate Generals Johnston and Hardee, had defended Atlanta and other southern cities in such a manner as to cause greater injury to civilians, and then recited a litany of offenses committed by the South that “plunged a nation into war” (“. . .dared and badgered us to battle, insulted our flag, seized our arsenals and forts”… etc.).

So that “silence (would not) be construed as acquiescence,” Hood accepted the challenge, and in a very lengthy missive (September 12) denied wrongdoing by himself, Johnston, and Hardee, berated Sherman for not giving notice prior to shelling Atlanta, and then, after first appearing to beg off argument as to the causes of the war, gave the Southern answer to each of Sherman’s accusations. (“You say … The truth is …; You say … The truth is …, etc.)

Sherman concluded the correspondence, “with satisfaction” in a short letter dated September 14, saying that such discussions by “two soldiers” was “profitless,” defending his failure to give notice of his bombardment on the grounds that Atlanta was a “fortified town, with magazines, etc.,” and making one final point about his “Negro allies,” or the absence of them.

Well, as we all know, Sherman took Atlanta, marched to the sea and then northward to win the war (with help from Grant and Thomas), not with his pen but with cannons, mortars, muskets and minie-balls, which had the last word.

Interestingly, after The Issue had been decided, Hood visited Sherman at Lancaster (Ohio) and remained on good terms with him until Hood’s death in 1878 at the ripe old age of 47. Sherman even helped him with the sale of his war papers.

Confederate Generals Joe Johnston, Braxton Bragg, James Longstreet and Gideon Pillow also remained on good terms with their erstwhile foe for the remainder of their lives. Sherman died in 1891 at the age of 71. Joe Johnston died shortly after in the same year, at 84, from pneumonia, which he contracted while standing hatless in the rain at Sherman’s funeral.