I am in Vicksburg getting ready to lead an Army to Meridian, Mississippi. Part of my command is in Huntsville, Alabama. I wrote this letter to Sawyer:
HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE TENNESSEE,
Vicksburg, January 31, 1864
Major R. M. SAWYER, Assistant Adjutant General, Department of the Tennessee, Huntsville:
In my formed letters I have answered all your questions save one, and that relates to the treatment of inhabitants known or suspected to be hostile or “secesh.” This is in truth the most difficult business of our army as it advance and occupies the Southern country. It is almost impossible to lay down rules, and I invariably leave this whole subject to local commanders, but am willing to give them the benefit of my acquired knowledge and experience.
In Europe, whence we derive our principles of war, as developed by their histories, wars are between kings or rulers, through hired armies, and not between people. These remaining, as it were, neutral, and sell their produce to whatever army is in possession. Napoleon, when at war with Austria and Russia, bought forage and provisions of the inhabitants, and consequently had and interest to protect farms and factories which ministered to his wants. In like manner, the allied armies in France purchased from inhabitants whatever they needed-the produce of the soil or manufactories of the country. Therefore the rule was and is, that wars are confined to the armies and should not visit the homes of families or private interests.
But in other examples a different rule obtained the sanction of historical authority. I will only instance that when in the reign of William and Mary, the English army occupied Ireland, then in a state of revolt, the inhabitants were actually driven into foreign lands and were dispossessed of their property and a new population introduced. To this day a large part of the north of Ireland is held by the descendants of the Scottish emigrants sent there by William’s order and an act of Parliament.
The war which now prevails in our land is essentially a war of races. The Southern people entered into a clear compact of government, but still maintained a species of sperate interests, history, and prejudices. The latter became stronger and stronger till they have led to a war, which has developed fruits of the bitterest kind. We of the North are beyond all question right in our lawful cause, but we are not bound to ignore the fact that the people of the South have prejudices which form part of their nature and which they cannot throw off without and effort of reason or the slow proceeds of natural change.
Now, the question arises, should we treat as absolute enemies all in the South who differ from us in opinion or prejudices, kill or banish them, or give them time to think and gradually change their conduct so as to conform to the new order of things which is slowly and gradually creeping into their country?
When men take arms to resist our rightful authority, we are compelled to use force, because all reason and argument cease when arms are resorted to. When the provisions, forage, horses, mules, wagons, &c., are used by our enemy, it is clearly our duty and right to take them, because otherwise they might be used against us. In like manner all houses left vacant by an inimical people are clearly our right, or such as are needed as store-houses, hospitals, and quarters.
But a question arises as to dwellings used by women, children, and non-combatants. So long as non-combatants remain in their houses and keep to their accustomed business their opinions and prejudices, can in nowise influence the war, and therefore should not be noticed. But if any one comes out into the public streets and creased disorder, he or she should be punished, restrained, or banished, either to the rear or front as the officer in command adjudges. If the people or any of them keep up a correspondence with parties in hostility they are spies, and can be punished with death or minor punishment.
These are well-established principles of war, and the people of the South having appealed to war are barred from appealing to our Constitution, which they have practically and publicly defied. They have appealed to war, and must abide its rules and laws. The United States as a belligerent party, claiming right in the soil as the ultimate sovereign, have a right to change the population, and it may be and is both politic and just we should do so in certain districts.
When the inhabitants persist too long in hostility it may be both politic and right we should banish them and appropriate their lands to a more loyal and useful population. No man will deny that the United States would be benefited by dispossessing a rich, prejudiced, hard-headed, and disloyal planter, and substituting in this place a dozen or more patient, industrious, good families, even if they be of foreign birth. I think it does good to present this view of the case to many Southern gentleman who grew rich and wealthy, not by virtue alone of their personal industry and skill, but by reason of the protection and impetus to prosperity given by our hitherto moderate and magnanimous Government.
It is all idle nonsense for the Southern planters to say that they made the South, that they own it, and that they can do as they please, even to break upon our Government and shut up the natural avenues of trade, intercourse, and commerce.
We know, and they know, if they are intelligent beings, that as compared with the whole world, they are but as five millions are to one thousand millions; that they did not create the land; that the only title to its use and usufruct is the deed of the United States, and if they appeal to war they hold their all by a very insecure tenure.
For my part I believe this war is the result of false political doctrine, for which we all as a people are responsible; that any and every people have a natural right to self-government, and I would give all a chance to reflect and when in error to recant. I know slave owners, finding themselves in possession of a species of property in opposition to the growing sentiment of the whole civilized world, conceived their property in danger and foolishly appealed to war. By skillful political handling involved with themselves the whole South on the doctrine of error and prejudice. I believe that some of the rich and slave-holding are prejudiced to an extend that nothing but death and ruin will extinguish, but hope, as the poorer and industrial classes of the South realize weakness and their dependence upon the fruits of the earth and good will of their fellow men, they will not only discover the error of their ways and repent of their hasty action but bless those who persistently maintained a constitutional Government strong enough to sustain itself, protect its citizens, and promise peaceful homes to millions yet unborn.
In this belief, whilst I assert of our Government the highest military prerogatives, I am willing to bear in patience that political nonsense of slave rights, State’s rights, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and such other trash as have deluded the Southern people into war, anarchy, bloodshed, and the foulest crimes that have disgraced any time or nay people.
I would advise the commanding officers at Huntsville, and such other towns as are occupied by our troops, to assemble the inhabitants and explain to them these plain, self-evident propositions. Tell them that it is now for them to say whether they and their children shall inherit the beautiful land which by the accident of nature has fallen to their share.
The Government of the United States has in North Alabama any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war- to take their lives, their lands, their everything; because they cannot deny that war does exist there, and war is simply power unrestrained by constitution or compact.
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. 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.
My own belief is, even now the non-slave holding classes of the South are alienating from their associates in war. Already I hear crimination. Those who have property left should take warning in time.
Since I have come down here I have seen many Southern planters who now hire their negroes and acknowledge that they could part in peace. They now see that we are bound together as one nation by indissoluble ties, and that any interest or any people that set themselves up in antagonism to the nation must perish. Whilst I would not remit one jot or title of our nation’s right in peace or war, I do make allowances for past political errors and prejudices. Our national Congress and supreme courts are the proper avenues on which to discuss conflicting opinions, and not the battle-field.
You may not hear from me again, and if you think it will do any good, call some of the better people together and explain these, my views. You may even read to them this letter and let them use it so as to prepare them for my coming.
To those who submit to the rightful law and authority all gentleness and forbearance; but to the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. Satan and the rebellious saints of Heaven were allowed a continuous existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment. To such as would rebel against a Government so mild and just as ours was in peace, a punishment equal would not be unjust.
We are progressing well in this quarter, though I have not changed my opinion, that although we may soon assume the existence of murder, and robbery will cease to afflict this region of country.
Truly, your friend,
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding