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The New Sherman Letters
Extraordinary correspondence, never published before, takes us inside the mind of a military genius. Here is William Tecumseh Sherman in the heat of action inventing modern warfare, grieving the death of his little boy, struggling to hold Kentucky with levies, rolling invincibly across Georgia, and—always—battling the newspapermen whose stories, he believes, are killing his soldiers.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
“I regard newspaper correspondents as spies.”
“They encumber our transports, occupy state rooms to the exclusion of officers on duty, they eat our provisions, they swell the crowd of hangers on, and increase the impedimenta. They publish without stint positive information of movements past & prospective, organizations, names of commanders, and accurate information which reaches the enemy with as much regularity as it does our People. They write up one class of officers and down another, and fan the flames of discord and jealousy. Being in our very midst, catching expressions dropped by officers, clerks, and orderlies, and being keen expert men they detect movements and give notice of them. So that no matter how rapidly we move, our enemy has notice in advance. To them more than to any other cause do I trace the many failures that attend our army. While they cry about blood & slaughter they are the direct cause of more bloodshed than fifty times their number of armed Rebels. Never had an enemy a better corps of spies than our army carries along, paid, transported, and fed by the United States.”
Then, less than two weeks later, with torrential rains hammering down on his camp, Sherman composed his fullest treatise on the villainy of the press in wartime. It is an eleven-page letter more vehement and more eloquent than any previously known statement by Sherman on the subject.
“As I have more leisure than usual now I will illustrate by examples fresh in the memory of all, why I regard newspaper correspondents as spies & why as a servant of an enlightened government I feel bound in honor and in common honesty to shape my official conduct accordingly. A spy is one who furnishes an enemy with knowledge useful to him and dangerous to us. One who bears into a Fortress or Camp a baleful influence that encourages sedition or weakens us. He need not be an enemy, is often a trader woman or servant. Such characters are by all belligerents punished summarily with the extremest penalties, not because they are of themselves filled with guilty thought or intent but because he or she endangers the safety of an army, a nation, or the cause for which it is contending. André carried no intelligence back to Genl Clinton but was the mere instrument used to corrupt the fidelity of an officer holding an important command. Washington admitted the high and pure character of André but the safety of the cause demanded his punishment. It is hard to illustrate my point by reference to our past history, but I wish to convey the full idea that a nation & an army must defend its safety & existence by making acts militating against it criminal regardless of the mere interest of the instrument. We find a scout surveying our camp from a distance in noways threatening us but seeking information of the location strength and composition of our forces. We shoot him of course without asking a question. We find a stranger in our camp seeking a stray horse & find afterwards he has been to the enemy: We hang him as a spy because the safety of the army & the cause it fights for is too important to be risked by any pretext or chance. … I know the enemy received from the [press] … notice of our intended attack on Vicksburg & thwarted our well laid schemes. I know that Beauregard at Corinth received from the same source full details of all troops ascending the Tennessee and acted accordingly. I know that it was by absolute reticence only that Halleck succeeded in striking Forts Henry & Donaldson and prevented their reinforcement in time to thwart that most brilliant movement. And it was only by the absence of newspapers that we succeeded in reaching the post of Arkansas before it could be reinforced.
“I know that the principal northern papers reach the enemy regularly & promptly & I know that all the vigilance of our army cannot prevent it & I know that by this means the enemy can defeat us to the end of time. …
“Another view of the case. The Northern Press either make public opinion or reflect it. By gradual steps public opinion instead of being governed governs our country. All bow to it & even military men who are sworn officers of the Executive Branch of the Government go behind & look to public opinion. The consequence is & has been that officers instead of keeping the Executive Branch advised of all movements, events, or circumstances that would enable it to act advisedly & with vigor communicate with the public direct through the Press so that the Government authorities are operated on by public opinion formed too often on false or interested information. This has weakened the Executive and has created jealousies, mistrust, & actual sedition. Officers find it easier to attain rank, renown, fame, and notoriety by the cheap process of newspapers. This cause has paralyzed several fine armies & by making the people at home mistrust the ability of Leaders, Surgeons, & Quarter Masters has even excited the fears of parents so far that many advise their sons and brothers to desert until desertion & mutiny have lost their odious character. I’ll undertake to say that the army of the Potomac has not today for battle one half the men whom the U.S. pays as soldiers & this is partially the case with the army of the Tennessee & here.