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Proportionality in War: Sherman’s March to the Sea

on January 11, 2022
(Burning of Atlanta – a Civil War engraving done by an anonymous artist)

Aquinas’s Doctrine of Proportionality in War and Sherman’s Attack on Private Property

       St. Augustine viewed social groups as “people bound together by agreement as to what they love” (Johnson, 2018, pg. 29), rejecting Cicero’s emphasis on political states.  It is, therefore, an act of love to fight in a just war in order to protect our neighbors.

       Aquinas reaffirmed the conviction that “solely those who have no temporal superior – namely princes – are permitted to initiate war” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 55) and the fact that “a unified force” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 55) will be more successful than people acting independently.  The “common good” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 56) can best be promoted by the leader in power.  Part of the responsibility of the leader is to handle “internal disturbers of the peace” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 56).

       The second condition for just war, according to Aquinas, is “that those who are attacked deserve this attack by reason of some fault (culpam)” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 56). 

       The third condition for just war, according to Aquinas, is the concept of “right intention” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).  People involved in a war should fight with the intention of promoting the common good and “the avoidance of evil” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).  He emphasized that unnecessary brutality, greed, and hostility should be avoided (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).  Harming innocent non-combatants is unacceptable in jus in bellum.  Besides sparing innocent lives, soldiers should refrain from “cutting down the fruit trees on enemy territory” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).  Aquinas recognized, however, that unintended damage is bound to happen in war, and soldiers are not liable for that damage.  Committing deliberate acts of harm, on the other hand, confers personal liability on the person committing them (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).  Only force “undertaken by public officers of the law” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 58) can be justified as a necessary action for promoting the common good and punishing a wrong-doing.

       In this paper, I aim to show that Sherman’s March to the Sea was a legitimate military campaign, consistent with the conditions of just war as laid down by Augustine and Aquinas.

Sherman’s March and Proportionality

       In 1864, the Civil War had been raging for three years, demoralizing the North and solidifying the stubbornness of the South, when William Tecumseh Sherman devised a plan to end the war once and for all (Smith, 2007, pg. 7).

       In a speech given on September 30, 1875, Sherman admitted that he and his troops had “transgressed the rules of war . . . and we determined to make it and to subsist on our friends and enemies while making it . . .[for] Georgia was at that time regarded . . .as the arch stone of the South . . .[and] that once destroyed, and the Southern Confederacy dwindled down to the little space between the Savannah River and Richmond, . . . the people of the United States could not only vindicate their laws but could punish the traitors” (Trudeau, 2008, pg. 548).

       Sherman blamed the people of the South for starting the Civil War in the first place and determined to punish them collectively by making “the people themselves experience the war” (Smith, 2007, pg. 8).  His intention, as he marched through Georgia, was to destroy “the state’s war-making capability” (Smith, 2007, pg. 8).  He cared about hastening the end of the war, and he was not so concerned about the means by which he did it.  Governor Joseph Brown was given the option to surrender, and when he did not respond, Sherman pursued his plan “to go ahead, devastating the State in its whole length and breadth” (Smith, 2007, pg. 8).

       There is no denying that the Civil War – and the North’s punishment of the South – was a just cause, according to both Augustine’s and Aquinas’s conditions for just war.  Sherman was acting to promote the common good; out of love for his country and his neighbors in the North; to end the war that had divided the United States; and to ensure that the South would be so devastated, it would have to capitulate and never rise again (Davis, 1988, pg. 3; Johnson, 2018, pg. 29; Reichberg, 2018, pg. 56, 57).  Sherman’s actions were authorized by both General Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln, so the condition of proper authority was fulfilled (Smith, 2007, pg. 8, 15).

       The South had declared war against the North and made the first attack on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter, South Carolina (National Park Service, 2021, para. 1).  “Southerners gambled that Southern spirit and military elan could overcome the wealth and size of the North” (Smith, 2007, pg. 14).  Southern forces refused to back down, even when Sherman gave Governor Brown of Georgia an ultimatum.  Therefore, by Aquinas’s rationale, the South deserved to be attacked and punished for the crime of secession and beginning the war in the first place (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 56).

       The March to the Sea destroyed everything that could be used to support the Confederate military machine.  Sherman ordered his foragers to forage for food and necessary supplies, knowing that there would be abuses.  But he also ordered that “churches and private homes” should be saved (Davis, 1988, pg. 3).  He counseled his men to pick on “rich Southerners rather than the poor” (Davis, 1988, pg. 8) because he blamed the rich plantation owners the most.  But Sherman was no fool.  He understood that “hard war” (Davis, 1988, pg. 9) was the only way to end the war.

       Since the Confederates refused to surrender, in spite of the North’s victories, Sherman claimed, “I had a right, under the rules of civilized warfare, to commence a system that would make them feel the power of the government and cause them to succumb . . .” (Davis, 1988, pg. 25).  This actually does comply with Aquinas’s view that the enemy should be attacked and punished for its wrong-doing (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 56).

       In my estimation, Sherman had no choice but to embark on the March to the Sea because it ultimately ended the Civil War and re-united the country.  He fulfilled all the requirements for just war laid down by St. Augustine and Aquinas.  And to prolong the war would have led to more casualties and destruction.

       It has been estimated that Sherman lost 1,888 Union soldiers to death, wounds, missing in action, and capture during the March (Smith, 2007, pg. 85), as opposed to the official Department of Veteran Affairs statistics of 529,332 Union and Confederate soldiers lost during the entire war (Department of Veteran Affairs, 2020, pg. 1).  Thomas Livermore estimated total deaths at 624,000, and the latest figures by J. David Hacker bring the estimate up to 750,000 (Ransom, 2021, pg. 7).

       Union foragers on the March managed to acquire roughly 13,294 head of cattle, 7,000 horses and mules, and 10 million pounds of corn.  Approximately 300 miles of railroad lines were destroyed.  Sherman himself estimated the damages at $100 million, with Union soldiers consuming about 20% of the food and supplies foraged, and the rest left to waste and rot.  Confederate deserters and civilians picked over what was left behind (Smith, 2007, pg. 85).

       Compare this with the cost of the war itself: total government spending (Union and Confederate) $3.3 billion; lost human capital (laborers, etc.) $2.2 billion; and the overall physical damage $1.5 billion (Ransom, 2021, pg.8). The South bore the brunt of the costs, and “the Confederacy had been reduced to a barter economy by the time Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox” (Ransom, 2021, pg. 11).  Freeing 4.5 million slaves cost Southern plantation owners $2 billion alone (Ransom, 2021, pg. 11).

Sherman’s Attack on Civilian Property

       As previously mentioned, Sherman’s primary goal was to destroy “the state’s war-making capability” (Smith, 2007, pg. 8), and he was lax when it came to enforcing his orders to not unnecessarily harm civilian property.  But bored and drunken Yankee soldiers were known to set fires and engage in wanton destruction, despite Sherman’s orders (Davis, 1988, pg. 5).  This does not align with Aquinas’s warning to avoid “cruelty, avarice, unbridled anger, or hatred” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).  And yet, the South had been given opportunities to surrender and negotiate peace and had refused to back down.  And, according to Aquinas, the enemy must be given the “opportunity to make amends” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 56) before resorting to force.  The Georgia governor failed to accept peace terms, so Sherman acted in good faith to take the necessary steps to end the war.  Aquinas calls for moderation in war but also recognizes “the doctrine of double effect” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57) which recognizes that good actions can have unintended negative consequences, and that “some missions will be justified, on grounds of DDE, in spite of a recognition that civilian casualties will ineluctably follow” (Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).

Breaking Southern Morale and Freeing Thousands of Slaves

       “[Sherman’s] more limited goal [than total war] was to make any continuance of rebellion so unpalatable to southern civilians that they would view a return to the Union as the lesser of two evils” (Trudeau, 2008, pg. 534).  Ultimately, Sherman’s March did end the war, and the South did capitulate, but not without serious bitterness against the North (Trudeau, pg. 534).

       Ten years ago, when I was speaking to my elderly distant cousin in South Carolina on the phone about genealogy matters, he referred to the Civil War as “the war of the North’s aggression against the South.”  At the time, I thought he was just an old geezer who could not get over losing the Civil War.  I did not really understand what he meant until I started reading about Sherman’s March.  Such an historic undertaking would have left a lasting negative impression on the collective consciousness of people in the South — even today.  This continued divide between North and South is one of those unintended consequences that Sherman did not foresee.  He also did not reckon the long-term economic impact on people in the South.  Although he understood that the South would be re-built, he did not understand that “the South was locked in a cycle of poverty that lasted well into the twentieth century” (Ransom, 2021, pg. 13).

       Sherman’s attack on civilian property also included freeing the slaves.  He and his soldiers were greeted with cheers by black slaves everywhere they went.  By the end of the March, his troops had picked up hundreds of freed black slaves (Trudeau, 2008, pg. 538) who “came out in groups and welcomed us with delight, they danced and howled, laughed, cried, and prayed all at the same time” (Trudeau, 2008, pg. 531).  Slaves gave them valuable information, stood watch, worked as laborers, and foraged for food, horses, and supplies (Trudeau, 2008, pg. 531, 532).  Freeing the slaves was an act of neighborly love in St. Augustine’s world view and “advancing the common good” in Aquinas’s (Johnson, 2018, pg. 29; Reichberg, 2018, pg. 57).  As a result of the war, 4.5 million black slaves were freed from slavery (Ransom, 2021, pg.11).

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

October 28, 2021

Copyright 2021-2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.



Davis, B. (1988). Sherman’s march. New York: Vintage Books

Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). Fact sheets: America’s wars. Retrieved from


Johnson, J.T. (2018). St. augustine (354-430 ce). In D.R. Brunstetter & C. O’Driscoll (Eds.),

       Just war thinkers: From cicero to the 21st century (21-33). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

National Park Service. (2021). Fort sumter. Retrieved from


Ransom, R. (2021). Causes, costs and consequences: The economics of the american civil war.

       Essential civil war curriculum. Retrieved from


Reichberg, G.M. (2018). Thomas aquinas (1224/5 – 1274). In D.R. Brunstetter & C. O’Driscoll

       (Eds). Just war thinkers: From cicero to the 21st century (50-63). Abingdon, Oxon:


Smith, D. (2007). Sherman’s march to the sea 1864: Atlanta to savannah. Botley, Oxford:

       Osprey Publishing

Trudeau, N.A. (2008). Southern storm: Sherman’s march to the sea. New York: HarperCollins


3 responses to “Proportionality in War: Sherman’s March to the Sea

  1. utahan15 says:

    a moral conflict
    take care
    before you ask
    who goes there?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Proportionality in War: Sherman’s March to the Sea — Dawn Pisturino’s Blog […]

    Liked by 1 person

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