Note: If you missed the 10th “Biggest Asshole in American History” through the 2nd or the Runner-Up list, by all means catch up before reading further. There’s a lot of people who could’ve been chosen for the top spot, and it was pretty much a coin toss between the “Top 4” to determine their rankings. Although I just as easily could’ve gone with Reagan (for the laundry list of reasons laid out in his article), General George Gordon (possible founder of the KKK), or Fred Koch (very nearly chosen for co-founding the John Birch Society, the sperm that produced Charles and David, and a massive private pollution company that is the single biggest driver of climate change denial), I decided to go with the man I personally think was the single biggest individual driver of Genocide and War Crimes in American History…
General William Tecumseh Sherman!
General William Tecumseh Sherman…You may be slightly confused by my selection of Sherman since every other notable person from the Civil War period has been a Confederate (Gordon, South Carolina Governors who seceded first, John Calhoun), and I have no love of “The Confederacy.” Plus, the modern sections of this list are dominated with Big Business Republicans (Taft, Reagan, Koch, Aldrich) that promote the “state’s rights” argument in defending corporate interests over the federal government and excuse away horrendous regional inequality states like Alabama suffer from. It would seem like Sherman—who never met a conflict he didn’t want to use overwhelming federal force to squash in the name of progress—would be ideologically similar to me, but Sherman is a big part of the reason the rest of this list even exists. Why would Trumpers even need to be paranoid of federal power if a General in the United States Army hadn’t burned two cities to the ground? And despite Sherman’s use of oppression and bloodshed to “tame” the Southeast or Native Americans, it’s not like he really did anything to improve the economy of the South or protect Civil Rights of minorities…as he was wiping them out.
10. He burned the city of Atlanta to the ground. When the mayor of Atlanta at the time pleaded for mercy, Sherman reportedly said “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” This notorious quip has been repeated by Robert McNamara as he decided to use Agent Orange in Vietnam and many atrocities America commited overseas that are usually greeted with flippant shoulder-shrugs.
9. He was a failed banker and early example of American war profiteering. Sherman’s activities before the Civil War were mostly about lining his own pockets and he was even the Major-General of a California militia when San Francisco was mostly lawless and suffering from explosive population growth. After his bank closed its doors, Sherman looked for new business opportunities (that all failed) before finding his fortune commanding forces in the Civil War. After the war, he used his command of the U.S. Army as mostly muscle for Big Business interests.
8. There is a statue of him in Central Park. While there’s a debate about Confederate glorification and the appropriateness of everything from the Confederate flag to memorials of Southern generals, Sherman enjoys a prime spot in Central Park that has never been contested despite what you’ll see lower on this list. The fact that he’s been able to completely escape any blame for his war-time actions (both Civil and Indian Wars) is a rebuke to the Northern narrative that Southern “Lost Cause” writers have shaped Post-Civil War history. In fact, that’s made especially untrue in the case of Sherman, whose memoirs were so widely read and admired, there’s no way it hasn’t shaped the favorable opinion of Sherman today.
7. In his “Total War” Against Native Americans, he advocated exterminating the buffalo. My beefs with Sherman aren’t just misguided Southern-complaints, but with his gradual genocide against Native Americans as head of the U.S. Army when they were “taming the West.” A textbook example of Sherman’s extreme methods was the intentional eradication of the Buffalo that Native American tribes depended on for survival (food, clothing, shelter). This is a low, low tactic that America would go on to use in some foreign wars when they burn a nation’s food supply.
6. He may have been a psychopath. During the early parts of the Civil War and after the Union had sustained some battle losses under his command, Sherman had a mental breakdown. He had to temporarily quit his command, but eventually came back a year later and much, much angrier. It’s no coincidence that his “Scorched Earth” strategy came about after his breakdown. I think his actions post breakdown in battle, the reconstruction, and the Indian Wars prove Sherman was not just bloodthirsty but possibly unhinged. On the other hand, his statements were so lucid that it’s clear he at least understood that other people thought his war actions were extreme. [Gee, where in the modern era have Americans wondered whether a bloodthirsty, charismatic-nationalist advocating torture and extreme warfare is mentally insane or not?]
5. He is thought of as “the First Modern General.” Meaning all of those “Total War” follies we’ve experienced overseas in countries like Vietnam are later incarnations of Sherman, as has been the decision to destroy the infrastructure of any country we invade mostly so we can make a fortune rebuilding it. Sherman also helped facilitate the Carpet Baggers using a similar strategy during Reconstruction.
4. He wasn’t an abolitionist and hated Native Americans. Before anyone leaps to Sherman’s defense making an anti-slavery argument (how brave of you), it might be helpful to know Sherman wasn’t an abolitionist, did not support “negro equality,” did not allow freed slaves to serve in Sherman’s March through Georgia, and was racist as hell towards freed slaves and especially Native Americans. You can find literally dozens of quotes by Sherman talking about “thieving” Native American “savages,” describing them as the lowest of the low and unworthy of sympathy.
3. He burned Georgia to the ground.
2. He burned South Carolina to the ground.
1. [Tie] He (or military officers working underneath him like Philip Sheridan) are the only people to have brought “Scorched Earth” total warfare to America.
1. [Tie] Not only did he commit War Crimes against the Southeast, but he committed genocide against the Native Americans. He pushed President Grant to be more militaristic towards Native Americans during Grant’s Presidency, eventually getting his wish. And he had this to say about his indiscriminate killing of Indian women and children “during an assault, the soldiers can not pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age.”
Summation: Those that hate Andrew Jackson’s crimes towards Indians, can find arguably worse actions on Sherman’s part. Those that hate the American military industrial complex and our policy of mindless “total war” towards the enemy population, can thank Sherman. And those that wonder why the Southeast is still extremely paranoid of federal power, can ponder that as they look closer at Sherman’s destroying of Georgia and even more savage “breaking” of South Carolina.
If committing mass War Crimes on American soil, using a “Scorched Earth” policy against two American states, plunging the Southeast into paranoia and poverty for a century, and committing genocide against Native Americans isn’t enough to earn you the title of “America’s Biggest Asshole,” then I don’t know what is.
Asshole Adjacent: Sherman disciples like General Philip Sheridan, Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Rumsfeld, Cheney, etc. and people who display his uniquely American mix of federal totality despite no concern at all for providing economic well-being to those he oppresses like neo-cons, most military hawks, and, of course, Trump himself.