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In Their Own Words

September 04, 1864

Sherman Letter Showed Prevalent Racial Attitudes

From south of Atlanta near Lovejoy, Sherman wrote a long, private letter to Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington, D.C. Although soon to be revered by many Georgia blacks liberated from slavery during his March to the Sea, the following excerpt from Sherman’s letter shows that he did not believe in the equality of the races and was not particularly interested in allowing blacks to fight:

“I hope anything I may have said or done will not be construed as unfriendly to Mr. Lincoln or Stanton. That negro letter of mine I never designed for publication, but I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals. Cannot we at this day drop theories, and be reasonable men? Let us capture negroes, of course, and use them to the best advantage. My quartermaster now could give employment to 3,200, and relieve that number of soldiers who are now used to unload and dispatch trains, whereas those recruiting agents take them back to Nashville, where, so far as my experience goes, they disappear. When I call for expeditions at distant pints, the answer invariable comes they have not sufficient troops. All count the negroes out. On the Mississippi, where Thomas talked about 100,000 negro troops, I find I cannot draw away a white soldier because they are indispensable to the safety of the river. I am willing to use them as far as possible, but object to fighting with ‘paper’ men. Occasionally an exception occurs, which simply deceives. We want the best young white men of the land, and they should be inspired with the pride of freemen to fight for their county. If Mr. Lincoln or Stanton could walk through the camps of this army and hear the soldiers talk they would hear new ideas. I have had the question put to me often: ‘is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a ballot?’ Yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? Can they improvise roads, bridges, sorties, flank movements, &c., like the white man? I say no. Soldiers must and do many things without orders from their own sense, as in sentinels. Negroes are not equal to this. I have gone steadily, firmly, and confidently along, and I could not have done it with black troops, but with my old troops I have never felt a waver of doubt, and that very confidence begets success… .”

Source: U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (originally printed 1891, reprinted by The National Historical Society, 1971), Part 5, Vol. 38, pp. 792-793.