General William T. Sherman was the person who instituted the "March to the Sea" a Northern march of destruction across Georgia. I was therefore surprised to read that his marching orders read in part: "As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly."* (Emphasis added). That suggests that Sherman believed that "poor or industrious" southerners were not hostile to the Union. Or at least that he felt that they were not part of the problem.

About a century later, (southern) President Lyndon Baines Johnson described poor white southerners as follows: "If you can convince the lowest white man that he is better than the best colored man, he wouldn't notice your picking his pocket?"

Was Johnson, more nearly correct about poor white southerners, or was Sherman? Or could they both have been right because of the time factor; Sherman speaking in 1864 and Johnson in the 1960s?

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    They were speaking nearly 100 years apart, and about radically different circumstances.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 28, 2021 at 2:08
  • Considering that almost all able White Southerners did participate in the war as CSA soldiers, although vast majority of them did not own slaves, answer is clear.
    – rs.29
    Aug 28, 2021 at 13:03
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    @rs.29 - They didn't have much choice. That's how conscription works. However, talk to pretty much anyone with family ties in the highland south (particularly in areas that weren't great for plantations), and you'll find they had family fighting on both sides. So Sherman wasn't being delusional here. By this time he'd had a lot of experience fighting in the NW portion of the South. This was largely a war to preserve the (human) property of the richest plantation owners. Families with no slaves were being asked to sacrifice their sons to a cause that had no benefit to themselves.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 28, 2021 at 21:19
  • @T.E.D. Conscription in Southern states was never fully implemented, most of the people resented it, and population was mostly rural so it was impractical. What did happen was a societal pressure and frankly willingness to fight. In Georgia large majority served in CSA, as opposed to tiny minority (at best 5%) serving in US Army.
    – rs.29
    Aug 29, 2021 at 11:23
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    A plantation owner knew what he was going to lose with a federal victory. He had reasons to resist. A white farmhand, artisan, or city dweller did not know. He might be unsure if resistance was worthy, even if he were loyal to the CSA or his state. Why would the USA army be so nasty as to push him to resist? Besides, Grant may also be thinking about the post-war future. How would the southern states be reunited to the Union if the whole white population hated the Union with good reason? Grant's attitude seems reasonable even if he only had scarce evidence for his statement.
    – Luiz
    Oct 4, 2021 at 17:24

2 Answers 2


I can't say for sure about Sherman but he clearly had plenty of personal experience to draw on.

In the Civil War, many poor white Southern soldiers thought they were defending their homeland against a Northern invasion. That may be partially propaganda they'd been fed, but still... you can't chalk them all up to conscription.

But as for LBJ: this was almost 100 years later, and Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan had had plenty of time to do their work. White politicians had every incentive to keep racial hatred alive and raw; they didn't have to be responsive to the poor whites' needs if they could say they were protecting their place in the hierarchy.


The following is an edited version of a post on Quora by Nelson McKeeby

"One common theme of the confederacy was the willingness of plantation owners to fight to the last drop of common person’s blood. 90% of smuggled cargoes were luxury goods, that is why the laws requiring 10% of all smuggled cargo to be weapons, 90% was wine, silk, brandy, and bon bons. The South used a system of income tax and property tax called taxation in kind and impressment. Plantations were mostly immune. Militias and groups called Rangers would scour the country side and while the goal they were set was 10% of a persons property and money, they would never meet their needs for tax and were forced to take everything from farmers and business holders.

"Many southern farmers were broken and stopped planting. They released cattle, buried their house hold goods, and locked the doors...

"What is commonly not known or turned into a lie is that when Atlanta fell starving civilians, who Sherman was trying to unsuccessfully feed, had been ejected from the city as a human shield, and another huge number had lost everything from confederate militia. Davis and Lee felt that handing northern generals a series of mass starvation incidents might change foreign opinion. If they could engineer a quarter million dead France of England might move.

"Sherman solved the problem by letting the starving southerners, called bummers, follow his army. He protected small farms but let the bummers do the burning and looting for him. In that way he fed starving human shields and stuck it to slave owners."

Sherman knew how the South really fought the war. He was a "righteous" man who was not only out to win the war, but to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Johnson was speaking about a century later, AFTER the black slaves had been freed, and social landscape had changed as a result.

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