Saying that General William T. Sherman was unforgiving to his enemies is the understatement of the 19th-Century. The man who burned Georgia to the ground was as tough as they come and in the South, he earned a reputation for being particularly evil, even though the truth is much further than the Confederates would have you believe.
There’s no doubt Sherman was as destructive as he could be as he burned Atlanta and then marched to the sea, as history puts it, but some of his methods were much more exaggerated than history remembers it.
And some of it wasn’t exaggerated at all.
One such exaggeration is how Sherman used Confederate prisoners of war to clear a confederate minefield near Sandersville, Ga. during his infamous “March to the Sea.” Sherman is remembered to have seen one of his soldiers lose a leg to a land mine. In a rage, he tells a prisoner to deliver a message to Confederate leaders in Georgia: he is going to use POWs to clear every minefield in Georgia as he walked to Savannah, no matter how many it took to clear the mines.
To read this, one would think Sherman is going to send a mass of men into a minefield to clear mines by setting them off, killing and maiming the POWs in the process. After all, this is the man known for saying, “War is cruel. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
This context would have you believe Sherman is the Confederacy’s Attila the Hun, relentlessly destroying everything in his path with zero compassion. And while Sherman may have destroyed a lot of what he found in Georgia, he also fed citizens from his army’s stores and allowed emancipated slaves to follow his army as it marched from Atlanta to Savannah. Sherman was very dedicated to the laws of war, even if he was pushing the envelope of those laws. He even challenged his critics to “see the books” of those laws for themselves.
As for the POWs clearing mines, he did use the Confederates to clear minefields. His order was more than rushing them into the middle of the field to be blown up, however. His logic was that those troops had buried those mines near Sandersville and they should be the ones to dig them up. He did the same thing outside of Savannah later in the campaign.