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  • James Houser

December 21, 1864 - Sherman's March to the Sea

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 21, 1864. After only a few short skirmishes, the tired Union soldiers of General Sherman’s army enter the city of Savannah, Georgia. Behind them lies a trail of desolation and destruction. Tomorrow, Sherman will telegraph President Lincoln to offer “as a Christmas gift, the City of Savannah.” The March to the Sea is instantly famous, but already Sherman’s eyes turn north. The Carolinas are next. The end of the Civil War is in sight.

When last we left General Sherman and his army, the Union Army and his force of 100,000 men had captured the city of Atlanta after four months of maneuver and battle in the mountains and hills of northern Georgia. After bleeding dry the Confederate Army of John Bell Hood, Sherman had forced the Confederates to evacuate Georgia’s largest city, and the Union officially entered Atlanta on September 2, 1864. This was the victorious conclusion to the Atlanta Campaign, and Sherman’s triumph played a major role in securing Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864.

The above paragraph is basically a summary of my entire post about the Atlanta Campaign.

So here we are. Sherman now holds Atlanta. But what is his next move? Over telegraph, Sherman and General Grant – who was still staring down Robert E. Lee in the trenches around Petersburg – hashed out what Sherman’s large army would do next. Sitting and holding territory might be a low-risk strategy, but it was hardly going to end the war more quickly, and it might allow the Confederates time to reorganize. Going after the Confederate army was another idea, but Hood could just keep retreating and Sherman would eventually have to stop. See, General Sherman’s army was at the end of a tether that was beginning to hold him back. The rail lines that connected Sherman’s army, deep in Georgia, to his supply line all the way back to the North were vulnerable and vital. The longer they got, the more vulnerable they got.

And the supply line was a live wire that Sherman could not afford to ignore as long as he depended on it. The Union army had to be fed, clothed, and armed through the vast rail network that stretched from Kentucky through Tennessee down into Georgia, and every time that rail network was disrupted it slipped the clamp a little tighter on Sherman’s operations. And no one was better at ravaging that rail network than the Confederacy’s premier raider, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest’s cavalry in West Tennessee caused Sherman so many issues during the Atlanta Campaign that Sherman proclaimed he wanted Forrest “hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the Federal treasury.”

If Forrest was a problem, Hood’s army – mangled but intact – was still out there. In late September, Hood moved north to try and sabotage Sherman’s rail connections with the North. His plan was to force Sherman to abandon Atlanta, either by forcing Sherman to follow him or by ruining his supply line. Though Sherman was able to send enough troops up the rail line to fend off Hood’s attacks, Hood retreated with his army into Alabama without suffering serious damage. General Sherman, though, wasn’t taking the bait. Following Hood on a wild goose chase into Atlanta was the exact opposite of his chosen method of fighting: to make the enemy fight on his terms. Sherman’s new strategy was something completely different, unprecedented in the history of American warfare.

Sherman decided that for his next move, he would send George Thomas with some 30,000 men back up into Tennessee to deal with Forrest and Hood. With the remainder of his men – almost 60,000 soldiers of all ranks – Sherman proposed to sever all his supply lines and march clear across Georgia to capture the city of Savannah. En route, he would tear a massive chunk out of the Southern war economy by destroying industry, mills, factories and railroads, as well as seizing food and livestock. By trying to bat the Confederates away from his supply line, Sherman was forced to respond to their actions; but they couldn’t raid his supply line if he didn’t have a supply line. He was also going to destroy Hood’s plans to recapture Atlanta: they couldn’t recapture Atlanta if there wasn’t an Atlanta to recapture.

I described most of the rationale and thought process behind the March to the Sea back in November, in the post I linked above, so a lot of this is me repeating myself. But that being said, today I’ll talk about the March to the Sea AND a little bit about the Carolinas Campaign, and in that I want to discuss Sherman’s place in American military history.

Sherman’s march through Georgia is often described, usually by Southerners who’ve had “Gone With the Wind” burned into their memories, as a war crime. Well, it wasn’t for a few reasons. First, no such thing as a war crime existed at that point in time. There was no Geneva, no Hague, no nothing. Second, Sherman’s strategy was aimed not at the South’s civilians, but at their economic goods: the things that kept their would-be nation in the fight. While Sherman’s men largely survived by foraging off the countryside, confiscating livestock and food from farms and plantations, his orders were explicit that families should be left with enough to last the winter. In short, his soldiers were only to take the surplus – said surplus would probably go to feed the Confederacy’s armies, after all, and by eating it themselves it was a win-win.

There is little doubt that Sherman’s men committed excesses on the March, as all armies are wont to do. One of the great fears that any civilian woman faces when confronted with an invading army, for instance, is rape – a depressingly common byproduct of war in almost every age. But women along Sherman’s path had far less reason to fear than civilians in almost any other war. Where sexual assaults did occur – and they did – they were strictly punished. One Sergeant Arthur McCarty was condemned of rape by three of his soldiers, and Sherman had him court-martialed and put under guard for the rest of the march. While Sherman strove to treat Southern civilians well, despite his use of economic warfare, his soldiers did not hold to this universal standard and abuse of the population did happen.

That all being said, Sherman’s March was not the ravening horde of Hell that later Southern writers would portray it as. Instead, it was a part of a long American tradition of total economic and material warfare against its enemies. What do I mean by this?

Throughout the Indian Wars, American soldiers waged a surprisingly destructive and aggressive form of economic warfare. They would kill the buffalo so the Indians had no food source, would burn their camps and teepees, would do their absolute best to leave them homeless and starving out in the cold to force them to surrender. The Army rarely intended to KILL Native American tribes to a man, woman, and child, though they didn’t lose sleep if these men, women, and children died. Their goal was almost always to force the tribes, whether they be Sioux, Nez Perce or Apache, to bend to their will. Their goal was to force them onto the reservation to be “good Indians.” Economic warfare against the Indians was far WORSE than that committed by the North against the South, and this was partially fueled by racial prejudice, but it was also a function of the American way of war: the destruction of the enemy’s resources as a means of damaging their morale and compelling their surrender.

Sherman’s March to the Sea matches the American strategies of the Indian Wars, differing only in degree. When Sherman said “I will make Georgia howl,” in his message to Grant, he was behaving only slightly differently than he would as Commanding General of the Army in the 1870s, when he would tell his commanders to “act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux.”

But this way of war would not be limited to the 19th Century. Throughout the Second World War, the United States would immolate hundreds of German and Japanese cities from the sky, ultimately culminating in the atomic bomb. Though American bomber crews initially tried to carry out purely day bombings, as a means of maximizing accuracy and avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties, this soon descended into complete firebombings of entire urban centers. The aim was never to kill German civilians, but if German civilians died in the process that was unfortunate but necessary. The AIM was to destroy the German economy, and the bombing went a long way towards accomplishing this. Much the same rationale would be used during Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam.

Compared to these campaigns – the destruction of the Indians, the strategic bombing of cities – Sherman’s March to the Sea seems downright tame. The Confederates should never have whined that Sherman burnt their excess crops and destroyed their mills. The Confederates should have thanked their lucky stars that Sherman didn’t treat them like he would treat the Sioux.

On November 15, 1864, Sherman began his famous march, with Atlanta a smoldering ruin behind him. His 60,000 troops marched in two wings, each on a different trail for maximum coverage on the 300 miles from Atlanta to Savannah. His communications and supply lines back to the North were abandoned. For just over a month, Sherman would be out of contact with Lincoln and Grant, which gave the two men no end of worry at certain points.

Sherman’s two wings of his army marched in diverging directions so as to deceive the limited Confederate forces as to his true destination. His cavalry managed to beat away several small Confederate forays, but both the Union columns managed to reach their destinations. The column of Oliver O. Howard reached Macon on November 21, while Sherman’s own column barged into Augusta. Both the Union wings destroyed tracks and depots in these Georgia cities, then continued on to the town of Milledgeville – then the capital of Georgia. (Note: it wasn’t Atlanta until well after the Civil War.) The army reunited at Milledgeville on November 23, where a bunch of soldiers decided to invade the state courthouse. They held a mock session of the Georgia legislature, proceeded to “repeal” the ordinances of secession, then announced that the Yankees were coming and fled in satirical panic.

Sherman’s march was really opposed by only about 12,000 Confederates. Most were old men and young boys of the Georgia militia, who were hardly fit to fight his army of veterans from Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. They barely tried. The one time they did clash with Sherman’s columns, at Griswoldville on November 22, it was a stupendous failure. The overenthusiastic Georgia militia ran headlong into a Union infantry brigade and suffered 1100 casualties, 600 of whom were captured, for a grand Union loss of about 100. This was the only major infantry battle of Sherman’s march.

The other Confederate force was the small cavalry division of Joseph Wheeler, who traded skirmishes with the Union cavalry during the whole march, including a small clash near Hinesville where I sit at this moment. But Wheeler couldn’t stop or even slow down Sherman’s steamroller march through Georgia. By late November it was obvious that the Union general was aiming at Savannah, where he could capture the port and make contact with the Union Navy.

As Sherman made his way to Savannah virtually unopposed, his troops methodically destroyed the railroads they encountered. To prevent easy reconstruction, they would heat the ties over a fire then twist them around a nearby tree, creating what they called “Sherman’s neckties.” In a band 50 to 60 miles wide, Sherman’s foragers took their time picking the countryside clean, either confiscating or destroying property of any military value to the Confederates. Though they were under orders not to invade civilian homes, they undoubtedly did so, and many Union soldiers undoubtedly committed excesses. But Sherman was never too quick to punish these men. He called it “hard war,” but later historians call it "total war."

When it came to “property of military value,” one prominent kind of property central to the war was able to come along on its own. Many slaves abandoned their plantations and joined up with Sherman’s column, often bringing their whole families, since they saw him as a liberator. This displeased Sherman, not because he was opposed to freeing the slaves but because it constrained his movements and placed a strain on his responsibilities. In Sherman’s view, he could not protect or provide for thousands of newly liberated African-Americans, but they could hardly be kept away. So it was that Sherman’s march became a march of liberation as well as of destruction for many. Southern historians aren’t too open about this part.

Some of Sherman’s generals, though, took their dislike of the slavery question too far. One such general was Jefferson C. Davis, whose name was uncomfortably close to that of the Confederate President. Davis was a Northern Democrat, a Union officer who had fought to restore the Union and had no truck with this antislavery nonsense. Davis treated the escaping slaves badly, and on December 9, 1864 committed an act that blackened his name with many fellow officers and Northern politicians. His unit had crossed a creek on their way to Savannah by building a pontoon bridge. His soldiers kept the column of former slaves following his men away from the bridge at gunpoint until the bridge could be taken down, then left the poor refugees to be hacked down by the closely following Confederate cavalry. Th Confederates showed no mercy, and many former slaves drowned trying to cross the river. Davis was just glad to be rid of the burden.

Yeah, Union officers could be horrible racists and massively cruel as well.

There is some indication that Sherman’s March was psychological warfare as much as it was economic. Though not “terrorist” in the means of using mass murder to instill horror into a population, he was very clearly making a statement through his massive despoliation of so much of Georgia. His message was, in my words: “Look at what I am doing. I am in the heart of your country, taking food from your women and destroying your homes and resources. And you can’t stop me. No one can even hope to stop me. The war is over, and you need to admit it, and until you do I will keep doing this.”

Who COULD stop Sherman? Well, no one. Where was Hood and his Army of Tennessee, which had been the nemesis of the Union armies in Tennessee and Georgia for three years? They were getting their asses kicked by George Thomas up near Nashville, that’s where. They weren’t going to be in a position to stop Sherman ever again. I told that story a few days ago, and it's easy to find. (POST LINK)

By December 10, Sherman’s armies had reached Savannah, leaving a trail of desolation and ruin behind them on the 300-mile march. Though Savannah was occupied by Confederate militia and it looked like they were about to make a fight of it, Sherman had no desire to go street-by-street into the old, beautiful city where he had spent much of his career as a young officer. When his troops captured the coastal Fort McAllister to the south of the city on the 13th, he was able to make contact with the Union Navy and reestablish communications with Washington. More importantly, though, Sherman was able to send to local fortresses for siege guns.

General William Hardee, the Confederate general defending Savannah, claimed that he was prepared to fight it out – until he learned that Sherman had big guns on the way that would make short work of his defenses. When Sherman informed him of this fact through a message on December 17, laying out the undeniable evidence that he would take Savannah at little loss to himself and at great loss to the South, Hardee bowed to the inevitable. Instead of surrendering, he elected to escape, and evacuated the city on December 20, 1864. The next day, December 21, the Mayor of Savannah rode out with the city’s notables and presented Sherman with the key to the city. Savannah would not resist, in exchange for a Union promise to respect the city’s citizens and property. Sherman agreed, and his troops entered the city of Savannah that same day – December 21, 1864.

The next day, Sherman fired off a chortling telegram to President Lincoln: "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton." Sherman’s troops would spend Christmas in Savannah, resting and refitting and preparing for the next march. Because South Carolina was next on the hit list.

Sherman’s March had utterly defied military convention. He had operated deep in hostile territory without a line of communications or supply. The results vindicated his risky, bold move, a move that everyone had tried to talk him out of. With less than 2,200 casualties he had kneecapped the South’s war potential in Georgia, essentially divided the remaining Confederacy in half again by severing all the rail lines and telegraph wires, and placed his army on the Atlantic Coast.

Since the March to the Sea had been so successful, Sherman repeated the trick in 1865. This campaign was more complex and possibly more difficult, and Sherman always regarded his Carolinas Campaign as the true capstone of his career. Sherman moved out from Savannah on February 1, 1865, with Columbia, South Carolina as his destination. Once again, he had 60,000 men, but the Confederates could only scrape together about 20,000 to oppose him. The hungry, angry blue caterpillars of Sherman’s army moved with such speed and force over the nearly impassable swamplands of South Carolina that one Confederate remarked “There has never been such an army since the days of Caesar!”

By February 17, Sherman had reached Columbia, which – somehow – burned to the ground. Though the Confederates blamed Sherman for its burning, Sherman always refused this accusation, stating that “f I had made up my mind to burn Columbia I would have burnt it with no more feeling than I would a common prairie dog village; but I did not.” It is far more likely that the attempted burning of cotton by the Confederates to prevent its capture by Sherman spread to neighboring houses, and soon most of the city was on fire. Contrary to his later reputation, Sherman and his generals worked through the night directing their men to put out the fires. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a little smug at the idea of the “birthplace of Secession” going up in flames. He even encouraged one woman to “stand by the fire,” reminding her that “You and your men started this war. Why are they not here to protect you?” He DID direct that the library be saved, noting that “if there had been more books in this part of the country, maybe none of this would have happened.” By all accounts, Sherman was far harsher to South Carolina than he ever was to Georgia.

By March 1865, Sherman’s armies had left a similar trail of destruction across South Carolina and were heading into North Carolina. By now, Sherman’s approach from the south had gathered almost every remaining Confederate army on the East Coast – save Robert E. Lee still pinned down near Richmond – to try and stop him. It wasn’t enough, and at Bentonville, North Carolina on March 19, 1865, Sherman battered aside the ramshackle Confederate army at the only real battle of any of his marches. He continued to move north along the modern route of I-95, and diverted northwest to begin his attack on Raleigh on April 9, 1865 – the day of Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

The Confederates realized the situation was hopeless, and by April 26 the forces opposing Sherman had surrendered. The Carolinas Campaign was the final capstone of the Western armies’ advance in the Civil War, and probably Sherman’s greatest achievement. He had marched 60,000 men 425 miles in 50 days, of which ten were given to rest. He had battled the elements, including the winter, rain, and the swampy lowlands of South Carolina. A triumph of mental and physical endurance, along with skill in engineering and maneuver, it played a large role in forcing Lee out from Richmond – since he knew that when Sherman joined with Grant, the issue was over no matter what he did. Lee raced towards Appomattox to try and avoid this seemingly inevitable union of the two Northern armies, and ran to his demise.

But even Sherman was not gloating at the end of this great conflict. In May 1865, only days after his enemies had surrendered at Raleigh, he wrote in a personal letter: “I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers...'tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated...that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

Possibly the Union’s greatest warrior, Sherman hated war as much as anyone – which, oddly enough, may have been why he was so good at it.

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