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Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Roots of Total Warfare

Everyone has heard of Sherman’s March. This is really shorthand for Sherman’s March to the Sea, a bold move whereby Sherman split his army into two parts, cut the telegraph wires and was out of contact with the North for a month. This became necessary because Hood was interfering with his supply lines north. Sherman sets off from Cartersville Georgia on November 12th and is in Atlanta by November 14th, where he divides his 60,000 man army into two columns. One column ostensibly threatens Augusta, the other Macon. His real objective is the seaport of Savannah. His army has recently devastated the towns of Rome, Etowah, Marietta and Cartersville, destroying infrastructure in these towns and tearing up railway track as he moves. Hood has already accidentally burned Atlanta in September when he destroyed supplies to keep them out of Sherman’s hands; contrary to popular belief, Sherman did not burn Atlanta.

On November 15th, Sherman leaves Atlanta and sets out for Savannah. On November 21st, Sherman’s cavalry raids Griswoldville, capturing a trainload of supplies and burning the station. The next day, Griswoldville becomes the site of the first major engagement of his March. The Federals lose 13 killed, 79 wounded and 2 missing. The Confederates lose 51 killed, 472 wounded, and approximately 600 taken prisoner. Many of these losses were from Georgia Militia units; their valor is unquestioned, but they were no match for Yankee cavalry with repeating carbines.

On November 26th, Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler engages Judson Kilpatrick’s troopers at Buck Head Creek. While Kilpatrick must abandon his mission of rescuing Federal prisoners of war, he nonetheless manages to burn a bridge and inflict 600 casualties upon the opposing force, losing fewer than 50 himself. The next day Kilpatrick enters Waynesboro and burns a bridge and a number of railroad cars before forced to retire by Wheeler. Wheeler attacks Kilpatrick’s camp on the morning of November 28th, driving the Yankee cavalry beyond Buck Head Creek.

Clearly Kilpatrick must eliminate Wheeler’s cavalry if his own troopers are to carry out effective raids. On December 4th, Kilpatrick attacks Wheeler at Waynesboro with his full cavalry division, reinforced by infantry, his objective to crush Wheeler and burn some bridges.   Wheeler had always appreciated that he was outnumbered and had constructed breastworks to equalize the situation. Although the Federals are able to overrun these entrenchments, the works nonetheless cost 190 Union lives and permit Wheeler to withdraw without being destroyed, though he suffers some 250 casualties. Wheeler retires to a blocking position to protect Augusta. Kilpatrick burns his bridges.

There is more skirmishing, but by December 10th Sherman reaches the port city of Savannah. Only now do his opponents realize that Augusta and Macon were never his targets. Still, he finds the town defended by Hardee and 10,000 entrenched Confederates. Hardee has also flooded the low fields, restricting an attacker’s approaches to narrow causeways. Sherman needs supplies waiting for him on Union ships, but finds his way blocked by Fort McAllister. On December 13th, he storms the fort and overwhelms it within 20 minutes. He is resupplied by the Navy and obtains siege artillery to hammer Confederate entrenchments. As he prepares his siege batteries, he sends a note to Hardee demanding Savannah’s surrender; failure to do so will lead to bombardment, starvation and burning of the town. Hardee does not surrender, but leaves town without a fight. The city fathers send out a delegation promising no further resistance if Sherman will only spare the town and its citizens. Sherman agrees and the March to the Sea is over. Sherman reestablishes communication with Washington by presenting Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas present. Sherman rests there until spring, when he marches north through the Carolinas, ending his war in North Carolina with the surrender of Joe Johnson’s army in late April of 1865.

Compared to Grant’s Overland campaign, Sherman was remarkably frugal with the lives of his men. And, although Sherman destroyed railways, train stock, bridges and other infrastructure, there is little evidence his troops targeted civilians (though we still feel good when Scarlett blows away the bummer). Sherman’s March has nonetheless become shorthand for Federal barbarism; I can remember Southerners in my parent’s and grandparent’s generation who could not say Sherman’s name without one figuring out that he ranked just a notch or two below Old Nick.

How did Sherman come by the awful enduring legacy of being The Worst Yankee Ever? Probably unfairly – Sherman had spent a great deal of time in the South before the war and actually liked Southerners very much. By November of 1864, following Dahlgren’s depredations, Grant’s blood-drenched Overland Campaign, Hunter’s burning of Confederate homes in central Virginia, and Custer’s torching of civilian farms in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman was not out of line with mainstream Federal strategy in “making Georgia howl.” That strategy was very simply to destroy without pity any property which might be of use to the Confederate war effort – railways, granaries, salt works, bridges – everything. Further, Sherman’s “bummers” would live off the land to the extent possible, eating and confiscating livestock and granaries, and destroying what they could not take with them.

Sherman carried off slaves too – but not because he was an abolitionist. His strategy sheds light on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – only Southern slaves were “freed”, not those in Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and D.C. – slaves were freed only when they were useful property to the Confederate war effort. Thus the Yankee columns were followed by newly emancipated “contrabands” whose labor was denied to the Confederacy.

Sherman refused to take credit for his own “scorched earth” policies, claiming that he was “just following orders.” But he means this in an aw-shucks self-deprecatory way, not like the Nazi-era monsters trying to avoid the hangman’s rope. Moral: if one is going to do really bad things to civilians, one best win the war…

Whether or not Sherman came up with the total war strategy on his own, he inarguably understood it better than most. He himself called this concept “hard war.” Just as Orwell once remarked that “the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it”, Sherman, Grant and Sheridan understood that the other quickest way to end a war was to make the other guy lose it. Only this accounts for the acceptance of unprecedented casualties in May of 1864 and the plan to methodically burn down the essential infrastructure of the South without regard to the consequences to the civilian population. Sherman was a hard-nosed realist who understood that this type of warfare required a special discipline from decent men, the courage to do the wrong thing that lives might be saved and the blessings of peace restored sooner.

It is not surprising that Sherman is studied and admired as a strategist. His tactics of “total war” were copied during the Boer War by the British by denying food and shelter to the Boer population, to the point of inventing the first concentration camps for Boer women and children. Churchill and Roosevelt brought total war to Germany with bombings night and day of infrastructure and cities; the civilian population of Dresden is said to have swallowed a particularly strong dose of “hard war” in February of 1945. Japan had a bad summer in 1945 when Truman ordered Hiroshima and Nagasaki incinerated, as apparently the Japanese civilian population had not figured out “hard war” from the conventional firebombing of Tokyo; perhaps 100,000 died, hundreds of thousands were injured and a million left homeless in one Tokyo raid alone. This is Sherman stuff: overwhelming force that ends the war now is a good thing for everyone.

The takeaway for us is this: post-Sherman, civilian infrastructure is likely to be a deliberate objective in any modern war important enough to win. The “collateral damage” and suffering inflicted on the civilian population is something we must get used to, as “war is hell” for everyone in the modern age.

Sources: Harper’s History of the Rebellion, National Park Service battle summaries, http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/ga027.htm; http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/ga025.htm; http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/ga026.htm

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.

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