Sherman’s March to the Sea

Posted on November 15, 2014. Filed under: History | Tags: , |

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

November 15, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Just 7 days after the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, General William Tecumseh Sherman pulled up stakes and left Atlanta and marched on the port of Savannah, Georgia.

It was the capture of Atlanta in mid September that ensured the re-election of Lincoln. However, considering that the war had turned in favor of the Union, McClellan’s election was unlikely.

General Ulysses S. Grant had been called from the western theater to take command of the Union armies in Virginia. Grant was really not a brilliant tactician. His plan for defeating Lee was th throw the entire weight of the Federal Army against the Army of Northern Virginia, heedless of the casualties.

It was Sherman who first devised the concept of total war. Sherman was not only determined to destroy the enemy army, as well as targets of military value, he targeted civilians. He intended to make everyone, soldier and civilian alike, feel the harsh hand of war.

As Sherman made his way east from Atlanta, his men foraged off the land, taking pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down. Anything that could be eaten, burned, or even make the civilian population starve, his men took. He was going to “make Georgia howl.” And howl it did.

While Sherman did not explicitly free any slaves during the march, several thousand former slaves who had nowhere else to go began to follow his army.

Sherman’s tactics had far-reaching effects. Although the First and Second World Wars were still about 50 years away, military thinkers began to ponder how total war could help them win a war. It was the basis of the Allied strategic bombing campaign of Germany during World War II. Civilians were suddenly no longer off-limits, but a specific part of plans in order to erode civilian support for the war.

Today, we look on these kinds of tactics with horror, but in many cases, the civilian population is not necessarily innocent.

Because of his tactics, Sherman became a monster in the eyes of southerners. They could not believe that he would allow his army to take everything in its path, or burn what it could not take.

However, Sherman did not burn anything just because he could. He did not raze entire towns to the ground, as was suggested by some southerners. Atlanta was burned by Hood, not Sherman.

But by the end of 1864, everyone had grown tired of war, and Sherman determined to end it. He crippled Confederate supply lines, rail lines and other military infrastructure. He brought plantation owners low, taking their slaves, if not intentionally, then by accident.

If not for Sherman, the war may have dragged on longer than it had. The Union had been very lucky over the course of the war, with the rise of Sherman and Grant, just as they were lucky that Stonewall Jackson had been killed in 1863. Lee was never the same as a general after the death of Jackson.

How should Sherman be remembered in history? As a cold-hearted monster or a brilliant visionary tactician who saw how to end the war?

It could be argued that Sherman was more important to bringing about a successful conclusion to the war than Grant was. Because he was willing to do what needed to be done to bring a speedy end to it.

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