Sherman’s March to the Sea

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Podcast Transcript

Just one week after President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in November 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman set out to execute one of the most audacious plans of the US Civil War. 

His plan involved violating several central tenants of warfare which had been established for thousands of years, yet in the process, he helped bring the war to a swift conclusion. 

In hindsight, many people consider what he did to have been a war crime.

Learn more about Sherman’s March to the Sea and how it affected the outcome of the US Civil War on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

General William Tecumseh Sherman was one of the most significant generals, not just in the US Civil War but in American history.

Not only was he one of the greatest generals in the Union Army, but he became the top military officer in the United States after the war….but that is a whole other episode. 

To understand Sherman’s March to the Sea, it is important to understand where the civil war was in 1864. 

At the start of the year, the resolution of the war was still in doubt. The ability of the Union to win the war was a big campaign issue in the presidential election that year. 

While most of the attention was given to the Eastern Theater of the war, which centered around Virginia, much of the action was taking palace in the Western Theater. 

In May 1864, General Sherman left Union occupied Tennessee and entered northwest Georgia. 

Sherman managed to defeat Confederate Generals Joseph Johnson and John Bell Hood in a series of battles over a period of three months. The Union pushed forward until it arrived and laid siege to the city of Atlanta on July 22. 

Atlanta at the time had a population of about 10,000 people, which put it among the top 50 cities in the country at the time. Unlike most cities, Atlanta wasn’t built on a river or a coast for transportation purposes. It was one of the first major cities built because of railroads.

The city was the junction of several major railroads, including the Georgia, Macon & Western, and Western and Atlantic railroads. 

Through a series of battles around the city, all the supply lines to the city were cut off, and on September 2, the city was abandoned by the Confederate army. 

81 boxcars of munitions were destroyed on their way out, which caused a massive explosion. 

Sherman ordered the civilian population to evacuate the city on September 7.

This was a huge victory for the Union. Atlanta was a major transportation hub and was important for the transportation of goods and soldiers for the Confederate army.  

Atlanta was also a manufacturing hub for the Confederacy, so the loss of Atlanta was a huge setback for the Confederate war effort.

Moreover, it was a huge boost to the morale of the Union. The timing of the victory in early September was perfectly timed for Lincoln and helped swing the election. 

The big question was what Sherman and his army should do next. 

Supporting his army so far into enemy territory was difficult. Confederate raiders were constantly attacking his supply lines, making the occupation of Atlanta difficult.

Sherman’s goal was still the same. To make it logistically impossible for the Confederacy to conduct the war. However, he was limited in what he could do if he was just going to sit in Atlanta. 

The plan he came up with was one of the most audacious plans in military history.  I don’t think it was quite on a par with Caesar building a second wall at the Battle of Alesia, but it is right up there. 

Sherman was going to divide his army into two. One part of his army consisting of 60,000 men, including anyone who was injured and not in good health, would be sent back north under the leadership of General George Thomas. They would continue to occupy Confederate General John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee at Memphis. 

The rest of his army, consisting of 62,000 men, would march southeast to take the coastal city of Savannah, 225 miles or 360 kilometers away. Sherman was going to march to the sea.

The reason why this was so audacious is that Sherman was going to purposely cut his lines of supply and communications. He could not be reinforced. He would have no way of getting or sending intelligence. 

He would be surrounded in hostile territory by very hostile civilians. 

By cutting a swath across Georgia, coupled with everything already done north of Atlanta, he would, in effect, destroy the ability of the Confederacy to support Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia.  All of the train lines would be disrupted, as would much of the economy of Georgia. 

Once his army made it to Savannah, he would turn north and put pressure on Lee from the south. 

Sherman planned to live off the land. The army would move forward, foraging, confiscating food, cattle, and whatever they could find to support themselves as they crossed Georgia without being supplied from the rear. 

This was a very risky move. Being cut off from supplies and reinforcements, surrounded by hostile territory, is something that most generals try to avoid. It is usually a recipe for disaster.

However, precisely because it was something no one expected, there were no major confederate forces between Atlanta and Savannah. No one expected him to do something like this because it went against every piece of military doctrine. 

Sherman notified President Lincoln and General Grant about his plan. Both men were very apprehensive about what he had proposed, but they also felt he was the best able to assess the situation on the ground. 

On November 2, Grant replied to Sherman and said, “Go as you propose.”

Sherman began to put his plan in effect on November 8, upon hearing that Lincoln was reelected. 

He ordered 2,500 wagons filled with supplies and began separating his troops into those that would go north and those that would go with him. 

On November 15, Sherman ordered the commercial and industrial buildings of Atlanta to be burned and set off for Savannah. 

He wrote in his memoirs, “… We rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles. We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.”

Sherman’s troops were divided into two groups which set out on a parallel path. 

Together they formed a plague of gun-toting locusts fifty miles wide that moved through the countryside. 

Sherman’s troops did face some limited resistance. There were Georgia militia units that tried to attack their flanks, but they were very disorganized and vastly outnumbered. 

They fought a small battle known as the Battle of Griswoldville on November 22. It was a lopsided victory for the Union, who lost only 62 men to the Confederates’ 650.

The battle went so badly that they didn’t bother to confront the Union forces again. Instead, they tried to rush ahead of the Union troops to impede their progress by destroying bridges. 

Most of the military action that most of the soldiers saw came from individual civilians, usually farmers, who wanted to defend their land. 

The supplies which Sherman brought along lasted for 20 days. Once they were exhausted, foragers were set out from every unit to gather food. This was the key to Sherman’s plan, which would allow the army to survive. 

The foragers would go out every day to gather as much food as they could. They would raid farmhouses and steal cows, chickens, and pigs. They would take bread, potatoes, and anything else that could be eaten.

If anyone resisted, their farmhouses and barns were burned to the ground.

The total amount confiscated was estimated to be 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, 13,000 head of cattle, 9.5 million pounds of corn, and 10.5 million pounds of animal fodder.

The looting had a dual purpose. Feeding the troops and also trying to lessen the desire of the civilians in Georgia to support the Confederacy and the war. 

Most famously, the troops destroyed all the Confederate railroads they encountered. 

It wasn’t sufficient to just dismantle the railways. If they just took apart the tracks, they could be reassembled rather quickly. 

Rather the Union troops would start bonfires, usually with wooden railroad ties, and place the iron rails on them until the metal would start to soften. They would then bend the rails around a tree until it looped around itself. 

They actually began doing this on the march to Atlanta in July. 

The twisted rails became known as Sherman Neckties due to their shape.

The South had very little in the way of iron production and wasn’t able to produce new rails. By bending them this severely, they couldn’t be repaired and were effectually permanently destroyed.

Due to the work of Sherman’s Army, there were no trains able to go north of a line extending from Chattanooga to Atlanta to Savannah. 

On December 10, about three weeks after they left Atlanta, they arrived outside of Savannah. 

10,000 Confederate forces were defending Savannah, but they eventually fled, and the Union took the city on December 21. The city leaders came out to meet General Sherman and agreed to surrender the city in exchange for the city and its citizens not being harmed. 

 In addition to the city, they also took 25,000 bales of cotton. 

Once in Savannah, Sherman managed to send a telegraph to President Lincoln which said,  “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.”

In January, Sherman and his men left the city and headed north for Charleston, South Carolina. 

The war ended in April with the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s forces in Virginia, in no small part from the pressure put on his army by Sherman’s Army. 

Sherman’s March to the Sea is considered by many military historians to have been an early version of what is now known as Total War. Total War is attacking civilian, logistical, and manufacturing targets as part of the strategic campaign of the war. It is probably best exemplified by the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II. 

For generations after the war, southerners would say Sherman’s name with disdain. 

Thousands of slaves became refugees and used the opportunity to join Sherman’s march to the sea. An estimated 10,000 freed slaves followed Sherman’s Army. 

On December 8, 1864, several hundred freedmen actually drowned trying to cross Ebenezer Creek north of Savanah when they got caught between Union and Confederate forces. 

Today, Sherman’s March to the Sear would be in violation of international law. In particular, the 1977 Geneva Convention prohibits targeting civilian sources of food, livestock, and water.  If he had been captured during his march, he probably would have been tried by the Confederacy.

However, from a military standpoint, it was a smashing success. It completely disrupted Confederate supply lines and communications and destroyed Confederate morale in Georgia. The possibility of being caught between two Union Armies was also on the mind of Robert E. Lee when he surrendered. 

The rationale for the march to the sea was best summarized by one of Sherman’s officers in his personal bodyguard. They were a unit of cavalry from Alabama who were loyal to the Union. 

In a letter, he wrote, “This Union and its Government must be sustained, at any and every cost… To sustain it, we must war upon and destroy the organized rebel forces,–must cut off their supplies, destroy their communications…and produce among the people of Georgia a thorough conviction of the personal misery which attends war, and the utter helplessness and inability of their ‘rulers’ to protect them…If that terror and grief and even want shall help to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting us…it is mercy in the end.”