You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it
William Tecumseh Sherman
In October 1864 William Tecumseh Sherman faced a decision. He occupied the city of Atlanta, Georgia, which was the primary railroad hub of the Confederacy. The problem was he couldn't stay there. Moreover, his purpose was not Atlanta itself, but to end the American Civil War. Therefore he took a risky and radical step. He would cut his army free of the indefensible railroad line which supported his army, and march to the seaport of Savannah, Georgia. There his army could be supported by the Union Navy, which the Confederates could do little more than annoy. Wanting the war to stay won, he chose to destroy anything of military value along the way. Bringing the war home damaged the Confederate will to resist and his successful march elevated Sherman to a well-deserved reputation as one of history's great military strategists. It also left him despised among most Southerners to this day, even though he gave them generous terms at their surrender, and genuinely liked and admired the Southern people.
Sherman's march really began in after Grant (really Thomas' Army of the Cumberland) drove Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee out of its siege lines outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. President Lincoln appreciated the military skill of Gettysburg victor George H. Meade, but Meade was seen as a cautious general, not a driver who would bring Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virgina to heel. 1864 was an election year, and without progress against Lee Lincoln might be defeated by Democrats who might agree to peace, and splitting the nation. Grant, the victor of Fort Pillow, Vicksburg and Nashville, was seen as a driver, and his strategy had been successful in closing the Mississippi River and dividing the Confederacy. Grant was called east to take overall military command of all Union Armies, though as a practical matter that meant he spent much of his time directing Meade, who retained command of the Army of the Potomac.
Sherman, who was probably Grant's best friend, assumed command of the all Union armies in the West. His center was commanded by George H. Thomas better known by then as the Rock of Chickamauga. Slow, methodical and always in control, Thomas and his 60,000 man Army of the Cumberland were the Union army's anvil in the west. James B. McPherson's 25,000 man Army of the Tennessee and John M. Schofield's Army of the Ohio were his flankers and Sherman's favorites as both men were drivers. Opposing him was Joseph Johnston's 69,000 man Army of the Tennessee. Johnston had commanded the Army of Nothern Virginia until suffering severe wounds in the Peninsular Campaign in 1861, and was considered one of the Confederacy's best soldiers. Johnston was very competent, but lacked the audacity which characterized Lee. Realizing Sherman outnumbered him by 3 to 2, Johnston hoped to block Sherman's progress southeast, and if an opportunity presented itself to defeat him in detail.
In the East Lee had been successful in defeating a series of Union Generals including the careless John Pope, the overmatched Ambrose Burnside, overcautious George B. McClellan and the braggart Joe Hooker. But the east was not the West. By 1864 Union Armies were battle-hardened and used to victory. All the incompetent and/or political commanders had been replaced by tested pros. The same could be said of the Confederates, but Sherman's forces never made the disastrous errors that made such victories as the Battle of Chancellorsville possible. Johnston built a solid defense line at Rocky Face Ridge only to have Sherman outflank him at Snake Creek Gap cutting his supply lines and forcing a retreat.
They met next at in the hills at Resaca, Georgia. The fighting was inconclusive and again Sherman moved around Johnston by moving across the Oostanula River at Lay's Ferry. Once again Johnston was forced to retreat. They fought a skirmish at Adairsville but Johnston again retreated when the open terrain gave advantage to Sherman's larger army. And so the campaign continued, with Johnston setting a defense line where the terrain favored him, after which Sherman would flank him, forcing another retreat. The only major action they fought was the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman had defeated John Bell Hood's corps the day before at Kolb's farm, and hoped Johnston's line had been weakened enough to make it vulnerable. But by then both sides had also learned to entrench. By then the rules of trench warfare appiied, namely that a properly supported defense line could not be breached provided the defender was able to maintain an adequate reserve. Sherman attacked and was bloodily repulsed. Again he sidled right and went around Johnston.
Though Johnston had played his hand skillfully, the simple fact was that Sherman had maneuvered him to the gates of Atlanta. From the safety of an armchair Johnston's continuous series of retreats looked like defeats, particularly in comparison to Lee who had managed to stop Grant's army outside Petersburg. Johnston hadn't stopped Sherman, and he hadn't fought very often, which seemed like he was weak willed to many Confederate civilians, most notably Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Now the Union Army was entrenched outside Atlanta and sending cavalry out to create problems. So Davis replaced Johnston with the agressive Texan Hood, figuring Hood would at least fight.
That Hood would do. But this change illustrated brilliantly the difference between commanding an army corps and an army itself. Aggression is a very valuable trait in a disciplined corps commander, with an army commander behind him who controls his leash. But as John Pope had learned to his sorrow at Second Manassas aggression itself is not enough. On July 20 Hood decided he would attack Thomas at Peachtree Creek and overrun him. His plans sounded logical, but nobody ever broke George Thomas. Hood attacked and Thomas thumped him inflicting 5,000 casualties Hood could not afford.
Two days later Hood tried again, this time with McPherson. This time the attack did better, and McPherson was killed. But not before he sent his reserves to exactly the spot where Hood's forces began to break through. A fierce counterattack led by Union General John Logan restored the line and drove Hood's forces backward. Once again Hood had suffered four to one losses against an army that greatly outnumbered his own. Desertions increased. After a series of minor actions Sherman succeeded in cutting Hood's supply lines after defeating the Confederates at the Battle of Jonesborough. That forced Hood to evacuate Atlanta and Sherman entered Atlanta on September 2.
The problem then became what to do next. Hood's ill-conceived attacks had reduced the Army of Tennessee to a shell of its former self, a third of Sherman's forces. Sherman had already proved he could maneuver the Confederates out of any strong position, and defeat them outside of one. But Sherman had one major vulnerability. His army was supplied by a single railroad line stretching back to Chattanooga. Hood and Davis agreed that if Hood could move against Sherman's supply lines he could not defend them. Hood's veterans could move fast enough to evade decisive battle and still shatter the supply lines. Davis had already ordered a large cavalry force under the brilliant cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest to move against Union supply lines in the West. With Hood's army also on the loose, Sherman's supply route simply could not be held open by any limited force. Hood and Davis believed Sherman would be forced to retreat or starve. The Confederates could then re-occupy Atlanta and continue using it as before.
None of this escaped Sherman's notice. Forrest's moves against his supply lines worried him sufficiently to make him detach Thomas to go north and take charge of situation with many of his troops. He realized that if he chased Hood he would erase all the progress his soldiers had made during the summer and fall of 1864. He wanted to go forward, rather than backward because going forward was the only way to end the war. Furthermore his long experience living in the South had convinced him of the toughness and determination of the Southern people. As early as 1862 he had written that a simple defeat would not break their will to rebel. Any mild rebuke would simply lead the South to rise again in a few years. Sherman wanted a peace that lasted rather than peace for its own sake. And he was angry at secession. While no abolitionist he regarded secession as a form of treason, to be stamped out.
Therefore Sherman decided to cut loose from his supply lines and march directly for Savannah, Georgia where his troops could be supplied by sea. His troops would live off the land. Much would be destroyed, particularly everything of military value. The food his troops ate (or burned) could not be sent to support Confederate Armies. Union commanders had long ago noticed the shortages of shoes and threadbare uniforms among Confederate soldiers. Lee's troops at Petersburg had been reduced to a bit of bacon and grain by now, and were losing weight and strength. With privation comes deserters, and a hungry man can neither march or fight so well as one who is well fed and clothed.
The decision was a difficult one, more so for Grant than Sherman. Three hundred miles (500 km) is a very long march for 62,000 men with no hope of any kind of re-supply. If Sherman's troops did not make the coast quickly, his army would be destroyed. The march implied a high level of risk. But the only large army around was Hood's and Sherman's advance would leave it behind rather than in front of him. Union troops could move as quickly as Hood's. In fact they would probably move even quicker, because the Confederate soldiers needed to eat as well, and could not live off the land Union troops would pick clean. So Grant agreed, and Sherman moved out.
In making this decision Sherman accomplished two important things. First he followed the military principle of maintaining the initiative. If he chased Hood he would have been dancing the Confederate tune. By continuing to move east he forced the Confederates to react to him, if they could. Second, he was the first general to institute the Clauswitzian principle of total war. He sought not the defeat of the Confederate Armies, but rather the elimination of the will and economic ability to support them in the field.
First he burned Atlanta. This was not done out of malice, but rather the realization that if he left it as it was the Confederates would quickly re-occupy it and once again use it as their major transportation hub. It would be as if the Atlanta campaign had never been fought. His troops burned much of the town. They had already learned that simply uprooting track was not enough, for the lines would be quickly repaired. So his troops created Sherman neckties by heating up the sections of track and bending them around a tree so they could never be used again. In the manufacturing-poor Confederacy, sacking Atlanta rendered the city militarily useless for the remainder of the war.
So Sherman moved east with 62,000 men and took Savannah on December 22, 1864. He sent his troops south in two columns and maneuvered in such a way as to conceal his actual goal of Savannah. That made it very difficult for the few Southern troops in Georgia to concentrate against him. His engineer troops performed brilliantly erecting bridges on the fly that allowed the Union army to keep moving, reducing its vulnerability. Several small engagements were fought, but in no case were the Confederates able to consolidate sufficient forces to force a large scale engagement, the one thing that might have proven fatal to his army. On the way his troops caused 100 million dollars worth of damage, an astronomical sum in those days. They burned or wrecked every confederate factory encountered on the way, including two major munitions plants. His troopers cut a ten mile wide swath in Georgia of burned and siezed crops.
Burning was evident, but not so common as popularly understood. Farms and private property (excepting important Confederate figures) was not to be burned provided the landowners did not burn their own crop ahead of him. Many did and so lost their homes, and some Union soldiers developed a taste for arson that would come to its full flower later in the harsher campaign through South Carolina. But it cannot be argued that Sherman's campaign was in any way directed against the Southern people themselves. There were no massacres and civilian casualties throughout were so light they cannot be blamed on his army.
On the way all captured slaves were freed, and around 10,000 came to follow his army, which multiplied his logistical difficulties. Many died along the way, though their desire for emancipation was natural and laudable. In a way, by voting with their feet Southern slaves again refuted Southern arguments about the virtue of slavery. His destruction of Southern industry and railroads crippled the Confederate war effort.
On December 13, Sherman's troops linked up with the Union Navy after capturing Fort McAllister. On December 22, Sherman's troops took Savannah and linked up with Union naval forces. Savannah itself was not harmed, and its people largely left alone, which came as a shock given Sherman's reputation has a destroyer. From there he sent a telegram to President Lincoln, offering the city as a Christmas present.
Sherman's march to the sea was a risky venture that paid off well for the Union. The damage he inflicted to Southern morale and logistics helped write down the last hopes of the Confederacy. Though harsh, it was accompanied by few civilian casualties. Though many Southerners despise him for it today, the march helped bring a rapid end to the Civil War. It was not random, or purposeless violence, but rather done to serve a specific end, namely a lasting end to the bloodiest war Americans have ever fought. Sherman himself despised war and often said those who romanticized it had never heard the screams of the wounded and dying. And in doing so, Sherman earned a lasting reputation among military historians. He had introduced total war to the world, and accomplished his purpose in bringing down the Confederacy. As such his March to the Sea ranks as one of the finest military campaigns ever fought.
James B. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom
Bruce Catton Never Call Retreat
volume three of his Centennial History of the Civil War
Shelby Foote The Civil War: A Narrative
See a necktie made here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Drsgs6-3Qlg