In November of 1864, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman cut a 300-mile long, 60-mile wide corridor of destruction across the Confederate State of Georgia. He burned every thing in his path. He torched plantations, bridges, crops, factories, and mills. The goal of this war of attrition was to stop the heart of the Confederacy. By all accounts this campaign was very successful.
Sherman’s campaign raised many questions. First, what did Sherman think off his march? Did he see it as vindication, or did he see it as an unnecessary step in reuniting the United States? Did Sherman think that his army needed to destroy everything in its path? Also, what did Sherman’s troops think about the highly destructive march?
The following quote form Jim Miles book To the Sea: A History and Tour Guide of Sherman’s March, gives a brief example of how both sides felt about the march.
To people of the North it was a triumphal procession in which right prevailed and an evil rebellion and its institution were destroyed. To the South, it was the ultimate cruelty-a cowardly war against innocent civilians, an act so despicable that it took Georgia one hundred years to recover economically. A scar still remains on the southern psyche. (Miles, Intro)
When I look carefully at this quote, I can see the strong emotions each side had toward the march. The North saw it as a great triumph; while the South saw the march as if the devil himself had come down and burned their homes and crops.
What Sherman thought about this is expressed in the introduction of David Nevin’s book Sherman’s March. To Sherman, the secession was the South’s greatest sin and Southerners who supported the Confederacy.
Confederacy deserved to be treated like criminals. “To those who submit to rightful authority, all gentleness and forbearance,” he proclaimed. “But to petulant and persistent secessionists, why death is mercy and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. (Nevin, 8)
This quote shows a very hard man, one who could not forget why he was destroying Southern plantations in the first place. A comparison could be drawn between Sherman and the Arch-Angel Loki. Both were sent by a higher power to destroy evil with fire and brimstone, or in Sherman’s case, fire and cannonballs.
Sherman also threatened the civilians during his occupation of Savannah, right before he began his march. In a letter he wrote to Brigadier General John E. Smith in Cartersville Georgia, he showed his total disdain for people of the South who challenged him.
Arrested some six or eight citizens know or supposed to be hostiles. Let one or two go free to carry word to band that you give them forty-eight hours’ notice that unless all the men of ours picked up by them in the past two days are returned, Kingston, Cassville, and Cartersville will be burned, as also the houses of the parties arrested. I suppose the band of guerrillas is known to you: and you can know where to strike. (Simpson, 753)
In this quote he shows just how far he is willing to go to stop the South.
Sherman also wanted to mislead his enemies in his true intentions. In a letter he wrote to H. C. A. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War he says:
If indiscreet newspaper men publish information too near the truth, counteract its effect by publishing other paragraphs calculated to mislead the enemy- such as “Sherman’s army has been much reinforced, especially in the cavalry, and he will soon move by several columns in circuit, so as to catch Hood’s army;” (Simpson, 754)
The reason for such lies would give the Confederates a diversion that would lead them away from his real goal of breaking the back of the Confederacy. He probably did not want people to know his true intentions of burning Georgia. He also would not want General Hood’s armies to have any inclination of what he was about to do. This shows that he was a very clever man who used all things at his disposal wisely.
Sherman remained silent about what his army was doing in Georgia in order to protect his troops. In a letter to his wife he wrote,
We start today. My arm is quite well. The box of clothing came last night. I have all your letters to including Nov. 3. Write no more till you hear me. Good-bye. (Simpson, 758)
He knew that he had to sever all ties with everyone in the North, just incase his letters were intercepted by someone in the south. This demonstrates how committed he was to the cause. He had to dedicate everything to the cause and separate himself from his wife and brother, in order to achieve his objective.
When Sherman began his march in Georgia he knew that re-supplying his army would be difficult so they would have to live off the land. However, his men did not mind. In a letter he wrote to Major-General Halleck he said, “My army prefers to enjoy the fresh sweet potato fields of the Ocmulgee.” That would be just the beginning. For the remainder of the march they would successfully live off the land. He showed strong faith in his soldier’s abilities. He himself also had to depend on the food for which they foraged.
Sherman saw other reasons for destruction of the South. One in particular would be the slaves in Georgia. Sherman felt it was necessary to free them from their bondage. In the book The Story of the Great March by George Ward Nichols, he wrote a letter telling just how Sherman felt about doing this.
General Sherman invites all able bodied Negroes (others could not make the march) to join the column, and he takes especial pleasure on some occasions, when they join in the procession, in telling them they are free; that Massa Lincoln has given them their liberty, and that they can go where they please (Nichols, 61)
This quote demonstrates that Sherman saw his reason for burning Georgia as one of a greater good. He wanted to help the slaves gain their freedom.
In another writing by Nichols Sherman almost appears nonchalant about the way they are cleaving through the south. Nichols begins by talking about an encounter the army had with two old black’s in their sixties. All of a sudden he says, “It is near this place that several factories were burned.” It is shocking to realize that the army had become so accustomed to the destruction that the meeting of the people was more important than the destroying of the factory.
Sherman was happy with the outcome of his march. In a letter to his wife from Savannah he mentions how effective his march was. He goes so far as to say, “I suppose Jeff Davis will now have to feed the People of Georgia, instead of collecting provisions of them to feed his armies.”(Simpson, 767) Sherman was also boastful in his success. The following letter to Abraham Lincoln illustrates this.
I beg to present you as a Christmas gift of the City of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25,000 bakes of cotton.
Sherman’s overconfidence could have brought about his downfall, but instead it helped him gut the South.
Sherman was also a very good military strategist. He was able to understand that warfare was changing and that one had to make war on civilians who resisted the North. By burning Georgia he made it clear that the confederate army could not defend Georgia. This demoralized the south as much as the burning. He also neglected to follow Hood into Tennessee after the sacking of Atlanta. In a special field order he tells why.
General Hood led his army successfully far over towards Mississippi in hopes to decoy us out of Georgia. But we were not thus to be led away by him, and preferred to lead and control events ourselves. General Thomas and Schofield, commanding departments to our rear retuned to their posts and prepared to decoy General Hood into their meshes, whilst we came on to complete the original journey. (Thorndike, 243)
Once again this shows that Sherman was able to use all recourses at his disposal.
In all of Sherman’s letters he showed no remorse in burning the South. He failed to realize what his action caused. He failed to see the greater goal of the war; one of reuniting the Union. He could be happy with his march only for a little while, or until Georgia was readmitted into the Union. His march destroyed the economy of Georgia, and the rest of the Union was forced to pay for it. In Army Life of an Illinois Soldier, Charles W. Wills tells how Sherman felt about the march, “That if we can’t subdue these Rebels and the rebellion, the next best thing we can do is all go to hell together.” (Wills, 292)
Sherman’s soldiers also loved and revered him very much. One letter from Marching With Sherman by Henry Hitchcock shows this very well. Hitchcock states “Gen. Foster is up here today and the General has just gone to a review of Blair’s corps;” The direct statement of “the” General can only be one person, William Tecumseh Sherman. This shows almost a reverence for him. The men at his command frequently called him “Uncle Billy”. This clearly means that they all felt an attachment to the man.
It was rough being a solider in Sherman’s army. Willis expresses this adequately in the beginning of a diary entry. “Had an awful day’s march yesterday, full 20 miles and the road very muddy and slippery. County peculiarly Georgian, like of which, I hope to found nowhere else in Uncle Sam’s Domain.” But in all his letters he never says an ill word about Sherman. This is very surprising considering the rough time experienced.
In another letter Willis expressed his hope that Sherman would be nominated for president. Later he admitted that Sherman would not accept the nomination, but Willis said that if he did he would want another commander like Sherman. This conveys that he liked the way Sherman did things. It also illustrates that he believed in Sherman’s way of doing things. This means that Willis also knew why they were destroying everything.
In a diary entry by Brevet Major George Ward Nichols he says,
It must not be supposed that we do not meet many persons who claimed to have been Unionists from the beginning of the war. The vote Georgia was undoubtedly given by a large majority against secession, and almost every old man, when he sees his pigs and poultry killed in his very door-yard, and gazes with mournful eyes upon the wagons that are filled with his corn, protests that he always was a Union man. It seems hard, sometimes, to strip such men so clear of all eatables as our troops do, who have the art cultivated to the most eminent degree; but, as General Sherman often says to them, “If it is true that you are Unionists, you should not have permitted Jeff. Davis to dragoon you until you were as much his slaves as much the Negroes were yours. (Nichols, 67)
This entry shows that Sherman’s troops were fully behind him in his pillaging of the South. Nichols said it was hard to watch them take everything the farmer had to eat, but he got over it when he realized it was necessary for the war effort, and it is what the general wanted.
Sherman’s troops were also very loyal and trusted him. In the Willis book, he states that
Received a half official notification to day that the campaign and fighting are over. Orders to clean up arms came also, and the boys, showing their contempt of the enemy’s power to do harm, took their guns all to pieces and set to polishing the should-be bright parts, right in view of the enemy’s pickets.
This demonstrates that with just half the word from Sherman, he could persuade his troops to do things that under other circumstances they would not do. They knew that Sherman would protect them, and they had faith in him, so they did what he said.
Though the soldiers knew what they were doing was for a just cause, and they did it very well, they still felt ashamed when people spread lies against them. In a diary entry Hitchcock tells about how he feels about this. “Here as everywhere same terrible stories and lies have been spread about us –killing everybody- burning all houses, including dwellings.”(Hitchcock, 119) He said that this was not the case. That in one instance “Capt. Cole’s orderly riding his house’s foot sunk into ground and smash went a lot of china and crockery buried by and old Negro woman. Cole had it taken out- orderly kept some of the plates- and returned the rest to her, told her safe in her house.” This shows that the soldiers cared about the people and the stories that the people spread about them were false.
Sherman was able to laugh at the accusations with his soldiers. Hitchcock said that the,
General laughed over a saying of old drakey Tennille, “Dem Yanks some of ‘em come down here and first burn the depot-den some more come and dey burn de railroad, den some more come and dey burn up de well- dem yanks us de most destructionest people ever I see.” (Hitchcock, 119)
This shows a lot of confidence and reliability between Sherman and his solders. Hitchcock also demonstrated the arrogance that most of the soldiers felt toward the enemy.
Got copy of Augusta paper of last Saturday, 26th, ridiculous editorial- “where is that fellow Sherman anyhow?” Urges rebel General to make the Oconee (river) “Sherman’s river of death”; Funny to read this after crossing the Ogeechee, and seven days after he crossed the Oconee- both rivers crossed without a shot. (Hitchcock, 120)
In conclusion, Sherman and his men evolved a comradeship unlike no other, while they were burning their way through the South. Sherman’s troops did whatever he told them to and Sherman depended on them for his life. While marching through Georgia, Sherman felt no regret of his destruction, and his troops felt the same way.
Miles, Jim. To the Sea: A History and Tour Guide of Sherman’s March. Nashville:
Rutledge Hill Press, 1989.
Gibson, John M. Those 163 Days. New York: Bramhall House, 1961.
Key, William. The Battle of Atlanta and the Georgia Campaign. New York:
Twayne Publishers, 1958.
Nevin, David Sherman’s March. Alexandria, Virginaia: Time-Life Books, 1986.
Wills, Charles W. Army life of an Illinois soldier. Washington D.C.: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1996.
Osborn, Thomas. Ward The fiery trail : a Union officer’s account of Sherman’s last
Campaigns. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Nichols, Brevet Major George W. The Great March From the Diary of a Staff Officer.
Williamstown, Massachusetts: Corner House Publishers, 1984.
Thorndike, Rachel. The Sherman Letters. New York: 1894.
Hitchcock, Henry. Marching With Sherman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927.
Simpson, Brooks. Sherman’s Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina