One of the more interesting “what-ifs” of the Civil War involves the notion that Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown and William T. Sherman might have been able to work out an agreement that would have meant an entirely different march through Georgia for Sherman and his men.
The story is as follows: following the fall of Atlanta, Sherman showed little interest in chasing down John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. At the same time, he realized that he was in a vulnerable position in Atlanta, with its single rail line of supply stretching back to Chattanooga, presenting a tempting target for Hood.
Within days of capturing Atlanta Sherman was formulating the plan that eventually became the March to the Sea. He made it clear that his objective was as much political as it was military, as much psychological as it was material. On September 15 he learned that there was a rumor that Brown, along with Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, were interested in paying him a visit. Unionist Joshua Hill, who was in contact with Sherman, wanted to explore the idea of a separate peace between Georgia and the United States, and Sherman readily embraced the idea. Former US congressman Augustus R. Wright and William King of Marietta acted as go-betweens. As Sherman told Lincoln, “it would be a magnificent stroke of policy, if I could without wasting a foot of ground or of principle arouse the latent enmity to Jeff Davis, of Georgia.”
Given Brown’s relationship with the authorities at Richmond, this idea had some merit. After all, the governor had just withdrawn the state militia from Confederate forces for the fall harvest, claiming that their primary purpose had been to defend a now-lost Atlanta. But the governor rejected the offer, making it appear to be Sherman’s initiative, and Sherman continued planning for the march he would eventually make.
It’s difficult to see how Brown could have accepted the offer, and yet the offer shows that the destructiveness planned by Sherman was a means to an end, and not an end in itself. After all, Sherman was offering an olive branch, not a sword. How the subjugation of former Confederates came about was not as important to him as the fact that it might be achieved, period. Moreover, in allowing Sherman to negotiate as he did, Lincoln set the stage for Sherman’s later efforts to negotiate peace at Durham Station, a negotiation that went awry, and demonstrates that for all his talk about being a simple soldier who eschewed politics and despised politicians, Sherman was all too eager to take on a role that exceeded the role usually assigned to the military.
What do you make of this road not taken?