Sherman’s March to the Sea: So What?

Will Hickox asks:

Did Sherman’s March contribute materially to the defeat of the Confederacy? Instead of doing the logical thing for an army commander to do–march after the enemy force that was trying to win back Tennessee and invade the North–he merely left behind some forces for another general (Thomas) to organize and do the fighting, while he (Sherman) marched off in the opposite direction on a giant raid through enemy territory that offered no threat.

Did showing the Confederacy was a “hollow shell” make the march justified, or should he have dealt with Hood first?

Joshism observed:

I am under the impression Sherman felt he couldn’t deal with Hood after Atlanta fell. At that point, Sherman’s army was the exposed one as he couldn’t defend his supply line back to TN against Hood’s raids. Rather than trying to chase Hood around GA or AL with a strained supply line Sherman cut free instead.

Joshism’s observations may help explain why Sherman chose the course he did, but the question remains as to the role that the oft-heralded March to the Sea played in securing Confederate defeat. After all, it took place after Lincoln’s reelection, and one might observe that simply ripping up the rails would have left the Confederacy with a logistical nightmare. The rest of the destruction, while it may have had a material impact, served more to get into the hearts and minds of white Georgians.

I’ve posted on this issue before.

20 thoughts on “Sherman’s March to the Sea: So What?

  1. P Diddy October 15, 2013 / 5:09 am

    The Bastard should have been hung for all the Robbing, reaping and pillaging that he caused. Lee should have gone to DC at the beginning of the War and burned it to the Ground as Sherman did Atlanta and the War would have been over at that point. Lee was a gentleman with morals much more than Sherman would ever be in ten lifetimes.

    • Tony October 15, 2013 / 7:22 am

      The March to the Sea was fairly orderly and relatively free of civilian collateral damage. If you want to see Sherman (or more correctly Sherman’s men) acting badly, you should read some first-hand accounts of the Meridian Campaign. Many accounts of the men pillaging dirt farmers and burning their homes. The accounts from the March to the Sea are idyllic by comparison, filled with passages such as “marched past many stately manors through the beautiful countryside.”

      As far as Sherman himself, as far as I remember, the only war crime he committed during the war was relocating the civilian women of Roswell and treating them as prisoners of war.

    • ian duncanson October 15, 2013 / 11:02 am

      What was Sherman reaping?

      • Tony October 15, 2013 / 1:23 pm

        The whirlwind. 🙂

      • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 1:25 pm

        Must be a rapper usage. We should be honored to have Mr. Combs commenting over here. I hear that Snoop’s up next.

    • Will Hickox October 15, 2013 / 2:05 pm

      So it would have been justified for gentlemanly Lee to destroy an enemy city but not for the “bastard” Sherman? Stick to making music, P Diddy.

    • Mark October 16, 2013 / 3:26 pm

      Southern victimhood. Southern draconian war policy was to destroy anything that the Union army might find valuable, and to reap what they could and if any payment was made it was known to be worthless. See how much damage the Confederate Wheeler did in GA. All forgotten now.

  2. John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 7:09 am

    Sounds like Billy was a Bad Boy for Life.

  3. Nick Fry October 15, 2013 / 8:53 am

    If merely creating a logistical nightmare was the way to win a war, we would have just kept bombing Germany during WW2. Sherman going to Savannah gives the Union multiple wins. It utterly wipes out Georgia as an effective component of the Confederate War Effort, inflicts a psychological defeat on the population, liberates thousands of slaves who can no longer contribute to the Confederate War Effort and sets up a march North along the coast from Savannah towards Richmond to pinch the ANV between two Union armies. (Oh and there’s a bonus opportunity to inflict real damage onto South Carolina.) While it is not a knockout blow on its own, it’s a series of body blows that leave what’s left of the Confederacy sagging and swaying and a couple good hits away from total collapse.

  4. Rob Baker October 15, 2013 / 9:39 am

    Comparatively, Sherman’s execution of “Total War” is a restrained effort of breaking the back of the Confederacy. The massive material destruction took place when Atlanta fell, not in his march to Savannah though it did rear results: $100 million in destruction; 300 miles of track; bridges, trains and telegraph lines; and finally the seizure and destruction of food, cotton and mills. But let’s not forget the devastating psychological effects of the march, not only on the citizens of Georgia but on the veteran soldiers from Georgia in Lee’s army.

    Lee insisted that news papers be kept away from soldiers so they could not read about Sherman’s location. Sherman moved rapidly through the South, that the only thing that outpaced him was the rumors of his army’s cruelty, which as most of us know are just that, rumors. Sherman’s March did cause desertion, though less than his Atlanta Campaign.

  5. John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 9:40 am

    I’ve always seen it as a byproduct of a strategy (planned or emergent) to eventually compress the Rebels in a vise between Virginia and the Carolinas – sort of “we may as well make it painful while we’re headed in that direction.” I’m not sure that it “materially contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy” because I think that the CSA was doomed with or without the destruction, etc., regardless of how Sherman handled his forces following the capture of Atlanta. But it probably sent a message which at that point of the war was more likely to enhance civilian gloom and despair than to cause a “rising”.

  6. Patrick Young October 15, 2013 / 12:34 pm

    I just have a couple questions on the issue of the March and Southern morale:

    1. Did the march lead to a collapse in Confederate morale or did the soldiers war on civilians, which is typically viewed as violating basic morality, reinforce notions that the Unionists were beyond the restraints of civilization and intended to treat the South as a conquered province and Southern whites as a subject people? The notion that civilians did not die in large numbers as a result of the March is questionable since a primary object of soldiers was the taking and destruction of foodstuffs which inevitably leads to an increase in civilian deaths.

    2. If the March had a positive morale impact on Southerners, wasn’t it primarily on Black Southerners, who began leaving plantations as Union armies moved through dense slave communities? Sherman’s views on blacks is irrelevant here, since the emancipation was carried out in thousands of locations by Union soldiers and enslaved blacks.

    NOTE: I just noticed that I posted this on a two year old post by accident. It belongs here.

    • Mark October 16, 2013 / 3:40 pm

      >> The notion that civilians did not die in large numbers as a result of the March is questionable since a primary object of soldiers was the taking and destruction of foodstuffs which inevitably leads to an increase in civilian deaths.

      But you’re making an assumption, and empirical evidence doesn’t rest on assumptions. As I’ve said earlier, it was Confederate war policy to destroy anything that might be of use to the Union army. So even if it were a valid assumption that destroying food kills people, we’d have to estimate what portion of foodstuffs were destroyed by the Confederates themselves before we assign blame for those deaths. This is all hypothetical of course; the fact is that no one at the time thought destroying food killed anyone. What they thought was that it made them hungry and forced them to find more food instead of fight a war.

  7. Nella October 15, 2013 / 3:04 pm

    By late 1864, it was clear to most Southerners that Sherman was a depraved, ruthless, murdererous, lunatic, so the severe cruelties he inflicted on defenseless civilians was probably not at all surprising. Nevertheless, hearing accounts of U.S. Army rampages of murder, pillage, and rape is quite different from experiencing it directly. So in the final analysis, I would say Sherman’s terror tactics were quite effective. Additionally, Sherman’s malelovent and virulent white-supremacy must absolutely be considered as a crucial part of his unique brand of terrorism, because it helped communicate the idea to the entire Southern population that his raging hatred of humanity was fully pervasive, and not motivated merely by political considerations. His racism therefore, added the ominous component of psychological terror. While comparisons to the Nazi’s behavior during Operation Barbarossa are perfectly appropriate, they may, of course, be vulnerable to the “Godwin’s law” criticism. Therefore it may be more appropriate to draw comparisons between Sherman and Iwane Matsui, as Native American populations would, sadly, soon discover.

    • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 3:53 pm

      “Sherman’s malelovent and virulent white-supremacy must absolutely be considered as a crucial part of his unique brand of terrorism.” Actually, if you’re correct it seems that Uncle Billy may have been running for office down there. After all, he was doing this in a society that used a large population of human slaves for production purposes which was rivaled only by (here comes another violation of Godwin’s law) you-know-who. I’m guessing that this was not the aspect of Sherman’s march which instilled fear in the hearts and breasts of the locals – at least the white ones.

  8. Michael Confoy October 15, 2013 / 3:31 pm

    Basically it was as Sheridan did to the Valley except on a larger scale. With the additional impact on rail resources and the enslaved population. It also allowed Sherman then to march north, assuring that Johnson would surrender in the end, plus the bonus of the accidental burning of the capital of the heart of succession.

  9. M.D. Blough October 16, 2013 / 5:12 pm

    Anyone who can compare Sherman’s March through Georgia or his March to the Sea to the Nazis in Russia and Eastern Europe has not studied that aspect of World War II and insults the suffering of the peoples of those areas under the Nazis. Unless, Sherman made a practice of marching Confederate supporters out of town and slaughtering most of them and enslaving the rest with the intent of working them to death, there is no comparison.

    • SF Walker October 17, 2013 / 5:22 am

      Exactly. If Sherman’s March bears any resemblance to events in World War II, it would be the destruction of property in strategic bombing raids by the air forces of both sides. Of course the civilian death toll in these raids was MUCH greater than anything seen on Sherman’s march. Even the most lawless of the bummers often did their work without a local civilian in sight.

      • M.D. Blough October 17, 2013 / 7:59 am

        The contrast is even more inappropriate than that. The Nazi’s horrendous racial ideology considered the Slavs and other ethnic groups, including the Gypsies, in Eastern Europe and Russia to be untermenschen, a level above the Jews but that meant seeing these Ethnic groups as fit only for enslavement and working them to death, etc. or removing them from areas in which Germans could settle instead of being the targets of total extermination under the Final Solution as the Jews were. Civilian death and suffering wasn’t just seen as an acceptable level collateral damage by the Allies in the west, it was a primary objective of the Germans in the East even where there was no military target involved so that the slaughter was horrendous in the East.. This was why many Germans, including some of the highest ranking Nazis, fled west to surrender to the Americans, British, and French instead of the advancing Red Army. They knew the Red Army would be the instrument of revenge and they were right.

        • SF Walker October 18, 2013 / 6:42 am

          No argument here. There is absolutely no comparison between the Nazis’ deliberate ethnic-based extermination of civilians in the East and Sherman’s campaign against Southern war resources–his aim was to destroy property, not lives.

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