Shermans March To The Sea

Shermans March to the Sea George M. Hovsepian December 14, 1998 Shermans March to the Sea On November 15th, 1864 Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Grand Army of the West, embarked on a raid which would become known as the march to the sea designed to cut a 60 mile wide swath from Atlanta to Savannah. Once in Savannah he would turn north through South and North Carolina and on into Virginia to help Grant defeat Lee at Richmond. As Shermans soldiers were leaving Atlanta, now in flames, they went forward with the intent of shortening the Civil War. Shermans troops accomplished this with a brand of warfare seen only sporadically in the previous four years of battle.

Sherman decided to turn his attention on destroying the “enemys war economy” (Oates, 1998, p.594), going after the infrastructure of the South. Along the way his troops burned, pillaged, stole personal belongings, and confiscate possessions and property of the civilian population. Did the end justify the means and was this a just course of action? By November 1864, the Civil War had seen gruesome days to be sure. By the end of the war the total number of soldiers killed in combat and by disease and other non-combat related causes for both the North and South were 623, 026 (Foote, 1974). The total wounded for both sides were 471,427 (Foote, 1974). These numbers are staggering in that only 2,750,000 soldiers participated in the war.

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The battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Antietem to name a few, were some of the most bloody of the war. The Union Army had changed commanders many times, among them Meade, Hooker, McClellan twice, Burnside, and Grant. Ulysses S. Grant was there to stay. Grants best subordinate officer was General Sherman. Sherman had taken command of the Western Theater and pushed Joseph Johnston off Lookout Mountain outside of Chattanooga, then maneuvered him out of position after position until Johnston fell back upon Atlanta, where Joe Johnston was relieved and the firebrand John Bell Hood took command.

This was significant because Hoods aggressiveness, it was feared by his troops, would surely get them killed (Carter, 1976). They were not very wrong. Hood attacked Sherman almost immediately, launching several failed attacks intended to push Sherman away from Atlanta. They all failed and weakened Hoods army so severely he had to give up Atlanta and allow Sherman many options on what to do next. Shermans intent was to tear through the heart of Georgia wrecking the infrastructure of the state.

Shermans orders upon leaving Atlanta were “that nothing be left intact that might be of use to the rebs when they returned” (Foote, 1974, p. 641). Shermans orders for the march were similar, though he instructed his troops not to enter civilian dwellings or commit any trespass (Foote, 1974). Sherman did order his men to “forage liberally” (Oates, 1998) in organized details. Sherman wanted to bring the war to a region of the South previously untouched, middle Georgia.

The tactic of foraging has certainly been used throughout history. Sun Tzu wrote essays about the art of war around 500 BC and even that far back the concept he proposed was “the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy” (Griffith, 1971, p. 74). When discussing doctrinal stability, Archer Jones writes “the Unions logistic strategy never had a chance to demonstrate its effectiveness” (1987, p. 417) because what ultimately shortened the war was Southern troops deserting their units. This may have been a lesser factor, but was likely brought about due to raids like Shermans that showed the true vulnerability of the South.

The destruction of the Souths infrastructure such as rail lines, bridges, warehouses, and material that could be used to support military operations, is another principle which is a common occurrence in war. In Atlanta, the Mayor “begged Sherman to rescind his order expelling the citizens from the city” (Groom, 1995, p.112) which Sherman refused to do because he was about to fire the town. While his intention was not to disturb civilian homes on the march, he would in fact authorize the burning of homes if it was found that owners had willfully destroyed crops or other things which the Union army could use. With that little bit of latitude, some Union soldiers would in fact loot and pillage for their own gain. Later, in Shermans after action report, he shrugged off what happened by saying that some of his men “did some things they ought not to have done” (Groom, 1995, p.113).

One of the most tragic events of the war involving non-combatants occurred during the march to the sea. With just tens of miles to go before Shermans troops reached Savannah, they had at their rear 25,000 blacks who had left their plantations and were determined to follow Sherman to freedom (Foote, 1974). Oates quotes Sherman as saying “I also told the army not to take any nigger refugees. Grant had urged me to clean the country of Negroes, but I wasnt going to do that: would just slow us down. Only niggers I wanted were able bodied men to work as army laborers” (1998, p. 590).

Sherman and his generals had admonished the Negroes to go home, that the war would soon be over and they would be free but to little avail. Even though many of these had turned back from exhaustion and fatigue, there were still a considerable number of blacks, women and children included, when Shermans column was crossing Ebenezer Creek. The creek was unfordable and a span was put in place by Shermans engineers. After Shermans troops finished crossing, he ordered the span removed and left all of the blacks on the other side. With Confederate horsemen closing on their position, the Negroes surged forward and then stampeded into the creek, determined not to be left behind by their deliverers who they thought would lead them out of bondage (Foote, 1974). Many of those drowned to the horror of the engineers standing on the far bank.

Seeing the disaster that their actions had brought on, the engineers waded into the icy creek to save who they could. To be accurate, it is important to note that Sherman did not know of this incident until much later and made no specific order to rid himself of the blacks who he s …