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Sherman's March to the Sea

Sherman's March to the Sea (1864–65).After capturing Atlanta in September 1864, a victory that guaranteed the reelection of Abraham Lincoln and the continuation of the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, Union commander in the west, turned his thoughts to the most direct assault he could imagine on the heart of the Confederacy, one that targeted Southern morale. Despite some misgivings on the part of Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Union commander and Sherman's closest friend, Sherman decided to send a blocking force under George H. Thomas to stop Confederate moves northward. Breaking his lines of communication, he would fan out his army and set off for Savannah, Georgia, on a giant raid that became known as the march to the sea, carving a wide swath through the Georgia countryside on his way.

Uniquely among Union generals, Sherman had the intellectual and emotional capacity to understand psychological warfare, a war of mass civilian terror. He was quite explicit about the deeper meanings of his march even before he started. “I propose to demonstrate the vulnerability of the South, and make its inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms,” he wrote to one associate, while adding to another, “I am going into the very bowels of the Confederacy, and will leave a trail that will be recognized fifty years hence.” In a cooler and more analytic vein, Sherman also recognized that as the South lacked a military force to oppose his destruction of its infrastructure and agricultural supplies, his victory would be “proof positive” to all Southerners and to the world that the North had an overwhelming power that the South could not resist. “This may not be war, but rather statesmanship,” Sherman concluded, thus making his own political analysis of war. If civilian morale crumbled, so would the Southern army and state.

In their march of 285 miles, which lasted 5 weeks, Sherman's army of 60,000 men cut a swath of between 20 and 60 miles through Georgia, destroying fences and crops, killing livestock, burning barns and factories as well as some houses, particularly those deserted by the planter class. It must be emphasized that Sherman's forces refrained from raping white women and from killing civilians. Although many historians have rather carelessly called Sherman's campaign total war, it never became genocidal, nor had Sherman intended it to become so. Such limits were, of course, of scant comfort to the impoverished and malnourished civilians Sherman's army left in its wake.

On 22 December 1864, the day after the Confederate garrison of 10,000 had escaped the city, Sherman's army marched into Savannah on the sea, which Sherman announced to Lincoln and to the Union with his usual rhetorical vivacity: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” A week earlier, George H. Thomas's force had destroyed John Bell Hood's Confederate army at Nashville, triumphantly completing the other half of Sherman's post‐Atlanta strategy. As Grant's Army of the Potomac was bogged down in trench warfare before Petersburg, Virginia, it was the Christmas victories of Thomas and Sherman that lifted Union spirits.

On 1 February 1865, Sherman's army set off on its even longer sequel to the march to the sea, a campaign of over 400 miles up through the Carolinas, to come up behind Lee's army for one last, climactic battle if it was needed. As much of South Carolina was a swamp during winter, this part of Sherman's march was more an engineering than a fighting marvel: his troops cut down trees to make roads, bridges, and causeways at a pace of ten miles per day. Incapable of opposing Sherman militarily, Confederates could only watch in horror as Sherman's troops laid waste to the countryside at an even greater level of intensity than they had evinced in Georgia. Now almost all civilian homes were destroyed, and several cities were burned, including Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, although Confederates began the blaze by burning cotton bales in the street before departing. Many of Sherman's men broke ranks and joined in a night of burning and looting before they were disciplined; other Union troops extinguished the flames the next day. At Columbia, Sherman's men reached an apotheosis of destructiveness.

Sherman had realized the potential for terror his army would bring to bear on the state that was the cradle of the Confederacy. “The truth is the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance on South Carolina,” he had written on Christmas Eve, 1864. “I almost tremble at her fate but feel she deserves all that seems in store for her.” Sherman's men—his “bummers,” as they styled themselves—shared in this contempt for Confederates, especially those of the South Carolina gentry. “Nearly every man in Sherman's army say they are ready for destroying everything in South Carolina,” one private wrote home from Savannah before the campaign resumed, while another confirmed after they had finished that “in South Carolina, there was no restraint whatever in pillaging and foraging. Men were allowed to do as they liked, burn and destroy” (Fellman, Citizen Sherman, 222–24). Sherman and his men were attuned to one another and acted accordingly. They wanted to create a legend of invincible destructiveness, and they succeeded, landing a devastating blow on Southern morale as they marched and destroyed.

When his army reached North Carolina in March 1865, Sherman reined in the behavior of his troops to a certain extent, because he would soon link up with the Union and feared potential condemnation of his extremism in the press; because he conceived of North Carolinians as poor whites more attuned to Unionism than South Carolina planters; and because he was aware that as the war was nearing an end, violence could decrease. When Lee's lines collapsed at the end of March 1865, Sherman's men were not needed for a final push into Virginia.

But their march would live on in history and in legend. Seven years after the war, Sherman testified that he had not ordered the burning of Columbia, but that “If I [had] made my mind to burn Columbia I would have burnt it with no more feeling than I would a common prairie dog village.” Southerners were not mistaken in their hatred of Sherman, who really had intended them as much destruction as he felt might be needed to end the war. Defeated Confederates also testified, despite themselves, to Sherman's effectiveness, for they realized he was the general who had broken their hearts. His march probably shortened the war and made the Southern defeat more comprehensive; therefore the moral meanings of Sherman's march are complex and moot. The march was terrible, but it worked, and it might even have saved lives.

Sherman himself never doubted the efficacy of the destructiveness he had brought to bear. In his 1875 Memoirs, he wrote, “My aim then was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us.” For cold calculation, rage, and ruthlessness, no Union general had a better understanding of the kind of war against civilians that could defeat a democracy such as the Confederacy.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Civil War: Postwar Impact.]


William T. Sherman , Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. 2 vols., 1875.
Lloyd Lewis , Sherman, Fighting Prophet, 1932.
John T. Barrett , Sherman's March Through the Carolinas, 1956.
Marion B. Lucas , Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, 1976.
Joseph T. Glatthaar , The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolina Campaigns, 1986.
John F. Marszalek , Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order, 1993.
Lee Kennett , Marching Through Georgia: The Story of Soldiers and Civilians During Sherman's Campaign, 1995.
Michael Fellman , Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman, 1995.

Michael Fellman

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Sherman's March to the Sea


SHERMAN'S MARCH TO THE SEA. From 15 November to 21 December 1864 the Union general William T. Sherman and his 62,000 soldiers waged a purposeful war of destruction in Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah. Sherman destroyed property to convince Southerners that their cause was hopeless and that they should surrender. He believed that this psychological warfare would end the Civil War more quickly and with less loss of life than traditional battlefield conflicts.

Sherman began the march following his successful capture of Atlanta on 2 September 1864. When the Confederate general John Bell Hood tried to cut Sherman's railroad supply line, forcing Sherman to chase him, Sherman decided to try a new approach. He proposed to leave sixty thousand soldiers under General George H. Thomas to handle Hood. Cutting himself off from the railroad, Sherman intended to live off the land while waging a psychological war of destruction. The commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, reluctantly went along with the plan.

Implementing the strategy he had used in the Meridian, Mississippi, campaign (3 February to 4 March 1864), Sherman divided his army into two wings, the right or southern wing under O. O. Howard and the left or

northern wing under Henry W. Slocum. Judson Kilpa-trick commanded the cavalry, which acted as a screen for the marching army. The two wings moved along separate paths from twenty to fifty miles apart, in four parallel corps columns, the left wing moving toward Augusta and the right wing toward Macon. They merged at Milledgeville, the state capital, and at Savannah. With no major Confederate army in the state, Joe Wheeler's Confederate cavalry and the weak Georgia militia provided ineffective opposition.

Sherman did not burn Atlanta to the ground when he began his march, and he did not destroy everything in his path through Georgia. His army systematically destroyed only property connected with the Confederate war effort, Union prisoners of war, or slavery. However, Sherman's Union soldiers, Wheeler's Confederate cavalry, deserters from both sides, fugitive slaves, and pillaging Southern civilians wantonly destroyed property. The anarchy aided Sherman's psychological cause and resulted in heavy though not total damage. Military and civilian casualties were extremely low. When Sherman completed his march, he offered the captured city of Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. Meanwhile Thomas crushed Hood at the battle of Nashville on 15 December 1864.

Sherman's march to the sea brought the Civil War home to Southern civilians. Few became casualties, but many lost property and felt demoralized. In Virginia, desertions in Robert E. Lee's army increased. Sherman's psychological warfare of destruction had a major effect on the outcome of the war. It also made Sherman a brute to many Southerners and a hero to Union supporters. By the twenty-first century the purpose for the march was forgotten, but Sherman's methods remained the subject of spirited debate.


Bailey, Anne J. The Chessboard of War: Sherman and Hood in the Autumn Campaigns of 1864. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Kennett, Lee. Marching through Georgia: The Story of Soldiers and Civilians during Sherman's Campaign. New York: Harper-Collins, 1995.

Marszalek, John F. Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order. New York: Free Press, 1993.

John F.Marszalek

See alsoAtlanta Campaign ; Nashville, Battle of ; Savannah, Siege of (1864) .

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Sherman's March Through Georgia


From mid-November to late December, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman led 62,000 Union soldiers on a march through Georgia towards the sea, leaving in their wake a trail of destruction sixty miles wide. During this Civil War (18611865) expedition, which started in Atlanta and ended in the port-city of Savannah, Sherman and his men sought to demolish not only the state's military resources but also its economic structure. The Union troops worked to cut off food supplies by setting fire to cities; stripping fields, barns, and houses; and raiding villages for food and livestock. The men laid waste to Georgia's commercial infrastructure city-by-city. Sherman's ultimate goal was to crush the Confederate states' will to fight, and his tactics were merciless and un-relenting. The war did not end here, however, though the general's campaign did accomplish nearly all of its objectives. The march was long remembered as an epic gesture of violence that swept the North toward its victory.

General Sherman, the son of a Supreme Court justice, hailed from Lancaster, Ohio. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Sherman served as second lieutenant in the Second Seminole War (18351842) in Florida, then as first lieutenant on assignment in South Carolina. At the onset of the Mexican War in 1846, he was assigned to the Pacific Division in California. In 1853 he resigned from the military and set out for San Francisco, where he briefly pursued a banking career; economic unrest in California, however, put an end to that venture in 1857. After another short-lived career as a lawyer in Kansas, Sherman returned to his former vocation in the army accepting a superintendent post at the state military academy in Alexandria, Louisiana. Upon that state's secession from the Union in January 1861, Sherman went north out of loyalty. In May of that year he was appointed colonel of the 13th infantry, beginning a decorated Civil War career.

After fighting at Bull Run in July 1861, Sherman rose to the position of brigadier general of volunteers. His first campaign in Kentucky was unsuccessful, which earned him a reputation for being unstable and manic-depressive. In April 1862, he regained the confidence of his peers following a victory at the Battle of Shiloh. Promoted to major general, Sherman took charge of the Union troops that occupied Memphis, Tennessee, in 1862. The following year, after a victory under Lieutenant General (and post-war president) Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, Mississippi, he rose again in the ranks, assuming command of the Army of Tennessee. But it was in Atlanta, Georgia, that Sherman secured his place as a key figure in the war. His 1864 campaign, which lasted from May to September, ultimately ravaged the metropolisfire consumed numerous buildings, and the Union soldiers used brute force to demolish or disable the city's machinery. It was this destruction of the commercial infrastructure of the South for which Sherman became known and feared.

The general's march through Georgia represented a continuation of his "total war" strategy. Leaving the burning city of Atlanta behind, he led two massive columns of troops, which operated under Generals Oliver H. Howard and Henry W. Slocum, on an eastward course. Supplying his men only with bread, Sherman organized raiding parties that allowed them to live off the food and livestock of the land. In a December 16 letter to Lieutenant General Grant, Sherman described in explicit detail the way in which his troops weakened Georgia's cities while reinforcing themselves: "We started with about 5,000 head of cattle, and arrived with over 10,000; of course, consuming mostly turkeys, chickens, sheep, hogs, and the cattle of the country. As to mules and horses, we left Atlanta with about 2,500 wagons, and our transportation is now in superb condition."

After Atlanta Sherman set out for Milledgeville, where his high-spirited men held a mock court session in which they repealed Georgia's secession ordinance. From Milledgeville they went on to the state capital, then to Sandersville, Louisville, and Millen, ravaging and pillaging along the way. Wildly outnumbered by Sherman's men, the Confederate troops could do little to halt the trend of violence. Ultimately, on December 21, 1864, Sherman ended his hell-raising march just as he had planned: by nearly demolishing Savannah, the port city at the end of his route. The victory followed a campaign to cut-off food supplies to the city and to take possession of its rice fields and mills. After a 10-day siege Sherman forced out the Confederates and took control of the city, presenting it grandly to President Lincoln as a "Christmas present."

In the end Sherman estimated that his Georgia campaign amounted to $100 million in damages. A large portion of that sum represented the destruction of the state's economic resources, which crippled its cities and left them open to occupation by Union forces. Pleased with the success of his total-war campaign, Sherman went on to organize an equally devastating march through the Carolinas. Although the general found much of his strength in numbers, he refused to take on African American soldiers. Clearly racist, he disburdened his troops of freed slaves, issuing an order that allowed them to inhabit land rather than join the war. Nevertheless, the general succeeded in his campaigns. Sherman went on to vanquish Confederate troops under Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, and, in 1869, to succeed Lieutenant General Grant as commander of the U.S. Army.

See also: Civil War (Economic Impact of), War and the Economy


Barrett, John Gilchrist. Sherman's March Through the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Burke, Davis, Jeff Stone, ed., and Carolyn Reidy, ed. Sherman's March. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Dictionary of American History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976, s.v. "Sherman's March to the Sea."

Marszlek, John F. Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Royster, Charles. The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

you cannot qualify war in harsher terms than i will. war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.

william tecumseh sherman, letter to the mayor of atlanta, september 12, 1864

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