Home / American Civil War / Sherman's March
Sherman's March: A Remarkable Success
By Michael Irvin

Sherman’s March to the Sea proved to be a decisive campaign deep in the heartland of the South to which many have claimed was a criminal act but, in examining the facts, was nothing of the sort. Beginning in November 1864, approximately 60,000 Union soldiers left the city of Atlanta determined to reach the Atlantic coast while removing Georgia’s ability and will to contribute any more to the Confederate cause. This bold move was at first cautioned by Lincoln and Grant who were unsure of the likelihood of success but, through Sherman’s conviction and desire, was ultimately granted approval. The march has since gone down as one of the most storied and controversial undertakings of the Civil War and arouses an almost mythical stature for its followers. Sherman’s men were products of the 19th century and so did carry out acts that today would be seen as unacceptable but they were no criminals and committed no war crimes.

Atlanta was known as the Gate City of the South and was a major industrial hub with railroads and factories making it an objective for the Union armies. What began as a series of battles in early 1864, led to the eventual downfall of the city in September giving Lincoln the needed boost to be reelected. This was not an easy journey nor was it a guaranteed Union victory. Thousands of casualties were taken on by both armies as the struggle commenced over several months. Jefferson Davis had even replaced his original general, Joseph Johnston, with an aggressive and offensive minded General John Bell Hood. With Atlanta in the hands of Sherman and his men, it had not been determined yet where they would go next. There was talk of moving in the direction of Mobile, Alabama or continuing to offer battle to Hood’s army which had since released itself from the Atlanta area and began making its way towards Tennessee.

A few weeks earlier Hood determined that he would allow Sherman to hold Atlanta while his army would prepare itself to threaten the Union’s supply lines. Jefferson Davis spoke confidently in speeches of the demise of Sherman’s army believing that Hood’s efforts would wither away the Union’s ability to wage war. Sherman recognized the same and made it clear to Grant in a telegram that he did not want to fall into the trap. He stated that “Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless for us to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people, will cripple their military resources. By attempting to hold the roads, we will lose a thousand men each month, and will gain no result. I can make this march, and make Georgia howl!”1 Sherman had a keen understanding of the context in which this war would have to be fought and once he received approval from his superiors, he began to make the necessary preparations for the march.

Sherman divided his army of 60,000 into two wings led by Generals Slocum and Howard and gave specific instructions on how this campaign was to be conducted. Evidence of his thoroughness is shown with the amount of provisions and baggage that was allowable for the march. Edward Hagerman stated that “Sherman loaded his supply train for the movement to Savannah with twenty days’ bread, forty days’ sugar and coffee, a double allowance of salt for forty days, and three days’ forage in grain; he took forty days’ supply of beef cattle, more than 5,000 head, on the hoof. Each man carried three days’ rations in haversacks.”2 He did this because he knew his travels would take him across heavily foraged land initially upon leaving Atlanta and in the event he was held up by the enemy along the three-hundred plus mile route to Savannah, he would have food. In addition to gathering enough supplies, Sherman stated in his memoirs that “All the sick and wounded men had been sent back by rail to Chattanooga.”3

With his army lean and trim from all the unnecessary impedimenta, they were ready to depart. General Howard stated that “Behold now this veteran army thus reorganized and equipped, with moderate baggage and a few days’ supply of small rations, but with plenty of ammunition, ready to march anywhere Sherman might lead.”4 Prior to leaving Atlanta, Sherman did make an honest attempt to curb any avoidable destruction. Not being able to watch every action of every soldier, he did what a concerned general should do and issued orders to his subordinate commanders. In them, he stated “Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass; but, during a halt or camp, they may be permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock in sight of their camp.”5 Authorizing his soldiers to feed themselves cannot be called criminal as they had to keep their baggage trains to a minimum due to the harassment of the Confederate cavalry. He also stated that “In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested, no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerillas or bushwackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless, according to the measure of such hostility.”6 More or less Sherman is stating that if the locals let his men alone as they passed through, he would restrain the level of damage that could be done.

With all preparations completed, on November 14th Sherman’s army departed on what would become his famous march. As Confederate General Gustavus Smith put it, “The face of the country was open, the roads were in good order, the weather was fine and bracing, the crops had been gathered, and were ready for use; in short a combination of circumstances favored an easy march for Sherman’s army.”7 This statement wasn’t entirely true because Confederate cavalry under the command of General Joseph Wheeler harassed the Union army while a small force of militia and regulars provided small resistance in the way of Sherman’s path. Jefferson Davis spoke highly of Wheeler’s efforts stating that “By his indomitable energy, operating on all sides of Sherman’s columns, he was enabled to keep the government and commanders of our troops advised of the enemy’s movements, and, by preventing foraging parties from leaving the main body, he saved from spoilation all but a narrow tract of country, and from the torch millions worth of property which would otherwise certainly have been consumed.”8 Davis embellishes Wheeler’s exploits a little but nonetheless, the cavalry was a nuisance to the Union foragers.

The foragers of Sherman’s army did take on a bad rap and even earned the nickname “bummers”. James McPherson states that “Under slack discipline, they helped themselves to anything they wanted from the farms, plantations, even slave cabins.”9 The foragers responsibility was to spread out from the main line of advance in an effort to collect food ranging from sweet potatoes to hogs. The main army did their share of destruction too as they scoured the area for food or keepsakes. On many occasions houses were spared from being stripped because of sympathetic Union soldiers. There was an instance where a house was in jeopardy of being stripped but it was “only the presence of a fellow Mason among the pillagers saved the roof over the family’s head.”10 Noah Andre Trudeau mentions another time when a fortunate family was spared. He states that “Sherman took a look at the fearful gaze of one of the older girls, counseled her to haul as many provisions into the house as she could manage, then assigned a guard to watch over the building.”11 There are numerous recordings of the same types of kind acts but reality is that this was war and it did cause some discomfort to the citizens of Georgia. General Howard stated that “Our system of foraging was sufficiently good for the army, but the few citizens, women and children, who remained at home, suffered greatly.”12

The march continued into December with minor skirmishes and very little recorded violence. CPT Daniel Oakley from the 2nd Massachusetts stated that “We were expected to make fifteen miles a day; to corduroy the roads where necessary; to destroy such property as was designated by our corps commander, and to consume everything eatable by man or beast.”13 It was an embarrassment for the Davis administration that Sherman was able to make such easy headway into the Deep South. “The Confederacy searched for ways to counter

Sherman’s March. Governor Brown of Georgia ordered a ‘levy in masse’ of every male between sixteen and fifty-five in the state able to bear arms (railroad workers, telegraphers, and office-holding clergy being exempt.”14 The young and the old attempted to stem the tide of the advance but it was futile. Sherman’s men were veterans and they were too powerful for small groups of militia to oppose them. One recorded instance mentioned by the renowned historian Shelby Foote was a shock to the Union soldiers as they celebrated a victory. “The cheers froze in their throats at the sight of what lay before them in the stubble. They saw for the first time, to their horror, that they had been fighting mostly old men and young boys, who lay about in attitudes of death and agony – more than 600 of them in all, as compared to their own loss of 67.”15

The rebel infantry did do what they could with the means available though. As McPherson states, “Southerners wrecked bridges, burned provisions, toppled trees and planted mines on the roads ahead of the Yankees, but this accomplished little except to make them more vengeful.”16 There were some events that took place that are shocking. The use of mines were relatively new but in the 19th century they were seen as very barbaric and less than honorable. When Sherman witnessed a soldier of his die an excruciating death due to a mine he took extreme measures. Sherman stated in his memoirs that “This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry. I immediately ordered a lot of rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost-guard, armed with picks and spades, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up.”17

With a relatively easy march coming to an end, “Sherman arrived at Savannah, having lived off the land for twenty-nine days, with more animals, approximately 35,000, and more wagons, approximately 2,700, than when he had left Atlanta.”18 He immediately began correspondence with the Confederate commander of the city, General Hardee, asking for his surrender or face the fateful result. Hardee remained stubborn until he was told that it was better to lose the city of Savannah than to lose his army. With that noted, he evacuated his army into South Carolina with the ability to fight another day. From that decision, Union forces now occupying Savannah, Sherman was able to send off his famous telegram to the president stating “I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”19

Sherman’s mission was successful and although many in the South had claimed his march was brutal, it was not criminal. Sherman sums it up when he stated in his memoirs that “I never heard of any cases of murder or rape”20. His soldiers probably did steal things they shouldn’t have or taken more than they needed but wasn’t this war? It is said that war cannot be refined and with 60,000 soldiers moving through hostile territory, it is surprising how well they did treat locals.

* * *

Show Notes

* * *

© 2024 Michael Irvin

Written by Michael Irving.

About the author:
Michael Irvin is currently stationed at Fort Bliss, TX as a Sergeant Major with almost 24 years of service. He serves as the Vice Chair for the Department of Professional Studies at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy. He is also am an adjunct professor of history for Park University teaching face-to-face and blended courses as well as an adjunct professor for the University of the People teaching online. He is currently a doctoral student at Liberty University and has a Masters in Military History from AMU, a Masters in Leadership Studies from UTEP, and a Masters in Adult Education from Penn State University.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙