Sherman’s March to the Sea—A Different Perspective
(A response to a question from a reader/Civil War reanactor about Sherman's March)
The piece that you refer to is interesting but clearly written by an amateur historian proud of his ancestry. All in all not a bad effort for someone who is not an historian by trade. His assessment of Field
Order 120 is pretty accurate, he quotes it word for word. (Attached below) The part of the order that opened the door to abuse by Sherman’s “Bummers” was this component “where inhabitant’s 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.” The trouble with this order was that General Wheeler’s Cavalry, the only real force opposing
Sherman’s army, were burning bridges obstructing roads and bush-waking Sherman’s troops. That was their job. Wheeler with 3500 cavalry was trying slow a behemoth of 60,000 man army moving inexorably east. He and his small cavalry division had their
hands full and local civilians had little say regarding where Wheeler chose to fight or which bridges to burn—which was pretty much all those in Sherman’s 60 mile-wide path. Wheeler’s own troops were accustomed to taking what they needed
which did not endear them to the local population paid in worthless Confederate currency. Wheeler’s troops warned civilians of Sherman’s approach, fought where and when they liked and “foraged liberally.”
By this point in the war both sides had come to truly hate one another. We know Wheeler’s cavalry made short work of “bummers” unlucky enough to fall into their hands. One of the quotes I use in Immortal City on the capture
of Sherman’s foragers is chilling, “We scattered their brains and moved on…” Orders issued from Sherman’s headquarters as the March to the Sea progressed show an increasing desire to rein-in foragers, especially “unauthorized”
ones. One can sense that a fringe element of Sherman’s army had slipped the leash and were conducting their own war.
There is no doubt Sherman's tactics of making war on civilians was a radical break with
the past. However, the propensity to be ever more brutal as the war progressed can be seen in the campaigns in Tennessee and north Georgia leading up to the burning of Atlanta and the March to the Sea. If you study his letters and writings you will see that
Sherman's own assessment of what was right and wrong changed and evolved. Somewhere between 1863 and 1864 Sherman's views hardened. Sherman’s letters reflect his change in attitude as it became apparent the South was not going to come back willingly
into the Union and appeared ready to fight it out to the end. I cannot but suspect some of this “hard hand of war” thinking was emanating from Washington and perhaps even the White House. By this point in the war Stanton had purged the army of
any leaders associated with McLellan and his conventional and more moderate views on making war. In the summer of 1864 the North was a long way from winning the conflict and Lincoln faced imminent defeat at the polls if nothing changed. If Sherman had not
captured Atlanta in early September, Lincoln would almost certainly have been defeated in November; Lincoln himself forecast such a defeat. So despite all the talk of Grant saving the union, it was really Sherman’s capture of Atlanta that ensured Lincoln’s
reelection and, in turn, doomed the South.
An interesting comparison can be made here with General G. McClellan. “Little Mac” had his deficiencies as a fighter but he was a brilliant organizer. It was
he who rebuilt and professionalized the shattered Army of the Potomac after the disaster of 1st Manassas. McClellan held some strong views on the conduct of war and these were conservative and conventional. He opposed scorched earth tactic as morally
wrong and wrong-headed. In his view scorched earth tactics would engender such hatred as to make it harder to bring the South back into the Union. In McLellan’s view Southerners were still American’s even if they had erred in seceding from the
Union. These conventional views were shared by General Lee as evidenced by his strict no looting or entering private homes field order issued before the invasion of Pennsylvania; an order that was fairly well adhered to by the rank and file of the Army of
Northern Virginia. And while McClellan was accused of being conventional and a better organizer than fighter, no one ever accused Bobby Lee of avoiding a fight. McClellan could see that Washington and, in particular, the Republican Party were exercising greater
and greater influence on military matters and he feared politicization of the war. He did not favor an all-out war of conquest and confiscation as proposed by the Republican Radicals. In the end however this is more or less what the Civil War became; the
South was ground down one army, one brigade and one regiment at a time, until defeat was inevitable, with the South exhausted and in ruins.
Who was right? Well the winners generally write the histories of conflicts and thus
criticism of Sherman in Georgia and South Carolina has been muted since 1865; everywhere that is except in Georgia and South Carolina. A sixty mile swath of destruction followed Sherman’s March to the Sea. It took well into the 20th century
for this part of central Georgia to recover. In South Carolina the destruction was worse. Just cross the river at Sister’s Ferry and you will come across ghost villages that were burned out and never came back.
for the surrender of Savannah the author fails to note that Sherman was in Hilton Head/Beaufort at the time. The surrender was taken by General J. Geary, who in contrast with Sherman, was a tough disciplinarian with a firm hand on his troops. It was his division
which entered and protected the city. Most of the rest of the army was kept out and soldiers could only enter with a pass from Geary’s provost marshal. This caused a lot of griping as all the brothels, and there were a great many, were located in the
city. For details see “Who Saved Savannah” in “Immortal City.”
I would like to propose a hypothesis regarding the March to the Sea for consideration. What if Sherman’s troops had “foraged
liberally” as ordered taking whatever they needed, destroying military and rail lines etc. without resorting to destruction of private property? Wheeler’s own cavalrymen were themselves taking what they needed and were considered by some Georgian’s
as bad a Sherman’s “bummers.” General Sherman would have captured Savannah exactly as he did because General Hardee had firm orders to sacrifice Savannah and save his army. Hardee would have retreated into SC across the pontoon bridge the
minute it was finished, just as he did. Sherman would have invaded South Carolina and captured Columbia, which would probably have been burned since this was an example of out of control troops rather than something ordered by Sherman. (This lack of discipline
was the real threat to Savannah rather than anything Sherman might have ordered or not ordered.) Besieged by land and sea Charleston would have fallen as it did and the Battle of Bentonville NC played out pretty much as history records.
The truth is that with the fall of Savannah the final act in this great American tragedy was underway. Grant, after taking appalling casualties, would still have outflanked Petersburg and Richmond would have been abandoned exactly as happened, setting
the stage for Appomattox and the end of the war. So what good did the “hard hand of war” tactics achieve? It certainly terrified the civilian population but they were plenty frightened already by Sherman’s army after the burning of Atlanta.
Did it increase Confederate desertions? Perhaps but only on the margin, and no more than the exhaustion of three and half years of slaughter would have wrought. None of this would have changed Lee’s strategy for the defense of Richmond which was to protect
the rail lines south. Once these were cut the city had to be abandoned. The journey to Appomattox had begun.
What might be different today is the focus on the March to the Sea. Although he faced little opposition, Sherman’s
move east was courageous and brilliant. It certainly helped shorten the war. Sherman showed great generosity toward General Johnson and his defeated army after Bentonville; so generous as to draw the censure of Washington. But all this is forever clouded in
the debate about the question of making war on civilians.
This is a different perspective perhaps but food for thought on a winter’s night.
Here a couple of related reads:
McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union, E.S. Rafuse.
Walking Away from Nuremberg: Just War and the Doctrine
of Command Responsibility, Lawrence Rockwood.
Division of the Mississippi,
In the Field, Kingston, Georgia, November 9, 1864
I. For the purpose of military operations, this army
is divided into two wings viz.: The right wing, Major-General O. O. Howard commanding, composed of the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps; the left wing, Major-General H. W. Slocum commanding, composed of the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps.
II. The habitual order of march will be, wherever practicable, by four roads, as nearly parallel as possible, and converging at points hereafter to be indicated in orders. The cavalry, Brigadier - General Kilpatrick commanding, will receive special
orders from the commander-in-chief.
III. There will be no general train of supplies, but each corps will have its ammunition-train and provision-train, distributed habitually as follows: Behind each regiment should follow
one wagon and one ambulance; behind each brigade should follow a due proportion of ammunition - wagons, provision-wagons, and ambulances. In case of danger, each corps commander should change this order of march, by having his advance and rear brigades unencumbered
by wheels. The separate columns will start habitually at 7 a.m., and make about fifteen miles per day, unless otherwise fixed in orders.
IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each
brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by
the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten day's provisions for the command and three days' forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass, but during a halt or a camp they may be permitted
to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock of their camp. To regular foraging parties must be instructed the gathering of provisions and forage at any distance from the road traveled.
army corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted;
but should guerrillas or bushwhackers 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.
VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile,
and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or bridges. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged
will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.
VII. Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to
see to them who bear arms.