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Austin Bay
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Sherman's March to the Sea: Total Impact Warfare


One hundred fifty years ago this month, General William Tecumseh Sherman's Union "Army of the West" marched from Atlanta, Georgia, to the seaport of Savannah. En route, Sherman's forces intentionally devastated a 60-mile wide swath of countryside.

According to contemporaneous Confederate accounts, Sherman's March to the Sea was a hideous form of "total war." Yankee savages — particularly Sherman's engineers and foraging "bummers"— were scorched-earth devils, burning Atlanta and then plundering the countryside.

Sherman was, in Southern eyes, a war criminal. Sherman anticipated and arguably stoked their rage. He stated his goal with brilliant bluntness: end the Civil War's slaughter with a Union victory. Slicing across Georgia was, in his estimation, a potentially war-winning stroke.

So much the better if this bold March to Savannah made "Georgia howl." The South started the war. High time Deep South aristocrats felt war's "Hell." Let the Southern newspapers snarl.

Sherman also argued that the civilian economy and military operations were intimately linked. When processed, a pig on a rural Georgia farm became salt pork for Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

The link between Georgia's civilian farms and Sherman's March to the Sea was intimate. Abandoning Atlanta's railhead and telegraph lines was a high-risk operation. Sherman's 60,000 soldiers would have to march quickly. The less food they carried the faster they could move. Georgia's farms could feed his troops. Sherman's men could feast on the pig once destined to feed Lee's army.

The March had other operational risks. Sherman's left wing (north) and right wing (south) would have open flanks. Upon reaching the coast, his forces would have to take Savannah. His troops would also have to seize Fort McAllister, which blocked the port's access to the Atlantic. Then the Union Navy could supply his men.

Remaining in Atlanta also entailed serious danger. For supplies, Sherman's troops depended on the single rail line connecting Atlanta to Chattanooga. On a daily basis, Confederate cavalry under Nathaniel Bedford Forrest snapped Union telegraph lines and ripped up railroad track. If Sherman tried to winter in the city, his army might starve.

Cutting his own supply line and living off Georgia was a calculated risk worth taking. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote that he consulted the 1860 U.S.

Census and "a compilation" made by Georgia's state controller "for the purpose of taxation" to target rich counties and countryside.

Sherman had his medical officers cull out sick, weak and overweight soldiers. They were put on the next train to Chattanooga. The result: 60,000 lithe, armed athletes capable of sustaining a forced march pace.

On Nov. 9, Sherman issued Special Orders No. 120. The March would likely take a month. Units were to maintain 10 days worth of rations on supply wagons. Brigades would form "forage parties" to gather supplies en route. Corps commanders could decide to burn private property if their forces encountered guerrilla attacks.

On Nov. 15, 1864, first the right wing (XV and XVII Corps, commanded by Major-General O. O. Howard) and then the left wing (XIV and XX Corps, MG Henry Slocum) left Atlanta.

Confederate cavalry and returning Atlanta residents confirmed what smoke and explosive concussions had indicated. Northern engineers had blown up several buildings and industrial sites and torn apart the railroads. But the Yankee beasts — they had set fires which burned homes and civilian stores. The Union engineer commander claimed that the massive fire was an accident.

Sherman contended his order was clear: thoroughly destroy every building and every piece of equipment that might be militarily valuable.

On Dec. 8, Sherman's forces neared Savannah. On Dec. 13, Fort McAllister fell to a quick assault. On Dec. 20, the Confederates evacuated Savannah.

After Savannah? Sherman and his commander, Ulysses S. Grant, had planned the next phase. Sherman would head north, through the Carolinas, while Grant kept Lee busy in Virginia.

When compared to other Civil War campaigns, combat during the March To The Sea was remarkably light. The Confederates' main forces, under General John Bell Hood, were in Tennessee, attempting to destroy Union railroads and capture Nashville. Hood's concept appeared sound. If he took Nashville, he could deny Sherman supplies — if Sherman were still in Atlanta, depending on that single rail line from Chattanooga.

The casualty count was remarkably small. Sherman's soldiers faced skirmishers and snipers, but only four engagements appear as battles, and they were small (Griswoldville, Buck Head Creek, Waynesborough, Fort Mcallister). Union forces suffered around 500 casualties (dead and wounded); the Confederates, 1700.

Sherman's army ate rather well as it marched. Were some foragers, thieves? No doubt. But Total War? Sherman waged war for total psychological impact and hence political impact. If Southerners wanted to keep their pigs, they could surrender.

Twenty-first century war fighters might learn from his example.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



2 Comments | Post Comment
Mr. Bay,

My understanding of your article is this, while you recognize that Sherman employed total war tactics that involve indiscriminate war on unarmed civilians, burning entire undefended cities to the ground, and unbridled looting and pillaging not to mention other crimes which would qualify him as a war criminal by our standards today, he has your complete approval. Although I am considered to be a conservative by all accounts, and an avid supporter of our men and women in uniform, your convoluted perspective of Sherman's heinous acts cannot be articulated in words.

Sherman was a man without honor who gained fame at the expense of defenseless civilians. He waged his campaign to end the war after the South was already devastated and making its last stand. But even then, his methods are inexcusable by any civilized standards and God help us when we begin to condone such tactics as are used by barbarians.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Jerry Duke
Thu Nov 20, 2014 2:05 PM
Re: Jerry Duke;... I find the article rather pointless and questioning for an opinion piece. I am a student of war, and I have read much on Sherman and the Western Army. I have been to Shiloh, and Brices Crossroads, being a fan of N.B.Forest, a true genius of war. I have seen the Cyclorama in Grant Park, Atlanta, and I am familiar with the events in question. I can think of one General, Longstreet, who sought his commision with the CSA before tendering his resignation; which was treason.
Sherman understood war correctly as destroying the enemy's will to resist. I understand all the Southern nonsense on the subject, but part of the reason the army of Norther Virginia were often starved, usually ill clothed, and without proper shoes, blankets or tents was because the Southern farmers with the means had no more desire to pay taxes then, than now. Who ever was the government -was more inclined to have their disrespect than support, and this showed in conditions before the war, as well as during, and after. The Northern expression was: Bad morals mean bad roads, and Roads of any condition in the South were much fewer, and substandard. Sherman and the Western Army found the infrastructure a more persistent problem than the enemy. This was not entirely the fault of the people then. Just as now, the Eastern financial powers bled the South, and interest taxed the strength of their growing industrial economy. But for the war, which really forced a concerted effort from men, it is certain that the vast majority of the men who fought would have amounted to nothing. The terrible fact aside from the slave's point of view, was that slavery dishonored free labor. If people had a slave, the slave did everything. If the people had no slaves, they did nothing, and I think Mark Twain probably paints a pretty accurate picture in satire of Southerners in Huckleberry Finn.
No one can say that the treatment of prisoners in Andersonville, also in Georgia, was honorable; but to be fair, there were the same sort of abuses in the North. Grant and Sherman contributed to this by not paroling prisoners because they knew their supply of troops to be limitless by comparison to the South. People in the North knew what a hell was Andersonville, where I have also been. Some provision could have been made for the exchange of wounded, at least. But I have seen that layout, and it was horror consoled by death. To put your soldier's camp just upstream of the prisoners and leave your horses to dump in the water those prisoner must drink was more inhuman that anything Sherman did, unless it was the time he took up his bridge before the escaped slaves in his wake could cross the river. Sherman hated Blacks.
Before I further digress, let me say that there was a profound dishonor in our Constitution as written. I understand that we had more in this land than we could defend, and we used the constitution to paper over difference that we were too weak to fight over at that time. Still, waiting on a resolution of the slavery issue did not in any sense lessen the damage and destruction of human life. It gave us enough strength to defend ourselves from Great Britain which the South would have made their allie against us, and that was dishonorable. It was our fight, but even when the Constitution was written, the South would have sold out freedom to be once more with England. The North had to wait; but even then, the south could have sought resolution, and Lincoln even in the Middle of War, with much of the damage already done would urge the purchace of the slave's freedom rather than their emancipation, but the North had buried too many of their son to be willing to make a deal.
There was nothing honorable in the treatment of blacks by whites after the war. Each and every Southern Soldier could have been hanged as a traitor, they could have given every freed black forty acres and a mule, and they could have taken it all out of the great estates of those who most supported the war and seccession. They did not, but let these men return home, very often with arms and horses, on their word; and their words were too often not worth a gob of tobacco spit. Those men meant to have the superior social postition to blacks even if it meant the practice of terror and armed insurrection long after the war.
What happened in that war was that North and South learned to respect each other. The contempt for others at great distance could no longer be justified. States were no longer a man's country. America was our country, and our state was our state. The condition of the Southern Blacks in regard to the Southern Whites little improved. Without the help of the North, the blacks could not conceive of equality, let alone begin to achieve it. And we had business of our own, and the Southern whites had sympathizers in office and in the courts. The due process claus provided a terrible hurdle for government in the effort to achieve justice for the citizens.
I think that generally the North was more honorable, but to be fair, before the population tide turned against slavery, many in the North considered secceeding as well, but with the republican party, that talk went silent. It is not that wage slavery is so much better than chattel slavery, or better in the long run at all. Where you have slavery of any sort, the general condition of humanity never improves, but always degrades. Slavery is slavery, and there is no half ways step to slavery. A wage a slave is a slave; but as a form of relationship, one in which you have some slight ability to bargain for your conditions of servitude is preferable to no bargaining. And slavery is a dishonorable condition, for no honorable man would accept such a condition. But slaves are at least useful, and no one could say that about the multitude of Jr. Samples wallowing about and doing nothing while asking why was I not born rich. And no one can say the slave master was honorable; for as much as any thief, they took what was not theirs, and with force and violence. Enough people in the South recognized the humanity of blacks for the rest to have guessed it. Even that Champion of the South, Thomas J. Jackson recognized the humanity of slaves, and the necessity of teaching them as human beings- the word of God, and this offended many because he taught them to read.
It has always been an accepted practice for militaries to take their sustenence from the mouth of the enemy. Since we have had the Ceneva Conventions, the amount an occupation force can legally take is resticted. The Nazis faced War Crimes Charges over what was taken out of France, which was beyond extreme. There was a lot of destruction by Sherman, and they did eat well, and much was burned. The charge of rape or murder of civilians was not heard. Grant as General of the Army resisted the idea of hanging contests.
So, over all, and given the general condition of immorality reflected in the constitution, The South was by far more dishonorable.
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Nov 22, 2014 10:39 PM
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