The March to the Sea

Throughout the Civil War, soldiers and citizens alike could view the events unfolding before them and question whether there was a better alternative than to prosecute the war to its bitter end. What had started as a spectator’s war—with men and women gathering near the battlefields to picnic and take in the action—had morphed, by mid-1864, into slaughter with the only variables being where the slaughter may occur and what magnitude it may reach. One veteran lieutenant recalled after the war, “As we lay there watching the bright stars, many a soldier asked himself the question: What is this all about? Why is it that 200,000 men of one blood and one tongue, believing as one man in the fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man, should in the nineteenth century of the Christian era be thus armed with all the improved appliances of modern warfare and seeking one another’s lives? We could settle our differences by compromising, and all be at home in ten days.”[i] Of all the soldiers that gazed at the bright stars and asked themselves these questions, the men under the command of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman were not a part of that group when they left Atlanta burning and began a campaign through the heart of Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean.

What had once stood as one of the great cities of the South had been reduced to an inferno as the Union troops left Atlanta. After evading explosions and debris while traversing the streets, one staff major added an entry to his journal: “All the pictures and verbal descriptions of hell I have ever seen never gave me half so vivid an idea of it as did this flame-wrapped city tonight.”[ii] The mood amongst the federals was far from somber. As they marched, they roared together in song. “Never before or since have I heard the chorus of ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!’ done with more spirit or in better harmony of time and place,” Sherman would later say.[iii]

William Tecumseh Sherman. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

The belief in the Confederacy’s cause did not waiver, however; particularly not in the heart of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Speaking to Georgians and South Carolinians, he predicted that Sherman would suffer “defeat or a disgraceful retreat. The fate that befell the army of the French Empire in its retreat from Moscow will be re-enacted. Our cavalry and our people will harass and destroy his army, as did the Cossacks that of Napoleon, and the Yankee general, like him, will escape with only a bodyguard.”[iv] From there, he continued, the rebels would push their enemy “back to the banks of the Ohio and thus give the peace party of the North an accretion no puny editorial can give.”[v] The Union retort came from General Ulysses S. Grant who, when reading of Davis’ predictions, asked, “Who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat?”[vi] This riposte, directed at the aptness of the analogy, was not indicative of Grant’s confident in Sherman’s plan to march his men through the heart of Georgia. When Sherman first proposed that he “could cut a swath through to the sea, divide the Confederacy in two, and come up on the rear of Lee,” he met resistance not only from Grant but from President Abraham Lincoln as well.[vii] To assure Grant that the campaign would not be one that fulfilled Davis’ prophecy, Sherman couched his plan as being the logical next step: “If I turn back now, the whole effect of my campaign will be lost.”[viii] If, however, he moved “through Georgia, smashing things to the sea . . . instead of being on the defense, I would be on the offensive.”[ix] He continued, “If we can march a well-appointed army right through [Jefferson Davis’] territory, it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which Davis cannot resist. . . . I can make the march, and make Georgia howl!”[x] Perhaps because Sherman and Lincoln shared the same philosophy toward war—best illustrated through Sherman’s telling Atlanta’s mayor that “war is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” but “when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker”—Lincoln approved Sherman’s plan.[xi]

Although Sherman’s words to Atlanta’s mayor carried the meaning that war is inherently cruel—and thus seeming to absolve himself of responsibility for any such cruelty that may result from his campaign—in fact, Sherman had affection for his adversary. Tempering Sherman’s approach to the war was a hope for the future of the South: “We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South, but we can make war so terrible . . . [and] make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.”[xii]

When Sherman’s men left Atlanta, virtually no enemy stood between them and Savannah—285 miles away. Moving at approximately a dozen miles each day, the Union troops followed the command of their general and “foraged liberally on the country” then destroying not only things of military value but also many things that they simply could not consume or carry.[xiii] Two days out of Atlanta, one soldier wrote: “This is probably the most gigantic pleasure excursion ever planned. It already beats everything I ever saw soldiering, and promises to prove much richer yet.”[xiv] Near Stone Mountain, Sherman stopped to observe his men when one drew his attention for the soldier carried a jug of molasses under one arm with a ham slung from his rifle and a honeycomb in his other hand from which he was taking bites during the march.[xv] Groups of foragers (comprised of Confederate stragglers or deserters as well as Union solders) became known as “bummers” and helped themselves to anything they could find on farms, plantations, and slave quarters.[xvi] While one rebel soldier said, “I do not think the Yankees are any worse than our own army” in their stealing and plundering, it remains a fact that the federal troops brought havoc to Georgia during their march: one Union man recalled that Sherman’s men “destroyed all we could not eat, stole their niggers, burned their cotton & gins, spilled their sorghum, burned & twisted their R. Roads and raised Hell generally.”[xvii]

A major on Sherman’s staff, who was born in Alabama, did not condone the bummers’ actions but rationalized the conduct of Sherman’s men and the spirit of the march: “While I deplore this necessity daily and cannot bear to see the soldiers swarm as they do through fields and yards . . . nothing can end this war but some demonstration of their helplessness. . . . This Union and its Government must be sustained, at any and every cost; to sustain it, we must war upon and destroy the organized rebel forces,—must cut off their supplies, destroy their communications . . . [and] produce among the people of Georgia a thorough conviction of the personal misery which attends war, and the utter helplessness and inability of their ‘rulers,’ State or Confederate, to protect them. . . . If that terror and grief and even want shall help to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting us . . . it is mercy in the end.”[xviii]

Moments of levity punctuated the march as well—though the humor was not shared by all. With wives and mothers presiding over plantations, word of Sherman’s men approaching brought the women into the yards to bury their silver and jewels. The search for treasure became a regular practice for the Union men: “It was comical to see a group of these red-bearded, barefooted, ragged veterans punching the unoffending earth in an apparently idiotic but certainly most energetic way,” one officer wrote.[xix] “A woman standing upon the porch of a house, watching their proceedings, instantly became an object of suspicion, and she was watched until some movement betrayed a place of concealment. Fresh earth thrown up, a bed of flowers just set out, the slightest indication of a change of appearance or position, all attracted the gaze of these military agriculturists. If they ‘struck a vein’ a spade was instantly put in requisition and the coveted wealthy was speedily unearthed. It was all fair spoil of war, and the search made one of the excitements of the march.”[xx]

The success, or failure, of Sherman’s army in its campaign was not known but for second hand accounts—some of which came from the rebels. In the White House, Lincoln noted to Sherman’s brother John, who had inquired as to the progress of the campaign, that he, Lincoln, knew the hole Sherman “went in at, but I can’t tell you the hole he will come out of.”[xxi] Although Lincoln may not have revealed any distress to his guest, those closer to him observed that Lincoln appeared preoccupied: at a reception, Lincoln turned to a friend after emerging “from his abstracted mood,” smiled, and warmly said, “How do you do? How do you do? Excuse me for not noting you. I was thinking of a man down South.”[xxii]

By mid-December, that man down South and his troops had closed in on Savannah. The 10,000 Confederates defending the city escaped before being faced with surrender or siege, and Sherman promptly wired his President: “I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and . . . about 25,000 bales of cotton.”[xxiii] Lincoln express his “many, many thanks” for the “great success” that Sherman’s army achieved in cutting through the Georgia countryside and tightening the cordon around the Confederacy.[xxiv] Sherman completing his campaign meant for the rebels that the lines of communications, the mobility, and the acreage of the Confederacy were shrinking, and the heart of the fledgling country, Richmond, was not only being threatened from Grant’s army in the north and east of the city but also from Sherman’s army in the south.

If the campaign to Savannah had many memorable moments for the soldiers, those were not limited to the enjoying of treats and discovery of treasures; for one morose and disturbing moment occurred on Thanksgiving Day near Milledgeville. The feast that day was interrupted when several “hollow-cheeked” men, who had evidently no clothes but the rags on their backs, came into the camp and began weeping uncontrollably at the sight of the American flag and the spread of food.[xxv] At that moment, Sherman’s soldiers could see, smell, and hear the consequences of being a prisoner of the rebels at nearby Andersonville. A sense of guilt could have widely permeated Sherman’s camps following the incident for Sherman’s soldiers enjoyed virtually unlimited foraging in countryside that had been underutilized in rebel hands while their comrades sat in one of the most notorious military prisons in American history. That site of starvation, suffering, and chaos would only be liberated in the final weeks of the war—four months later.

William Tecumseh Sherman (leaning on a cannon at right) with staff members on November 16, 1864. Courtesy: George N. Barnard/Library of Congress, via Associated Press.

[i] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 640.

[ii] Id. at 641.

[iii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 807.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id. at 807-08.

[vii] Id. at 808.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id. at 808-09.

[xii] Id. at 809.

[xiii] See id.

[xiv] Id. at 809-10.

[xv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 643.

[xvi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 810.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id. at 810-11.

[xix] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 644.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id. at 650.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 811.

[xxiv] See id.

[xxv] Id. at 810.


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