Notes From the Margins…

Remembering Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’

  • December 01, 2014
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It has passed virtually unnoticed in the UK, but this year is the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of one of the most famous military campaigns in history:   William Tecumseh Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ from Atlanta to Savannah.     I have a particular interest in this anniversary, having written a book on these campaigns and philosophy of war and their subsequent influence on the ‘American Way of War’ which is due to be published in the States by New Press next year:

For those that don’t know, the March to the Sea began on March 15 1864, when Sherman led his army out of the burning ruins of Atlanta towards the city of Savannah, 250 miles away on the Atlantic coast.     Sherman’s ultimate objective was Virginia, where the Army of the Potomac under the command of his great friend Ulysses S. Grant was locked in a bloody confrontation with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Both Grant and Sherman had launched a simultaneous two-pronged invasion of the South from the East and West in the spring of that year, with the aim of finally crushing the Confederacy and bringing the war to an end.   In Virginia things hadn’t worked out as planned; after a series of shockingly violent battles with Lee’s army that had inflicted massive casualties on both sides, Grant’s campaigns had weakened but not broken the Confederate defensive system.

While Grant attempted to bludgeon Lee’s armies into submission, Sherman had spent the summer advancing cautiously down   the Chattanooga-Atlanta railroad towards Atlanta, taking pains to avoid direct confrontations with Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tenessee that might have left his own forces stranded in enemy territory.

In July Sherman’s army laid siege to the ‘gateway to the South, and   on September 2, his forces entered Atlanta, conceding a major victory to the Union and guaranteeing Lincoln’s re-election in the forthcoming elections.   By that time the Union and Confederate armies in Virginia were locked into static trench warfare, and it was Sherman who now had room for manouevre.     Having seized Atlanta, Sherman could have taken his 100,000-strong army through a shorter and more direct route to Virginia through Tennessee.

Instead he took the unusual decision to reduce his army to just over 60,000 and abandon the city he had just captured, forcibly evacuating its population and breaking contact with his supply line.   Rather than pursue the Army of Tennessee, which was then under the command of John Bell Hood, he chose to lead his stripped-down forces the long way round through the undefended heartlands of Georgia and the Carolinas.

His objective, as he described it to Grant in typically blunt Shermanlike fashion, was to ‘make Georgia howl’, by wrecking the state’s ability to supply the Confederate armies with food and war materiel.     But his campaigns also constituted what seemed to some   observers at the time to be a new and amoral form of psychological warfare,   and to others a regression to an era of ‘uncivilized war’ that had supposedly been superseded, in which military operations were explicitly directed against civilians and non-combatants.

It was true that Sherman, like many Unionists, saw the attitudes and behavior of the civilian population as a crucial component of the Confederate war effort.   More than any other Union general, he had an astute understanding of the new overlapping relationship between the civilian and military dimensions of modern warfare, which were only just becoming apparent in the American Civil War.

Both sides began the conflict with the idea that it could be won through a Napoleonic ‘decisive battle’, and they were soon disabused of this notion as battles came and went without bringing a noticeable strategic advantage to the victors.     In these circumstances Sherman came to see the civilian population as a strategic objective in its own right.

In leading his army through the heart of the South, he intended a) to deal a psychological demoralizing blow to the Confederacy by demonstrating that its government was unable to defend its people and that its cause was hopeless b) to make Southern civilians pay a price for supporting the war by showing that ‘war and individual ruin are synonymous terms’ and c) to make the population feel the power of the federal government in such a way that it would not be inclined to engage in rebellion in the future

Marching in two wings approximately 20 miles apart, Sherman’s army rampaged through Georgia virtually unopposed, living off the land and wrecking railroad lines, depots and anything else that had any military use to the Confederacy:

In keeping with his orders to ‘forage liberally’ off the population, his army also seized food supplies and livestock and slaughtered livestock that they didn’t need for themselves:

These actions, perhaps not surprisingly,   transformed Sherman into a hate figure in the South, and the loathing directed towards him intensified after the war, as the image of Sherman the Great Destroyer was handed down through posterity through films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, and exaggerated and blown out of all proportion by ‘Lost Cause’ mythologizing till Sherman was variously described as a combination of proto-Nazi and Attila the Hun.

Personally, I do not, and never will, approve of military violence against civilians, but I have little sympathy with the demonisation of ‘Billy the Torch’ in the South.   Numerous historical studies of the March to the Sea and its sequel in the Carolinas have made it clear that Sherman’s campaigns were never as destructive or as violent as they were made out to be at the time – or since.

Depictions of Sherman’s marches as ‘genocide’ on neo-Confederate websites like the Southern Nationalist Network wilfully exaggerate the impact of his campaigns or the intentions behind them. The intemperate Sherman was certainly prone to violent and sometimes genocidal pronouncements, but there was a vast difference between what he said and what he actually did.

For all the considerable hardship that the largely defenseless population of Georgia and the Carolinas suffered in the course of his campaigns, the destruction that he inflicted was calibrated and limited and designed to inflict sufficient hurt on the South to force it to give up fighting and abandon secession, but not to alienate Southerners to the point where they would be unwilling to accept the authority of the government in the aftermath of the war.

Southern vilification of Sherman has long been an essential and also politically convenient component of ‘Lost Cause’ mythology, that presents the Confederacy as a victim of ‘Yankee barbarism’ that fought nobly in defense of a noble cause. Southerners have often depicted Sherman as the epitome of the brutality and amorality of the Lincoln administration, for whom the ends always justified the means.

But what is disturbing about Sherman’s campaigns is the contradiction between the inherent brutality in targeting women, children and the elderly as legitimate objects of ‘psychological’ war, and Sherman’s own belief that such methods were more humane than the butchery that he himself witnessed on the battlefield.

Southern myths of ‘Celtic’ and ‘chivalrous’ Confederate warfare tend to gloss over or enoble the horrific battlefield slaughter that disgusted Sherman.   They also tend to pass lightly over the fact that for all the constitutional and ‘nationalist’ justifications for the war, the Confederacy fought in order to uphold one of the most barbarous and tyrannical social systems in history.

Last but not least, the condemnations of Sherman invariably ignore the savage violence that was directed against the freed slaves and their Republican supporters after the Civil War during the so-called ‘Redemption’ period, which states across the South successfully carried out a counter-revolution that held the racist order in place for the best part of a century.

These consequences are recognized in the commemorative plaque erected in Atlanta last month by the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia Battlefields Association, which claims that ‘ contrary to popular myth,   Sherman’s army primarily destroyed only property used for waging war.’     The plaque also notes that Sherman’s soldiers ‘liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path, Sherman’s “hard hand of war” demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.’

All true, despite the fact that Sherman himself was a white supremacist who did not want blacks in his own army and did not believe that they should have the right to vote.   But the anniversary plaque certainly suggests a more mature evaluation of his campaigns than the anger and bitterness which still percolates through neo-Confederate websites.

Mythologizing continues to emanate from more mainstream circles.   Thus the Macon Telegraph claimed last month that Confederate cannons forced Sherman’s cavalry to withdraw from the city, thus sparing Macon from Sherman’s ‘torch.’   The article’s characterization of Macon as one of ‘Sherman’s failures’ completely ignores the historical fact and also the strategy and tactics that Sherman’s campaigns embodied.

In fact, Sherman’s cavalry commander Judson Kilpatrick had no interest in capturing or torching Macon or any other city in Georgia, apart from Savannah, and even that objective was not considered essential. Sherman marched his army in two wings so that his opponents could not second-guess his destination and therefore could not concentrate against him.   For this reason Kilpatrick was ordered to carry out a feint attack on Macon, but not to capture it.

Sherman recognized that it was not necessary to actually capture Confederate cities in order to make them militarily useless; it was sufficient to cut the transportation lines that connected them and leave them stranded.     Tactically, his campaigns anticipated the armoured manouevre warfare of World War II, in which mechanized armies sought to destroy their opponents through rapid ‘deep penetration’ of their defensive lines, concentrating on the destruction of command-and-control, logistical and supply networks in order to avoid the loss of life that sieges and assaults on heavily-defended cities entailed.

Such tactics have been a consistent feature of American warfare, from MacArthur’s ‘island-hopping’ campaigns in the Pacific and Patton’s slashing advances into Brittany to the ‘hail Mary punch’ campaign devised by ‘Stormin Norman’ Schwarzkopf uring the First Gulf War.

The ridiculous depiction by one of the Macon Telegraph‘s commenters that Sherman’s army was the ‘ISIS of its time’ is so far removed from anything that his army did or intended to do that it would be laughable, were it not for the fact that there are Southerners who still believe such nonsense.

Sherman’s campaigns are troubling precisely because Sherman was not a monster, but a sensitive, intelligent and humane American general, who nevertheless came to regard unarmed civilians as a legitimate objective that could be attacked in order to ‘shorten war’, and eloquently and persuasively expressed the view that attempts to mitigate the violence of war were counterproductive and even hypocritical, and that cruelty and brutality in the short-term were ultimately more humane and moral than protracted military confrontations that killed tens of thousands of uniformed soldiers on ‘the battlefield’.

It was true that Sherman mostly concentrated his efforts against property rather than people, even though such property sometimes consisted of food that civilians as well as soldiers depended on.

Other armies and governments have adopted a very similar philosophy, with far more destructive consequences, in counterinsurgency campaigns and the bombardment of cities and population centres, in blockades and sanctions aimed at the enemy population as well as its government.

Again and again, such actions have been justified, like the March to the Sea, as an attempt to ‘save lives’ and ‘shorten war’.   The US Army is no exception, and American generals and politicians have frequently invoked Sherman’s famous declaration that ‘war is all hell’ as a justification for intensifying its hellishness.

For all these reasons, the March to the Sea is worth revisiting and remembering, and not only in Georgia or South Carolina, because the motives and actions behind it can tell us a great deal not only about the American Civil War, but about the evolution of war in the twentieth century and beyond, and because the moral and ethical issues that they raised are still surprisingly pertinent to the wars of our own era.





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1 Comment

  1. Nik

    2nd Dec 2014 - 6:17 pm

    Very interesting! Reading this once more made me realize how little I actually know when it comes to the details of the American Civil War. I am looking forward to getting my hands on your book.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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