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Sherman’s March to the Sea: Inside One of the Most Destructive Campaigns of the Civil War

The scorched earth policy left chaos in its wake.

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  • 1868 engraving of Sherman's march to the sea.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On December 22, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln received a telegram from Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah,” the communication read, “with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

The telegram was the culmination of a major military campaign which had lasted for more than a month. It began in Atlanta, where a series of skirmishes had resulted in General Sherman controlling the city by the end of September, 1864. From there, he proposed a strike deep into the heart of enemy territory to take the port of Savannah.

The campaign would require that the Union soldiers function behind enemy lines without a supply chain. To make this possible, Sherman issued explicit orders. “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march,” he said, including taking food and other supplies from civilian farms as they passed. This was both a way for the Union soldiers to survive without a supply chain, but also a way to disrupt the morale and the infrastructure of the Confederate forces.

Besides foraging from the neighboring communities, the Union soldiers also went out of their way to destroy Confederate supply chains and infrastructure. This included tearing up and destroying railroads. Rails were pulled up, heated over campfires, and then wrapped around tree trunks. These “souvenirs” left behind by the Union army became known as “Sherman’s neckties.”

The March to the Sea has been called “the most destructive campaign against a civilian population during the Civil War” by the New Georgia Encyclopedia, while numerous scholars have cited it as an early example of a “scorched earth” campaign or the concept of “total war.”

Sherman himself recognized the psychological advantages of his proposed campaign. “This may not be war,” he said, “but statesmanship.” Though both President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant expressed reservations about Sherman’s plan, which would put his forces in a particularly perilous position, they ultimately approved the march on November 4, 1864, with a telegram from Grant simply stating, “Go as you propose.”

As part of the army’s “scorched earth” tactics, Sherman divided his forces into two wings, which made for Savannah via different routes in order to confuse the enemy. These forces were ordered to organize discreet foraging parties, which became known as “bummers,” to gather supplies such as food, livestock, and horses from nearby farms and other sources as the army traveled.

Though Sherman’s orders generally prohibited the destruction of “mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c” in “districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested,” he also gave to his commanders the authority to authorize such destruction anywhere the marching army met any kind of resistance. In those places, he said, “commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.”

Sherman’s scorched earth tactics were devastating to the Confederate forces and to morale. It has been estimated that as many as 10,000 liberated slaves joined Sherman’s army during the march, while the Union forces seized more than 20,000 heads of livestock, over nine million pounds of corn, and wrecked some 300 miles of railroad track and telegraph lines. According to military historians Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, Sherman’s tactics were instrumental in “knocking the Confederate war effort to pieces.”

In a letter to Henry Halleck written just a few days after he captured Savannah, Sherman described the psychological effect that the success of his campaign had upon the Southern populace. “Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the belief that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience.” 

On December 17, Sherman sent a message to Confederate General William J. Hardee, concerning his siege of Savannah. “I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city,” he wrote, “also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah, and its dependent forts, and shall wait a reasonable time for your answer, before opening fire with heavy ordnance.”

sherman's march
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  • Sherman's men destroying a railroad in Atlanta.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

By December 20, Sherman’s forces were accepting the surrender of the city, the Confederate forces having already retreated across the Savannah River on a makeshift pontoon bridge. Before the day was over, Union troops had occupied Savannah, winning a strategic victory in the Civil War.

Though Sherman’s forces spent a month in the city, his marches didn’t end there, and he engaged in more destructive campaigns, often using similar tactics to those he had deployed on his infamous March to the Sea, to move his forces back to the North through the Carolinas. 

President Lincoln replied to Sherman’s telegram with a letter of his own, thanking Sherman for the “Christmas gift” and expressing his own anxieties about the success of the campaign. “Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is yours,” the president wrote. “Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages, but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force […] it brings those who sat in darkness to see a great light.”

For all its success, however, Sherman’s campaign did not yet have the name by which it would come to be known. For that, a Union prisoner of war who was being held in South Carolina would be required. S.H.M. Byers was a Union soldier from Iowa, as well as a poet who later wrote what became Iowa’s state song. While he was being held as a prisoner of war at Camp Sorghum, he penned a poem about Sherman’s Savannah campaign, which he titled “Sherman’s March to the Sea.”

When Byers was freed as part of Sherman’s subsequent campaigns through the Carolinas, he gave the poem to General Sherman himself. Sherman was so moved that he made Byers part of his personal staff, and the two became lifelong friends. The title of the poem also became the common name for Sherman’s campaign, one of the most important in the entire war.