One of the core components of any Civil War curriculum is General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, a supposed savage and destructive campaign from Atlanta to Savannah running from November 15 to December 21, 1864. While Sherman’s army undoubtedly destroyed and looted infrastructure and some private property, historians are now revisiting his campaign as one of Mongol-esque deterrence. In other words, he was intentionally destructive early on with the aim of forcing the cities he would encounter later to surrender more easily.
William Tecumseh Sherman. To be fair, he does look a little insane.
In addition to forcing cities – like Savannah – to give up more easily, he also sought to destroy Confederate morale on the front lines. By destroying personal property of Confederate soldiers, he would in turn increase desertions in the Confederate ranks. According to W Todd Groce, this was his tactic elsewhere, such as South Carolina, where he told a woman that he was ransacking her plantation so that her soldier husband would come home and Grant would not have to kill him in the trenches at Petersburg.
This new way of thinking of Sherman’s March makes sense, considering the real toll of his campaign. Civilians weren’t killed en masse and those who complied with his army’s orders were typically dealt with positively. Even when you talk about property destruction, less was destroyed than is traditionally thought. Most people picture a charred wasteland in the army’s wake, but aside from military and industrial targets, few personal properties were destroyed. Where the civilians suffered, however, was their food supply. The army took much more than even they could consume, leaving the civilians of Georgia facing food scarcity as winter closed in.
A map of Sherman's forces, who began in Atlanta and finished near the coast in Savannah.
All of this had the intended effect of decreasing morale in the South, both for civilians and soldiers, and led to increased desertions among Confederate soldiers at a time when they were most needed, specifically the fall and winter of 1864-65.
While Sherman’s March is considered barbaric, especially in the South, it was strategic campaign with clear end goals of peace, and was even sanctioned by the Federal Government. If there is any doubt that Sherman wanted a united and peaceful country and saw temporary destruction and chaos as a means to a peaceful end, here are some words from a letter he wrote in September 1864:
“We don’t want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your lands, or any thing you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and, if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it… But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”