During the American Civil War, Union Major General William T. Sherman defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Atlanta on 2 September 1864. He then marched his troops nearly 300 miles through Georgia, from Atlanta to Savannah, practicing a ‘scorched earth’ policy as they went, wrecking property, looting goods and aiming to “make Georgia howl”.
Ultimately, Sherman’s March to the Sea, as it became known, was an act of destruction that devastated the morale and infrastructure of the Confederate South and hastened the surrender of the Confederacy.
Here’s the history of Sherman’s notorious march.
Civil War origins
The American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865. After years of increased tensions between northern and southern states, Union and Confederate armies would go to battle in the deadliest war ever fought on American soil, as decisions about slavery, states’ rights and westward expansion hung in the balance.
Most of the fighting occurred in the South, with northern armies looking to disrupt critical supply lines to weaken the Confederate army and stop the war. By 1864, northern morale was waning as President Abraham Lincoln sought re-election. Fortunately for him, the Battle of Atlanta would occur in September – a Union victory and a boost to Union spirits that would ultimately help Lincoln win a second term.
The battle was seen as a great win for the North, as Atlanta was a key railroad hub and industrial centre for the Confederacy. With its fall, the Union hoped Confederate civilians, who were known to be hostile, would doubt the war could be won.
Beginning the march
After the Battle of Atlanta on 2 September 1864, Major General William T. Sherman and his troops would embark on what is now known as Sherman’s March to the Sea. Spanning from 15 November – 21 December 1864 and travelling across 285 miles, the northern army would make its way through Georgia, from Atlanta to Savannah, leaving a path of destruction in their wake and frightening Georgia’s population into abandoning the Confederate cause.
Sherman believed that civilians needed to understand how difficult war was, an early example of practising ‘total war’: this concept, first labelled in 1935, argues that war is not just between two armies but is an event that affects everyone in a population through the targeting of civilian resources and infrastructure. Through this march, Sherman believed the Confederacy would be brought to its knees, and he was right.
After the Confederate loss at the Battle of Atlanta, General John Bell Hood marched his southern army to Tennessee, in hopes of forcing Sherman’s army to chase them down and fight. Essentially, Sherman ignored Hood, staying in Georgia and allowing other Union troops to engage, and ultimately defeat, Hood’s army in Tennessee. Due to Hood’s abandonment of Atlanta, there were not many troops left to defend the city, and Sherman was able to destroy about 40% of the city’s infrastructure and businesses after ordering civilians to evacuate.
On the 285 mile march, Sherman’s 60,000 troops were given orders to forage liberally and gather meat, corn and vegetables, as well as anything else needed to make 10 days’ provisions. Generally, they were not allowed to enter people’s premises, though if antagonised, the soldiers were permitted to retaliate with equal or greater force.
Famously, Sherman wanted to “make Georgia howl,” ruining Georgia’s ability to equip and feed itself and demoralise civilians into submission, adding a psychological element to his war strategy.
Sherman’s troops were disruptive, despite his code of conduct, as much was left to interpretation. When out to forage, soldiers would destroy property, loot and steal. Marching 10-12 miles a day, Sherman estimated they did some $100,000,000 in damage throughout their journey, which would be about $1.6 billion today.
From Atlanta to Milledgeville and onto Savannah
After leaving Atlanta, the soldiers reached the state capital at the time, Milledgeville. While there, they formally repealed the ordinance of secessions (which they did not have the authority to do).
After Milledgeville, the army finally entered Savannah, where Sherman sent a message to Lincoln to let him know they had made it. On the journey, the troops were well-fed, hardly encountering any fire or resistance. They were in good spirits, and that spirit was carried in the message to the president.
Runaway slaves and black labourers joined the march
Sherman was not known for supporting abolition, despite being a Union General, so when enslaved persons and black labourers attached themselves to the army, Sherman allowed them to stay but was not thrilled. As a result, he met with abolitionists to determine what the best course of action would be for this group and was advised to provide them with land, allowing them to grow crops for themselves and own their own property.
Sherman proclaimed a wartime order, allowing plots of 40 acres and ordering his army to lend a mule to help families get started, leading to a belief that land redistribution would occur for all formerly enslaved people after the war was won, a promise that was not met. Though many families began to yield crops and begin a new life in the years after the order, many plots of land would be repossessed under the Johnson administration, as the focus became on wage labour and not land ownership during the Reconstruction Era.
Sherman’s troops travelled 650 miles in 100 days
After raising hell in Georgia and resting for a few weeks in Savannah, Sherman’s troops continued into South and North Carolina. Numbered at 100,000 soldiers after reinforcements arrived, the trek into South Carolina was personal, as secession – and treason – began in this state, and according to Sherman, it would end there as well.
His soldiers were more destructive in South Carolina than in Georgia, and the state capital of Columbia was burned to the ground, though whose fault it was is up for debate. After making their way through South Carolina, the soldiers continued into North Carolina in 1865, where they finally engaged with one small army, pushing them back with ease.
In total, from Georgia through North Carolina, Sherman’s troops travelled 650 miles in fewer than 100 marching days and captured 3 state capitals. He only lost about 600 men from the original army of 60,000 and was able to grow to 100,000 soldiers.
The march seriously damaged the South
In one of the largest victories of the Civil War, Sherman’s troops were able to knock the wind out of the South, destroying 300 miles of railroad lines, bridges, telegraph lines and other infrastructure. They confiscated an estimated 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, 13,000 head of cattle and 10,000,000 pounds of corn/fodder.
They were able to destroy cotton gins and mills, the economic backbone of the south. All of this was achieved by operating outside of standard military principles, going deep into enemy territory without supply or communication lines for themselves, a risk that greatly paid off for the Union army.
Ultimately, Sherman’s March to the Sea obliterated the Confederate strategy. Coming from the South with Ulysses S. Grant moving down from the North, the Union army was able to catch Robert E. Lee with a well-fed and energised army.