Sherman's March through Georgia

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Sherman's March through Georgia in 1864 was one of the most dramatic and effective moves in the American Civil War, and indeed in world military history. Collaborating closely with his superior, General Ulysses S. Grant on the Virginia front, Union General William T. Sherman starting from his base in Atlanta marched across the state of Georgia to Savannah on the Atlantic coast, reaching his objective just before Christmas. There was little fighting, but moving his trimmed-down army on a wide front, Sherman systematically burned the plantations and freed the slaves, thus destroying the infrastructure of a small part of the Confederacy, and demonstrating that the Confederates were unable to defend their homes.

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Sherman's March was essentially a raid: the invaders did not intend to occupy the state, and as soon as they had departed the rebels reclaimed their ruined land. The March rankled for a century in the Southern psyche not so much because of the physical destruction it caused (less than 1% of southern wealth), but because of the studied insult to the honor of the white South. While there were very few instances of rape or mayhem, the Yankees delighted in demonstrating that Southerners were unable to defend their own homes, their property, their slaves, or their families. Sherman understood that the March would be "fatal to the possibility of a Southern independence; they may stand the fall of Richmond, but not of all Georgia."

Sherman’s strategy

Sherman, copying Grant's 1863 Vicksburg Campaign, decided to cut loose from his railroad. With but 60 locomotives and 600 freight cars, it was hard pressed to provide the 130 ten-ton carloads of freight needed every day. He sent a third of his force back to Thomas to hold Tennessee, and stripped the brigades down to the bare essentials; the men each carried a five-day supply of hardtack. Better food would be acquired along the way. The famous "March from Atlanta to the Sea" represented a new kind of warfare. Apart from a few ineffective militia units, Sherman encountered no serious opposition. He lived off the country, which because of the transportation breakdowns was bursting with food that could not be moved. His army consumed what it needed, and destroyed the rest. Advancing in two fronts, each 10 to 30 miles wide, Sherman cut a swath through 200 miles of one of the South's richest agricultural districts.

Confederates had discussed using the “Fabian” tactic of scorched earth, last used by the Russians against Napoleon in 1812—destroy everything first, so Sherman would starve. That was impossible because Sherman, not tied to a supply line, could head in any direction he pleased. "Having alternatives, I can take so eccentric a course that no general can guess my objectives." He used statistical data provided by the census to select the fattest counties to despoil. In 26 days his soldiers wreaked $100 million worth of damage, proving conclusively that, as Sherman famously said, "War is Hell."

The swath of destruction was a deliberate refutation of the rebel argument that the Confederacy could never be defeated because it was so large and agriculturally rich. Sherman's March exposed the basic Confederate quandary: their nation was too large to defend. The political goal of preserving slavery necessitated defense of all the territory, since once the Federals passed through the system of slavery was doomed. Many blacks fled the plantations to join the Union armies; a larger number were evacuated by their masters before the Federals arrived. Knowledge that freedom was imminent undercut the automatic obedience that the slave regime required.

Grant hoped that Sherman's threat would force Robert E. Lee to abandon Richmond and rush south to intercept Sherman. Grant indeed had set a trap: if Lee moved, Grant had his entire army ready to chase him down. If he did not move, Georgia would be ruined and the Confederacy would be proven to be but a shadow nation, its armies failures, its men impotent. Lee did not move.[1]

March through South Carolina

After delivering Savannah to the nation as a Christmas present, Sherman turned north into South Carolina—the very heartland of secession.


There in early 1865, even more than Georgia, the destruction was systematic and symbolic. On February 17 downtown Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, burned to ashes. Sherman had intended to burn only the public buildings and munitions factories, but was not especially vigilant in controlling his men. As part of their economic warfare, Confederate policy was to destroy all cotton before the Yankees could use it. They had therefore piled the streets high with cotton, then soaked it with turpentine and set it ablaze. Tufts of burning cotton, sparks and embers wafted across the city. Routinely the local Democrat officials had publicly whipped uppity slaves, and maltreated Yankee prisoners. Revenge came when the last Confederate units pulled out. Hundreds of barrels of Scotch (slipped through the blockade at enormous cost) were liberated by the invaders; the mayor had neglected to destroy it because it was private property. Many elite civilian men, fearful of imprisonment, abandoned their families and servants in the doomed city, and yet later expressed astonishment when the invaders were dilatory at quenching the fires that gutted their aristocratic mansion district. Sherman then headed to North Carolina where (in accord with Grant's original plan), he would isolate Virginia and cut off Lee's army from its base of support.


  • Bailey, Anne J. War and Ruin: William T. Sherman and the Savannah Campaign. Scholarly Resources, 2003. 152 pp.
  • Davis, Burke. Sherman's March: The First Full-Length Narrative of General William T. Sherman's Devastating March through Georgia and the Carolinas (1988)
  • Fellman, Michael. Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman (1997) excerpt and text search
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative (volume 3), (1974), famous history of military operations by Southern scholar
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (1995)
  • Hirshson, Stanley P. The White Tecumseh: A Biography of General William T. Sherman (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Kennett, Lee. Sherman: A Soldier's Life. 2001. 426 pp.
  • Marszalek, John F. Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order (1994) excerpt and text search
  • Marszalek, John F. Sherman's March To The Sea (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Royster, Charles. Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the American Civil War (1992)
  • West Point atlases; all maps are online:Western theatre

Primary sources

  • Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman (1885) online edition

See also


  1. Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War‎ (1991) p. 642