Skip to comments.The FReeper Foxhole Remembers Sherman's March to the Sea (Nov 1864 - Mar 1865) - Dec 23rd, 2003
Posted on 12/23/2003 12:00:09 AM PST by SAMWolf
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William Tecumseh Sherman
a New Age of Warfare
I want to talk this evening about an interesting man, to me one of the most interesting men to come out of the Civil War. His name is probably not unfamiliar to you: William Tecumseh Sherman. A good many white Southerners 100-odd years ago thought Sherman the most unspeakable ogre in all of human history, and a good many of the white people of the South, especially those who live in middle Georgia or South Carolina, still do. Now that's an interesting thing. I mean, nobody white and Southern hates Ulysses S. Grant any more. Nobody hates Abraham Lincoln any more. But Sherman can still be despised. To traditional white Southerners, he is right up there with Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr, and may even be up there with Adolf Hitler and Attila the Hun. Maybe. The question is, of course, is that where he should be? Or should Southerners still be thanking Sherman for his gentleness and his decency? I would like to suggest to you that we should at least consider the latter of these two options and not dismiss it out of hand too quickly. What Sherman did was bring a kind of brutality to warfare that for all intents and purposes had never been seen before, and yet at the same time a kind of gentleness that had never been seen before, either.
General William Tecumsah Sherman, USA
Before we begin our consideration of this seemingly outrageous proposal, let's briefly see what we are dealing with here. On the off chance you do not know, on 10 November, 1864, Sherman leaves Atlanta, which he had captured the previous September, and heads out east for Savannah and the sea. He and his 60,000 troops cut a 50 to 60 mile swath through Georgia, living off the land, but not just living off the land -- also destroying much of what was found in their path. He reaches Savannah in December and presents the city to Lincoln as a Christmas present. He and his men rest a while and then, in early February, go to work one more time, heading now into South Carolina. Much of South Carolina was still intact when Sherman and his men left it in early March, but that was not for lack of trying. Houses were burned, whole cities were burned, a thousand places were destroyed. How can anyone say anything good about this madman, this butcher, this barbarian?
Most Southerners have not. As representative a set of comments as any comes from Jefferson Davis, who, in his memoirs, called Sherman a liar and a hypocrite, (and) said he committed the worst savagery "since Alva's atrocious cruelties to the non-combatant population of the Low Countries in the sixteenth century," and that the march to the sea had been "an act of cruelty which only finds a parallel in the barbarous excesses of Wallenstein's army in the Thirty Years War." Now frankly, I wouldn't know Alva or Wallenstein if they sat up and spat at me in the eye, but this is obviously pretty serious stuff. Still, the question is, will it fly?
Sherman was certainly different -- there is absolutely no question about that. Sherman really was doing something new in human history. To appreciate how new Sherman's strategy and tactics were, let's take a look at what traditional warfare was like, warfare before the Civil War, warfare before William Tecumseh Sherman was even a gleam in his daddy's eye.
Traditional warfare was a very different game from what we take for granted today. First of all, the ends of wars -- the reasons for their being fought -- tended to be limited. Look at traditional treaties: they usually revolve around territorial acquisitions. England gets a particular piece of land from France. The next time France gets it back. And so on. You didn't go to war to destroy other countries or other societies. What you got out of war was basically a change of borders.
Hood is forced to destroy his eighty car munitions train. All that remains are the wheels.
Because the ends of war were limited, the ordinary citizen didn't get much involved. Unless a peasant working in the fields had the misfortune of having an army come strolling through his corn crop, he theoretically might not even know that a war was going on. This lack of citizen involvement in warfare was no problem, because there wasn't much he could do anyway. And that's because traditionally, wars were small. They had to be small because armies were small. And they had to be small because, in the days before industrialization, professional armies were extraordinarily expensive to maintain in the field. When weapons and supplies had to be handmade, there was not going to be an overabundance of them, and they were going to cost a lot of money. The same with food, in the days before harvesting machinery and railroad transportation. No king had the money to keep hundreds of thousands of men in the field, much less keep them there indefinitely .
Because armies had to be small, there was a premium put upon professionalism and training. Logical. If you can't have many, you want the best you can get. That being so, no one wanted to risk his small, highly trained, professional army unnecessarily. There were no instant replacements. That being so, 18th century warfare was, in a very real way, sort of leisurely and even civilized. Warfare stressed maneuver rather than battle. Again logical. Professional armies were so small and so expensive to raise and maintain that they could only be risked when victory was reasonably certain. This meant that in traditional warfare there would not be much destruction or even loss of life. For example, in the Revolutionary War there were only 4,044 American deaths. In the War of 1812, only 2,200. In that sense, war was conducted with a measure of humanity. It was regarded as a kind of exercise or game to be conducted by professionals. Again the function of an army was not to mow down an enemy, leaving dead bodies strewn all over the battlefield. The function of an army was to take territory.
Sherman's Troops in Georgia
In these old-fashioned wars of chivalry, armies were drawn up in opposing lines of battle, one offensive, one defensive. War theory was very offensive-minded. If you spend all your time maneuvering, when you get a chance to strike, you take it. You send out the infantry on one of those grand, old charges, with flags flying and banners waving. Few were killed in all of this, because the weapons were so slow to fire and so inaccurate. Then, when the infantry was close enough, you would rout the enemy. Not destroy, but rout.
This kind of traditional warfare did not work during the Civil War for a variety of reasons. Basically, it did not work because by 1861 the world had changed. The Civil War was a war of ideas, fought in the industrial age, between very large numbers of men. It was the first modern war in history.
A war of ideas. The Civil War was not fought to conquer ground as much as to eliminate or preserve -- depending on which side you were on -- a way of life. For the North to eliminate that way of life, ground had to be conquered; that's true, but that was not the overall main objective. The war was fought not so much to conquer a territory, as to conquer a people. That's new. And because it was a war of ideas, it was a popular war on both sides, a war in which the average person felt very much involved, because he wanted the ideas of his side to win. That's new -- and that increased the intensity level of the onlookers, the civilians, immeasurably.
Sherman's men left Atlanta in rubble and ruins. Here they tear up a railroad, eventually putting the irons atop a blaze and then, when hot, bending them around trees.
It also immeasurably increased the number of soldiers doing the actual fighting. And because of industrialization, those soldiers could now be fed and clothed and supplied without bankrupting the nation. It was no longer necessary to think in terms of small professional armies. The new technology made it possible to keep huge numbers of men in the field almost indefinitely.
And so the Civil War was fought with very large numbers of men, men who brought to battle not so much military training as a belief in a cause. This was a political war -- again, something fairly new in human history -- and inasmuch as neither side could compromise its basic political purposes and beliefs, it was a war of unlimited objectives. Such a war was bound to be a very rough affair, a bloody and brutal struggle.
This was especially true because for the first time the technology was there to increase the killing dramatically. Nineteenth-century technological advances changed traditional warfare. For example, the musket in general use prior to the Civil War could be fired perhaps twice a minute and had an effective range of about 100 yards. That's why nobody died in those charges. But the rifled musket that was in general use during the war could kill at half a mile, and the repeater rifle -- which began to come into use at the beginning of the war -- had the same range and could, additionally, be fired eight to 10 times a minute. This alone made traditional tactics obsolete. Offensive infantry charges will no longer work, with any degree of certainty anyway. Those grand old charges which had been pretty safe before would now face a defensive army which could simply sit there and pick you apart. Consequently, frontal attacks became unprofitable, unless you had huge numbers of men, and, indeed, the vast majority of the frontal attacks attempted during the Civil War were unsuccessful. If you hated killing troops, either yours or the other side's, you wanted to avoid these kinds of meetings whenever possible.
And so, for the first time in human history, we have huge numbers of men with reasons to hate each other and to fight, with supplies to last so that they could fight, and weapons to kill when they did. And the death statistics show it. Six hundred and eighteen thousand men died in the Civil War, more than all other American wars combined, up to and including Vietnam. Those tidy, little traditional theories of war were no longer terribly useful when each side was trying to annihilate the other. Old theories of warfare had to be adapted to meet new technological facts and to meet new sociological facts.
But this was a lesson that the conservative, traditional South could never quite learn. How could the South understand, for example, that theories of warfare had to be adapted to meet new technological facts when the basically anti-industrial South had relatively little technology in the first place? How could Southerners understand this new idea that in modern warfare you have to defeat a whole people, a whole North, when all they really wanted was to be left alone? Southerners fought as they lived -- in a very local, conservative, traditional fashion. One of the South's best historians, Clemen Eaton, has written that the Confederacy was "truly a conservative revolt in that the South would not accept the nineteenth century." And that helps explain their defeat.
The civilians remaining in Atlanta after its capture are forced to leave
Northern generals at the beginning of the war were pretty much the same. George McClellan, for example, was a walking textbook of traditionalism. But eventually two new warriors come to the fore. Both of them were pragmatic Westerners and neither of them was traditional one bit -- Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. These were not generals who were interested in maneuvers or parades or fiddling around -- these were generals who were interested in fighting. That's the way Grant, for example, operated, especially in those brutal 1864 battles when he went head to head against Lee. No maneuvers, no parades. All he wanted to do was beat the hell out of the Army of the Potomac, any way he could. Grant was sort of the Smokin' Joe Frazier of Civil War generals. You could do whatever you wanted to do to him and at the end, when the smoke cleared, he would still be there, shaking his head to get rid of the cobwebs, and still moving, still coming at you.
The least traditional of them all, though, was Sherman, especially with his March to the Sea and his march through the Carolinas. Sherman understood that in a modern war, fought between whole societies and fought over great principles and ideas, you have to defeat the people, not just the army. You have to destroy the will of the people to fight back. Victory in modern warfare comes from superior psychology, as well as superior weaponry and manpower and tactics.
You must understand here that the South during the Civil War had the advantage -- or at least should have had the advantage -- of will. The South had more reason to fight, and therefore should have had the psychological advantage. Slavery may have been the cause of the war -- I insist that it was, that it was always at the bottom of everything and that no other issue was important enough to cause Southerners to secede -- but if you had asked most Southerners why they were fighting, they would in all likelihood not have said for slavery. They would have said -- and quite sincerely -- that they were fighting for the very high ideal of their own independence -- they were fighting for the protection of their homes, for their way of life. There's no contradiction here. Let's say we are attacked tomorrow by a somehow rejuvenated, re-Stalinized USSR. We will resist, but we will not resist because this is a last ditch struggle between capitalism and communism -- even though that is obviously what the historians will say. We will resist because we don't want a foreign power on our soil. That's the way individual Southerners were. The North, on the other hand, was fighting for things far less tangible -- Union and freedom -- they were fighting for concepts. Southerners were fighting for the ground upon which they lived. If the North lost, Northerners could go back home with nothing changed, except that the South would now be independent. If the South lost, the changes would be cataclysmic.
And so Sherman understood that to defeat the South meant to defeat the Southern people, and to defeat the Southern people meant to destroy their very considerable will to resist. The way to do that was to bring the war home to them, not in some sort of theoretical manner, but to in essence to make them combatants and to vanquish them. Before the march began, he wrote, "I propose to demonstrate the vulnerability of the South, and make its inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms." And afterwards he wrote, "My aim was, to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their innermost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. "Fear is the beginning of wisdom."
As we will see more fully in just a second, Sherman was not a butcher at all. He conducted war almost in philosophical terms. He was as much a philosopher as he was a warrior. And the basis of his philosophy was a strong concept of order. Before the war broke out, he had had a very unstable life in many respects, and he craved a sense of order in his own affairs. In the same way that he hated the instability in his own life, he hated the instability in the life of the mid-nineteenth century American nation. It was this belief in order that caused him to despise the idea of secession as much as he did. He cried when South Carolina seceded. Secession destroys order -- it breeds anarchy. Pretty much by definition, there is nothing more anarchical than revolution; revolution must therefore be put down. Putting a revolution down is fierce activity. That can't be helped. The age of gentlemanly warfare has passed.
He put it this way in November 1863, a year before his march to the sea: He had the right, he said, "to use every man, every influence, every moral, intellectual, and physical power within my limits to restore quiet, order, [and] peace. If a man disturbs the peace, I will kill him or remove him... for we must have some law. Nature abhors anarchy... All must act in concert to stop war, strife, and anarchy. When these are done, peace restored, civil courts and law respected, then you and all are free again."
And so he was not simply engaging in destruction for the fun of it when he left Atlanta in 1864. How else could he show the Southern people that they must come peaceably back to the Union? They would laugh at him if he simply asked them 'please.' For their minds to be changed, they had to feel, first-hand, the horror of war. He would let Ulysses S. Grant, up in Virginia, wage war on the Confederate armies -- he would wage war on the Confederate mind.
LOL. Obviously the author of this piece is not a FReeper. Good morning and good to see you "fall in" to the Foxhole today.
What's up with that? I mean, so he helped the North win the war. That's fine and good, whatever, but I don't think it was because the Yanks cared about black people.
I totally agree...but to me it's like a puzzle that could have more than one ending...where there are no right or wrong answers... just discussion and theory.
I like the discussion and theory part... and the puzzle part. No one will ever know what would have happened if Jackson had survived, or even if his survival would have changed the outcome of the war.
My great,great grandfathers were from Kentucky and served with the Union army in Tennessee.
But my heart belongs with Jackson, Stuart, Pickett, and Lee!
I'll have to have a conversation with Dad's family to see what they think of Sherman. I doubt I'll be able to take the point of view your post this morning does. Then again, being from Mississippi and Alabama, I might.
Any discussion of Shermans culpability in the burning of Columbia should mention his pre-war opinions of Southerners, especially South Carolinians; opinions he formed while stationed there in 1843. "This state, their aristocracy, their patriarchal chivalry and glory-all trash." But Sherman was alarmed by what he called South Carolina "young bloods" who were "brave, fine riders, bold to rashness and dangerous in every sense." His solution was, incredibly, that "the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright."
Sherman himself certainly did not believe that "each man is as good as another." For example, in 1862 Sherman was bothered that "the country" was "swarming with dishonest Jews" (see Michael Fellman, Citizen Sherman, p. 153). He got his close friend, General Grant, to expel all Jews from his army. As Fellman writes, "On December 17, 1862, Grant . . . , like a medieval monarch . . . expelled The Jews, as a class, from his department." Sherman biographer Fellman further writes that to Sherman, the Jews were "like n*ggers" and "like greasers (Mexicans) or Indians" in that they were "classes or races permanently inferior to his own."
What a role model...< /sarcasm>
Yes the South could have won if they had fought a guerilla style war, other than that they didn't have a chance. The North had all the men and the cannon.
The only thing that kept it going as long as it did was the North had terrible generals.