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.
Still, the real devastation did not begin until Sherman's men hit South Carolina in February 1865. The March to the Sea had been total war, but it had been conducted almost as a philosophical exercise. We must break the will of these people to resist, we must show them that they cannot continue to fight us. If some eggs get broken -- or eaten -- well, we're sorry about that. The march through South Carolina was different. Sherman, Sherman's army, Northerners in general, hated South Carolina. South Carolina was -- and obviously quite deservedly so -- the symbol of Southern secessionist defiance. When the army entered South Carolina, it was total war with a vengeance, not just burning and looting and destroying, but burning, looting, and destroying with conviction. The capital city of Columbia was burned. The army said it was an accident, and it seems clear today that it was, but many of Sherman's troops agreed that if the accident had not taken place they would have done it on purpose. At least 13 other cities were burned. Right before the army left Savannah, Sherman wrote, "Don't forget that when you have crossed the Savannah River you will be in South Carolina. You need not be so careful there about private property as we have been. The more of it you destroy the better it will be. The people of South Carolina should be made to feel the war, for they brought it on and are responsible more than anybody else for our presence here. Now is the time to punish them." So, you say, this is what you call gentle? I understand, you say, that Sherman may have had a reason for his depredations and his cruelties. War is hell, after all. But you, Byrne, you brought up the possibility that Sherman was gentle and that we should be thanking him for that. Again, this is what you call gentle?
The norm, though, was very different. Sherman clearly was determined to bring the war home to the Southern people, but he equally clearly preferred destruction to death. He put it this way in January 1864, "Of course I must fight them when the time comes, but wherever a result can be accomplished without battle, I prefer it." And he was serious. If Grant was the Joe Frazier of Civil War generals, Sherman, in a very real, if weird sort of way, was the Ali. He could sting like a bee when he had to, but he much preferred to float like a butterfly.
Sherman really did think, then, that he was being gentle on the South, compared to what the possibilities were. And there was a reason for his gentleness: He was genuinely fond of the South, except, of course, for its wayward, secessionist ways. Some of his happiest times before the war had been spent in the South, especially when he was the first superintendent of the Louisiana Military Seminary in Alexandria, which would go on to become L.S.U. Many of his best friends were Southern. He really did cry when South Carolina seceded. And he wrote, from Louisiana, "You are driving me and hundreds of others out of the South, who have cast fortunes here, love your people and want to stay... Yet I must give up all, and go away; and if war comes, as I fear it surely will, I must fight your people whom I best love." Listen to the anguish in that voice. When he left Alexandria in February 1861, he called a formation. He told his students, who were crying, goodbye. When he came to his professors, he broke down. All he could do was point to his heart and whisper, "You are all here." He had no desire, on the battlefield, to kill his friends.
Regardless of his reputation, after the war Sherman got along well with many of his previous Confederate opponents. He remained friendly, for example, with Hood and Bragg and Longstreet, and especially with his principal adversary that last year of the war, Joe Johnston. When Sherman died in February 1891, Joe Johnston came north to New York City to be an honorary pallbearer at the funeral. It was a very cold day. As Sherman's casket was being carried from his house, Johnston, whose own health was weak, stood outside, bareheaded, with the other pallbearers. Someone urged Johnston to put his hat on, or he might get sick. Johnston replied, "If I were in his place and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat." It was a sweet and lovely gesture, but when Johnston left New York City he left with a severe cold. It is not writ in stone that Johnston caught the cold from standing bareheaded, but who can say he didn't. The cold aggravated a bad heart condition, and a month later Joe Johnston passed away. Which means that, even when he wasn't trying, Sherman could hurt the South. Even in death, Southerners could not escape him. But you can't blame him for that, I don't think.
General William T. Sherman's march to the sea has been depicted in history books as a grand event equal in scope to the exploits of the Roman Empire or Napoleonic France. White Southerns, however, had quite a different view of the "grand event." They saw it as a marauding band of barbaric invaders intent only on plunder and utter devastation of all they touched.
Indeed, there were few strategic military objectives and no armies to fight--only defenseless civilians to whom Sherman showed merciless disdain as he systematically destroyed the accumulated wealth of generations.
Sherman's army entered Columbia, S.C., on February 17, 1865. Despite Sherman's assurance to the contary, the city was, in the words of Rebel General Wade Hampton, "burned to the ground, deliberately, systematically, and atrociously" that night by tourch-wielding Union soldiers. "Having utterly ruined Columbia," according to Sherman, his army resumed its march northward on February 20, burning everything in its path until reaching North Carolina on March 7.
Sherman's men did not feel the same hatred toward North Carolina as they did for the "cradle of secession" to the south--or perhaps they were finally sickened by their actions. In any event, the great devastation abated, but plunder and robbery continued as Sherman's troops moved through the state.
By March 11, Sherman's force was concentrated at Fayetteville, N.C., and the next day he made contact with the federal force that had recently captured Wilimington, N.C. "Up to this point," Sherman reported, "I had perfectly succeeded in interposing my superior army between the scattered parts of the enemy." But now he found that Confederate forces commanded by General Joseph E. Johnson were concentrating in his path.
Fascinating Fact: Columbia's Ursuline Convent and Academy, where the daughters of prominent Southerners and Northerners had been educated, was burned to the ground despite the fact that the mother superior had once taught Sherman's daughter.
Stephen T. Foster
Thank God the North was never able to conquer the idea of the South, it still lives!
Interesting read Sam, lots of information I hadn't considered before. However, I still think what Sherman did, especially to South Carolina was overboard and unnecessarily cruel and evil and just plain vindictive. /rant
Thank you for presenting this information. The FReeper Foxhole, we report, you decide.
Hope everyone has a SUPER GREAT Christmas and New Year!
Happy Hanukkah to all the Jewish Freepers!
This will my last day to post on FR until 2004 as I am going to be off from work from 12/24/03 until 01/02/04.
Tomorrow Im gonna see The Return of the King and then Im going over to my parents house for Christmas Eve dinner and to open presents (a family tradition ever since I was a kid)
I need to make some wishes for all my Friends on FreeRepublic for this Christmas and for the coming year.
I wish everyone the happiest of Christmases and may God bless you all!
I wish 2004 will be a year a triumph and prosperity for each and every one of you. May this election year be a successful one for President Bush and for all good people running for office.
May all good Americans be celebrating victory on Nov. 2 this year.
May the terrorists be made small while true patriots become tall!
May God continue to bless President and Mrs. Bush; the Troops; All our elected officials; and all that post and lurk on Free Republic; and may God continue to bless America!
There has been a lot of speculation about the battle of Gettysburg if Jackson had survived his wounds at Chancellorsville.
I would like to introduce two new scenarios to kick around.
The maps that Lee used at Gettysburg were drawn by Jed Hotchkiss of Jackson's staff during the winter 1862-1863. Jackson wanted to go North.
Most of the "what ifs" have Jackson taking the high ground, but I don't think the South would have engaged at Gettysburg at all because there would have been no need.
If Jackson hadn't died, Lee would not have split the 2nd Corp. So Ewell and AP Hill would not have been in two parts of the country.
Ewell was sent to Harrisburg, but moved slowly and cautiously. This allowed the Union soldiers to burn the bridge over the Susquehanna before the 2nd Corps arrived. That's not a mistake that Jackson would have made. His reputation was of swift movement and arriving into cities by ways the enemy least expected. So, if the 2nd Corp was to go to Harrisburg and occupy it... Jackson would have done so.
But, lets say that Lee would not have sent Jackson to Harrisburg and assigned the 2nd Corp the position AP Hill occupied with the 3rd Corp. I still don't think the battle would have occured.
The Battle of Gettysburg happened because Harry Heth went looking for shoes. First, would Jackson have given Heth permission to go requisition those shoes? He might have.
But, and this is a huge but... AP Hill disregarded Johnston Pettigrew's report that Union Calvary was in Gettysburg. Hill did that because Pettigrew was from North Carolina and somehow that diminished Pettigrew in Hill's thinking. (Hill thought Pettigrew didn't know the difference between Calvary and militia) I believe Jackson would have believed Pettigrew. If Jackson believed that dismounted Calvary was in Gettysburg, he might have not sent Harry Heth into Gettysburg under those circumstances.
Even though Stuart was having trouble getting back to the Army, Jackson wouldt not have permitted Stuart to venture so far away from the army while the invasion was taking place.
Jackson said the only reason he could do the flank move around Hooker at Chancellorsville is because Hooker sent away his Calvary. I wonder if Jackson would have insisted that some part of Stuart's calvary be assigned to his command in the 2nd Corp so that he was not wandering through the enemy territory blind.
Just fuel for thought.
Somebody ain't been FReepin' the same Civil War threads that I have, apparently...MUD
I've never heard this, but didn't Johnston fall back time and time again because he was fighting for the rail line connecting Atlanta and the deep south to Tennessee and Richmond. Time and time again, Sherman flanked him to cut the rail line.. Johnston had no choice but to retreat. But, when he fought, he fought with great vigor defeating the Yankees until once more Sherman flanked him and threatened to cut off the railroad.