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Soldiers of Gen. Sherman's army destroy railroad tracks in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864.

Sherman’s March to the Sea

By Robert B. Mitchell
12/9/2015 • America's Civil War Magazine

ALMOST TWO MONTHS after William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta, the Union general’s new military secretary reported for duty and learned what his chief planned for an encore.

At first glance, Alabama-born and Yale-educated Maj. Henry Hitchcock, who had received his appointment only 30 days earlier, seemed to have little in common with the combat-hardened commander from Ohio. But they quickly hit it off after Hitchcock arrived at Sherman’s headquarters in Rome, Ga., on October 31, 1864.

That night over a plain but satisfying dinner, and later around the campfire, they chatted about St. Louis, where Hitchcock, 35, practiced law and Sherman had spent considerable time before the war. Sherman spoke admiringly of Hitchcock’s uncle, Maj. Gen. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who had fought in the Mexican War and was now in Washington advising the Union war effort.

The rapport established with his new secretary allowed Sherman to confide that he was not planning to sit on his laurels. “He told me this evening, briefly, his plans,” Hitchcock wrote. Sherman characterized his scheme as “a big game,” then added “but I can do it—I know I can do it.”

What Sherman had in mind was his own version of “shock and awe,” with Union troops moving southeast from Atlanta toward the port city of Savannah. The march would deprive Confederate troops of valuable foodstuffs and destroy railroads. More important, it would demoralize Southern civilians with a punitive demonstration of Northern military might deep in the heart of the Confederacy.

At first, Hitchcock embraced the concept with unqualified enthusiasm. “General Sherman is perfectly right—the only possible way to end this unhappy and dreadful conflict is to make it terrible beyond endurance,” he wrote on November 4. But as time went on and Sherman pushed deeper into Georgia, the idealistic aide’s enthusiasm for punitive war, recorded in letters and a diary, came to be mingled with outrage and dismay.

It was still unclear as the general and his new aide reminisced about St. Louis whether the campaign Sherman envisioned would proceed at all. Rebel General John B. Hood remained a threat, with a force of up to 40,000. Ulysses S. Grant wanted Sherman to pursue Hood, who had retreated into Alabama hoping to draw Sherman away from recently conquered Atlanta.

But Sherman pressed his unorthodox plan. Making the case to Grant, he asserted that he and his troops could cut a swath through the Georgia countryside that would result in “the utter destruction” of “roads, houses and people” and hobble the Southern war effort in the process. He also maintained that such a move made tactical sense because it would put the Rebels on the defensive. “Instead of my guessing at what he means to do, he will have to guess at my plans,” he said.

But above all, a march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Coast offered an opportunity to deliver a crippling blow to Southern morale. “I can make the march and make Georgia howl!” Sherman crowed.

Sherman understood well the horror of what he contemplated. Few other Union officers had seen so many of the war’s most significant battles or so much of its carnage. As a newly commissioned colonel back in July 1861, Sherman had retreated with the rest of the Union troops at First Bull Run. A year later, with Grant, he survived the bloodbath at Shiloh. In 1863 he aided in the Siege of Vicksburg and later fought with Grant at Chattanooga.

Sherman had not been inclined to deal harshly with Rebels at the outset of the war. While military governor of Memphis in the summer of 1862, he issued receipts for confiscated property and cultivated local citizens as potential allies. But his attitude changed when he fought Nathan Bedford Forrest in Mississippi. As Forrest waged his guerrilla campaign against Union forces, Sherman began to confiscate civilian foodstuffs, pack animals and anything else that could be used against his troops.

Sherman eventually became convinced that half measures would not do. To win the war and end the bloodshed, he determined, the South must be brought to its knees.

“I would make this war as severe as possible, and show no symptoms of tiring until the South begs for mercy,” he wrote in September 1863. “Indeed I know…that the end would be reached quicker by such a course than by any seeming yielding on our part. I don’t want our Government to be bothered by patching up local governments, or by trying to reconcile any class of men. The South has done her worst, and now is the time for us to pile on our blows thick and fast.”

European military theorists had long advocated this kind of campaign. Prussian Carl von Clausewitz sanctioned devastating an enemy’s home territory as part of a broader effort to destroy an opponent’s army. Although Clausewitz’s works had yet to be translated into English, the views of another European—Antoine-Henri de Jomini—heavily influenced Sherman’s instructors at West Point.

The Swiss-born Jomini, who served with Napoleon, argued that “national wars” against a “united people” required a firm display of military strength that would dishearten enemy civilians and deprive the opposing army of an important source of support. This was the situation Sherman believed he confronted.

“The war which prevails in our land is essentially a war of races,” Sherman wrote in January 1864 to Union Maj. R.M. Sawyer, his chief of staff, in Hunstville, Ala. “The Southern people entered into a clear compact of Government, but still maintained a species of separate interests, history, and prejudices. These latter became stronger and stronger, till they have led to a war which has developed the fruits of the bitterest kind.”

Months later, Sherman waited impatiently in Georgia to put theory into practice. When Grant finally relented, the total war for which Sherman had long argued would finally be unleashed.

Atlanta had already felt his wrath. Soon after taking control of the city, Sherman ordered the evacuation of all civilians—a measure denounced by Hood for exceeding “in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.”

Sherman shrugged off Hood’s indignation, and proceeded to empty the city. In mid-November, on the eve of his departure for the coast, Sherman tore up Atlanta’s rail lines and set fire to its factories, warehouses and rail depots, producing what Hitchcock described as “immense and raging fires, lighting up whole heavens.”

Sherman believed he had little choice. After his column embarked, he determined, Atlanta would be vulnerable to recapture by the Confederates, and he could ill afford to let the city’s industrial and transportation resources fall back into the hands of the enemy.

In addition, Sherman believed Atlanta occupied a dark place in the annals of the war. “We have been fighting Atlanta all the time, in the past,” the general explained to Hitchcock. Throughout the war Union troops captured guns, wagons and other war-making gear manufactured in the city, Sherman said, adding, “since they have been doing so much to destroy us and our government we have to destroy them.”

 

Since they have been doing so much to destroy us and our government we have to destroy them

 

As Atlanta smoldered behind them, Sherman’s 65,000 troops embarked on November 15, for the sea. Before departing, Sherman cut the telegraph wires linking him with the North, leaving newspapers to guess at his whereabouts. More important, he also issued detailed orders describing how Union forces would proceed through the Georgia countryside.

Supply trains would not accompany his troops, who would “forage liberally on the country during the march.” In a departure from his practice in Memphis, Sherman specifically ordered his soldiers not to issue receipts for foraged goods. But they were prohibited from trespassing or entering dwellings and were limited to scrounging for vegetables, and were permitted only to “drive in stock in sight of their camp.” Only corps commanders possessed the authority to destroy houses, cotton gins and mills. Able-bodied escaped slaves would be welcomed to join the march, but Sherman’s orders discouraged commanders from being too hospitable by noting that their primary responsibility was to “see to those who bear arms.”

On paper, the directive seemed stern but straightforward. Much would depend on how closely it was observed.

As the troops left Atlanta, Sherman noted the exhilaration and “devil-may-care” attitude of the soldiers who enthused that they would soon rendezvous with Grant at Richmond. Hitchcock witnessed the same spirit but also noticed something troubling—a drunken soldier vigorously cursing Sherman as the general rode within earshot, signaling laxity in the ranks that Hitchcock found deeply disturbing.
“I am bound to say I think Sherman lacking in enforcing discipline,” Hitchcock confided a week later in his diary. “Brilliant and daring, fertile, rapid and terrible, he does not seem to me to carry out things in this respect.”

Hitchcock noted another ominous sign as the Union column departed from Atlanta. At Latimer’s Crossroads, Hitchcock saw with relief that an empty house appeared to have been untouched by advancing Union forces. Later, after he pitched camp for the night, Hitchcock observed a “ruddy glow over treetops” that indicated the home had been torched, probably by a lone straggler.

Earlier that day, Hitchcock and aide-de-camp Lewis Dayton engaged in a “warm discussion” about the ethics of such behavior. Hitchcock maintained Union forces were required to observe generally accepted laws of war, but Dayton insisted that the North should match every atrocity committed by Confederates. “His views not important,” Hitchcock noted with evident disgust, “except as typical.”

A day out of Atlanta, Hitchcock had seen few white men but plenty of women and children watching as the Yankees marched past. Several days later, Hitchcock and Sherman ate lunch at the home of a Mrs. Farrar, who proudly proclaimed that her husband was fighting with the Rebels by choice—“the first woman who has not declared her husband was forced to go,” Hitchcock recalled in his diary. Unimpressed, Sherman calmly told his defiant hostess that she and her neighbors faced the prospect of utter ruin if they did not obey the law and stop fighting.

While whites often reacted with a mixture of fear and resentment to the presence of Union soldiers, Sherman recounted that blacks were “simply frantic with joy” as he passed through the town of Covington. At the Farrar Farm, Hitchcock reported, slaves said they had been customarily whipped with hand-saws and paddles with holes, with salt applied to open wounds. When they also reported that a neighbor’s hound hunted runaway slaves, Union troops found and shot the dog, producing “great glee” among the slaves. “No wonder,” Hitchcock mused.

Sherman’s troops are depicted foraging on a Georgia plantation in this period woodcut. The pig in the foreground meets an unfortunate fate. (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4)
Sherman’s troops are depicted foraging on a Georgia plantation in this period woodcut. The pig in the foreground meets an unfortunate fate. (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4)

Sherman professed to be pleased by the efficiency and ingenuity of the “bummers” who foraged for food as his troops filed through the Georgia countryside. The bummers kept his troops well fed by loading up wagons procured from the neighborhood with pork, corn meal and poultry, and delivering the goods to the brigade commissary.

At one point, Sherman encountered a soldier carrying a jug of sorghum molasses and a musket with a ham speared on the end. As Sherman passed, the soldier muttered something to a fellow soldier about his duty to “forage liberally on the country,” paraphrasing the orders issued at the outset of the march. Sherman reminded the soldier of the prohibition against scavenging. But the story—recounted by Sherman himself—suggests that the general was amused rather than outraged by what he saw and heard.

Hitchcock, on the other hand, was unsettled by the practice. He understood it was necessary to keep the Union troops well fed and essential as a means of inflicting punishment on enemy civilians. But the line that separated foraging from pillaging was frequently ignored. “Certainly the laws of war allow of damage enough being done to teach a terrible lesson, and that lesson must be taught: it is unavoidable and right. But I would find a way to stop anything beyond,” he wrote in his diary.

Hitchcock did not record whether he encountered Dolly Sumner Burge as he rode through the Georgia countryside, but her experience surely would have confirmed many of his worst fears. Burge lived on a plantation near Covington, and on the night of November 18 she went to bed worried after hearing Union troops had helped themselves to a neighbor’s wine and valuables.

The following day, Sherman marched by and Union troops swept across her property. They emptied her smokehouse of meat. Poultry and pigs were “shot down in my yard and hunted as though they were rebels themselves.” As night fell, “the heavens from every point were lit up with flames from burning buildings.”

“Such a day, if I live to the age of Methuselah, may God spare me from ever seeing again!” she exclaimed in her diary.

Four days later, Sherman’s column arrived at the plantation of Howell Cobb, a prominent Georgia politician who had served before the war as speaker of the House and secretary of the treasury in Washington and later numbered among the possible candidates for the presidency of the Confederacy. The estate had been abandoned, with elderly and young slaves left behind.

Hitchcock said the departing Rebels took everything they could, but plenty remained. Union troops confiscated corn, oats, peanuts, salt and 500 gallons of sorghum molasses before setting the estate on fire. “I don’t feel much troubled about the destruction of H.C.’s property,” Hitchcock admitted, because Cobb was “one of the head devils.”

But Hitchcock’s discomfort soon returned. On November 25, Sherman’s column had camped at Buffalo Creek, six miles west of Sandersville, after discovering the bridge that spanned the stream had been burned down. When Col. Charles Ewing proposed setting ablaze the deserted home where the column had halted, Hitchcock protested. The pair argued about the matter until Sherman, sitting nearby unnoticed by Hitchcock, interjected.

“In war everything is right which prevents anything. If a bridge is burned I have a right to burn all houses near it,” Sherman declared.

“Beg pardon,” Hitchcock responded, “but what I was contending for…was that indiscriminate punishment was not just—and that there ought to be good reason for connecting the man with the burning of the bridge before burning his house.”

Sherman was unmoved. “Well, let him look to his own people, if they find that their burning bridges only destroys their own homes, they’ll stop it.”

That evening, a chastened Hitchcock reflected on the exchange. “To volunteer advice to General Sherman I have neither the right nor duty,” he confided in his diary. To a “certain extent,” Hitchcock conceded, the general’s views were correct. “[W]ar is war and a horrible necessity at best; yet when forced on us as this war is, there is no help but to make it so terrible that when peace comes it will last.” Hitchcock’s diary does not record whether the house was spared.

Although Hitchcock recorded more examples of abuses by Northern soldiers as the march progressed, he seemed less eager to catalog the practices that had troubled him so profoundly. “Certainly the army is a bad school for religion,” he wrote on December 4, “and its dangers, etc., rather harden men than solemnize their thoughts. Take human nature as it is, and this is not at all strange, sad as it is.”

 

But even battle-hardened Union soldiers were shocked by one incident that occurred as they closed in on Savannah. When a column led by Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis and accompanied by a throng of escaped slaves approached Ebenezer Creek in early December, Davis allowed able-bodied slaves to cross with his troops, but ordered the rest to wait.

After the soldiers crossed on December 9, Davis ordered the pontoon bridge taken down. Panicked slaves stranded on the other side tried to ford the stream as the Confederates approached. Some drowned, while those who stayed behind were captured by Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry and returned to their owners.

The fiasco produced outrage in the ranks. One soldier called it a “most dastardly trick,” and another denounced Davis as a “military tyrant, without one spark of humanity in his make-up.” In Washington, Radical Republicans complained that it “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the negro” by Sherman, according to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck.

In most other respects, however, Sherman’s March to the Sea proved to be a military triumph. Slightly more than 100 Union officers and men were killed and 430 were wounded. Union soldiers destroyed more than 100 miles of Georgia railroad and demonstrated “that a large army can march with impunity through the heart of the richest rebel state,” Hitchcock observed.

On December 22, Sherman and his staff rode down Bull Street in Savannah, which the Confederates had evacuated the day before. Later that day, Sherman informed President Abraham Lincoln via telegraph of his conquest. “I beg to present you as a Christmas-gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty five thousand bales of cotton.”

The news of Savannah’s fall produced elation throughout the North. “The campaign will stand as one of the most striking feats in military history, and will prove one of the heaviest blows at the vitality of the great Southern rebellion,” The New York Times exulted. A joint resolution of Congress praised the “triumphal march.”

Hitchcock’s reaction, however, was more subdued. In a letter home written on Christmas Eve, he expressed his belief that “warlike purposes and preparations for renewed efforts to crush and overwhelm the enemies of the country” were indeed necessary.

But after nearly 40 days of marching through the Georgia countryside and witnessing the excesses and cruelty of the campaign, Hitchcock was in no mood to celebrate. “[T]here is something very sad, if one did not look beyond the present, to be in the midst of these sounds and sights of war, and immersed in plans for another campaign, on this evening, sacred to ‘Peace on Earth—Good-will to men.’ ”

Meanwhile, Sherman was thinking ahead to the first state to secede and the home of some of the most notorious Southern fire-eaters. “The truth is,” Sherman wrote Halleck on December 24, “the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.”

 

Washington writer Robert B. Mitchell marches through the kitchen to his refrigerator.

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

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