TIME MACHINE: SHERMAN’S MARCH TO THE SEA – PART ONE
November 15, 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman‘s military march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. Following the Union Army’s successful end of the Atlanta Campaign two months earlier, Sherman and Union Army commander Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant decided that the only way to put an end to the Civil War was to end the Confederacy’s strategic, economic and psychological capacity for warfare.
Sherman proposed an operation to march through the state of Georgia via liberal foraging of the local countryside that the Union Army would march through. Many historians have compared this to the modern principles of scorched earth warfare or total war. He hoped this operation would have a destructive effect upon the morale of Georgia’s civilian population. Sherman’s second objective was to increase pressure on General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia, which was under siege in Petersburg, Virginia by Grant and the Army of the Potomoc. By moving in Lee’s rear and performing a massive turning movement against him, Sherman hoped to allow Grant the opportunity to break through or keep other Southern reinforcements away from Virginia. The campaign began with the Army of the Tennessee leaving Atlanta, Georgia on November 15. During the next 40 days or so, Sherman’s forces destroyed military targets as well as industry, infrastructure, and civilian property and disrupted not only the State of Georgia’s economy and its transportation networks, but also those that belonged to the Confederacy.
The Army of the Tennessee first consumed its 20 days of rations at the beginning of the march. Then it reduced its need for traditional supply lines by “living off the land”. Foragers, known as “bummers” provided food seized from local farms for the Army, while the latter destroyed the railroads and the manufacturing and agricultural infrastructure of Georgia. While planning the march, Sherman used livestock and crop production data from the 1860 census to lead his troops through areas where he believed they would be able to forage most effectively. The troops twisted and broke railroad rails before heating them over fires and wrapping them around tree trunks. Those twisted rails became known as “Sherman’s neckties”>. Since the Army was out of touch with the North during the March, Sherman gave explicit orders regarding the conduct of the campaign. It became known as Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 120.
William Sherman not only commanded the Army of the Tennessee during this period, but also the entire Military Division of the Mississippi. This meant he did not employ all of the men under his command to the Savannah Campaign. Since ConfederateLieutenant General John Bell Hood‘s army was threatening Sherman’s supply line from Chattanooga, Tennessee; Sherman detached the Army of the Cumberland under Major General George H. Thomas to deal with Hood in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign. Sherman’s personal escort on the march was the First Alabama Cavalry Regiment, a unit mainly staffed by Southerners who remained loyal to the Union. In the end, Sherman had to face opposition from Lieutenant-General William J. Hardee‘s Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; of which Hood had taken with him during his campaign in Tennessee. Sherman’s troops also faced the Georgia state militia, under the command of Major General Gustavus Woodson Smith. Most of the state’s militia consisted of elderly men and boys.
Many military historians tend to view William Sherman’s decision to march his army through the state of Georgia, deep within enemy territory and without supply lines as revolutionary in the annals of war. Yet, his plans for the march were based upon Grant’s successful Vicksburg Campaign. And Grant had based that particular campaign on Winfield Scott‘s march to Mexico City, during the Mexican-American War. Perhaps Sherman’s strategy and tactics for the Savannah Campaign was not as original as many seemed to believe. But it proved to be very effective.
This is Part One on my look at Sherman’s March to the Sea.