Total War and Sherman’s March to Sea Article Total War

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Total War and Sherman’s March to Sea
Article 1. Total War


Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, a general in the Union army during the American Civil War, is best known for his March to the Sea. On September 1, 1864, Sherman and his army captured Atlanta, Georgia, an important transportation center in the South. Despite this important Northern victory, the Confederate government and many of its citizens remained committed to the war effort. Sherman intended his March to the Sea to break the will of the Southern people.

Sherman was a believer in total war. He said that the Northern military was "not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war." Sherman realized that the Southern civilian population provided most of the supplies that Confederate forces needed to wage war against the North. To speed the defeat of the Confederacy, Northern forces needed to prevent Southern civilians from supplying their armies. The Northern military needed to wage war against both the Confederate military and Southern civilians.

To break the will of the Southern population, Sherman proposed a March to the Sea. . . Sherman left Atlanta with his sixty-two-thousand-man army on November 15, 1864. . . Sherman left behind his supply train. He decided that he would permit his men to supply themselves from civilians along the march. His soldiers commonly requisitioned [seized] all of the provisions that they could find from the civilian population. Food that the men could not eat or carry away generally was burned. The Union soldiers even commandeered supplies from the slaves. They also destroyed a number of homes along the way. Sherman's men successfully occupied Savannah in mid-December 1864.

The use of total war achieved Sherman's desired effect. While some Southerners remained committed to the struggle, other Confederates began to doubt the South's chance for victory over the Northerners. Sherman's use of total war helped the North win the American Civil War.

Article 2. William Tecumseh Sherman
Perhaps the originator and the first practitioner of what the twentieth century came to know as "total war," William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864 commanded the Union armies of the West in the decisive drive from Chattanooga to Atlanta and the famous "march to the sea" across Georgia. In these campaigns and his later push northward from Savannah through the Carolinas, Sherman's troops carried the war to the Southern home front and blazed a wide path of destruction that delivered the death blow to the Confederacy's will and ability to fight. For the accompanying destruction, his name is still cursed in some parts of the South; but he is also recognized as a great strategist, a forceful leader, and--together with Ulysses Grant --the ablest Union general of the war.
The partnership of William Tecumseh Sherman (known to friends as "Cump") with Grant helped bring both out of early obscurity, until Grant commanded all Union armies and Sherman led all federal forces in the West. . .
His military career had not always been outstanding; as commanding general of the Department of the Cumberland, 1861-1862, he feuded with the press, displayed emotional problems, and suffered accusations of insanity. Only after this ordeal did he begin his long and fruitful association with Ulysses Grant. Sherman's influence, for example, helped stop Grant from resigning when the latter felt himself hamstrung by orders from Washington.
In the 1884 battles before Atlanta, Sherman's opponent was Joseph E. Johnston; but Johnston's skilled retreats before Sherman's turning tactics exasperated President Jefferson Davis, who replaced Johnston with the belligerent [quarrelsome] John B. Hood. Sherman soundly defeated Hood in several engagements and occupied Atlanta early in September 1864.
On November 15, in perhaps the boldest act of the war, he led an army of sixty-two thousand men in two wings, with thirty-five thousand horses and twenty-five hundred wagons, on an overland march to Savannah--cutting himself off from his line of supply and sustaining his army on the land. "The utter destruction of [Georgia's] roads, houses and people," he had written, "will cripple their military resources. . . I can make Georgia howl!" Encountering little organized opposition, Sherman took Savannah on December 21, 1864, and later turned north for the Carolinas, covering 450 miles in fifty days.

sherman\'s savannah & carolina campaign
The results of this remarkable march justified Sherman's strategic expectations and, together with Grant's victories in Virginia, destroyed the Confederacy's ability to carry on the war. It is still disputed, however, whether the burning of Atlanta, the later burning of Columbia, South Carolina, and the depredations of "Sherman's bummers" were either necessary or unpreventable.

For his military prowess [skill; expertise], Sherman is justly renowned [famous]; he succeeded Grant as commander in chief [of the United States army] in 1869 and remained in that post until 1883. Two memorable remarks of his also have entered history. Having written to Mayor Calhoun of Atlanta in 1874 that "war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it," he sharpened this definition in a commencement address at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879 to the oft-quoted phrase "War is hell."

Five years later, when he was frequently talked of as a prospective Republican nominee for president, Sherman sent the Republican National Convention of 1884 the most famous of all rejections: "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." Even today, "a Sherman" is well-understood slang for a firm refusal.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to William T. Sherman was paid by his old Civil War opponent Joe Johnston, who had fought him in Georgia and had signed with him an armistice after the Battle of Bentonville in April 1865. The two became friends. General Johnston attended Sherman's funeral in New York in 1891, stood in the rain to watch the cortege pass, and caught a cold. It caused Johnston's death two weeks later.

The Reader's Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Article 3. Sherman's March to the Sea
The March to the Sea, the most destructive campaign against a civilian population during the Civil War (1861-65), began in Atlanta on November 15, 1864, and concluded in Savannah on December 21, 1864. Union general William T. Sherman abandoned his supply line and marched across Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean to prove to the Confederate population that its government could not protect the people from invaders. He practiced psychological warfare; he believed that by marching an army across the state he would demonstrate to the world that the Union had a power the Confederacy could not resist. "This may not be war," he said, "but rather statesmanship."

After Sherman's forces captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Sherman spent several weeks making preparations for a change of base to the coast. He rejected the Union plan to move through

Alabama to Mobile, pointing out that after Rear Admiral David G. Farragut (USA) closed Mobile Bay in August 1864, the Alabama port no longer held any military significance. Rather, he decided to proceed southeast toward Savannah or Charleston. He carefully studied census records to determine which route could provide food for his men and forage [food] for his animals. Although U.S. president Abraham Lincoln was skeptical and did not want Sherman to move into enemy territory before the presidential election in November, Sherman persuaded his friend Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant that the campaign was possible in winter. Through Grant's intervention Sherman finally gained permission . . .

After General John Bell Hood (CSA) abandoned Atlanta, he moved the Confederate Army of Tennessee outside the city to recuperate from the previous campaign. In early October he began a raid toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, in an effort to draw Sherman back over ground the two sides had fought for since May. But instead of tempting Sherman to battle, Hood turned his army west and marched into Alabama, abandoning Georgia to Union forces. Apparently, Hood hoped that if he invaded Tennessee, Sherman would be forced to follow. Sherman, however, had anticipated this strategy and had sent Major General George H. Thomas (USA) to Nashville to deal with Hood. With Georgia cleared of the Confederate army, Sherman, facing only scattered cavalry, was free to move south.


Sherman divided his approximately 60,000 troops into two roughly equal wings. . . Sherman had about 2,500 supply wagons and 600 ambulances. Before the army left Atlanta, the general issued an order outlining the rules of the march [see article 6], but soldiers often ignored the restrictions on foraging [searching and seizing food and supplies].

. . . Opposing Sherman's advance was Confederate cavalry, about 8,000 strong . . . Although William J. Hardee had overall command in Georgia, with his headquarters at Savannah, neither he nor Governor Joseph E. Brown could do anything to stop Sherman's advance. Sherman's foragers quickly became known as "bummers" as they raided farms and plantations. On November 23 the state capital peacefully surrendered, and Sherman occupied the vacant governor's mansion and capitol building.

There were a number of skirmishes between Wheeler's cavalry and Union troopers, but only two battles of any significance. . . The most controversial event involved contrabands (escaped slaves) who followed the liberating armies. At Ebenezer Creek on December 9, Jefferson C. Davis removed the pontoon bridge before the slaves crossed. Frightened men, women, and children plunged into the deep water, and many drowned in an attempt to reach safety. After the march Davis was soundly criticized by the Northern press, but Sherman backed his commander by pointing out that Davis had done what was militarily necessary.


After Fort McAllister fell, Sherman made preparations for a siege of Savannah. Confederate lieutenant general Hardee, realizing his small army could not hold out long and not wanting the city leveled by artillery as had happened at Atlanta, ordered his men to abandon the trenches and retreat to South Carolina. Sherman, who was not with the Union army when Mayor Richard Arnold surrendered Savannah (he had gone to Hilton Head, South Carolina, to make preparations for a siege and was on his way back to Georgia), telegraphed President Lincoln on December 22 that the city had fallen. He offered Savannah and its 25,000 bales of cotton to the president as a Christmas present.


Sherman's march frightened and appalled Southerners. It hurt morale, for civilians had believed the Confederacy could protect the home front.

Sherman had terrorized the countryside; his men had destroyed all sources of food and forage and had left behind a hungry and demoralized people. Although he did not level any towns, he did destroy buildings in places where there was resistance. His men had shown little sympathy for Millen, the site of Camp Lawton, where Union prisoners of war were held. Physical attacks on white civilians were few, although it is not known how slave women fared at the hands of the invaders. Often male slaves posted guards outside the cabins of their women.
Confederate president Jefferson Davis had urged Georgians to undertake a scorched-earth policy of poisoning wells and burning fields, but civilians in the army's path had not done so. Sherman, however, burned or captured all the food stores that Georgians had saved for the winter months. As a result of the hardships on women and children, desertions [AWOL – soldiers leaving without permission] increased in Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia. Sherman believed his campaign against civilians would shorten the war by breaking the Confederate will to fight, and he eventually received permission to carry this psychological warfare into South Carolina in early 1865. By marching through Georgia and South Carolina he became an archvillain in the South and a hero in the North.
Civilians during Sherman's Campaign (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

Noah Andre Trudeau, Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (New York: Harper, 2008).

Anne J. Bailey, Georgia College and State University






Article 4. A Southerner's Perspective

Atlanta fell to Sherman's Army in early September 1864. He devoted the next few weeks to chasing Confederate troops through northern Georgia in a vain attempt to lure them into a decisive fight. The Confederate's evasive tactics doomed Sherman's plan to achieve victory on the battlefield so he developed an alternative strategy: destroy the South by laying waste to its economic and transportation infrastructure.

Sherman's "scorched earth" campaign began on November 15th when he cut the last telegraph wire that linked him to his superiors in the North. He left Atlanta in flames and pointed his army south. No word would be heard from him for the next five weeks. . . His army of 65,000 cut a broad swath as it lumbered towards its destination. Plantations were burned, crops destroyed and stores of food pillaged. In the wake of his progress to the sea he left numerous "Sherman sentinels" (the chimneys of burnt out houses) and "Sherman neckties" (railroad rails that had been heated and wrapped around trees.).

Along the way, his army was joined by thousands of former slaves who brought up the rear of the march because they had no other place to go. Sherman's army reached Savannah on December 22. Two days later, Sherman telegraphed President Lincoln with the message "I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah..."

It was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. Sherman stayed in Savannah until the end of January and then continued his scorched earth campaign through the Carolinas. On April 26, Confederate troops under General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Sherman in North Carolina; seventeen days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

"Oh God, the time of trial has come!"

Dolly Sumner Lunt was born in Maine in 1817. She moved to Georgia as a young woman to join her married sister. She became a school teacher in Covington, Ga. where she met and married Thomas Burge, a plantation owner. When her husband died in 1858, Dolly was left alone to manage the plantation and its slaves. Dolly kept a diary of her experiences and we join her story as Sherman's army approaches her home:

November 19, 1864

Slept in my clothes last night, as I heard that the Yankees went to neighbor Montgomery's on Thursday night at one o'clock, searched his house, drank his wine, and took his money and valuables. As we were not disturbed, I walked after breakfast, with Sadai [the narrator's 9-year-old daughter], up to Mr. Joe Perry's, my nearest neighbor, where the Yankees were yesterday.

Saw Mrs. Laura [Perry] in the road surrounded by her children, seeming to be looking for some one. She said she was looking for her husband, that old Mrs. Perry had just sent her word that the Yankees went to James Perry's the night before, plundered his house, and drove off all his stock, and that she must drive hers into the old fields. Before we were done talking, up came Joe and Jim Perry from their hiding-place. Jim was very much excited. Happening to turn and look behind, as we stood there, I saw some blue-coats coming down the hill. Jim immediately raised his gun, swearing he would kill them anyhow.

'No, don't!' said I, and ran home as fast as I could, with Sadai.

I could hear them cry, 'Halt! Halt!' and their guns went off in quick succession. Oh God, the time of trial has come!

A man passed on his way to Covington. I halloed to him, asking him if he did not know the Yankees were coming.

'No - are they?'

'Yes,' said I; 'they are not three hundred yards from here.'

'Sure enough,' said he. 'Well, I'll not go. I don't want them to get my horse.' And although within hearing of their guns, he would stop and look for them. Blissful ignorance! Not knowing, not hearing, he has not suffered the suspense, the fear, that I have for the past forty-eight hours. I walked to the gate. There they came filing up.

I hastened back to my frightened servants and told them that they had better hide, and then went back to the gate to claim protection and a guard. But like demons they rush in! My yards are full.

To my smoke-house, my dairy, pantry, kitchen, and cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way. The thousand pounds of meat in my smoke-house is gone in a twinkling, my flour, my meat, my lard, butter, eggs, pickles of various kinds - both in vinegar and brine - wine, jars, and jugs are all gone. My eighteen fat turkeys, my hens, chickens, and fowls, my young pigs, are shot down in my yard and hunted as if they were rebels themselves. Utterly powerless I ran out and appealed to the guard.

'I cannot help you, Madam; it is orders.'

. . . Alas! little did I think while trying to save my house from plunder and fire that they were forcing my boys [slaves] from home at the point of the bayonet. One, Newton, jumped into bed in his cabin, and declared himself sick. Another crawled under the floor, - a lame boy he was, - but they pulled him out, placed him on a horse, and drove him off. Mid, poor Mid! The last I saw of him, a man had him going around the garden, looking, as I thought, for my sheep, as he was my shepherd. Jack came crying to me, the big tears coursing down his cheeks, saying they were making him go. I said:

'Stay in my room.'

But a man followed in, cursing him and threatening to shoot him if he did not go; so poor Jack had to yield.

. . . Sherman himself and a greater portion of his army passed my house that day. All day, as the sad moments rolled on, were they passing not only in front of my house, but from behind; they tore down my garden palings, made a road through my back-yard and lot field, driving their stock and riding through, tearing down my fences and desolating my home - wantonly doing it when there was no necessity for it.

. . . As night drew its sable curtains around us, the heavens from every point were lit up with flames from burning buildings. Dinnerless and supperless as we were, it was nothing in comparison with the fear of being driven out homeless to the dreary woods. Nothing to eat! I could give my guard no supper, so he left us.

My Heavenly Father alone saved me from the destructive fire. My carriage-house had in it eight bales of cotton, with my carriage, buggy, and harness. On top of the cotton were some carded cotton rolls, a hundred pounds or more. These were thrown out of the blanket in which they were, and a large twist of the rolls taken and set on fire, and thrown into the boat of my carriage, which was close up to the cotton bales. Thanks to my God, the cotton only burned over, and then went out. Shall I ever forget the deliverance?

November 20, 1864.

About ten o'clock they had all passed save one, who came in and wanted coffee made, which was done, and he, too, went on. A few minutes elapsed, and two couriers riding rapidly passed back. Then, presently, more soldiers came by, and this ended the passing of Sherman's army by my place, leaving me poorer by thirty thousand dollars than I was yesterday morning. And a much stronger Rebel!"

This eyewitness account appears in Lunt, Dolly Sumner, A Woman's Wartime Journal, An Account of the Passage Over a Georgia Plantation of Sherman's Army on the March to the Sea, as Recorded in the Diary of Dolly Sumner Lunt (1918); Buel, Clarence, and Robert U. Johnson (eds.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol.IV (originally published in Century Magazine, 1888; reprint ed., 1982); Miers, Earl Schenck, The General Who Marched Into Hell (1951).

How To Cite This Article:

"Sherman's March to the Sea, 1864" EyeWitness to History, (2006).

Article 5. Sherman- Hood Correspondence



September 9, 1864.

Maj. Gen. W. T. SHERMAN.

Commanding U.S. Forces in Georgia:

GENERAL: Your letter of yesterday's date [7th] borne by James M. Ball and James R. Crew, citizens of Atlanta, is received. You say therein "I deem it to be to the interest of the United States that the citizens now residing in Atlanta should remove," &c. I do not consider that I have any alternative in this matter. I therefore accept your proposition to declare a truce of two days, or such time as may be necessary to accomplish the purpose mentioned, and shall render all assistance in my power to expedite the transportation of citizens in this direction. I suggest that a staff officer be appointed by you to superintend the removal from the city to Rough and Ready, while I appoint a like officer to control their removal farther south; that a guard of 100 men be sent by either party, as you propose, to maintain order at that place, and that the removal begin on Monday next. And now, sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war. In the name of God and humanity I protest, believing that you will find that you are expelling from their homes and firesides the wives and children of a brave people.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,



In the Field, Atlanta, Ga., September 10, 1864.

General J. B. HOOD, C. S. Army, Comdg. Army of Tennessee:

GENERAL: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of this date [9th], at the hands of Messrs. [messengers] Ball and Crew, consenting to the arrangements I had proposed to facilitate the removal south of the people of Atlanta who prefer to go in that direction. I inclose you a copy of my orders, which will, I am satisfied, accomplish my purpose perfectly.

You style the measure proposed "unprecedented," and appeal to the dark history of war for a parallel as an act of "studied and ingenious cruelty." It is not unprecedented, for General Johnston [Southern commander Sherman had been fighting for some time] himself, very wisely and properly, removed the families all the way from Dalton [[a city in Georgia] down, and I see no reason why Atlanta should be excepted. Nor is it necessary to appeal to the dark history of war when recent and modern examples are so handy. You, yourself, burned dwelling-houses along your parapet [fortifications], and I have seen today fifty houses that you have rendered uninhabitable because they stood in the way of your forts and men. You defended Atlanta on a line so close to town that every cannon shot and many musket shots from our line of investment that overshot their mark went into the habitations of women and children. General Hardee did the same at Jonesborough, and General Johnston did the same last summer at Jackson, Miss.

I have not accused you of heartless cruelty, but merely instance these cases of very recent occurrence, and could go on and enumerate hundreds of others and challenge any fair man to judge which of us has the heart of pity for the families of a "brave people." I say that it is kindness to these families of Atlanta to remove them now at once from scenes that women and children should not be exposed to, and the "brave people" should scorn to commit their wives and children to the rude barbarians who thus, as you say, violate the laws of war, as illustrated in the pages of its dark history.

In the name of common sense I ask you not to appeal to a just God in such a sacrilegious [against God; blasphemous] manner; you who, in the midst of peace and prosperity, have plunged a nation into war, dark and cruel war; who dared and badgered us to battle, insulted our flag, seized our arsenals and forts that were left in the honorable custody of peaceful ordnance sergeants; seized and made "prisoners of war" the very garrisons sent to protect your people against negroes and Indians long before any overt act was committed by the, to you, hated Lincoln Government; tried to force Kentucky and Missouri into rebellion, spite of themselves; falsified the vote of Louisiana, turned loose your privateers to plunder unarmed ships; expelled Union families by the thousands; burned their houses and declared by an act of your Congress the confiscation [elimination] of all debts due Northern men for goods had and received.

Talk thus to the marines, but not to me, who have seen these things, and who will this day make as much sacrifice for the peace and honor of the South as the best born Southerner among you. If we must be enemies, let us be men and fight it out, as we propose to do, and not deal in such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity. God will judge us in due time, and He will pronounce whether it be more humane to fight with a town full of women, and the families of "a brave people" at our back, or to remove them in time to places of safety among their own friends and people.

Major-general, Commanding.

Article 6. Excerpt from Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 120


Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, In the Field, Kingston, Georgia, November 9, 1864

IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten day's provisions for the command and three days' forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass, but during a halt or a camp they may be permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock of their camp. To regular foraging parties must be instructed the gathering of provisions and forage at any distance from the road traveled.

V. To army corps commanders alone is intrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.

VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate [take as their own] freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or bridges. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.

VII. Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to see to them who bear arms.

William T. Sherman, Military Division of the Mississippi Special Field Order 120, November 9, 1864

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