How Did Sherman's March End the Civil War?

The Success of Sherman's Scorched Earth Tactics

General Sherman's army entering Savannah, Georgia, on December 21, 1864
Sherman's Army Enters Savannah.

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Sherman's March to the Sea refers to a long stretch of devastating Union army movements that took place during the United States Civil War. In the fall of 1864, the Union General William Tecumseh ("Cump") Sherman took 60,000 men and pillaged his way through Georgia's civilian farmsteads. The 360-mile march extended from Atlanta in central Georgia to Savannah on the Atlantic coast and lasted from November 12 to December 22, 1864.

Burning Atlanta and the Start of the March

Sherman left Chattanooga in May 1864 and captured the vital railroad and supply center of Atlanta. There, he out-maneuvered Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and laid siege to Atlanta under the command of General John Bell Hood, Johnston's replacement. On September 1, 1864, Hood evacuated Atlanta and withdrew his Army of Tennessee.

In early October, Hood moved north of Atlanta to destroy Sherman's rail lines, invade Tennessee and Kentucky, and draw the Union Forces away from Georgia. Sherman sent two of his army corps to reinforce Federal forces in Tennessee. Eventually, Sherman left Major General George H. Thomas to chase Hood and returned to Atlanta to begin his march to Savannah. On the 15th of November, Sherman left Atlanta in flames and turned his army east.

Progress of the March

The March to the Sea had two wings: the right wing (15th and 17th corps) headed by Major General Oliver Howard was to move south toward Macon; the left wing (14th and 20th corps), headed by Major General Henry Slocum, would move on a parallel route toward Augusta. Sherman thought the Confederates would likely fortify and defend both cities, so he planned to drive his army southeast between them, destroying the Macon-Savannah Railroad along his way to occupy Savannah. The explicit plan was to cut the south in two. Several important skirmishes along the way, including:

  • Milledgeville - November 23, 1864
  • Sandersville - November 25-26
  • Waynesboro - November 27
  • Louisville - November 29-30
  • Millen - December 2, an attempt to free Union prisoners

A Policy Shift

The March to the Sea was successful. Sherman captured Savannah, crippling its vital military resources. And in bringing the war to the heart of the South, he demonstrated the Confederacy's inability to protect its own people. It was, however, at a terrible price.

Early in the war, the North had maintained a conciliatory policy toward the south; there were, in fact, explicit orders to leave families enough to survive on. As a result, the rebels pushed their limits: there was a steep rise in guerrilla warfare on the part of Confederate civilians. Sherman was convinced that nothing short of bringing war to the homes of Confederate civilians could change Southern attitudes about "fighting to the death," and he had been considering this tactic for years. In a letter written home in 1862, he told his family that the only way to defeat the south was as he had defeated Indigenous groups—by destroying their villages.

How Sherman’s March Ended the War

Having virtually vanished from the War Department’s view during his march to Savannah, Sherman chose to cut his supply lines and ordered his men to live off the land—and people—in their path.

According to Sherman's special field orders of November 9, 1865, his troops were to forage liberally in the country, each brigade commander organizing a party to gather resources as needed to keep at least ten days provisions for his commands. Foragers rode off in all directions, confiscating cows, pigs, and chickens from the scattered farms. Pastures and farmland became campsites, fence rows disappeared, and the countryside was scavenged for firewood. According to Sherman’s own estimates, his armies seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle in addition to confiscating 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of livestock fodder.

Sherman’s so-called “scorched earth policies” remain controversial, with many Southerners still detesting his memory. Even those enslaved at the time held varying opinions of Sherman and his troops. While thousands viewed Sherman as a great liberator and followed his armies to Savannah, others complained of suffering from the Union army’s invasive tactics. According to historian Jacqueline Campbell, the enslaved people often felt betrayed, as they “suffered along with their owners, complicating their decision of whether to flee with or from Union troops.” A Confederate officer cited by Campbell estimated that of some 10,000 enslaved people who trailed along with Sherman’s armies, hundreds died of “hunger, disease, or exposure,” as the Union officers took no actions to help them, (Campbell 2003).

Sherman’s March to the Sea devastated Georgia and the Confederacy. There were approximately 3,100 casualties, 2,100 of which were Union soldiers, and the countryside took years to recover. Sherman's march to the sea was followed by a similarly devastating march through the Carolinas early in 1865, but the message to the South was clear. Southern predictions that the Union forces would become lost or decimated by hunger and guerilla attacks were proven false. Historian David J. Eicher wrote, “Sherman had accomplished an amazing task. He had defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South's potential and psychology to wage war,” (Eicher 2001).

The Civil War ended five months after Sherman marched into Savannah.

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