Sherman’s March From Atlanta To The Sea

Sherman’s March From Atlanta To The Sea

War of extermination

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In September, 1864, when Atlanta fell into the hands of the Union’s General William T. Sherman, the march to the coast, especially the last five miles of that march, would prove the most difficult faced by Sherman’s Union forces during their 300-mile long march through the south. “Sherman’s march,” or the “march to the sea,” which has become historically synonymous with a 300-mile path of death and mindless destruction inflicted upon the Confederate Army, southern civilians, and refugee-slaves by the advancing Union Army under the direction of General Sherman; was in fact not just a strategic victory, but a psychological victory for the Union Army, and served as a turning point in the American Civil War. While historians differ on their evaluations of both the necessity and the reasons behind the extent to which Sherman’s forces are said to have committed atrocious acts of violence and destruction, the fact remains that Sherman’s success inflicted both a strategic and heavy psychological blow to the Confederacy, which was necessary to bring about an end to the war.

There is much documentation on Sherman’s march to the sea for the interested reader or historian to sort through, and many different perspectives. While perspectives vary, opinions are rendered, and represent both sides of the Mason Dixon Line; there is little argument over the fact that Sherman’s forces were vicious in their campaign to dismantle the forces of Confederate resistance along their 300-mile march to the sea. The documentation speaks to atrocities waged against soldiers and civilians alike, and that the Union’s forces were singled-minded in their mission to reach the sea. However, and in the aftermath, while the death and destruction of Sherman’s march seem to some irreconcilable, it was necessary in order to finally and permanently dismantle the southern agenda that, by 1864, continued to hold out against Union forces to the even greater detriment of its own population, and especially the now mostly free roaming blacks, who, though perhaps not free in “title,” were nonetheless free by circumstances of the war. Also, “By mid-1864, neither the Union nor the Confederacy had secured a military advantage.” It was, at that point, necessary to make significant progress in the war.

Lincoln, addressing Congress on December 6, announced that Sherman’s march was the “most remarkable” event of the year, but admitted that he had received no recent communication from the general.” It would not have been in Lincoln’s best interest to admit to having had any contact with Sherman, since it would have implicated Lincoln in what would later be described as heinous acts of violence and destruction committed against the south by Union forces. However, it can probably be attributed to Sherman’s march, that the south accepted defeat and made no effort to reorganize itself as an army in the bitter years of reconstruction following the end of the war.

The Need to Succeed

Still, the viciousness of the acts attributed to Sherman’s men must be examined to understand if they had any militaristic value in bringing about an end to the war; or if they were indeed random acts of violence by an out of control army that had been given a “nod and a wink” to pillage and loot civilian properties and whether or not Jefferson Davis had indeed acted out of military prudence or abject disregard for human life when he stranded black slave-refugees on the banks of Ebeneezer Creek, outside of Savannah, Georgia, as Confederate forces moved in on them. The end result was that by being stranded many of the blacks who had been following the Union forces on their campaign through Georgia, panicked and rushed into the stream and drowned.

It is not at Ebeneezer Creek where the decision was made to make a more determined effort than ever to turn the war in favor of the Union. It was not even at that point when Sherman’s forces first put foot onto the red clay of Georgia. Rather, it was in Washington, DC., as Lincoln and his political power forces focused on winning Lincoln’s bid for re-election in November of that year.. The northern people had become tired of the war, as much as the exhausted people and resources of the south had, except that the southerners continued to be driven by their determination that the southern states be allowed to separate from the Union and for that reason might have hung on to the psychological goals of the war long after the physical necessities of man and money were exhausted. To secure the re-election of the Republican Party, his re-election, and to bring about an end to the war on the physical and psychological fronts, Lincoln needed Sherman’s march to be as effective and destructive as possible in order to dismantle the psychological and physical tie that kept the southern people and its army holding out against the Union forces. Sherman’s destruction provided that edge.

The March to the Sea

While Hood was working on crossing the line from South to North, “Sherman wanted to prove to Southerners the futility of continuing the struggle against Northern might. He intended to dispense that “hard hand” on the South by traversing the heart of the Confederacy.” Whether the Hood or Sherman would be the turning point of the war depended on both the physical and psychological damage either one could do. Hood had left Georgia, and some historians would blame Hood for the loss of Atlanta to Sherman’s forces. “Hood’s move through North Georgia could have caused him serious problems in implementing his own plan, but once Hood was out of the picture, Sherman could proceed on. ”

An asset in Sherman’s military forces was General Jefferson Davis, a southerner, who, like many others, aligned himself militarily with the Union sentiment from the start of the war. Indeed, Davis’ own men complained of their general’s cold and unconscionable cruelties. “While condemned his decision, there were those who regarded his conduct as practical, even necessary.” By December, 1864, “Georgia society was in total upheaval as Sherman moved through the state,” the Confederate Army, led by Wheeler, was on Sherman’s heels, but found itself capturing many more free-roaming slaves who had been following the Union Army as refugees than Union soldiers. The burden this presented to the Confederate forces can be easily understood. This, combined with the fact that most of the South’s military resources had been dispersed to other areas of the north and south, like Virginia, and Hood’s move north, meant that Sherman moved toward the sea virtually unopposed by any but the most haggard remnants of Confederate resistance.

Sherman’s men were accused of taking revenge, venting their pent up hostility about the politics of war against the southern people as they moved south. Most of the information about the march is taken from diaries and records on both sides, including those of civilian observers and southerners. Though few are graphic, and refer to “atrocities” in terms of inhuman and politically incorrect decisions on the part of Sherman and his men, actions that gave rise to extreme human suffering. However, there were reports, too, that the morale of Sherman’s men was high, confidence in their leader strong.

It was Sherman’s forces who “cut off provisions from the deep south,” that helped bring about the surrender of Lee to Grant in April, 1865.

In Summary

It is, based on historical evidence, safe to say that the 300-mile march conducted by Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas were tantamount to bringing about an end to the war. When Hood left Georgia and Atlanta fell, virtually without resistance, to Sherman’s forces, it was the writing on the wall. In Atlanta, Sherman burned the city to the ground, advancing to Augusta, and then Savannah where in the wake of his march was left a path of destruction and devastation that cut a path through Georgia; Sherman’s march was a strategic and psychological warfare success.

Hood, having failed in his mirror campaign to move north and into Ohio, will be the subject of debate for time eternal as to whether or not his move north out of Georgia was the reason the south lost the war. Although it would be a stretch to blame the loss of the war on Hood, there is probably no denying that Hood’s move north and out of Georgia left Georgia a much easier target for Sherman’s advance with some 60,000 troops backing his efforts to cut a path through the state and to the sea. Later, President Lincoln would offer Sherman these remarks, “Many thanks for your Christmas gift, the capture of Savannah. When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast I was anxious, if not fearful, ” but, “I did not interfere.” Not only would this call into question Lincoln’s earlier statements to Congress when he said he had not heard from the General, but it would, too, show Lincoln’s anxiousness about bringing to a close the war.

Sherman had waged a strategy of avoiding military engagement, instead “waging a battle against its civilian society. “The south must be ruled or will rule,” he is quoted as saying, “We must fight it out army against army, man against man.” While the south’s forces were preoccupied elsewhere, Sherman had successfully made the psychological strike required to break the psychological thread that held the south together by way of southern pride and philosophy. “He intended to make the people ‘so sick of war that generations would pass before they would again appeal to it.'”

That Sherman received the people of Savannah as a host in their own city to grant favors, and allowed the city government to go about their daily business proved the confidence Sherman had in his strength of force and the power he now wielded over the southern city on the sea. While some residents of Savannah held out hope that the Confederacy would persevere, others embraced their reunion with the Union; even if somewhat reluctantly. Sherman’s presence in Savannah, and the 300-mile path of destruction that he cut across Georgia, served to increase the sense of “loss that was slowly eroding Rebel society.” It served to show the importance of conducting a campaign that delivered an extreme blow to the confidence of the population, so that they would cease to devote what little resources they continued to have to their cause.

Sherman’s march had evoked unconscious emotional response that previously had appeared only as impotent discontent. Not long after Christmas, a group of Savannah Unionists asked Governor Brown to call a convention to discuss the merits of continuing the war, and many anxious Georgians in nearby counties concurred.”

Hopelessness, like a spread, spread with the taking of the “heart of Dixie.” Georgia was a strategic and psychological gain for the Union. Without it, there is only speculation as to how long the southern population might have braced itself against accepting the end of the war. Sherman’s march was both militarily and psychologically necessary to bring about a close to the war.


Bailey, a.J. (2000). The Chessboard of War: Sherman and Hood in the Autumn Campaigns of 1864. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Bailey, a.J. (2002). Atlanta Will Fall: Sherman, Joe Johnston, and the Yankee Heavy Battalions. Journal of Southern History, 68(4), 960+. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Bailey, a.J. (2004). Legacy of Disunion: The Enduring Significance of the American Civil War. Journal of Southern History, 70(3), 696+. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Birdseye, J.H. (2004). War and Ruin: William T. Sherman and the Savannah Campaign. Journal of Southern History, 70(1), 161+. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Hallock, J.L. (1996). 6 Memoirs, Diaries, and Letters. In the American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research, Higham, R. & Woodworth, S.E. (Eds.) (pp. 59-72). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Higham, R. & Woodworth, S.E. (Eds.). (1996). The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Hitchcock, H. (1995). Marching with Sherman: Passages from the Letters and Campaign Diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Major and Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers, November 1864-May 1865 (M. a. Howe, Ed.). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Rafuse, E.S. (2004). Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman’s Relentless Warrior. Journal of Southern History, 70(1), 171+. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Urwin, G.J. (Ed.). (2004). Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Retrieved February 28, 2007, from Questia database:

Bailey, a. (2000). The Chessboard of War: Sherman and Hood in the Autumn Campaigns of 1864, University of Nebraska Press, (p. 118).

Rafuse, E.S. (2004). “Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman’s Relentless Warrior,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 70, (p. 171).

Rafuse, E.S. (2004).; Bailey, a. (2000); Urwin, G., (2004). Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War, Southern Illinois University Press.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 2.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 118.

Birdseye, J., (2004). “War and Ruin: William T. Sherman and the Savannah Campaign,” Journal of Southern Hisotry, Vol 70, p. 161.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 115.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 2.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 48.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 116.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 117.

Higham, St., and Woodworth, S., (1996). The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research, Greenwood Press, p. 198.

Hitchcock, H., and Howe, D., (1995). Marching with Sherman: Passages from the Letters and Campaign Diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Major, and Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers, November 1864 – May 1865, University of Nebraska Press, p. 186.

Hitchcock, H., and Howe, D., (1995), p. 281.

The Washington Times, (May 10, 2003), “Confederacy’s Safe Harbor Ends at Wilmington; Lee Surrenders Soon after Loss of N.C. Port,” p. B03.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 169.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 171.

Bailey, a., (2000), p. 172.

Bailey, a., (2000), pp. 172-173.

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