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Sherman’s War

June 2024
18min read


By the fall of 1864 no army in either Europe or America was as mobile, self-supporting, and lethal as William Tecumseh Sherman’s, which was composed of soldiers in prime physical condition expert in the handling of modern firearms. Their general was in some sense not merely the most powerful man in America but also the most dangerous person in the world. The Macon Telegraph warned its readers: “It would seem as if in him all the attributes of man were merged in the enormities of the demon, as if Heaven intended in him to manifest depths of depravity yet untouched by a fallen race…. Unsated still in his demoniac vengeance he sweeps over the country like a simoom of destruction.”

The advent of Sherman’s army must have been a terrifying experience for an agrarian society. The southern Central Valley of California where I live is similarly about three hundred miles from north to south; its eastern corridor between the Sierra Nevada and state freeway 99 is a belt about forty to sixty miles wide that comprises the richest farmland in the world. To comprehend anything comparable to Sherman’s coming into Georgia is to imagine a huge column of mobile burners, starting out in the state capital to the north at Sacramento and descending to torch all the farmland of this valley southward to Bakersfield. Everything between San Francisco and Los Angeles would be as desolate as the sixty-mile-wide corridor between Atlanta and Savannah.

For a century critics would assert that what Sherman did in Georgia was either amoral or irrelevant to the Union cause.

I can imagine in my homeland, situated in the exact center, continuous columns of marchers coming down through Fresno and sweeping east to the Sierra Nevada, burning and destroying as they moved through small towns, tearing up the main railroad from San Francisco to Los Angeles, section by section, each day. I can envision that Americans from a different region of the country, with different accents and customs—perhaps Easterners, whom we often automatically distrust and do not fully fathom still—would come onto this farm, lecture and berate us, and strip our residence of everything I now gaze upon: furniture, silver, paintings, rugs, ancestral clocks, the sum of the collective acquisition of five generations of family members who have lived in this same house.

Dour, tough men, more dangerous than any trespassers I have run off on evening walks from this small 120-acre farm, would ride in, camp, sleep, and feast as they saw fit, destroying our pump and water well and killing our five dogs and assorted pets. To understand Sherman’s onslaught would be to see torched the barn outside my window, constructed by my great-grandfather well over a hundred years ago, trees stripped of fresh fruit, and bins of stored raisins, nuts, and dried fruits—the past year’s work and the only chance of cash for the future—consumed or simply dumped. Fences and outbuildings, literally everything wooden, would be collected and burned. Some of the flotsam and jetsam would be the result of gratuitous thievery: my grandmother’s silver platter used for target practice, some two thousand books in my study thrown on the dirt and trampled in the alleyway. To imagine Sherman’s arrival would be to see flames on every large farm in this immediate vicinity, made worse with the realization that heroic defense meant instant death and, worse still, that the ravagers were not always the ignorant and illiterate but occasionally the learned, who would hector me about how the destruction of my farm was inevitable —the moral wages of my support for the evil of slavery and the treachery of sedition. In short, our 120-year-old farm, where now five separate family households reside, would resemble the Canning plantation after Sherman’s army. moved through it on November 28, 1864: “We could hardly believe it was our home. One week before it was one of the most beautiful places in the state. Now it was a vast wreck. Gin-house, packing screws, granary—all lay in ashes. Not a fence was to be seen for miles … the army had turned their stock into the fields and destroyed what they had not carried off. Burning cotton and grain filled the air with smoke, and even the sun seemed to hide its face.”

In my impotence I would hate the arrogant Eastern Americans who had ruined a century of my family’s work and destroyed my community, and I would despise more the architect of that desolation, heartless and crazy Bill Sherman. But I would also never again think that either my neighbors or I had the right—or power—to hold slaves, much less either the prerogative or the ability to declare California and the property of the federal government within it as our region’s own. We would have no doubts that we were defeated.

And I would hope that my sixteen-year-old son, Billy Hanson, who, like his deceased grandfather and namesake, has lived his entire life amid these vineyards and orchards, would not be rotting in some field nearby after he had armed himself with the assorted obsolete weaponry of this farm to charge bravely into the murderous line of the army of the United States in order to save our property—and along with it the idea of States’ Rights and thus ultimately human bondage itself. Finally, again, I would hope that the commander of such an army was not a man like William T. Sherman, who would say of our ruin and our gallant anger: “Those people made war on us, defied and dared us to come south to their country, where they boasted they would kill us and do all manner of horrible things. We accepted their challenge, and now for them to whine and complain of the natural and necessary results is beneath contempt.”

For the next century critics would argue over the rectitude, effectiveness, and difficulty of the March to the Sea, asserting that what Sherman did in Georgia was either amoral or irrelevant to the Union cause. Others added that Sherman had not been assiduous in collecting freed slaves—purportedly more than fifty thousand directly in his path were ready to flee—and that he had wrecked the entire tradition of the practice of just war that once had expressly spared civilians. Before addressing these criticisms systematically, I must note the irony in each.

How in a moral sense could the March to the Sea be too barbaric in destroying Southern property yet at the same time not effective enough in killing Confederate soldiers? How could Sherman’s men be too lax in freeing slaves? How could his march be considered too easy when Grant and Lincoln—men known for neither timidity nor hysteria —feared for the very destruction of Sherman’s army when he requested permission to attempt it? And how else could Sherman move his colossal army to the east and be in position to march northward other than by living off the land and destroying property? Was he to pay for the food of slaveowners in prized Federal dollars with promises that such capital would not be forwarded to purchase more bullets for Lee and Johnston? Were his men to eat hardtack while secessionists fared better? Keep clear of railroads, as locomotives sped by with food, ammunition, and guns to kill Northerners in Virginia? Bypass slaveowning plantationists in a war to end slavery?

As for the charge that Sherman’s brand of war was amoral, if we forget for a moment what constitutes “morality” in war and examine acts of violence per se against Southern civilians, we learn that there were few, if any, gratuitous murders on the march. There seem also to have been less than half a dozen rapes, a fact acknowledged by both sides. Any killing outside of battle was strictly military execution in response to the shooting of Northern prisoners. The real anomaly seems to be that Sherman brought more than sixty thousand young men through one of the richest areas of the enemy South without unchecked killing or mayhem. After the war a Confederate officer remarked of the march through Georgia: “The Federal army generally behaved very well in this State. I don’t think there was ever an army in the world that would have behaved better, on a similar expedition, in an enemy country. Our army certainly wouldn’t.”

If civilians were not killed, tortured, or raped, was the march of the army nonetheless amoral? The historian John Bennett Walters has argued that it was, because soldiers traumatized and robbed noncombatants and wrecked their homes: “An invading army, without any claim on military necessity, had thrown away every inclination toward mercy for weakness and helplessness. The Federal troops had resorted to the sheer brutality of overpowering strength to despoil a people of their material resources and to injure irreparably their finer sensibilities.”

The true moral question, though, is not whether civilians are fair game in war but whether the property and tranquillity of civilians who support chattel slavery and rebellion are fair game in a war precipitated over refusal to end that institution—whether, in other words, the supporters of apartheid have abandoned prior claim on the “finer sensibilities.” If one believes that slavery is a great evil and that secession constitutes treason, then Sherman was surely right that the best mechanism to end both, short of killing civilians, was to destroy the property of both the state and the wealthy, thereby robbing those fighting on behalf of slaveholding and rebellion of both the material and psychological support of their own citizenry. That seems to me very much a “military necessity.”

We must here make a vital distinction between “total” war and a war of “terror.” Sherman surely waged the latter, seeking to shock the enemy through the destruction of its landscape and the wreckage of its hopes to such a degree that it would desist from supporting the killing of Union troops. But that terror was not total, and he never resorted to any of the barbarities of the modern age—ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, mass killing, indiscriminate bombing, and torture—to achieve his ends. His march has nothing in common with the dirty wars of the twentieth century, wherein revolutions, coups, and ethnic hatreds have usually had no moral agenda and have never been part of an effort to stop enslavement. When Sherman reached Savannah, Southern generals asked him for the protection of their own families, surely proof that they at least did not think they were entrusting their women and children to a terrorist.

The late twentieth century has increasingly come to declare all war evil. Since peace is considered the natural state of relations, we live in an era of “conflict resolution” and “peace studies,” in which some degree of moral guilt is freely assessed equally both to those who kill to advance evil and those who kill to end it, to those who are aggressive and to those who resist aggrandizement. Regardless of cause or circumstances, we all in the end must become “victims” of those who have the greater power, which transcends national boundaries: politicians, corporations, the military. Indeed, “evil” itself is to be seen as a relative idea.

Yet there is always a timeless, absolute difference between slavery and freedom, and those who battle for abolition and those who kill to defend slavery are qualitatively different and can be recognized as such. There would have been a real difference between a Confederate America and a Union America. Sherman’s war against property belongs to a particular context, inseparable from the question of slavery. So I am confused when present-day historians write that they are disturbed, for example, to learn that Sherman’s men killed bloodhounds in Georgia, as if the gratuitous killing of pets, some of which were accomplished trackers of slaves and Union prisoners, mattered very much when half a million blacks in Georgia had been slaves until Bill Sherman’s dog-killers set thousands of them free.

Once the free Southern leadership and its citizenry chose to fight and kill on behalf of human bondage, the destruction of their private property, unlike attacks against Northern farms, took on the logic of retribution and atonement. Was this a fair rationale for Union soldiers when their own Founding Fathers had owned slaves and had seen no reason to bar the practice in either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights? Lincoln grasped perfectly this American dilemma and thus sought to eradicate the evil of slavery, at least in the beginning of his efforts, peaceably, with compensation, and over time, as all American society might slowly evolve to a consensus about the immorality of bondage.

Southerners, in contrast, wanted no part of that national dialogue, because they knew precisely where it would end up: abolition and a federal government now strong enough to enforce its moral culture on particular states. Southern leaders precipitated the war because they correctly saw Federal policy as leading immutably to the end of their way of life —a way of life whose material riches for a few were to be perpetually supported by the bondage of African blacks.

Was sherman’s march effective? There seem to be two approaches involved in this answer, and both result in the affirmative. If for a moment we forget the actual material damage done the Confederacy and consider where Sherman’s army started and where it finished, the march in itself was the definitive act of retribution against the South. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta probably saved Lincoln the election. The very fact that he could march unharmed through the South eroded all support in the North for Democrats and Copperheads who advocated negotiated peace or surrender under the guise of settlement. Overseas there would be no further talk of recognizing the Confederacy.

Moreover, in purely strategic terms, Sherman was now three hundred miles closer to the last major source of Confederate resistance, Lee’s army in Virginia. Until Sherman reached Savannah, Grant was holding Lee firmly in his grasp and waging, whether intended or not, a brutal and steady war of annihilation. When Sherman reached the Atlantic—as he had foreseen all along—the complexion of that death lock changed radically: Lee was faced with the prospect of a lethal force marching steadily northward at his rear, devouring the source of supply for his army, and ruining the homes of his soldiers in the trenches. Whereas before, Lee had kept Grant out of Richmond and had the option either to threaten Washington or to just stay still, now he had to move either northward over Grant or southward through Sherman.

Had Sherman not torched a single Southern estate, his march would nevertheless have been strategically brilliant.

Had Sherman not torched a single Southern estate, his march would nevertheless have been strategically brilliant for its role in the coordination of the Union armies—and psychologically devastating to the Confederate cause. As the artillery officer Thomas Osborn wrote when Sherman and his men reached Savannah: “Thus the immediate object of the campaign is completed. This army has been transferred from the middle of the country to the sea coast, this city captured and the lines for supplies for General Lee’s army south of here are destroyed. The Confederacy proper is now southern Virginia and North and South Carolina. It has no other territory now at its disposal for military operations and this campaign has shown there is not much more left to it, except General Lee’s army and the small force in our front.”

Damage, of course, Sherman did. Even by 1870 the assessed valuation of farms in Georgia was little more than a third what it had been ten years earlier. Unfortunately for the poor of the South, the ripples of Sherman’s plunge into the Georgian countryside continued for decades; the result of his depredations against the plantations and state was to create years of general economic stagnation that would affect both the free black and white poor. Sherman’s apologists—and in the years after the armistice they continued to shrink as the horror of frontal infantry assault was forgotten—would defend his actions on three grounds: First, better that Southerners be poor and alive in Georgia than rotting in the mud of northern Virginia—and the South’s only apparent strategy of salvation was the doomed quest to crush Grant’s Army of the Potomac; second, the poverty of a few hundred thousand citizens for decades was to be reckoned against the bondage of millions of slaves for centuries; and third, war cannot be “refined.” Revolutionaries suffer inordinately when they precipitate war, lack the high moral ground, and turn out to be impotent. Sherman would come to be hated in a way Grant never would be because he humiliated and impoverished the South with ease and impunity, rather than kill Southern youth with difficulty and at great cost.

The march through Georgia made all subsequent campaigns by the Army of the West easier. Hundreds of thousands of Confederate civilians, once so critical in encouraging their men at the front, now would have precisely the opposite effect. When Sherman turned north into the Carolinas, Confederate soldiers wrote their governor: “It is not in the power of the Yankee Armies to cause us to wish ourselves at home. We can face them, and can hear their shot and shell without being moved; but, Sir, we cannot hear the cries of our little ones and stand.”

This natural reaction had been foreseen by Sherman: “I attach more importance to these deep incisions into the enemy’s country, because this war differs from European wars in this particular: we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who have been deceived by their lying newspapers to believe that we were being whipped all the time now realize the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience.”

Whereas much has been written of the destruction of Southern morale, too little has been devoted to the radically changed spirit in the North brought on by Sherman’s march. Lincoln put it best as he summed up the Union effort in his annual message to Congress on December 6, 1864: “[We] have more men now than we had when the war began …. We are gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely.” Grant’s army was a force vital to the preservation of the Union and the destruction of the best Confederate soldiers in the field, but neither Grant nor the Army of the Potomac—given the frightful casualties of summer 1864 and the absence of movement forward —could embolden the American populace to continue the war.

Americans might now sing “Marching Through Georgia” or read poems about “The March to the Sea”; they would never write hymns to celebrate Cold Harbor or read verses about “The Wilderness.” Sherman—in light of his army’s speed, his preservation of Union lives, his transaction of the Confederacy, the sheer hatred he incurred from the South, and his gift for the language of doom—captured the mind of America. In a little more than thirty days he had redefined the entire Civil War as a death struggle between yeomen farmers and the privilege of aristocratic plantationists, and the verdict of that ideological contest was plain for all to see in the burning estates of central Georgia. Had Sherman not taken Atlanta, Lincoln might not have been re-elected President; had he lost his army in Georgia, a negotiated peace would have been a real possibility; and had he rested on his laurels in Savannah, Grant would have fought Lee for another six months to a year. It is true that Sherman redefined the American way of war, but his legacy was not Vietnam but rather the great liberating invasions of Europe during World War II, in which Americans marched right through the homelands of the Axis powers. Sherman, in short, invented the entire notion of American strategic doctrine, one that would appear so frequently in the century to follow: the ideal of a vast moral crusade on foreign soil to restructure a society through sheer force of arms.

We should keep in mind that the timing of the war’s close in April 1865 was not fortuitous. The Confederacy collapsed at that particular moment not because of Thomas’s smashing victory in Tennessee nearly six months earlier, or because Grant had finally obliterated Lee, but rather because Sherman’s gigantic army of Union veterans was now rapidly approaching Lee’s rear. The South itself acknowledged this. The obituary for Sherman in the Americus, Georgia, Daily Times conceded that he “was the victorious general who really subdued the Confederacy. By his devastations in Georgia the morale of Lee’s army was so reduced and his ranks so thinned that Grant’s success was possible, so that at last Sherman and not Grant was entitled to the credit of Appomattox.”

Moreover, Sherman’s marches precipitated the war’s end at a great savings in lives on both sides. More Southerners deserted, gave up, or simply ceased fighting because of Sherman’s march than were killed in Grant’s attacks. “Of course I must fight when the time comes,” Sherman wrote his daughter, “but wherever a result can be accomplished without Battle I prefer it.”

Was he sometimes lax in recruiting slaves into his army on his march? Yes. Did it ultimately matter? No. It is true that Sherman did not welcome very young, female, or aged freed slaves to join his march. He was interested primarily in taking on fit young male exslaves to serve in his engineering and pioneering corps—the thousands of impressive black troopers who would later carve a path through the Carolinas and march so proudly in review in Washington at war’s end.

As events turned out, Sherman still had thousands of blacks in his army when it was all over; he had freed thousands more during his march—best estimates put them at more than twenty-five thousand, or almost a third of the size of his own force—and his efforts at destroying the plantation culture of the South had accelerated the general emancipation in the mere six months left after he cut through Georgia. Later he would put it succinctly: “My aim then was, to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ I did not want them to cast in our teeth what General Hood had once done in Atlanta, that we had to call on their slaves to help us to subdue them. But, as regards kindness to the race, encouraging them to patience and forbearance, procuring them food and clothing, and providing them with land whereon to labor, I assert that no army ever did more for that race than the one I commanded in Savannah.”

Finally, and most important, did Sherman bring on the evils of total conflict so well known to the modern age? He did not. The best of the Union generals—Thomas and Grant in particular—were bulldogs, not greyhounds, and it was they, not Sherman, who turned war into an anonymous process of an industrial state, where cannon, rifle, and manpower were thrown promiscuously into the inferno, with little regard to past custom or protocol and even less chance that individual achievement or skill in arms in themselves might win the day.

However inexact the comparison, the difference between World War I and World War II sheds some light on the respective manner in which Grant and Sherman each fought the South, and the contrast is not, as might be expected, entirely to Sherman’s detriment. From 1914 to 1918 the Allies, Grant-like, waged a horrific war of annihilation in the trenches against the armies of autocracy that ultimately ruined their entire military but left the populations of the Central Powers largely unscathed—and eager to find scapegoats. Another world war followed a mere two decades later. After World War II and the savage and systematic demolition of the German and Japanese landscapes—far in excess of what even Sherman might have imagined or condoned—neither society warred again, and there has been peace in Europe and Japan thus far not for twenty years but for half a century. No German or Japanese civilians after 1945 could ever underestimate the power of the British and American military, or think that their culture had been betrayed rather than conquered, or believe that their support for murderous regimes did not have personal consequences. Germans had far more respect for—and fear of—Patton in 1945 than they had had for Pershing in 1918.

For Sherman, then, the attack on property and infrastructure was permissible, if the war was an ideological one against anarchy, treason, and slavery and if it would lead to a permanent peace based on just principles. Terror, as a weapon to be employed in war by a democratic army, must be proportional, ideological, and rational: proportional—Southerners, who fought to preserve men as mere property, would have their property destroyed; ideological—those who would destroy property would do so as part of a larger effort of abolition that was not merely strategic but ethical as well; and rational—burning and looting would not be random, nor killing gratuitous, but rather ruin was to have a certain logic, as railways, public buildings, big plantations, all the visible and often official infrastructure of a slave society, would be torched, while the meager houses of the poor and the persons themselves of the Confederacy would be left relatively untouched.

It is true that Sherman redefined warfare, but his legacy is not Vietnam—it is the liberating invasions of Europe during World War II.

The issues of age and property are also often forgotten in Sherman’s march, but again they are decisive. Sherman constantly stressed his affection for “his boys” and the need to save his army; he showed a shocking lack of concern for those of adult age in the Confederacy who had carried through secession. Yet it seems to me a far more moral act to make the middle-aged and elderly, male and female alike, who fight wars for property pay for their folly with their possessions, than to exterminate those youngsters, without possessions, and with little real knowledge of the politics that put them in harm’s way.

The historian B. H. Liddell Hart best summed up Sherman’s view of what constituted real savagery: “It was logical, and due to reasoning that was purely logical, that he should first oppose war; then, conduct it with iron severity; and, finally, seize the first real opportunity to make a peace of complete absolution. He cared little that his name should be execrated by the people of the South if he could only cure them of a taste for war. And to cure them he deliberately aimed at the noncombatant foundation of the hostile war spirit instead of its combatant roof. He cared as little that this aim might violate a conventional code of war, for so long as war was regarded as a chivalrous pastime, and its baseness obscured by a punctilious code, so long would it be invested with a halo of romance. Such a code and such a halo had helped the duel to survive long after less polite forms of murder had grown offensive to civilized taste and gone out of fashion.”

I am also surprised not at the contrasts drawn between Sherman and Grant—their differences in strategic thinking, their close friendship, and their shared responsibility for winning the war invite obvious and spirited comparisons that have merit on both sides—but rather at the absence of contrasts drawn between Sherman and Lee. Lee, who wrecked his army by sending thousands on frontal charges against an entrenched enemy and who himself owned slaves, enjoys the reputation of a reluctant, humane knight who battled for a cause—States’ Rights and the sanctity of Southern soil—other than slavery. Sherman, who was careful to save his soldiers from annihilation and who freed thousands of slaves in Georgia, is too often seen as a murderous warrior who fought for a cause—federalism and the punishment of treason—other than freedom.

Lee, as Sherman noted, crafted the wrong offensive for an outmanned and outproduced South, which led to horrendous casualties; Sherman’s marches drew naturally on the material and human surpluses of the North and so cracked the core of the Confederacy, with few killed on either side. Lee wrongly thought the Union soldier would not fight as well as the Confederate; Sherman rightly guessed that the destruction of Southern property would topple the entire Confederacy. The one ordered thousands to their deaths when the cause was clearly lost; the other destroyed millions of dollars of property to hasten the end of bloodshed. Yet Sherman, who fought on the winning side, who promised in the abstract death and terror, who was unkempt, garrulous, and blunt, is usually criticized; Lee, who embodies the Lost Cause, who wrote of honor and sacrifice, and who was dapper, genteel, and mannered, is canonized. Historians would do better to assess each on what he did, not on what he professed.

Sherman’s most impressive statue, a forty-three-foot-high equestrian rendition of the general on the march, still towers in Washington, D.C., in a beautiful, small park at Fifteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Treasury Department and the Ellipse. Few Washingtonians know where the statue is, and fewer still of those who lunch in the park seem ever to approach the monument itself. If they did, they would discover, on the north side of the granite base, beneath the mounted general, Sherman’s own declaration that the proper purpose of battle was to make society right: “War’s Legitimate Object Is More Perfect Peace.”

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