Sherman’s March To The Sea Major Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led the March to the Sea in the late Fall of 1864. The march began with Sherman’s troops departing the captured city of Atlanta on November 15 and ended with the capture of the port of Savannah on December 21. The myth which has followed suggests an uncivilized band of out-of-control soldiers on the rampage.
In fact, this march was planned by General Sherman down to every detail.
Sherman’s March of about 300 miles through Georgia was accomplished in just 36 days, of which there were 25 days of actual marching. His forces followed a policy of destroying military targets as well as industry, infrastructure, and civilian property, disrupting the Confederacy’s economy and transportation networks. The entire idea was to inflict “total war”, and operate deep in enemy territory without a supply line.
His orders were specifically to control, not destroy, infrastructure in areas where there was no resistance but a scorched earth policy where the local population fought. He understood that foraging would destroy the morale of the civilian population, and that was an intentional objective of his movement.
Foragers were specifically identified to seize food – crops and livestock – from local farms.
Horses, mules and wagons, which might have military value, could be freely “appropriated”. The term for the foragers was bummers. Each brigade had 50 enlisted men and one officer foraging team for supplying food. Approximately 3,000 infantrymen engaged in foraging on any day, or 5% of the army.
There were precedents for an army moving without a supply line. The most modern previous example was Winfield Scott’s inland march to Mexico City during the Mexican War had no formal supply lines. In the Civil War, Grant’s innovative and successful Vicksburg campaign is the first modern military campaign of living off the land with no viable supply line.
However, Grant’s operations landing South of Vicksburg did in fact have supply wagons after crossing the river. Which continued to arrive after the Black River Bridge fight.
But it was Sherman’s Meridian campaign, which took place from February 3 – March 6, 1864, from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Meridian, Mississippi, that was the real proof that it could be done. Sherman developed the techniques leading to Meridian, which then could be used after Atlanta.
Sherman had carefully planned where his march was going and would be able to sustain an army of its size. Furthermore, Sherman used livestock and crop production data from the 1860 census. The data led his troops through areas where forage would likely be available. Sherman planned his march routes extremely carefully. And in fact, the campaign was one of the best planned in possibly all of military history, it was scrutinized by everyone in the War Department in agonizing detail from Lincoln and Stanton on down.
Logistics is the critical element in planning a campaign. Before Sherman could start his march, he had to map out the likely route. He had to plan where he was going and how he was going to get there long before he could move his army. Lincoln and Grant weren’t too keen on the idea, so Sherman had to sell them on the idea with a specific plan in which Sherman considered all possibilities. I cannot imagine the detail that men like Grant, Lincoln and Stanton must have demanded.
Sherman decided on his precise route well in advance of the march.
The plan was for a wide swath of movement, and destruction. As he drew up a proposal, he realized that there were natural geologic obstructions to his anticipated path. Dozens of river crossings, poor or non-existent roads, and the extensive swamps of southern Georgia would have been huge obstacles if he did not plan far in advance.
Orlando Metcalfe Poe, chief of the bridge building and demolition team, was the man Sherman selected as chief engineer in 1864, Poe graduated from West Point in 1856, his family had been noted Indian fighters and Ohio pioneers.
Poe would attain the rank of Brigadier General. And after the war would go on to build lighthouses on the Great Lakes (like George G. Meade did on the Atlantic Coast) and build locks between Lakes Huron and Superior.
Poe commanded an infantry regiment in the Peninsula Campaign, and fought at Chantilly. Furthermore, Poe became chief engineer of the defense of Knoxville in 1863. Poe was the leader of the bridge, road and pontoon-building units, and it was his job to ensure that the selected route was ready to cross once the army got there. The army moved about 12-15 miles a day, traversing 15 rivers that required bridges, and built over 100 miles of roads.
Poe also supervised the destruction of Confederate infrastructure.
One of the false myths of the Lost Cause was that the destruction of the march was wanton and unplanned. Or moreover, an uncivilized army of destruction. In fact the truth is exactly the opposite: the destruction had intricate planning, and supervised, by very tough men. Royster’s book The Destructive War goes into great detail on this subject and I recommend it to you.
The idea that this phenomenal military achievement was the result of having no enemy opposition the movement was just false. In fact several excellent cavalry units opposed him and there were skirmishes.
Joe Wheeler’s cavalry did as good a job as possible to harass the Union column. For this reason, it was necessary to camouflage exactly where he was heading, and how he was planning to get there.
The method he used was to divide his army into two “wings”. And the army followed 4 separate but parallel routes 20-60 miles apart.
The right wing (southern column; Army of the Tennessee) marched along the Georgia railroad, the Macon and Western railroad. The left wing (northern column; Army of Georgia) marched following the Georgia railroad.
We rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works. We naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles. We stood upon the very ground whereon we fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city. Away off in the distance, on the McDonough road, was the rear of Howard’s column. The gun-barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south. And right before us the Fourteenth Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond. Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of “John Brown’s Body”; the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.
— William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman, Chapter 21
General Henry Slocum was in command of the left wing, composed of the newly created Army of Georgia, (XIV Corps and the XX Corps)The Army of the Cumberland. General Oliver O. Howard commanded the right wing, consisting of the XV and XVII Corps of the Army of the Tennessee.
Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick commanded the cavalry. It has always astonished me that 3 of the most disappointing, if not incompetent, eastern generals who together almost cost the battle of Gettysburg. Would become so successful in the west (as did Hooker earlier in the year). The purpose of the southern route was to suggest the possibility of moving to Augusta or Macon instead.
Sherman also detached two armies under Major General George H. Thomas to deal with Hood in the Franklin–Nashville campaign.
My purpose in this post is to discuss this event with historical accuracy. Not to induce recriminations against Sherman and the total war concept.