Many events of the American Civil War would reverberate and be remembered for decades afterward – the Battle of Gettysburg, the siege of Vicksburg, and the firing upon Fort Sumter among them. But few had as lasting an impact as Sherman’s March to the Sea.
In September 1864, the army of General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta, an important Confederate city and transportation hub. In addition to giving President Lincoln a significant election campaign boost, the fall of Atlanta disrupted the South’s rail system and posed the possibility of dividing the Confederacy east of the Mississippi (the fall of Vicksburg had already severed the eastern and western halves of the South).
|General William Tecumseh Sherman|
In Mid-November, Sherman began to move his army of 62,000 men in three columns from Atlanta eastward toward Savannah. This became the lore of “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” hailed in the Union and reviled in the South. The army had no effective opposition, and about three weeks after the march began, the Confederates abandoned Savannah to the oncoming Union army.
Those three weeks would loom large for decades after the war. What the Union army did and didn’t do would become an integral piece of the South’s “Lost Cause” story, used to justify Jim Crow laws, “separate but equal” arguments with schools, and a host of other actions an programs.
In Sherman’s March to the Sea, historian John Marszalek takes a look at what happened. He evaluates what evidence exists from official records, reports in Northern and Southern newspapers, diaries, and other sources.
Marszalek considers why Sherman decided on the march, one that would cut his army off from supply lines and force it to live “off the land;” how the march was organized and went forward; what happened to the towns; farms, and plantations in the path of the army; what happened to the slaves on those farms and plantations; and whether Sherman achieved his objective of eliminating a supply base of food and support from the Confederate armies.
The general met his objective; the march dealt a mortal blow to Southern psychology and supply lines. Unintended if to-be-expected results, however, included untold misery on the civilian population, white and black alike. Union soldiers who strayed too far from the advancing to pillage and loot were often caught and hanged by Confederate troops. Reprisals would follow, sometimes on civilians. Farms were stripped of livestock and food supplies, and buildings burned.
Marszalek devotes two chapters to what happened to the slaves. As the federal army moved through the countryside, slaves abandoned their owners and attached themselves to the army. Sherman had expressly forbidden the “contrabands,” as they were called, to do this, but try telling that to people long enslaved getting their first taste of liberation. Disillusion at ill treatment by the federals soon developed, but thousands of people kept following the army eastward. While food was plentiful, like it was in the early days of the march, Sherman companied about the contrabands but did nothing to stop them. But the food situation worsened as the army moved more eastward into areas where food supplies and livestock were less plentiful.
At Ebenezer Creek, one corps used a pontoon bridge to cross. Some 650 liberated slaves, many of them women and children, were held back, until the bridge was cut loose and floated down the creek. The people threw themselves into the creek, trying to get across. A Few succeeded; others drowned. Most were left on the shore, where they were quickly rounded up by Confederate troops. Reports of what happened quickly surfaced in Washington, where they were used by Sherman’s political enemies. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sailed to Savannah to see for himself and met with local black church leaders, who supported Sherman.
Marszalek is professor emeritus at Mississippi State University, where he taught courses in the Civil War, Jacksonian America, and race relations. His published works include Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, Court Martial: A Black Man in America, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of Henry W. Halleck, A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: South Carolina’s George Washington Murray, and several others.
The following years would see Sherman lionized in the North and reviled as Satan incarnate in the South. Legends grew up about the march, and it’s not easy separating fact from Lost Cause propaganda. Sherman’s March to the Seamakes the attempt, even as the author’s sympathies lie clearly with Sherman.
Top photograph: Sherman’s soldiers destroying a railroad in Atlanta.