William Tecumseh Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea — Total War with the Confederate South — Justified or Unjustified?
In 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman led the infamous ‘March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. He declared “total war” for 37 days. Some southerners (pro-slaves) found it unjustified, while most northerners (anti-slaves) found it justified.
Was it a wild adventure of a crazy fool?
Sherman’s “total war” was a demolition plan. “Bummers” (marauding or foraging soldiers) burned mills and gin factories. They wrecked bridges, telegraphic posts, and railways but preserved churches and maintained civilian safety.
The “crazy idea” was to strip the Confederate army of resources they could use to fight the north’s Union army.
Special Field Orders: How locals were to be treated
- Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants or commit any trespass.
- The army was to take from the rich rather than the poor.
- Refrain abusive language in dealing with the locals.
- Preserve neighborhoods where the army was unmolested.
- Provide receipt of what was taken from locals.
Georgians howled as soldiers razed Atlanta. Many feared Sherman’s army marching into other towns, so wives wrote and pleaded with their husbands to return and protect their homes and livelihood. As a result, it forced many Southerners to abandon the cause.
About 40% of the homes in Atlanta were incinerated. Many of them were mansions of wealthy slave owners.
Weakening the confederate army
William Sherman’s tactics included terminating the south’s railway access to reduce their mobility. Once the last train left, the army dismantled the railroad, effectively cutting the supply chain. It weakened the Confederate army.
Psychological terror spread to Savannah
After leaving Atlanta desolate, Sherman’s army marched to Savannah, the heart of Georgia. He was determined to gut the enemy to its core.
The army foraged as they went along the 250 miles march to Savannah. Fear and terror spread far and wide. It demoralized the south.
The aftermath provides clear evidence that Sherman’s total war can be both justified and unjustified
Sherman’s total war justified
- The civil war that’s been dragging for almost four years ended five months after, avoiding more casualties.
- The strategy of total war inspired other countries to win their wars against dictators and fascists.
- Thousands welcomed Sherman and honored him when he returned to visit Atlanta in 1879, suggesting what he did was justified.
- William Sherman’s strategy prevented any thought of future secession from the Union.
Sherman’s total war was unjustified
- It caused unnecessary suffering among civilians, not in favor of the war.
- It destroyed what could have been Atlanta and Savannah’s architectural heritage.
- Many lost their homes and farms. Unprepared, many died of starvation especially when winter came.
- Sherman disregarded the rules of war. Countries that used the same strategy had more destructive outcomes.
Bottom line, the March to the Sea helped the Federal government win the war and free slaves. It prevented secession, which would have derailed America’s, Manifest Destiny. However, as in any war, there are casualties and suffering.