The March To The Sea


One hundred fifty years ago today, Gen. William T. Sherman quit Atlanta, and began his March to the Sea.  The March was decisive in breaking the spirit of the slave-holding South, but Sherman always saw it as a repositioning of his army to prepare it for action in the Carolinas.  The army conducted itself with remarkable discipline.  It did not, contrary to the assertions of my Georgian 8th grade history teacher Miss Davis, salt the earth as they went.

Victor Davis Hanson describes the March better than anyone:

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 you haven’t read Hanson’s description in The Soul of Battle, you’re missing out.

So we made a thoroughfare for Freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main;
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,
While we were marching through Georgia. 

Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia.

Comments are closed.