General Sherman's Destructive Path Blazed a New Strategy

Sherman's devastating march led to the kind of warfare that culminated in World War II.

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That view only hardened with time. When Abraham Lincoln summoned Grant to Washington to assume command of all Union armies, Grant put Sherman in charge of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Grant urged Sherman not to go after territory but to pursue the Confederate forces and destroy them. It was counsel that Sherman, his sights set on Atlanta, quietly ignored. Indeed, apart from one disastrous battle with Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston's army, Sherman conducted brilliant maneuvers around his foe, all the while protecting the railroad lines that conveyed some 1,300 tons of supplies a day to support his three moving armies. The fall of Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1864, was not just the conquest of a crucial urban transportation hub between the upper and lower South. It also saved Lincoln from certain electoral defeat and made Sherman a Union hero.

Not resting on his laurels, Sherman launched his most famous campaign: the March to the Sea. He decided to forsake supply lines behind him and instead plunder his way to Savannah, feeding his 60,000 troops with what his foraging "bummers" collected from farms and destroying anything that directly supported the war effort or the institution of slavery (including dogs, notoriously used for tracking escaped slaves). His goal, as he put it bluntly, was to "make Georgia howl." After taking Savannah, Sherman persuaded Grant to let him proceed through the Carolinas, expressly to punish the state (South Carolina) that had led secession. Grant, who had wanted Sherman to bring his army north by sea, relented.

So was it total war? Many Southern partisans have claimed so because it was unnecessary. The war had been lost even before the March to the Sea began. And the restraints that Sherman had imposed on his army in Georgia were loosened during the march through South Carolina, leading, some charge, to the fires that razed Columbia. (Recent scholarship reveals multiple causes: accidental fires set by drunken Yankees and fires set by retreating Confederates, all fanned by freakishly strong winds). Even nonpartisan historians acknowledge that the collateral damage increased. "It was at least a step in the direction of total war," says Princeton's noted Civil War historian James McPherson, "because so many civilians suffered and some went hungry. And [Sherman's army] really had it in for South Carolinians."

Psychological. But as both McPherson and Marszalek emphasize, a lot depends on how you define total war. To Marszalek, Sherman's way of war fell short of total because it had limits and never targeted civilians directly. Both historians also agree that Sherman's greatest innovation was in psychological warfare. "Sherman came to the conclusion," says Marszalek, "that the best way to end the war was not to continue the bloody head-to-head fighting but to convince Southerners through destructive and psychological warfare that their government could not defend them...and that the Confederacy itself was, in Sherman's words, 'a hollow shell.'"

Even though he helped make war a greater hell, Sherman never doubted its necessity. Three years after delivering his famous remarks, he spoke just as directly from the heart: "Wars are not all evil; they are part of the grand machinery by which this world is governed, thunderstorms which purify the political atmosphere, test the manhood of a people, and prove whether they are worthy to take rank with others engaged in the same task by different methods."