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A Sherman biographical page

A second Sherman biography

To the Sea: A history and Tour Guide of Sherman's March by Jim Miles



" ... if it takes every last chicken in the Confederacy"

Historic Markers tell Sherman's tale throughout Georgia's heartland

It tore through a 60-mile strip of land from Atlanta to Savannah. Entire plantations were devastated, and melted, twisted railroad ties lay useless where they had been ripped from the ground. Herds of dead livestock rotted where they had fallen, while bales of white cotton and once-sturdy municipal buildings went up in flames.

Sound like the aftermath of a vicious, F5 tornado? The destruction path of a horrible hurricane? The evil work of a massive, mechanical, monster from Mars? If you had asked a Georgian in 1864, they would have told you that the destruction had come straight from the devil himself.

The truth however, was that the devastation of Georgia's heartland was the result of a new type of war, implemented by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman to resolve the bitter Conflict between the States once and for all. It is remembered in history books as Sherman's March to the Sea, and has been the subject of heated debate since the moment the burning began.

Brave Confederate Soldiers are remembered in Georgia

Sherman's March to the Sea involved 62,000 Union soldiers clearing a 250-mile path through Georgia, to ultimately capture the seaport of Savannah. They marched for a few reasons. In order to truly crush the enemy morale, Sherman thought it would be most effective to hit the Rebels where it would really hurt: on the homefront. He wanted to prove to the Rebel soldiers that the Confederacy was not strong enough to protect their property and families while they were off battling the Federal army. He hoped to cause mass desertion in the Confederate army as he burned parents, wives and children out of their homes, and pillaged their food, leaving them hungry and destitute. Sherman also wanted to destroy the railroad system throughout Georgia, to cut off the Confederate soldiers from the reinforcements and supplies they so badly needed on the battlefields.

Sherman's troops camped out in this Savannah Cemetery, rewording headstones whenever they saw fit

History is full of arguments over whether Sherman's March was a brilliant military tactic, or an inhumane, unjustified use of force. In its aftermath, we've wondered if Sherman should have been hailed as a hero, or tried in court for war crimes? I hoped to find the answer as I retraced his steps through Georgia, but that presented another problem. How is a Trekker to follow a long-gone march of destruction? Sherman didn't use the roads that we've built up since, so there's no way to follow his exact path. And, if everything was burned or destroyed 160 years ago, what would be left to see today?

The truth is, very little. Smoldering ruins and wrecked railroads were rebuilt or replaced long ago, and only in a few cases is there a historical marker to remember what happened there. But we did find some stories, and some sites to help tell them, which paint the picture of this infamous episode of American History.


Neda and I got caught in a downpour while we were visiting Ft. McAllister.

For 26 days his soldiers marched in two flanks, leaving smoldering buildings, angry women, and empty stables in their wake. Sherman had not prepared his troops with enough food for a month of work, but instead ordered them to take "whatever is needed," from the farms and plantations they encountered. The soldiers had been told to "forage liberally on the country during the march," and took every opportunity to do so to the extreme. One woman begged a soldier to leave her a few chickens to feed her young children with, but the soldier felt no pity on her. "Madam," he replied, "we're gonna suppress this rebellion if it takes every last chicken in the Confederacy." And so, eating their way heartily through the heart of Georgia, Sherman's troops marched on.

Food was not the only thing the soldiers helped themselves to along the way. "Soldiers ransacked homes, willfully smashed furniture, slashed bedding and stole anything that caught their fancy for a moment. Men paraded in Revolutionary War uniforms, tri-cornered hats, wigs, gowns, ornate women's headgear, and ridiculously plumed militia hats." Although General Sherman did not encourage these actions, he certainly did not discipline the men to stop, and at times seemed downright amused by them. He was worried about reaching the Atlantic Ocean, not about the lives and possessions of Georgia's rebel families.

The only battlefield of Sherman's March

10 miles outside of Macon, we found the site of the Battle of Griswoldville. Untrained Confederates attacked Sherman's men here in the only true battle of the March before reaching Savannah's Fort McAllister. What happened here was a "harvest of death," according to a Union soldier. Griswoldville was an unfortunate and unnecessary slaughter, and when the battle had finished, 51 Rebels lay dead and 422 wounded. A seasoned Union officer described the carnage as "old gray haired men and weakly looking men and little boys, not over 15 years old, lay dead or writhing in pain." He then hoped that he "never [had] to shoot at such men again."

History Happened Here!

Griswoldville was torched, and the town and its original railroad tracks are only historical memories. In order to cut off supplies from Confederate troops in battle, Sherman's men destroyed the railroad system that stretched across Georgia. His men would rip up the iron ties and fire them until they were red hot. They would then twist them around telegraph poles or trees, leaving them strewn about to be called "Sherman's neckties," or "Sherman's doughnuts." The soldiers often enjoyed shaping the ties into the letters "U" and "S" as a reminder to Georgians that they would soon be part of the United States once again.

Destroying rail, and feasting and pillaging as they moved, the men marched on to Milledgeville, Georgia's first state capitol. Neda and I marched on behind them, and found several sites of interest left to explore. Why? Well, Sherman's orders had been to only destroy property where they ran into aggressive citizens, or military hostility. This explains why most of Milledgeville survived the attack. Although the Atlanta legislature passed a law requiring every able-bodied citizen to rise up in defense of his state, it simply never happened. Perhaps it was because the politicians had exempted themselves from the law they wrote, and then "spent three thousand dollars of the taxpayers' money to rent a train that would carry them out of danger." When Sherman's troops arrived, they found no politicians, and encountered no resistance whatsoever.

The Statehouse, seen through the 1860's arches

Although the Milledgeville arsenal was blown up, the State Capitol building was left standing, if only to serve as an amusement park for the rowdy soldiers. They ransacked the State documents, littering them throughout the building, while spitting tobacco upon the floor . For some fun, the men called a mock session of congress to order, and debated the merits of whiskey while consuming mass quantities of it. They then took the liberty of revoking Georgia's secession from the Union, and wrote up articles proclaiming Georgia's allegiance to the United States.

Steeple?!?  I thought you said it was a STABLE!

Those funny guys didn't stop there however. The soldiers seem to have especially enjoyed frolicking around Milledgeville and there are several places to go to imagine wild Union troops camped out for a few nights. One of the most interesting is St. Stephens Episcopal Church. The Federal army actually stabled their horses inside, and hoofprints are still visible beneath the original wooden pews today. The men went so far in their merry disrespect of Milledgeville, that they entertained themselves by pouring molasses down the pipes of the church organ, to "sweeten the sound." Although the organ has been replaced, the memory of disrespect remains. You have to ask for this story before a local will admit to it happening there.

Tragedy occurred before they reached Savannah

As they moved on toward Savannah, the outlandish behavior continued, but an unexpected complication turned into a problem for Sherman. Wherever the troops marched, they liberated the Africans who had been enslaved on the plantations in their path. Without money or education, these freedmen didn't know what to do. Many of them decided to follow along with their "redeemers" as they headed for the sea. Thousands of ex-slaves joined the march, and although he offered labor jobs to some of them, Sherman pleaded with most of them "to remain where they were and not load us down with useless mouths, which would eat up the food needed for our fighting men." Still, with nowhere else to turn, they marched on, infuriating some of Sherman's generals with their slow pace. Their presence turned into a tragedy when a battalion of men led by Union general Jeff Davis (not the confederate president, just a mean guy with the same name) reached Ebenezer Creek. In order to cross the icy, swollen river, Davis' men constructed pontoon bridges from bank to bank. Then came the horrifying part. After all of his soldiers had safely crossed, Davis ordered the ropes to be cut and the bridge to be removed, leaving around 5,000 women, children and elderly men stranded on the other side. With the confederate army close behind these desperate people, Davis' men watched as the former slaves "rushed by hundreds into the turbid stream and many were drowned before our eyes." The others who remained on land where either shot or slashed to death by the Confederate troops, or returned to slavery beneath their masters' whips. Unbelievable! Although Sherman knew nothing of the incident at the time, he later defended Davis' actions as a "military necessity," and Davis was never reprimanded or brought to trial for this crime. (please link to http://www.thehistorynet.com/CivilWarTimes/articles/1998/1098_text.htm for the entire story)

Ft. McAllister:  Sherman's last fight before the Sea

By now Sherman's troops had almost reached Savannah, and there was only one obstacle left in their way: Fort McAllister. Neda and I visited this strong earthworks fort, to see where "the union forces overpowered the confederates in about 15 minutes, while Sherman watched from a nearby rice mill roof." This short battle marked the end of Sherman's grand and gruesome march to the sea. When the fort fell, 10,000 Confederates troops slipped out of Savannah by a series of pontoon bridges in the middle of the night, leaving Savannah free for the taking. Sherman then sat down to write a letter to Abraham Lincoln, offering up Savannah as "a Christmas Present" for the U. S. President.

Sherman slept here while chillin' in Savannah

Largely due to Sherman's March, the Civil War was now almost over, with only the Carolinas standing in the way of a complete union victory. So what's a successful General to do, but conquer those as well? Although they weren't given a snappy name like "March to the Sea," Sherman's Carolina campaigns devastated those states as much as he had Georgia. In South Carolina in particular, Union troops burnt and destroyed with a particular vengeance. Since South Carolina had been the first state to secede, and fired the first shots on Ft. Sumter which had begun the war, Sherman's men held it responsible for the entire conflict. Therefore, nothing in their path was spared. North Carolina wasn't as offensive to the troops, and it received the easier treatment that Georgia had. By the time Sherman captured Raleigh, the third capitol he had taken on his March, the confederates were ready to surrender.

Was Sherman right to use the tactics of "total war" to bring an end to America's four year conflict? His soldiers remind me of undisciplined, spoiled, children who became consumed by their own greed, rather than a sense of right or wrong. Their measures were extreme, and their care for the slaves they freed along the way was despicable. Can their atrocities be overlooked simply because they happened in the course of war? Unfortunately, I have more questions than I do answers, and can only leave you with this thought: Although Sherman's campaigns were terrifying, brutal and barbaric, extravagantly wasteful of southern property and life, and shocking in their scope... "total war" totally worked.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - General Grant and a dozen grisly ways to die
Neda - Harriet Tubman kicks some butt
Teddy - How easy is it to assassinate the President?
Stephanie - The role of African Americans in the Civil War