A March Made in Georgia: Sherman’s Famous March to the Sea

Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Derek Maxfield.

One hundred-fifty years ago this fall, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman led an army of sixty-thousand men on a militarily-unorthodox campaign through the heart of Georgia.  Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, as it has come to be known, began with the utter destruction of Atlanta as a railroad hub and seat of manufacturing – and ended with the capture of Savannah just before Christmas, 1864.

I have always been intrigued by Sherman, and especially this episode of his career.  To Civil Warriors, Sherman is a familiar figure: rail-thin and fidgety, with a shock of red hair on top and a close-cropped beard and mustache, he was a blue-clad Energizer bunny with a cigar.  With a tendency toward the manic, the general made many people nervous.  It was this quality, combined with some spot-on prophetic utterings, which had some saying that Sherman was insane early in the war.  But, as I have come to discover, there is much more to the man.  Sherman, a member of Grant’s staff once noted, had “a peculiar energy of manner in uttering the crisp words and epigrammatic phrases which fell from his lips as rapidly as shots from a magazine-gun.  I soon realized he was one of the most dramatic and picturesque characters of the war” (Marszalek 289).

From an early age, people that knew “Cump” understood he was very intelligent and a quick-study.  These qualities were appreciated by Thomas Ewing, Sherman’s adopted Father (and later Father-in-Law), who decided to secure an appointment to West Point for the boy.  Sherman’s near-photographic memory not only helped him through his studies, but would later pay in spades during the Atlanta Campaign.  In his pre-Civil War army career, Sherman rode the back-roads of Northern Georgia in his spare hours studying the terrain.  Seemingly little more than a diversion at the time, when he matched wits with Confederate General Joe Johnston during the Atlanta Campaign, he was able to draw on those memories of the terrain to find ways around Johnston’s flanks.

The “March” is a product of Sherman’s intelligence, memory, and evolving understanding of the nature of the conflict.  In particular, the seeds of the “March” can be found in the Vicksburg Campaign – especially from the landing at Bruinsburg to the surrender — and the Meridian Campaign.  It is ironic that during the Vicksburg Campaign, it was Sherman that lacked vision and thought that Gen. Grant’s plan to get below Vicksburg on the Mississippi, cross his army from the Louisiana shore, thence marching the army inland to Jackson — all the while subsisting his army on the country — before turning westward again and investing Vicksburg, was doomed to failure. “I feel,” Sherman wrote at the time, “in its success less confidence than in any similar undertaking of the war.” Later, as they gazed down on the Walnut Hills above Vicksburg, just before the siege began Sherman admitted to Grant, “Until this moment I never thought your expedition a success. I never could see the end clearly until now. But this is a campaign. This is a success if we never take the town”(Foote 326, 380).

Grant’s plan to take Vicksburg depended upon elements that Sherman would later adopt on the “March.” The army would travel with only bare essentials; forage for the animals and food for the men would be taken from the country.  The army would be kept moving to prevent the country from being stripped of supplies to sustain them.  Wherever possible, the enemy would be deceived and misled as to specific targets and goals.

Whereas the Vicksburg Campaign was a typical military campaign, insofar as continual battle was concerned, the Meridian Campaign was more like a giant raid.  It was January and February 1864, and Sherman was concerned over what might happen in the Mississippi Valley while his armies were chasing Johnston through Georgia. He needed to strike some blows that would resonate and intimidate. He settled on a plan to strike at Meridian, Mississippi, a vital railroad hub that hosted storage and distribution facilities, and Selma, Alabama, home to cannon foundries and other manufacturing facilities.

The campaign was remarkable for its ambition on the one hand, and logistics on the other. Sherman insisted that the army travel light – very light: no tents or baggage – not even for himself or his Corps commanders. For supplies, only a twenty day supply of hard tack, salt, coffee, ammunition, and medical stores would come along.

The Meridian Campaign was only partly successful, with Selma escaping altogether.  There was virtually no fighting – and no pitched battles.  The one Confederate force that might have engaged Sherman was Gen. Polk’s command of green troops at Demopolis, Alabama – which faded from contact after removing as many stores as possible from the warehouses in Meridian.  Even so, over twelve million dollars in damage was done in Meridian – essentially removing it as a factor in the war.  This campaign was, in many ways, a trial run of Sherman’s later March to the Sea.  The aim was the destruction of the materials of war and the intimidation of the population.  This was a psychological game and a vital piece in Sherman’s evolving total war strategy.

It is hard to say when Sherman first conceived of the “March.”  Preeminently a practical man, it would have been after Atlanta was secured.  More likely, it probably was a product of the turn-of-tables problem with Gen. Hood.  After the capture of Atlanta, now it was Sherman that was holding a place and Hood free to maneuver.  Little infuriated Sherman more than the necessity of chasing Hood’s army back up the very route that he had taken chasing Johnston down.  At any rate, this was when Sherman appealed to Grant for permission to strike out for the coast.

I propose that we break up the railroad from Chattanooga forward, and that we strike out with our wagons for Milledgeville, Millen, and Savannah.  Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless for us to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people, will cripple their military resources.  By attempting to hold the roads, we will lose a thousand men each month, and will gain no result.  I can make this march, and make Georgia howl! (Sherman 627)

Stripping his command down to only the healthiest, hardiest set of veterans, and sending all stores and much personal property to Nashville, Sherman prepared to march into history.  On November 12th, 1864, the lines of communication were broken with the north.  Dividing his army into two wings, Sherman entrusted Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry W. Slocum with general operations.  His division of cavalry was placed under the command of Gen. Judson Kilpatrick.  Although this trio was far from an inspiring lot, they were solid, competent men who could be counted on to carry out Sherman’s plans.

As the various columns set out on their three-hundred mile adventure, the first stage of the march was designed to feign a movement on Augusta and Macon, with the real target being the state capital at Milledgeville.  Meanwhile, specially chosen bands of foragers were detailed to collect food and forage along the way.  Orders specified that structures were only to be fired on the orders of the corps commanders.  But the reality and the intention as to foraging soon parted ways.  After just a march of a few days the men in column began to bear all kinds of adornments and decorations, some still clucking.

The pillage and plunder committed by Sherman’s men would become the stuff of legend down the years.  Georgians for generations would claim that hordes of blue-coated vultures would show up out of nowhere, strip houses clean of silver, gold watches and treasures of all varieties.  Some would bury their most treasured possessions, or even remove them to what they thought would be places of safety, only to have the practiced Yankees easily discover their attempted ruse.  Women would be pushed aside and treated with contempt – sometimes even raped, though evidence of this claim is scant.

Mostly Sherman shrugged off claims of mistreatment, and any of his troops that were known to go too far were usually punished.  However, Sherman also knew that the tales of brutality struck terror into the hearts of those in his path.  At the time, this worked to his favor.  He made sure that those in the path of his armies knew that if they destroyed food or impeded his march, he would be relentless in punishment.  Whole towns would be burned to the ground and the destruction would be total.

While being chosen to be on a foraging detail was an honor, and carried with it the opportunity for booty and culinary fringe benefits, it was not without danger.  Out on the flanks of the army columns, they were sometimes exposed to the only real military danger along the way – Gen. Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry – that often killed Union foragers on sight.

The Confederate cavalry was the only organized resistance Sherman’s men would encounter through most of their journey to the coast.  To be sure, from the beginning, the Union commander knew that there was little the Confederacy could do to slow his march.  The fact that an army of sixty-thousand Union soldiers could march straight through the heart of a Confederate state virtually unopposed, would be sure to influence the thinking of those still in the ranks of the shrinking rebel armies – and those still at home.  The Confederate will to continue the fight, despite the ever-increasing odds against them, was as much a target for Sherman as the Georgia capital.

Despite the appeals in the southern presses for the people of Georgia to rise up and smite the Yankee army, these tracts only served to prove amusement for Sherman and his men – and perhaps a bit of anxiety for those in the north who were out of communication with him.  In his Memoirs Sherman also noted that some of his men enjoyed holding mock sessions of the Georgia legislature where “a proposition was made to repeal the ordinance of secession, which was well debated, and resulted in its repeal by a fair vote!”  But he quickly noted that “I was not present at these frolics, but heard of them at the time, and enjoyed the joke” (666).   Doubtless he also appreciated the appointment of committees “to call forthwith on Governor Brown and President Davis for the purpose of landing official kicks on their official rumps”(Foote 647).

About the same time that Slocum’s men were frolicking in the white gothic-style Georgia State House, Howard’s men found entertainment of a darker variety.  The first division was on duty on the outside of Griswoldville, when a regiment of Midwestern boys sporting the new Spencer repeating rifles were charged by a force of Georgia militiamen.  Wave after wave struck the Union line with undaunted courage and reckless abandon.  “The Jonnies did not realize, even after seven charges, that they were being cut to pieces by repeating rifles.  The Rebs also fired too high” one blue veteran recalled later (Davis 55).

When the Confederate force finally limped away, leaving the field to the Union troops, Howard’s veterans went out to survey the field only to find boys no more than fifteen or sixteen and old men.  One wounded lad explained to his captors that Wheeler’s cavalry had rounded him and his companions up and herded them into line, drafting them at the sword-point.  No training, no time to prepare; prisoners of their own kind, forced into combat.

The Griswoldville affair was not the only ugly chapter in the history of Sherman’s “March.”  Another would occur later as the army began its approach to the coast over the lowlands.  During the course of the journey an ever-growing army of freedmen escorted the Yankee force.  Sherman and his generals tried to persuade them to stay put, trying to reason with them that if the army was forced to feed all of them, it would endanger the mission by taking bread from the mouths of soldiers.  But try as they may the group grew and grew.  In early December, as the Fourteenth Corps crossed Ebenezer Creek, Gen. Jefferson C. Davis hurried his troops over the pontoon bridge, then before any of the African-American onlookers could cross, had the bridge suddenly cut and pulled back – leaving the path to freedom abruptly blocked by the swollen stream.  Pandemonium ensued.  When many rushed into the water unmindful of the current or even the inability to swim – some clutching babies in their arms, sympathetic soldiers tried to save them.  In the end dozens were drowned, some successfully crossed; others turned back only to be apprehended by Wheeler’s cavalry and returned to slavery.  Davis was never punished.

Guns at Ft. McAlister looking out across Ossabaw Sound.
Guns at Ft. McAlister looking out across Ossabaw Sound.

From the beginning, the only fight Sherman really anticipated was for Savannah at the end of the “March.”  From a study of his maps, Sherman could see that the key to linking up with the Union navy, preliminary to the fight for Savannah, was the Ogeechee River.  Waiting in Ossabaw Sound, the navy would doubtless be on the look-out for Sherman, but could not run up the Ogeechee because a stout bastion, Fort McAllister, with its big guns, blocked the way.  On December 13th, the day set for the attack on the fort, Sherman and Howard climbed the roof of an old rice mill and there spotted a gunboat.  Then followed a legendary exchange: “Who are you?” “General Sherman,” the answer went back, and when this was followed by another question: “Is Fort McAllister taken?” Sherman replied, “Not yet, but it will be in a minute” (Foote 652).  And it very nearly was within that span.  After just a few minutes, Union flags were planted on the parapet.  The ease of capture was, in part, the valor of Howard’s men, but also because the fort very clearly was never designed to repel a rearward land assault.

Historical Marker at Ft. McAlister.
Historical Marker at Ft. McAlister.

After the fall of Ft. McAllister, the Confederate commander in Savannah, Gen. Hardee, knew his position was quickly growing untenable.  Already he was moving men out of the city and across to the South Carolina shore.  On December 22nd, Sherman rode into Savannah with his staff.  Though he had spent the intervening period preparing for an assault, he was relieved that Hardee had made that unnecessary.  Not long after, when Sherman found a U.S. Treasury agent already at work in Savannah counting cotton bales, the general – who had a low tolerance for such bureaucrats – began to lecture him.  Trying to soothe Sherman, if not distract him entirely, he suggested that the general offer the city to Lincoln as a Christmas present.  The gambit worked.  And if Sherman went down in history as the originator of the idea, the agent did not mind too much, so long as the red-headed general left him alone to count his cotton.

Sherman's Headquarters in Savannah.
Sherman’s Headquarters in Savannah.



Davis, Burke.  Sherman’s March.  New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Foote, Shelby.  The Civil War: A Narrative.  New York: Random House, 1963.

Marszalek, John F.  Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order.  New York: The Free Press, 1993.

Sherman, William Tecumseh.  Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman.  New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1990.

Trudeau, Noah Andre.  Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.

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