How destructive was Sherman’s march?
By Jeff Schogol
Published: October 7, 2011
To some, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was one of the few Union generals who understood modern war. To others, most notably the Southerners whom he defeated, he is a war criminal.
From August 1864 through April 1865, Sherman — then a major general — blazed a path through Georgia and the Carolinas, destroying anything of military value including railroads, grain bins and livestock.
While Sherman did play a large part in consigning the Confederacy to the ashbin of history, the extent of the destruction he caused by his march has become exaggerated by folklore, prompting a visit from The Rumor Doctor.
The movie "Gone with the Wind" portrays Sherman and his men emerging from the flames as horsemen of the apocalypse. A title cards reads, "To split the confederacy, to leave it crippled and forever humbled, the great Invader marched leaving behind him a path of destruction sixty miles wide, from Atlanta to the sea."
But recently, historians have followed the path of Sherman’s march and found buildings dating back to the Civil War in towns through which Sherman’s army passed, said Robert J. Dalessandro, executive director and chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington.
Sherman’s reputation for destroying everything in his path came in part from his own men, who liked to talk after the war about how tough they were, Dalessandro told The Doctor.
"The Confederates who fought them fell into this — ‘You guys were really tough; you guys were really bad’ — and it kind of played on each other," he said. "There was kind of elan that Sherman’s guys were so bad and the Confederates were so overwhelmed that there was no stopping them, and around the reunion tables the legend of that really grew."
Such is Sherman’s reputation in the South that towns nowhere near his march claim to have been swept up in the path of destruction.
Joe Glatthaar, a professor at the University of North Carolina, remembers an advisor in graduate school who was an expert on the Confederacy and told him, "Every town from Virginia to Texas swears that Sherman’s army marched through it."
In reality, Sherman and his men targeted mostly military infrastructure while in Georgia and North Carolina.
"They would burn down a house, but only if they were fired upon from the house," Glatthaar said.
Most of the destruction during Sherman’s march occurred in South Carolina, where the Civil War began when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. Sherman’s men took revenge by torching about two dozen cities as they made their way through the state.
But for the most part, Sherman’s troops weren’t motivated by spite. They wanted to end the war as quickly as possible, said Richard J. Sommers, senior historian at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa.
"One of Sherman’s greatest strengths is that he understood the interrelationship between the home front and the fighting front and that if he could cripple the enemy on the home front, it would undercut both the morale and the logistical undergirding of the Confederate armies in the field," Sommers said.
In a letter to Atlanta’s mayor in 1864 explaining why he ordered all civilians to leave the city, Sherman expressed his desire to end the war by defeating the Confederacy and bringing the South back into the Union, Sommers said.
"We must have peace, not only at Atlanta but in all America," Sherman wrote. "To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop the war, we must defeat the rebel armies that are arrayed against the laws and the Constitution, which all must respect and obey. To defeat these armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses."
However, in that same letter, Sherman shows he did not hate Southerners themselves by writing that when peace came, "You may call on me for anything, then will I share with you the last cracker and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter."
THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: Sherman was not the barbarian portrayed in "Gone with the Wind." He was a military man who understood that peace would only come with victory, which his march through Georgia and the Carolinas helped ensure.
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