Engraving depicting Sherman's march to the sea
Engraving depicting Sherman's march to the sea
Alexander Hay Ritchie
License: Public Domain

Sherman's March to the Sea

Sherman's March to the Sea is the name commonly given to the Savannah Campaign conducted through Georgia from November 15, 1864 to December 21, 1864 by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army in the American Civil War. The campaign began with Sherman's troops leaving the captured city of Atlanta, Georgia, on November 16 and ended with the capture of the port of Savannah on December 21. Sherman's forces destroyed military targets as well as industry, infrastructure, and other civilian property. Military historian David J. Eicher wrote that Sherman "defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South's physical and psychological capacity to wage war."

Sherman's scorched earth policies have always been highly controversial, and Sherman's memory has long been reviled by many Southerners. Slaves' opinions varied concerning the actions of Sherman and his army. Those slaves who welcomed him as a liberator left their plantations to follow his armies. Jacqueline Campbell has written, on the other hand, that some slaves looked upon the Federal army's ransacking and invasive actions with disdain. They felt betrayed, as they "suffered along with their owners". These particular slaves often remained loyal to the Southern way of life, and continued to care for the land and families to which they were tied. As for the fate of those slaves who chose to flee their plantations and follow Sherman's army, a Confederate officer estimated that 10,000 followed, and hundreds died of "hunger, disease, or exposure" along the way.

The March to the Sea was devastating to Georgia and the Confederacy. Sherman himself estimated that the campaign had inflicted $100 million (about $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars) in destruction, about one fifth of which "inured to our advantage" while the "remainder is simple waste and destruction." The Army wrecked 300 miles (480 km) of railroad and numerous bridges and miles of telegraph lines. It seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle. It confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, and destroyed uncounted cotton gins and mills. Military historians Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones cited the significant damage wrought to railroads and Southern logistics in the campaign and stated that "Sherman's raid succeeded in 'knocking the Confederate war effort to pieces'." David J. Eicher wrote that "Sherman had accomplished an amazing task. He had defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South's potential and psychology to wage war."