Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sherman's March to the Sea: 150 years later, its legacy has many stories to tell

Sherman's bummers (foragers) in S.C. (Library of Congress)
(Part 3)

Today we wrap up our three-part look at Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, the bold move away from a military base and supply lines to accomplish an objective. The Picket asked Civil War experts, historians, an archaeologist and a living historian/re-enactor about their thoughts on myths and realities of the November and December 1864 march, what associated sites should be visited and the campaign's legacy today. Here are their responses to the third question.

Q. What is the march's legacy, seen through the lens of today?

ANNE SARAH RUBIN, history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of “A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868”

The March has come to symbolize the impact that the war as a whole had on civilians. But I also think that we forget that the march was one of liberation -- Sherman’s soldiers brought freedom to hundreds of thousands of African-Americans. The problem was that, first the soldiers, and Sherman himself, were not always comfortable with that role, nor did they care very much about African-Americans. And second, all Sherman’s soldiers brought was freedom, but no way to hold on to it.

ANTHONY WINEGAR, chief ranger, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

The legacy today is mostly military in nature in my mind. Sherman was able to leave a stronghold (Atlanta) and march through the heart of enemy held terrain to destroy their infrastructure and prove to the rest of the country and world that the South was finished and did not have the means to keep up the war effort. It is often dubbed "Total War" but in true definition, it was not. Sherman did not execute Southerners or totally destroy towns, homes, etc. Also, under previous definitions of total war, such as in Europe, rape and other unorthodox strategies were not used as weapons. Perhaps what is lost on history now is the fact that some people could not believe that Lincoln would allow a general to go completely "off the grid" during the march. Lincoln's trust for Sherman had to be deep. Lincoln responded at one point by stating that, "I know what he went in at, but I can't tell what hole he will come out of."

Lastly, the quote that summed up the western Federal soldiers that participated in the march described them best. A German ambassador watching the Grand Review in Washington after the war, as the first divisions passed, reportedly said, “An army like that could whip all Europe.” A half-hour later he said, “An army like that could whip the world.” An hour later: “An army like that could whip the devil.”

Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman

CHARLIE CRAWFORD, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association

The march’s legacy is its influence on the American Way of War. Rather than taking strategic points (McClellan and his “on to Richmond” approach), Sherman showed that destroying infrastructure and reducing the enemy’s will to fight (consider strategic bombing to destroy German factories in WWII, even though it meant civilian casualties) could be important components to a successful strategy. Grant showed that destroying the enemy’s armed forces was another important component. Remember that Grant’s plan for the spring of 1864 was for the Federal forces in Virginia to destroy Lee’s army and for the Federal forces in Georgia to destroy Johnston’s army. The plan did not call for the capture of Richmond or Atlanta. These beliefs still influence American strategy, which is one reason why we have such trouble fighting non-state opponents.

TALLEY KIRKLAND, park ranger, Fort McAllister State Park (near Savannah, taken by Sherman’s troops near the end of the march)

It pretty much demonstrated that the Confederacy was truly done for. If you could let an army completely cut its supply line and go through enemy territory pretty much unopposed you have a real problem.

They talk about him burning personal property: I try to explain and often people take exception that it was war. I point out what was done by World War II during the carpet bombing of Germany. You are going to destroy personal property. War is not a pretty thing. Which is worse: Dropping things from the stratosphere or burning stuff? They did not destroy everything, they did not burn all the plantation houses. They would burn cotton houses and presses, anything that could produce revenue for the Confederacy. If foraging parties were shot at by irregulars they would destroy personal property in the area knowing those guerrillas were being supported in the area. There were some (properties) burned maliciously.

(Library of Congress)

DAN ELLIOTT, president of the LAMAR Institute, which conducts archaeological research from its base in Georgia

Sherman's March through Georgia was the final nail in the coffin of the Confederacy. At the beginning of the march in May 1864, the outcome was uncertain and the tide could have shifted back in favor of the South. By early September and the end of most fighting around Atlanta, the outcome was pretty clear. The South's transportation and supply hub had been broken. The final leg of the march to Savannah (and then on through the Carolinas) was more vindication than strategy. Major General Hood's forces left the state for Tennessee and the reduced Confederate force left to defend Georgia was woefully inadequate. The stories of Yankee and Bummer depredations on the defenseless plantation families remain fodder for debate, as do the stories of Sherman's treatment of the newly freed enslaved. Unlike Virginia, which also boasts many Civil War engagements on its landscape, many of Georgia's battlefields have been lost to development and modern land use. Those that survive promise to tell real stories -- stories that may contradict or confirm many Georgia history myths and unverified claims. These hallowed places that remain need to be remembered for all times.

DAVID EVANS, historian and author of "Sherman's Horsemen"

The main legacy of "The March" is the beginning of the concept now known as "Total War," the idea that modern warfare is not just a conflict between opposing armies, but an all-inclusive clash that pits one society against another, economically, politically, and spiritually, as well as militarily. Sherman believed the best way to end the fighting quickly was to make war terrible, by making it all-inclusive, for soldiers and civilians alike. At that time, this was a quite a departure from accepted practice and this helped forge Sherman's reputation, in the eyes of many Southerners, as a "barbarian."

HERB COATS, living historian/re-enactor living in Georgia

It is a tactical masterpiece that is still taught in military academies, and discussed by historians still. You can’t think of Sherman without the “March to the Sea.” It is a larger-scale version of what Winfield Scott did in Mexico, but with no supply line, and more men. It is was the North’s flexing of their military power through the lower south, and showed that no one was safe from their reach. Native-born Georgians with long family histories within the state still to this day speak of Sherman with contempt. I’ve seen it firsthand.

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