Sherman’s March to the Sea

Gen. William T. Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea” began after his 60,000 troops left the captured city of Atlanta on November 15, 1864, and ended 285 miles later on December 21, 1864 when Sherman’s troops seized the port city of Savannah (35). This campaign is often regarded as a revolutionary war tactic because Sherman operated deep in southern territory without any direct supply lines. His methods of procuring the resources his troops needed and destroying what they didn’t in an attempt to weaken the Confederacy was an appalling waste of many resources gleaned from the environment and had catastrophic affects on the agricultural lands of the south. Charles C. Jones addressed the Confederate Survivors Association in 1884 about Sherman’s flippant attitude about the precious resources of Georgia, “Acquainted with the character of the country through which his route lay, and aware of the fact that he would meet with an abundance of provisions and forage everywhere, General Sherman anticipated little difficulty in subsisting his troops. At this season of the year plantation barns were filled with newly gathered harvest. Corn, peas, fodder, sweet potatoes, syrup, hogs, cattle, mules and horses were to be expected without stint” (25). Later in his address, Jones explains how Sherman’s march waged war against women and children by pushing them to starvation and burning down their homes and property. He explains the ghastly state of the area after Sherman’s troops ravaged the land, “Such was the wholesale destruction of animal life that the region stank with putrefying carcasses. Earth and air were filled with innumerable turkey buzzards battening upon their thickly strewn death feasts” (25). In early 1865, Mary B. Chestnut describes the effects of the rampage, “There will be no aftermath. They say no living thing is found in Sherman’s track, only chimneys, like telegraph poles, to carry the news of Sherman’s army backward” (8).

Sherman was thought of as a hero to the Union because he was able to capture the vital port city of Savannah and deplete many Confederate supply stores without relying on supply lines of his own. Sherman’s description of his march shows how nonchalant he was about the utter destruction of precious resources, and his failure to view these resources as having any value outside of their military purpose: “We have consumed the corn and fodder in the region of country thirty miles on either side of a line from Atlanta to Savannah, as also the sweet potatoes, cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry, and have carried away more than ten thousand horses and mules, as well as a countless number of their slaves. I estimate the damage done to the state of Georgia and its military resources at one hundred millions of dollars; at least twenty millions of which have injured to our advantage, the remainder is simple waste and destruction”(36). In our current age of environmental awareness and strive for sustainability, referring to Sherman’s march as “simple waste and destruction” is an extreme understatement. In official returns, United States officers accounted for 13,000 heads of cattle, 9,500,000 pounds of corn and 10,500,000 pounds of fodder seized by troops, but they fail to account for horses, mules, hogs, sheep and poultry killed, or the rice, sweet potatoes, syrup, peas and vegetables taken to satisfy the wasteful appetite of Sherman’s troops (25).