First to Scorch the Earth: Sherman’s March and American Military Ethics

Sherman’s march during the American Civil War represented a critical break with wartime convention, one that would have a lasting effect on strategic military doctrine.

  • Sherman’s sinister reputation is not confined to the Civil War. More than any military campaign in history, Sherman’s March has become a byword for wartime devastation and cruelty.
    Photo by Fotolia/Juuulijs
  • General William T. Sherman’s legendary march to the sea was more than just a decisive victory for the North in the American Civil War. "Sherman’s Ghosts" by Matthew Carr (The New Press, 2015), exposes how the unconventional destructive strategies of the march became the central preoccupation of war planners in the twentieth century and beyond.
    Cover courtesy The New Press

Sherman’s Ghosts (The New Press, 2015) by Matthew Carr opens with an epic retelling of General Sherman’s fateful decision to turn his sights on the South’s civilian population in order to break the back of the Confederacy. General Sherman’s march embodied the punitive northern strategy of destroying civilian provisions and infrastructure, acts of total war that had a lasting effect on American military strategy. Sherman’s Ghosts is both a rare reframing of how we understand our violent history and a call to action for those who hope to build a less violent future. The following excerpt is from the Introduction, "From Georgia to FM 3-24."

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Sherman’s March

On November 15, 1864, one of the most celebrated and controversial campaigns of the American Civil War began when sixty thousand Federal troops under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman marched out of the burning city of Atlanta into central Georgia. Disregarding conventional military wisdom that an advancing army should not break contact with its line of communications and supply, Sherman had ordered his troops to evacuate the city they had only recently captured and sever the Western & Atlantic Railroad link that connected them to the Union’s nearest supply depot at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Apart from the reduced provisions his soldiers carried with them, Sherman’s army was now dependent for its survival on what they could take from the local population in the hostile Confederate heartlands of the Deep South.

Sherman’s destination, though few of his soldiers realized it at the time, was the city of Savannah, three hundred miles away on the Atlantic coast, where he hoped to be resupplied by the Union Navy and then proceed northward into Virginia to assist his great friend Ulysses Grant, whose armies were locked in a brutal deadlock with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Confederate capital, Richmond. But Sherman also had very specific strategic intentions regarding Georgia itself. For more than a month, Sherman’s army marched through the state known as the granary of the South, seizing or destroying vast quantities of food and provisions, demolishing and burning public and private property, and leaving a trail of devastation fifty to sixty miles wide. On December 21, Sherman’s army captured Savannah in a triumphant conclusion to the “March to the Sea.” In February the following year, Sherman led his army northward into South Carolina.

Here the destruction was more extensive and more explicitly punitive, as his soldiers burned and looted their way through the state that they regarded as the spiritual home of secession before moving on to North Carolina, where the march finally came to a halt in Goldsboro on March 23, 1865. On April 16, the Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston surrendered ninety thousand troops to Sherman at the Bennett Farm near the state capital, Raleigh, thus removing the last major Confederate army from the Civil War. By that time Sherman’s seven-hundred-mile rampage had already begun its transformation into a military legend. In the North, it was acclaimed as a strategic masterstroke that transformed Sherman into a national hero. In the South, Sherman was vilified as a brutal military destroyer, a nineteenth-century Genghis Khan who violated the principles of “civilized warfare” and chose to make war on civilians and noncombatants.

This image of Sherman as the Great Destroyer has been handed down to posterity and reinforced in films, such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, as part of the “Lost Cause” mythologies of Southern victimhood, which present Sherman as the iconic symbol of Yankee barbarity. Today Sherman’s army is still remembered throughout the South as the instrument of vengeful destruction described in the narrative voice-over spoken by Waylon Jennings in the Paul Kennerley song “They Laid Waste to Our Land”: “With hate in their hearts, they moved in a line, cutting a scar through God’s blessed country fifty miles wide / Burning, looting and gutting our land like vultures.”

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