By Marc Kelley
Syndicated by: Montana News
One-hundred fifty-five years ago, Union General, William Tecumseh Sherman began what we know today, as "Sherman's March to the Sea." The Savannah Campaign as it was formally known, began November 15, 1864, as Union Troops under the leadership of General Sherman left the captured city of Atlanta, Georgia with plans to push all the way through the seaside city of Savannah.
General, William Tecumseh Sherman or "Uncle Billy" as his troops called him, is one of my favorite Generals from the Civil War era. In addition to his military career, Sherman was a teacher, author and businessman. Born in Lancaster, Ohio on February 8, 1820, he was one of eleven children. The unusual name "Tecumseh" was given to him by his Father who enjoyed a penchant for the stories about the Shawnee Indian Chief, named Tecumseh. It would be this name Sherman would be called thru out his early years. Sherman's Father, a successful lawyer, who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court, died suddenly in 1829, leaving his widow and children without an inheritance. Unable to support her children, Sherman's Mother, Mary Hoyt Sherman, was forced to split-up the family and the young Tecumseh, was taken in by Thomas and Maria Ewing. The Ewing family was devoutly Catholic and according to most accounts, the young boy was baptized and given the name "William". Sherman would sign all of his correspondence as W.T. Sherman; however, his friends and family would continue to affectionally call him "Cump."
In 1859 Sherman accepted the job of Superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy. Sherman was well like and respected as a teacher of the Academy, which would later become Louisiana State University ( LSU). During this time our country was embroiled in and divided by, the practice of slavery. While Sherman himself did not oppose slavery; and in fact, was sympathetic to the "Southern Cause", he was adamantly opposed to any attempt to dissolve the Union. Upon hearing of South Carolina's secession from the United States, Sherman would make what would turn out to be a very prophetic appeal to the secessionists stating.
"You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it. Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see, in the end that you will surely fail."
Sherman would go on to fight for his beloved United States and would be considered an outstanding military strategist by those who supported the North and a butcher by those who supported and lived in the South. Just as he stated in his prophetic appeal to the abolitionists, Sherman would go on to wage a "scorched earth" policy of "total war against the Confederate States. Sherman's Troops would destroy not only military targets, but the Souths industry, infrastructure and civilian property. It would be these acts which would break the back of the Confederacy, ultimately leading to their surrender and define Sherman as a great military leader.
In May 1864, Sherman invaded Georgia, with three armies having the combined strength of nearly100,000 men. Skirmish after skirmish was fought between Sherman's men and the Confederate soldiers under the command of General Joseph E. Johnson. Sherman would employ a series of flanking maneuvers which would forced the Confederate's from their fortified positions causing them to withdraw, only to re-establish another position. The casualty numbers were relatively low on both sides because neither army chose to engage in a full frontal assault. Sherman's tactics would continue for two months forcing the Confederate Army to retreat some seventy miles. By June 27, 1864 the Confederate troops reached the heavily fortified position called Kennesaw Mountain. Unable to continue his flanking maneuvers because of the topography of the terrain, Sherman changed his tactics and order the first full frontal assault against the entrenched Confederate Army. Massive Union casualties resulted from this battle, but once again the South had failed to stop Sherman's advance and the Confederate Army was forced from their positions and fell back into the City of Atlanta.
Upon hearing the news that Atlanta was now under siege by Union forces, CSA President, Jefferson Davis, relieved General Johnson of his command and turned over the duty of protecting Atlanta to one of his most aggressive Generals. General John Bell Hood would use his men to attack the Union Army in a series of battles; all of which, would result in enormous Confederate causalities and come without any tactical gain. Sherman continued his siege of Atlanta throughout the month of August. In a final flanking maneuver, Sherman split his forces into two groups, send a large force South of the city to secure the Confederate's last railroad supply line. General Hood again attacked Sherman's men, but the effort would fall short, the railway would be lost and the Confederacy would be forced to evacuate the City of Atlanta. Sherman's men would enter Atlanta on September 2, 1864, from where Sherman would send a telegraph to President Lincoln informing his Commander in Chief that " Atlanta is ours, and fairly won".
The capture of Atlanta is seen as the event that would compel the re-election of President Lincoln to a second term in November of 1864. After issuing an order to all of the residents of Atlanta to leave the city, Sherman would implement his strategy of "total war" against the Confederacy. Sherman believed he must break the back of the Confederacy, by employing tactics so brutal, they would cause the citizens of the South to rise up and abandon the Confederate cause. Sherman justified his harsh tactics by saying " we are not just fighting a hostile army, but a hostile people as well. We need to "make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war". With this belief Sherman order his men to distort anything and everything, which could be used by the South to continue the war effort. Estimates of the damage Sherman's men inflicted on Atlanta vary from account to account; however Georgia's Governor sent military militia officer, William Howard to conduct an assessment of the cities damage. Howard spent four days mapping the damage and in his final report, he concluded of the 3,600 buildings within a half mile radius of the city center, only 400 remained. Sherman would now turn his attention to the port city of Savanna, Georgia, would begin, his "March to the Sea".
For much of September and October Sherman's Army was harassed by Confederate General John Bell Hood's men in an attempt to cut off Sherman's lines of communication with General Grant. Ultimately, Sherman would receive approval to cease communications with the North and march South with the intention to "make Georgia howl". Sherman would continue his tactics and employ a "scorched earth" policy of war. During his "March to the Sea" Sherman's Army would live off the land while at the same time destroying everything in their path. Estimates of the property damage Sherman and his men caused, ran as high as 100 million dollars. Sherman called these tactics "total war" and it would be the lessons learned from General Sherman's tactics, which would define how the United States would conduct future wars. Sherman and his Army would capture Savannah on December 21, 1864 and Sherman would dispatch his now famous message to president Lincoln, offering the City of Savannah as a "Christmas Present".
The successful capture of Savanna by Sherman and the continued struggle against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia by General Grant, provided the politicians in Washington D.C., to introduced a bill which would promote General Sherman to the rank of Lieutenant General and make him equal in military rank to General Grant. This move was seen as the first step in replacing Grant with Sherman as the Commander of the Union Army. In a letter written by Sherman to his brother Senator John Sherman, General Sherman vehemently and steadfastly refused the notion that Grant should be replaced. Sherman would write " General Grant is a great general and I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk; now sir, we stand by each other always." It would not be until 1869 and the election of Ulysses S Grant as the 18th president of the United States that William Tecumseh Sherman would succeed his friend as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army. Sherman would steadfastly refuse to become embroiled in a life of politics, citing his belief, once a politician is elected to office, they are forever compromised by their perceived power and lose the candor necessary for true leadership. Given our sordid political history since the days General Sherman made his pronouncement, it is very difficult to argue with his assessment.