When historians look back on General Sherman's infamous "March to the Sea" what conclusions do they draw about his campaign? Do they interpret the evidence as indicating that Sherman's march did hasten or prolong the end of the Civil War?

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    Welcome to History.Stackexchange – Russell Nov 19 '12 at 13:46
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    What does "justified from a military perspective" mean? I'm not sure that I understand either "justified" or "military perspective". I'll grant you that it probably wasn't justified from a fashion perspective, but what other potential perspective could we use to evaluate the campaign? – Mark C. Wallace Nov 19 '12 at 16:55
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    Backing up Mark's comment here. This can't really be answered unless you clarify that phrase. It could be that you are asking about the military advisability of the march (which was much debated even at the time), or it could be that you are trying to ask if the march was somehow a nefarious action outside the pale of normal warfare (which is frankly just nuts if you know anything about military history). – T.E.D. Nov 19 '12 at 19:51
  • I have tried to make the question more objective by asking what historians thought, and nominate it for re-opening in its current form. – Tom Au Feb 17 '14 at 0:56
  • @TomAu historians aren't in the business of speculating about things like that, novelists are. – jwenting Feb 17 '14 at 8:10

Sherman's "March to the Sea" hurt the CSA's economy and helped to end the war. An estimate of the damage in dollars, made by Sherman stated that the campaign had inflicted about 100 million dollars worth of damage. To put that into context, the CSA, in 1863, had only 700 million dollars worth of bonds, (money in those days did not work as it does today) and even less in gold reserves. Unfortunately, there was a lack of data on just how much the CSA spent during the course of the war, and so, could not compare the two numbers. The march was also one of the first ever examples of being able to work deep in enemy territory, which is hard to do because 1) The lack of supplies, and 2) The inability to comunicate with other commanders. This means that the people of the South, and the Generals of the CSA could not have expected such devastation. Sherman's March not only destroyed the CSA's economy, it also struck fear into the populace with it's brutal tactics. Sherman ordered his men to "forage liberally" meaning, steal as much food as possible. He also ordered his men to burn pillage and destroy according the the regions hostility, breaking the spirit of the most resistant regions. Sherman's March was a surprise to the CSA that tore it's economy to shreds along with it's peoples will to fight. Sherman's March, in a military perpective, helped to end the war.

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  • Are these CSA dollars you're talking about? – American Luke Feb 10 '14 at 22:33

From an economic perspective, you can question the effectiveness of the march, despite the waste and destruction at the time, and the difficulty of repair afterward. What the March did do was show that the Government of the CSA was a sham that could no longer defend itself, outside of the Richmond entrenchments.

Sherman said it himself: "This may not be war," he said, "but rather statesmanship."

The effects were clear: from the reported calls by Georgians to go and do the same to South Carolina, from the increase in desertion in Lee's army as Sherman marched to the Sea and then north nearly to Richmond itself. And a final effect might be in the willingness of the South to disband the armies and give up rather than to try and find a redoubt to fight on in. Sherman had already showed that his army could go anywhere it wanted to.

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  • In reference to "calls by Georgians to go and do the same to South Carolina": McPherson in Battle Cry said that when Sherman's troops got to South Carolina, they were much more destructive there than they had been in Georgia. He wrote that the troops had a very clear sense that South Carolina was more to blame than other Southern states were, and behaved accordingly. Interesting. – JimZipCode Dec 18 '14 at 14:16
  • This is true. And when they crossed into North Carolina they reverted to a lesser level. Soon after that, they got in contact with regular supplies and even stopped foraging on the country. – Oldcat Dec 18 '14 at 18:33
  • I meant to say: a referee will stop a boxing match when one fighter is no longer able to defend himself effectively. That's what Sherman's march reminds me of. – JimZipCode Jul 22 '15 at 15:12
  • As Sherman himself said, if they can make that march it will show the South that the North has a power that they can not stop. And Sherman's marches weren't the only one in progress - there were several smaller ones in Alabama (Wilson) and Western Virgina (Stoneman). When enemy armies can move where they will and you can't resist, it is time to give up. – Oldcat Jul 22 '15 at 17:03

From a military perspective, an "all out war" deep into enemy territory without any logistics is a rare occasion. It is mostly found in desperate situations. For other examples, Hannibal's march from Africa through Spain over the Alps to Italy with an army including elephants, Sultan Mehmet's decision to get ships into Halic from land, Mustafa Kemal's famous order in Gallipoli: yelling an infantry division out of ammo to charge with bayonettes and die (Which was literally the order: "I am not ordering you to fight, I am ordering you to die!")

Now, from a military science perspective, all of these examples are totally insane. Really, really insane. But, officership is an art about managing expeditions. Those campaigns might look completely wrong from a scientific look. But as I state, managing an army is an art rather than science. It is about making people believe a cause, giving them a reason to endure extreme pain. So saying that a military decision was correct/wrong is not an easy task. For example, in common sense of officership, an officer must stay out of the enemy's fire range. The reason is not he is a coward. It is simply because without him managing the situation, an entire squad may die. This is a general rule in military. But contrary to that, the teachings of officership also says, if it is truly necessary, an officer may choose to charge in front of his squad to encourage them and get the things done.

So, for being able to decide about Sherman's March to the Sea, we need an extremely deep understanding of the current state back there. Even if we do, it is still not certain.

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  • That's why Sherman's March was such a big deal - rather than desperate, it turned into a military picnic. The South could do nothing to stop it. – Oldcat Feb 11 '14 at 1:23

No. Sherman did not hasten an end to the Civil War, but he likely helped secure a more complete Union victory that could be used for a better position in negotiations with the defeated Confederacy. By 1863, all major cities in the Confederacy were experiencing severe shortages of food and necessary supplies caused by Union blockades of major ports. In 1863, bread riots had broken out and desertion rates from the army were becoming unsustainable and the problem was accelerating due to inflation of the currency, a bad harvest in 1862 and the dependance on the white male workforce for agricultural work(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Bread_Riots). CSA president Davis reported that 2/3 of the army was gone without leave http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/desertion-during-civil-war. Political dissent among the Confederate leadership led to the formation of the "Peace Party" who were actively engaged in negotiating a peace treaty with the Union. Lincoln's main opponent in the 1864 presidential election, McClellan, supported signing such a peace treaty, since voters in the North had also become war-weariedhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1864. Dissent in the North was at times violent, including the New York Draft Riot of 1863.

Lincoln did not believe he would win re-election, but he did not support an early end to hostilities, either. Therefore, Grant and Sherman developed a strategy to try to end the war as quickly as possible. While Grant attacked Lee in Virginia, Sherman started the Atlanta Campaign. The successful capture and burning of Atlanta by Sherman is credited with helping Lincoln win re-election. So, due to Sherman's actions, instead of peace, the war continued longer.

After Sherman destroyed Atlanta, he started his "March to the Sea." He believed that was the best way to shorten the war, but whether he accomplished his goal is difficult to prove. The "March to Sea" increased desertion rates and helped force a surrender of Johnston's army, but it did not cause Lee's troops to surrender. Instead of the "March to the Sea," Sherman could have decided to join Grant, as he was originally requested to do so, in defeating Lee's army.

Subsequent history of the modern era has shown that military campaigns that use "total war" as practiced by Sherman to target civilians to be of little military utility to shorten a war, since it can often lengthen wars by causing the populations to become more determined. As supplies are destroyed, food, medicine and industry are increasingly rerouted to the army away from civilians. World War II is considered the apex of the use of the "total war" strategy and the Allied bombing campaign is the best example of its failure. Therefore, although difficult to prove, Sherman's "March to Sea", was likely also ineffective in shortening the war.

But Sherman's "March to the Sea" and his march through the Carolinas destroyed much of the slavery-based economic power of the South so that when the final peace negotiations took place (excluding those made on the battlefield), they were completely on the terms of the North, but most importantly it had a strong psychological effect. This was important during Reconstruction, because the South was able to be held under martial law during this time and slavery finally ended. Although there was wide spread violent opposition to the Reconstruction era governments, there are no examples, excluding black militias, of the occupying Union soldiers being targets of vigilante or terrorist groups (Fellman, Michael. In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History).

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  • "military campaigns that target civilians..." Is that true for Civil Wars? – Mark C. Wallace Feb 10 '14 at 17:33
  • I suppose if Vietnam is considered a civil war? Although I was speaking from the American military perspective – Razie Mah Feb 10 '14 at 17:47
  • I don't have the background to develop the thesis, but I understand that part of the point of many civil wars (Syria is frequently cited as an example) is to attack civilian populations with the intent of "polarizing" the conflict and shaping the eventual outcome. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 10 '14 at 18:03
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    The Syrian civil war is using "false flag" attacks on civilians, not a total war policy. They are attacking civilians and blaming each other for the war crimes. – Razie Mah Feb 10 '14 at 21:53
  • After much research I still don't know, so I amended the answer to reflect that the meaning was "total war" tactics. Civil wars might include these if they are conventional wars. Syria is an asymmetric war so its outside the scope of the answer. The book I linked to explains. I can amend the answer further if there are other problems, but I hope you don't take it down since this is a common question asked of high school students. – Razie Mah Feb 15 '14 at 1:05

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