I have a copy of the movie, and about two years ago I watched it for the second time, the first time being 60 years ago. It’s Gone with the Wind, and it features Clark Gable as Confederate blockade runner Rhett Butler. In the opening scenes we see Butler mingling with the Southern aristocracy prior to the onset of the Civil War, and he is reminding these would-be rebels that there aren’t any factories in the South manufacturing cannons.
This problem for the Confederacy was one of the situations that fed the rebellion. The South was primarily agricultural and it’s economy depended on slave labor. The American industrial might was concentrated in the North, and the rising industrial revolution had little use for slavery. When the North, with its voting majority, began to insist on the abolition of slavery, the South rebelled.
The country split mainly along a line running through Washington, D.C., with all the states to the south seceding from the Union. The United States military split along similar lines, with Southern sympathizers deserting their commands and forming the Army of the Confederacy. Civil war began almost immediately when the Confederate forces attacked the United States post at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
President Lincoln and his military commanders quickly realized the weakness of the Confederacy and initiated a blockade of Confederate ports. If the South could no longer export cotton, it’s chief crop, and could no longer import materials of war from other industrial countries, its military campaign would wither like a vase of plucked flowers.
England and a number of other countries initially chose not to take sides in the conflict and traded with both the Union and the Confederacy, hence the source of Rhett Butler’s wealth during the war. Lincoln realized he needed to break the neutrality of the Confederacy’s foreign suppliers, and he counted on critical victories to demonstrate that the rebels were a lost cause. The capture of Vicksburg and the almost simultaneous crushing of Robert E. Lee’s forces at Gettysburg split the Confederacy east and west at the Mississippi River and put Lee on the defensive for the remainder of the war. The confederacy’s suppliers got the message, and the Confederacy entered a slow death spiral. Only it refused to lie down.
One hundred and fifty years ago Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and his boss Ulysses S. Grant hit upon an audacious plan to put the final spike into the corpse. Sherman would take a force and cut through the heart of the Confederacy, splitting it once again, along an east-west line through Atlanta, Georgia. At the same time Sherman’s forces would destroy the South’s remaining economic power by laying waste to critical infrastructure. It was to be Total War.
It’s not as though the world had never seen total war. Attila the Hun made a name for himself completely annihilating cities that resisted his power. The American Civil War, however, was the first major conflict fought on an industrial scale. The Industrial Revolution was essential to the conflict. Forces and material were moved by steam powered boats and railways. Armies communicated almost instantaneously by telegraph. Mechanized factories turned out weapons of war on modern assembly lines. Repeating rifles were put to use, and the first machine guns spewed death into massed formations. It was time for total war of a modern kind.
Sherman instigated a campaign against Atlanta, Georgia, that began in May 1864 and ran to September of that year. That was the end of traditional war. Following the conquest of Atlanta, General Grant held Lee’s forces in check at Petersburg in Virginia, allowing Sherman to begin operations without interference. Once again, Sherman’s plan was audacious.
Sherman detached two armies, totaling about 62,000 men and left Atlanta, heading toward the Atlantic coast on 15 November. His forces carried rations for 20 days, and they did not hold the ground they crossed. They were completely cut off once out of sight of Atlanta. For continuing supply they foraged the country side as they advanced. It was an army of necessity on the move. If they stopped they would run out of supplies and die.
Sherman kept his ultimate destination a secret, and this foiled attempts by the Confederates to anticipate his moves and to mount an effective counter attack. Largely the Confederates fed small groups piecemeal into action against Sherman, losing heavily in almost every encounter.
With Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of the previous year, Dred Scott was dead. Any Southern slave who could escape his owner was free. Sherman’s forces made use of this, encouraging slaves to desert their masters, further depriving the South of its economic base.
Material assets were reduced, as well. Lines of communication, especially rail roads were destroyed. Where there was no resistance the Union troops left houses and buildings standing, but complete destruction followed any attacks from locals. Although ordered not to enter people’s homes unless there was armed resistance, Union foragers (bummers) took every bit of food for miles on either side of the two lines of advance.
In planning for the march, Sherman used livestock and crop production data from the 1860 census to lead his troops through areas where he believed they would be able to forage most effectively.
Sherman’s March ended with the capture of Savannah on 21 December. Here was the first conventional battle of the campaign. Confederate General William J. Hardee put up a force of 10,000 against the two Union armies. The Union Navy waited off shore to assist the army whenever contact could be established. On 20 December Hardee pulled his men out of the fight and headed north across the Savannah River. City officials met with Union forces and surrendered the city. Sherman’s exercise is total war was over.
The aftermath was that the South was now truly finished. Grant was to the north engaging Lee’s forces, and Sherman was to the south, now resupplied by the Navy. It was just a matter of time. It took until 12 April the following year for reality to catch up with the Confederacy.
Sherman’s tactic of total war was decisive in finishing off the Confederacy and likely forestalling much future war misery. However it earned him the enmity of the South for its supposed brutality. In truth, Sherman’s tactics and the actions of his troops were more pragmatic than brutal. There was no wholesale slaughter of civilians. Houses were only destroyed when armed opposition was encountered. There was collateral destruction, but the standing order was to reduce only means for making war, which did include railway stations and business that could be used to support the Confederate cause. Generally, claims of destruction later alleged tend to not be based on fact. The action of Sherman’s troops was confined to within a few miles of the lines of march, and a sizable amount of grumbling after the fact came from outside the area of destruction by the military.
The March to the Sea was devastating to Georgia and the Confederacy. Sherman himself estimated that the campaign had inflicted $100 million (about $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars) in destruction, about one fifth of which “inured to our advantage” while the “remainder is simple waste and destruction.” The Army wrecked 300 miles (480 km) of railroad and numerous bridges and miles of telegraph lines. It seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle. It confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, and destroyed uncounted cotton gins and mills. Military historians Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones cited the significant damage wrought to railroads and Southern logistics in the campaign and stated that “Sherman’s raid succeeded in ‘knocking the Confederate war effort to pieces’.” David J. Eicher wrote that “Sherman had accomplished an amazing task. He had defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South’s potential and psychology to wage war.”
Freed slaves were particularly hard hit, for which I can assume the Confederates had little sympathy. Sherman’s armies could only feed themselves, and refused to take freed civilians with them. Only those former slaves willing to join forces were accepted and not many of the willing were taken. Many former slaves followed Sherman’s march in hopes of succor, but they were abandoned by the armies, whose only task was to fight the war. Freed slaves suffered along with their former masters from the destruction wrought by the Union armies.
Sherman’s March echoes in the minds of Southern sympathizers to this day, but this is from people with little knowledge of the actual history and without any recognition of the far worse depravity of the Confederate cause—ultimately the enslavement of human beings.