Photograph of Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman on his horse, Duke, before the city of Atlanta, Georgia, 1864.
Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, a general in the Union army during the American Civil War, is best known for his March to the Sea. On September 1, 1864, Sherman and his army captured Atlanta, Georgia, an important transportation center in the South. Despite this important Northern victory, the Confederate government and many of its citizens remained committed to the war effort. Sherman intended his March to the Sea to break the will of the Southern people.
Sherman was a believer in total war. He said that the Northern military was "not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war." Sherman realized that the Southern civilian population provided most of the supplies that Confederate forces needed to wage war against the North. To speed the defeat of the Confederacy, Northern forces needed to prevent Southern civilians from supplying their armies. The Northern military needed to wage war against both the Confederate military and Southern civilians.
To break the will of the Southern population, Sherman proposed a March to the Sea. He proposed leaving nearly sixty thousand men behind in northern Georgia and Tennessee to deal with Confederate soldiers under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and General John Bell Hood. Sherman would take the remainder of his army of sixty-two thousand men from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, on the Atlantic Ocean. General Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln opposed this plan at first, but Sherman convinced them of its importance.
Sherman left Atlanta with his sixty-two-thousand-man army on November 15, 1864. As the Northerners began their 285-mile march south and east to Savannah, Hood led his Confederate army on a raid into Tennessee. As a result of Hood's action, fewer than five thousand Confederate soldiers under General Joseph Wheeler stood between Sherman's army and Savannah.
Sherman left behind his supply train. He decided that he would permit his men to supply themselves from civilians along the march. His soldiers commonly requisitioned all of the provisions that they could find from the civilian population. Food that the men could not eat or carry away generally was burned. The Union soldiers even commandeered supplies from the slaves. They also destroyed a number of homes along the way. Sherman's men successfully occupied Savannah in mid December 1864.
The use of total war achieved Sherman's desired effect. While some Southerners remained committed to the struggle, other Confederates began to doubt the South's chance for victory over the Northerners. Sherman's use of total war helped the North win the American Civil War.