After the fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered the citizens to evacuate the city. He explained his reasons for taking this step in a letter to Major General Henry Halleck, who remained chief of staff after Grant replaced him as general in chief in March of 1864:
It is sufficient for my Government to know that the removal of the inhabitants has been made with liberality and fairness; that it has been attended by no force, and that no women or children have suffered, unless for want of provisions by their natural protectors and friends. My real reasons for this step were, we want all the houses of Atlanta for military storage and occupation. We want to contract the lines of defenses so as to diminish the garrison to the limit necessary to defend its narrow and vital parts instead of embracing, as the lines now do, the vast suburbs. This contraction of the lines, with the necessary citadels and redoubts, will make it necessary to destroy the very houses used by families as residences. Atlanta is a fortified town, was stubbornly defended and fairly captured. As captors we have a right to it. The residence here of a poor population would compel us sooner or later to feed them or see them starve under our eyes. The residence here of the families of our enemies would be a temptation and a means to keep up a correspondence dangerous and hurtful to our cause, and a civil population calls for provost guards, and absorbs the attention of officers in listening to everlasting complaints and special grievances that are not military.
In addition to his explanation, Sherman’s correspondence with Halleck included the letters he and the Confederate commander, General John Bell Hood, had exchanged earlier in the month when he ordered the evacuation.
Hood had written that, while he had no option but to comply with Sherman’s order, “the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war. In the name of God and humanity I protest, believing that you will find that you are expelling from their homes and firesides the wives and children of a brave people.” Sherman dismissed Hood’s protest:
Nor is it necessary to appeal to the dark history of war when recent and modern examples are so handy. You, yourself, burned dwelling-houses along your parapet, and I have seen to-day fifty houses that you have rendered uninhabitable because they stood in the way of your forts and men. You defended Atlanta on a line so close to town that every cannon shot and many musket shots from our line of investment that overshot their mark went into the habitations of women and children. General Hardee did the same at Jonesborough, and General Johnston did the same last summer at Jackson, Miss. I have not accused you of heartless cruelty, but merely instance these cases of very recent occurrence, and could go on and enumerate hundreds of others and challenge any fair man to judge which of us has the heart of pity for the families of a “brave people.” I say that it is kindness to these families of Atlanta to remove them now at once from scenes that women and children should not be exposed to, and the “brave people” should scorn to commit their wives and children to the rude barbarians who thus, as you say, violate the laws of war, as illustrated in the pages of its dark history. In the name of common sense I ask you not to appeal to a just God in such a sacrilegious manner; you who, in the midst of peace and prosperity, have plunged a nation into war, dark and cruel war; who dared and badgered us to battle, insulted our flag, seized our arsenals and forts that were left in the honorable custody of peaceful ordnance sergeants; seized and made “prisoners of war” the very garrisons sent to protect your people against negroes and Indians long before any overt act was committed by the, to you, hated Lincoln Government; tried to force Kentucky and Missouri into rebellion, spite of themselves; falsified the vote of Louisiana, turned loose your privateers to plunder unarmed ships; expelled Union families by the thousands; burned their houses and declared by an act of your Congress the confiscation of all debts due Northern men for goods had and received. Talk thus to the marines, but not to me, who have seen these things, and who will this day make as much sacrifice for the peace and honor of the South as the best born Southerner among you. If we must be enemies, let us be men and fight it out, as we propose to do, and not deal in such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity. God will judge us in due time, and He will pronounce whether it be more humane to fight with a town full of women, and the families of “a brave people” at our back, or to remove them in time to places of safety among their own friends and people.
He replied in like fashion to the mayor and city council of Atlanta:
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling.
Sherman’s actions here and during his subsequent “march to the sea” remain controversial to this day. Some have claimed that Sherman was a war criminal, authorizing depredations against civilians. Others have claimed that his actions adumbrated the “total war” of the 20th century. But the matter is more complex than either of these charges indicate.
From Conciliation to the “Hard Hand of War”
In The Hard Hand of War, Mark Grimsley provides an excellent account of the evolution of Union policy toward civilians in the South. That policy initially was one of conciliation. Lincoln favored it, as did most Union generals. The policy of conciliation was founded on the notion that the majority of individuals in the seceded states did not support the breakup of the Union and that the governments of the states that styled themselves the “Confederate States of America” were illegal and did not represent the will of the people in those states as a whole. Therefore, early in the Rebellion, Union generals ordered the soldiers to respect the private property, including slaves, of all civilians, even those who were actively working against them or who had sons in the Confederate armies. Even such generals as Grant and Sherman, who would later be advocates of “hard war,” adhered to the policy of conciliation.
Conciliation, “brilliant in its simplicity,” had to be tried, argues Grimsley, and seemed to be working until McClellan’s defeat before Richmond in 1862. But with the emergence of Lee in the spring of 1862, the rebellion only strengthened. As a result, Union generals, e.g. Henry Halleck in Missouri and Benjamin Butler in New Orleans, began to employ what Grimsley called “pragmatic” policies, treating Unionists and those who were neutral much better than those who opposed the Northern war effort. Because of guerrilla warfare in Missouri and Tennessee, pragmatic policies took hold more quickly in the West than in Virginia.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation finally drove a stake into the heart of conciliation. While many Union soldiers initially opposed the proclamation, they shifted to support as they saw the effect it had on the South’s ability to wage war. Grimsley argues that once the initial backlash to the proclamation was overcome, Northern soldiers were happy to implement it, ensuring the end of conciliation.
In the West, pragmatism began to give way to “hard war” in 1863; in Virginia, the policy remained fairly conciliatory until the end of 1863. In hard war, southerners were identified as either Unionist, neutral, or Secessionist and treated accordingly. The last group was the target of what Grimsley calls “directed severity”: a mixture of ferocity and restraint, characterized by greater destruction of public property than private property, and a general unwillingness to harm the persons of civilians.
In early 1863, Halleck published General Orders 100, drafted primarily by an émigré German jurist, Francis Lieber of Columbia University. The “Lieber Code” was intended to provide “a generalized set of regulations” regarding the legal aspects of conducting war. The document, signed by Lincoln in April of 1863, authorizes “hard war,” but places clear limits on its conduct. For instance, Article 38 states that “private property, unless forfeited by crimes or by offenses of the owner, can be seized only by way of military necessity, for the support or other benefit of the army or of the United States,” and Article 44 reads: “All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, all destruction of property not commanded by the authorized officer, all robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense.”
The Vicksburg Campaign signaled the beginning of the “hard war,” permitting whatever was necessary, including the destruction of civilian property, to bring the conflict to an end. Grant lived off the land for a time, allowing his army to take what it needed from civilians in its path. Roughly seven months after the fall of Vicksburg, Sherman applied the “hard hand of war” against central Mississippi during the Meridian operation, tearing up railroad tracks and burning military stores all along his route.
While this was typical of armies marching through enemy territory in the Civil War, the Meridian operation was different in an important respect: For the first time, Northern troops were instructed to wage a war of destruction, to leave civilians with just enough for survival but not enough to support military activity. The Meridian operation was also an example of psychological warfare, the purpose of which was to destroy any hope the people in central Mississippi might have had of a southern victory. Meridian provided a blueprint for Sherman’s March to the Sea.
In September 1863, Sherman laid out his emerging philosophy in a long letter to Halleck. He believed that the federal government should deal with each sector of the population and the rebellion as a whole. In general, he thought that “every member of the nation is bound by natural and constitutional law to ‘maintain and defend the Government against all its opposers whomsoever.’ If they fail to do it they are derelict,” he maintained, “and can be punished or deprived of all advantages arising from the labors of those who do.” Sherman put this policy into operation during his march to the sea.
The March to the Sea
After the fall of Atlanta, Hood advanced into northern Georgia in the hopes of getting Sherman to give up the city by threatening his line of communications: the Western Atlantic railroad line to Chattanooga. Sherman did pursue Hood, but, fearing that he would lose the advantages gained by capturing Atlanta, Sherman asked for and received permission from Grant to march to Savannah, leaving Schofield’s Army of the Ohio to deal with Hood.
Sherman deployed his 62,000 troops into two wings, comprising O. O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee and John Slocum’s Army of Georgia, along with a cavalry division under Major General H. J. Kilpatrick, departing Atlanta on November 15. For the next month, he cut a swath of destruction 60 miles wide from Atlanta to Savannah, systematically destroying anything that could benefit the Rebel military effort.
His goal was to “make Georgia howl:” “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and we must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” The hard war was here for Georgia. “We cannot change the hearts and minds of those people of the South, but we can make war so terrible . . . [and] make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.” Sherman contended that the United States and its representatives had the right to “remove and destroy every obstacle — if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper . . . [and] that all who do not aid are enemies, and we will not account to them for our acts.”
Grimsley has refuted the Lost Cause narrative that claims Sherman’s forces burnt every home in their path. In fact, while Sherman’s men destroyed public buildings, they largely left individual homes intact. But the narrative of terrible destruction, rather than the truth of directed severity, has persisted because it served a variety of purposes: boosting southern morale during the war against the “barbarian Yankees,” and explaining the southern economic downturn after the war.
What about the claim that the Union’s “hard war” policy, implemented so effectively by Sherman in his march to the sea, was the precursor to “total war”? Again, Grimsley demurs. It did not so much adumbrate modern wars as it did look backwards to the massive foraging raids of Europe, the chevauchées, from the Hundred Years’ War to the Thirty Years’ War and beyond. The march to the sea was meant to demonstrate to southern civilians that “they could be hurt” and that “the Confederate government was powerless to protect them.”
In his book The Soul of Battle, Victor Davis Hanson argues that the purpose of the march to the sea was precisely psychological, to demonstrate the impotence of the Confederate government. According to Hanson, Sherman’s army exhibited the “soul of battle,” which results from a combination of just cause and the right commanding general, who creates an instrument of retribution, imbues it with moral fervor, and then turns “the horror of killing into a higher purpose of saving lives and freeing the enslaved.”
The soul of battle “arises only when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed, when their vast armies are aimed at salvation and liberation, not conquest and enslavement. Only then does battle take on a spiritual dimension, one that defines a culture, teaches it what civic militarism is, and how it is properly used.” The soul of battle has permitted democracies to “produce the most murderous of armies from the most unlikely of men.”
In Soul of Battle, Hanson discusses three campaigns, including Sherman’s march to the sea. The others are the destruction of Spartan military power in the winter of 370–369 B.C. by a Theban army under Epaminondas and the campaign of Patton’s Third Army against Nazi Germany in 1944–45. According to Hanson, each of these generals led a democratic army into the homeland of an oppressive regime and, by ravaging an area previously inviolate, undermined the principle of inequality upon which the power of the ruling class had been based. In his telling, Sherman’s Army of the West changed the psychological and material course of the Civil War by applying the “hard hand of war” to Georgia, freeing black slaves and discrediting the high and mighty planter aristocracy that had pushed for secession by revealing that they were impotent to protect their own homes and families.
On December 10, Sherman reached the outskirts of Savannah, and he captured Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River three days later, establishing contact with the Union navy. The hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned Savannah garrison evacuated the city and, on December 21, Sherman occupied it. He sent a telegram to Lincoln presenting him the city “as a Christmas gift.”
In his book Sherman: A Soldier’s Life, Sherman’s biographer Lee Kennett wrote: “Had a triumphant Confederacy held war-crimes trials, William Tecumseh Sherman would have been the first man indicted. If nothing else, his habitual verbal violence, his talk of making Georgia ‘howl,’ of inciting ‘fear and dread,’ and the like, would have condemned him.” Of course, as Grimsley notes, Sherman’s “verbal violence” far exceeded the actual violence of the march, the Lost Cause narrative notwithstanding.
But, echoing Grimsley, Kennett pays tribute to Sherman’s actions when he writes: “While General Sherman may be said to have applied the hard hand of war with more alacrity and with more enthusiasm than most others, he was swimming with the tide in a general evolution of policy that would bring to enemy civilians in the army’s path increasing stress, privation, and loss.”
Hood’s Tennessee Campaign
As Joe Johnston retreated toward Atlanta in the summer of 1864, Jefferson Davis grew increasingly impatient with the former’s generalship and contemplated replacing him as the commanding general of the Army of Tennessee with John Bell Hood. As he was considering his options, he asked Robert E. Lee for his opinion of Hood. Lee, who had seen Hood up close when the latter had been the indomitable commander of the famed Texas Brigade and later a division commander in Longstreet’s Corps, responded: “Hood is a good fighter, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off, and I have had no opportunity of judging his action, when the whole responsibility rested upon him. I have a very high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness and zeal. Gen. Hardee has more experience in managing an army. May God give you wisdom to decide in this momentous matter.”
But as the loss of the city became more likely, Davis went ahead with his appointment of Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee.
One of Hood’s biographers, John Dyer, noted, in his book The Gallant Hood, that “he was essentially a man of emotion rather than of intellect. He was never a reasoning and analytical man who carefully weighed all possible factors in a given problem or situation. Rather he was much inclined to be impetuous in his decisions, trust in his intuition and his blind optimism to see him through.”
Like Braxton Bragg before him, Hood was always inclined to blame his subordinates for his failures. For example, he blamed Lieutenant General William Hardee, his highly respected corps commander, for the Rebel defeats during the battles of Atlanta and Jonesborough. Near the end of the war, Hardee stated in his official report that “it is well known that I felt unwilling to serve under General Hood upon his succession to the command of the Army of Tennessee, because I believed him, though a tried and gallant officer, to be unequal in both experience and natural ability to so important a command.” Both Lee and Hardee proved to be prescient in their respective assessments of Hood.
After abandoning Atlanta, Hood withdrew to Palmetto to regroup. He then proceeded northwest, intent on destroying Sherman’s rail link to Chattanooga. But Sherman vigorously pursued Hood, forcing him to retreat due west. Sherman then returned to Atlanta. When Hood discovered that Sherman was planning to march to the sea, he planned to counter by invading Tennessee and capturing Nashville.
As Sherman executed his planned march to the sea, he sent Major General George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland to defend Nashville. Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio took up a position at Columbia, just south of Nashville.
Hood entered Tennessee on November 22 and, five days later, fought an inconclusive engagement with Schofield at Columbia. Hood now saw an opportunity to prevent Schofield from joining Thomas by swinging his army north of Columbia on the Columbia Pike at Spring Hill. Leaving one corps to fix the Federals, Hood sent the corps of Cheatham and Stewart across the Duck River. However, Schofield’s vanguard arrived at the crossroads first and repulsed a poorly coordinated attack late on the afternoon of November 29. Hood had chosen to leave his artillery in the rear and the Confederates were badly outgunned.
By nightfall, the full Rebel force was in position to trap Schofield, but a miscommunication between Hood and Cleburne meant that the Confederates did not attack. Indeed, as they bivouacked, Schofield slipped away during the night.
The next morning, Hood, enraged at the turn of events, berated his subordinates at a conference and blamed them, as was his wont, for Schofield’s escape. He then ordered a pursuit of Schofield, still hoping to crush him south of the Harpeth River before he reached the defenses of Nashville.
Hood’s hot pursuit forced Schofield to fight at Franklin with his back to the Harpeth River, because he had no pontoons to cross. Nonetheless, his troops rapidly constructed two lines of defensive works. Hood ignored the advice of his corps commanders to flank the Union position and ordered a frontal assault. With Cheatham on the left and Stewart on the right, the attack, unsupported by artillery, began in the late afternoon of November 30.
The Rebel attack was initially successful and penetrated the first line of Union breastworks. As the Federals repositioned units to deal with the Confederate breakthroughs, other weaknesses in the line were created. Attempting to exploit those possible weaknesses, the Rebels continued to attack for five hours, well into the night. But the Union superiority in artillery and the fact that many Federal soldiers were armed with repeating rifles meant that they could sustain rates of fire that inflicted massive casualties on the attackers.
By 9:00 p.m., the fighting was over. Schofield had suffered some 2,200 casualties but had inflicted 7,000 on Hood. Twelve Confederate generals fell in the battle, including six who were killed. One of the fatalities was the splendid Irishman, Patrick Cleburne.
The magnitude of the attack at Franklin dwarfed that of the better known “Pickett’s charge” on the third day of Gettysburg. During the latter, 12,500 Confederates had crossed a mile of open ground in a single assault that lasted about 50 minutes. At Franklin, some 19,000 Rebels crossed two miles of open space while under fire and then relentlessly assaulted the Union position in multiple waves for over five hours.
Schofield now withdrew to Nashville. Hood followed and, on December 2 and 3, entrenched his diminished army of 36,000 troops south of the city. His plan was to repulse the expected Union attack and then “enter the city on the heels of the enemy.”
Thomas, much to Grant’s consternation, took his time. Grant disliked Thomas and, despite his magnificent performance at Chickamauga and Chattanooga, distrusted him as well. Perhaps the distrust had to do with the fact that Thomas was a Virginian whose loyalty to the Union always remained suspect. In any event, Thomas delayed while Grant drafted orders for his relief by Major General John Logan.
Thomas was ready to attack on December 9 but the attack was once again delayed by freezing rain that made movement impossible. He finally launched his attack on December 15, turning Hood’s left flank and forcing the Rebels back to a second position. A renewed attack the next day crushed the Confederate left and center, sending Hood’s army into headlong flight. Hood’s losses totaled 6,000, 4,500 of them captured. Thomas suffered about 3,000 casualties.
Over the next two weeks, Thomas pursued Hood until the latter crossed the Tennessee River. Only a courageous rearguard action by S. D. Lee’s corps and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry prevented the complete destruction of the Army of Tennessee, which nonetheless returned to Mississippi nothing more than a demoralized shadow of its former self.
Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign and War Termination
After Sherman reached Savannah, Grant had originally intended to bring his army by sea to join him in crushing Lee at Petersburg. But he decided to send Sherman up to Virginia through the Carolinas, during which time he would destroy Lee’s source of provisions and conduct the same kind of psychological war that he had conducted in Georgia.
If Sherman’s “hard war” was tough on Georgians, it was worse for the residents of South Carolina, seen as the “cradle of secession.” As Sherman noted, “the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.” Meeting no resistance, Sherman’s Bummers burned much of the state capital of Columbia.
By March 1865, Sherman entered North Carolina. The Confederates had thrown together a force of some 21,000 troops under the command of Joe Johnston. One of Johnston’s first objectives was to prevent the union of Sherman and Schofield, whose Army of the Ohio had travelled to the east coast by rail after Nashville and thence by water to Wilmington, N.C. An attack by Bragg delayed the union.
On March 16, Johnston checked the Union advance at Averasboro, and he checked it again at Bentonville several days later, but on March 23, Schofield linked up with Sherman at Goldsboro, bringing the strength of Sherman’s army to 100,000. Johnston still hoped to link up with Lee, but the latter’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9 foreclosed that option. Johnston had no choice but to seek terms of surrender from Sherman. He ultimately did so at Durham Station on April 23.
Ironically, Johnston may have made his greatest contribution to the Confederate cause at Durham Station: In defiance of Jefferson Davis’s orders to continue hostilities, Johnston surrendered his force in order to “save the people [and] spare the blood of the army.” As Mark Grimsley noted in The Collapse of the Confederacy, whether Davis would have continued the struggle and whether “the pursuing Union armies would indeed have devastated the land, as Lee, Johnston, and others feared, will forever remain moot because a military commander facing a clear-cut military decision stepped beyond the traditional, almost sacred boundaries of American civil-military relations and refused to fight a lost war any longer.”
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College. He also teaches in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program at Ashland University in Ohio. He wrote this article, among others, for his MAHG course on the Civil War and Reconstruction.