Sherman’s March to the Sea: A Tale of Morality, Warfare, Perspective
What is the legacy of General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea? Was the march heroic or criminal? Lunatic or genius? Was the March an act of “total-war” or was it an effective campaign using psychological warfare? The answer to such questions are complicated and a matter of perspective. The March to the Sea’s real legacy is to serve lessons in morality, warfare, and perspective.
General Sherman’s March to the Sea historically and socially significant because of the burning of the South. The perception is that Sherman’s army was brutal, conducting “all-out war.” Sherman felt harshness was necessary–for harsher the warfare, the quicker it would end.
Or did he?
You must understand that Sherman was against the war and wanted it over. He and his men had engaged in a bloody battle for years. Sherman knew that most war supporters had never fought in a war. Thus, his plan to bring the war to the southern cities was to terrify the South and therefore ending the bloody war. Yet, the estimated number of casualties during Sherman’s March to the Sea was slightly over 3,000 (two-thirds of those killed Union soldiers), the economic destruction of Atlanta was severe–$100 million dollars. How does that compare to the Civil War “casualties…[of] more than 1 million” (The American Journey, P446).
So, with such few deaths why did Sherman and his March come commonly viewed as evil?
Per Civil War writer Andy Hall, “It would be a stretch to say that Sherman was popular across the South…he was not…the reviled monster he later was to become.” He further goes on to highlight that, “In 1881 Jefferson Davis published his defense of secession…and used it to excoriate Sherman…[Davis] called Sherman’s decision…atrocious cruelties…Davis’ accusations struck a chord with Southerners…Sherman came to be reviled not… because Southerners viewed him that way…[but because] Davis told them they should” (Hall). Over a 150 years later, a quick “Google” search reveals that many southerners still view Sherman as a monstrous war criminal.
Does popular narrative override fact in determining good or evil?
Most military experts would view Sherman’s March as being a proportional war based on military necessity. Thus, these acts would not be ruled as criminal. After the Civil War, the American military has used a law of proportionality to weigh the military benefit of a target versus the damage to a civilian population.