Sherman’s machine

May 9, 1864:  Union troops take Snake Creek Gap in the Atlanta Campaign. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army was busy that season. His troops took positions from the Confederate army and made it difficult for generals Johnston and Hood to counter them. This was but a single step in Sherman’s methodical rampage to Atlanta.

Sherman was headed to the sea, but he had other aims as well. The general knew that war was based on industry and economy. He read up on Southern census data and made use of detailed cartography. He planned to destroy rail yards, depots, factories, mills, and anything else that could fuel the Confederacy. His army was essentially a giant machine that consumed or destroyed anything in its path. He adopted the ancient tactic known as scorched earth:  ruin the enemy’s land and the enemy will starve.

Logistically, the march to Atlanta was simply exhausting. In one of his field orders, General Sherman allowed units to forage for food around Southern homes.

In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.

The orders were not appreciated. Union troops transformed into voracious looters. Some homemakers hastily buried their silver and valuables in the ground before the Yankees appeared. The vacuum effect of a moving column of infantry must have been horrendous to the locals. Sherman’s war machine was jammed in a motion of plunder and destruction that was only hindered by enemy engagements.

Sherman may have ignored the unethical steps of his army when practical. His strategy was to deprive the South of their material strength–every bit of it. A people without foodstuffs, lumber, iron, gunpowder, cattle, clothing, or grain were demoralized and ruined. As a result, they had nothing to send their armies. The commanding general was undoubtedly conscious of the psychological turmoil experienced in the American South at this time, but the necessity to end the war was foremost on his mind. His machine was calibrated precisely for this purpose. Sherman’s strategy, movement and communication in the Atlanta Campaign speak of a dynamic and focused commander.

Part of Sherman’s wired brain is revealed in a letter to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, his commander and trusted friend. (An excerpt from Grant’s Personal Memoirs.)

[Confederate general] Hood moved his army from Palmetto Station across by Dallas and Cedartown … He threw one corps on my road at Acworth, and I was forced to follow … With the twenty-five thousand men, and the bold cavalry he has, he can constantly break my roads. I would infinitely prefer to make a wreck of the road, and of the country from Chattanooga to Atlanta, including the latter city–send back all my wounded and worthless, and with my effective army, move through Georgia, smashing things, to the sea. Hood may turn into Tennessee and Kentucky, but I believe he will be forced to follow me. Instead of my being on the defensive, I would be on the offensive; instead of guessing at what he means to do, he would have to guess at my plans. The difference in war is full twenty-five per cent. I can make Savannah, Charleston, or the mouth of the Chattahoochee. Answer quick, as I know we will not have the telegraph long.


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