Who Won Sherman’s March to the Sea?

In 1864, the Confederacy could no longer win a military victory but might still win through political pressure. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman wanted to end the war quickly.

Jun 11, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

who won sherman march sea


By the autumn of 1864, the Confederacy could no longer hope for military victories that would win the war. However, it refused to surrender, hoping that continued Union casualties might generate enough political pressure in the North to prompt calls for an armistice. Frustrated with the South’s stubborn refusal to end the war, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman began using a controversial tactic: scorched-earth destruction of Southern infrastructure and farms.


Victory Goes to the Union

union soldiers sherman march 1864
A 1907 illustration of Union soldiers during General Sherman’s March to the Sea in autumn 1864. Source: Library of Congress


The March to the Sea of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman was a resounding success for the Union, with the capture of the major port city of Savannah, Georgia by December 21, 1864. At this late stage of the war, Sherman faced little organized opposition from Confederate armies, but his maneuver was a significant gamble. During that era, most militaries avoided winter offensives, especially without strong supply lines. Sherman broke with tradition by having his forces “live off the land” during their march, meaning they could cover more ground.


Confederate General John Bell Hood attempted to distract Sherman during his march through Georgia by moving toward Tennessee, which had already been taken by the Union. Instead of following Hood, Sherman continued southeast through Georgia. Another Union general, George H. Thomas, was tasked with managing General Hood. Only occasionally did Confederate forces engage either of Sherman’s two columns and they were soundly defeated. When Sherman arrived at Savannah, the Confederates eventually chose to evacuate the city rather than fight to defend it.


Timeline of Sherman’s March to the Sea

sherman march 1864
A map and timeline that includes Union general William T. Sherman’s controversial scorched-earth march through Georgia in autumn 1864. Source: Library of Congress


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In September 1864, General Sherman was in Atlanta, Georgia after the Battle of Atlanta that July. He began planning a large campaign that would take his army and headquarters from Atlanta, which was inland, to the coastal port city of Savannah, Georgia. From there, he could link up with the Union navy, which had been blockading the South, and both resupply and transfer troops elsewhere.


On November 15, Sherman began his march with 60,000 men split between two columns. Few of Sherman’s officers knew his plans, as Sherman wanted complete secrecy. To avoid the Confederates determining his plans, he also kept them secret from his superiors, including General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant and Union president Abraham Lincoln.


On November 22, Sherman’s forces faced the only true “battle” during their march: Confederate militiamen under an inexperienced brigadier general attacked Union troops and discovered, to their dismay, that the Northerners were armed with new repeating rifles.


On December 13, Sherman captured Fort McAllister, which defended Savannah.


Less than one week later, Sherman was on the outskirts of Savannah and laid siege to the city. Afterwards, he informed the Confederate defenders under General William J. Hardee that he had cut them off from any resupply and that the Union Navy could bombard any part of the city.


Aided by cavalry general Joseph Wheeler, Hardee evacuated the city on December 20.


Two days later, Sherman sent word to Abraham Lincoln that Savannah had been captured.


What Caused Sherman’s March to the Sea?

1864 presidential election cartoon
An 1864 political Currier & Ives engraving revealing the political pressure faced by Union President Abraham Lincoln (left). Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


After the Battle of Atlanta, Sherman was weary of the war. Despite its military being far outmatched and receiving no foreign aid or recognition, the Confederacy refused to surrender. The war was continuing to cause thousands of casualties on both sides. Frustrated, Sherman wanted to end the war quickly by striking the South hard and demoralizing its civilian population. For most of the Civil War, the Union had focused on trying to retain public support, including in captured areas. But was this relative generosity only prolonging the war?


Sherman wanted to introduce psychological warfare to the conflict. He would punish the Southern civilian population as well as the military in order to demoralize the Confederacy. However, when a target had surrendered, he would treat it generously. This incentivized towns and cities in the South to surrender more quickly: holding out would result in harshness, while surrender would result in generous terms. Ideally, Sherman’s brutality in warfare against the civilian population would generate public pressure for the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia to surrender.


Why Was Sherman’s March to the Sea Significant?

scorched earth sherman
Union general William Tecumseh Sherman used controversial scorched earth tactics during his March to the Sea in autumn 1864. Source: PBS


Sherman’s March to the Sea radically changed the Civil War by introducing the concept of total war, including scorched earth tactics. Although observers were horrified at the new tactics, Sherman was successful in breaking the morale of civilians in Georgia. Despite many journalists being appalled, Sherman largely maintained order among his ranks, and few buildings were razed. And, despite much of the scorched earth (burned crops) being blamed on General Sherman, it is possible that it was ordered burned by retreating Confederates to deprive the Union troops of resources.


The March allegedly had a long-term economic impact on Georgia, with significant destruction of farms and infrastructure that took decades to heal. Critics argued that Sherman’s brutality doomed the South to decades of economic weakness, which was only relatively corrected thanks to high federal spending during the New Deal and World War II. However, supporters praise Sherman’s March as the strongest federal action since the Emancipation Proclamation to actually free slaves. Up to 20,000 enslaved people were freed thanks to the twin columns of Sherman’s forces.


5 Facts About Sherman’s March to the Sea

40 acres and a mule sherman
An image illustrating Union general William T. Sherman’s famous “40 acres and a mule” order from January 1865. Source: South Carolina ETV Commission


1. Casualties

Casualties are often considered minimal during Sherman’s March to the Sea, probably less than 3,000 for the one-month operation. In the largest battle on November 22, the Confederates suffered some 650 casualties versus less than one hundred for the Union. Of considerable debate is the number of civilian casualties along the route of the March and whether Sherman should be considered primarily responsible.


2. Commanders

Union forces were led by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was a close compatriot of General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant. Both men were from Ohio and graduated from West Point. Like many fellow generals, Sherman had served in both the Seminole Wars in Florida and the Mexican-American War, though he saw no combat in the latter. Also like Grant, Sherman had left the Army during the 1850s, only to volunteer for service again after the Battle of Fort Sumter. Some 75 years after Sherman’s March to the Sea, the famous general became the namesake of the M4 Sherman battle tank of World War II.


Confederate forces opposed to Sherman during the March were primarily led by General Joseph Wheeler, who was under the umbrella of General William J. Hardee. Wheeler was very young for a general and had graduated from West Point only two years before the Civil War began. After the war, Wheeler went on to serve eight terms in the US House of Representatives. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, Wheeler returned to military service in the US Army – an extreme rarity for a Confederate general. In 1900, Wheeler was made a brigadier general in the US Army, though he retired shortly thereafter.


3. Number of Forces Involved

1864 sherman march sea
A map showing the location of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, known as his March to the Sea. Source: PBS Learning Media


Sherman commanded some 62,000 men, divided evenly into two columns. His massive force dwarfed the much smaller Confederate armies in the area, such as Wheeler’s small cavalry force of only 3,500 men. Only 230 Confederate soldiers manned Fort McAllister, which defended the route to Savannah. At most, 10,000 Confederates defended Savannah when Sherman approached on December 9, 1864, with up to half of these relatively inexperienced militiamen or reserves.


4. Visiting Sherman’s Route Today

Today, visitors can tour the March to the Sea Heritage Trail in Georgia. Created in 2010, this driving trail includes both the left and right routes taken by Sherman’s two columns. Various events are often held along this route for history buffs, though full-time historical sites will likely require visitors to go to Savannah, where the March ended. In that city, visitors can tour the Green-Meldrim House, which was Sherman’s headquarters.


5. Trivia: “40 Acres and a Mule”

After arriving in Savannah, Sherman dealt with a humanitarian crisis: waves of refugee slaves who had sought freedom under the protection of the Union armies. On January 12, 1865, Sherman met with the US Secretary of War and twenty African American ministers regarding the refugee crisis. Four days later, the general issued Special Field Order No. 15, which allocated formerly enslaved people 40 acres of farmland (the mule would come later). This was the first instance of any reparations for enslaved people during or after the US Civil War.


Aftermath of Sherman’s March: A Christmas Present for Lincoln

evacuation savannah georgia 1864
A January 1865 artist’s rendering of the Confederate evacuation of Savannah, Georgia the previous December. Source: Dickinson College


Famously, General Sherman presented President Abraham Lincoln the captured city of Savannah as a Christmas present in a telegram on December 22, 1864. Washington DC celebrated the capture of the large Confederate port city with a 300-gun salute. There was some arguing at the White House over whether Sherman’s Army or the US Navy should be given credit for capturing the city. Observers at the Lincoln White House felt that the Christmas of 1864 was much happier than its predecessors, as the end of the war was in sight. The three preceding Christmases under the Lincoln presidency had all been held under the cloud of war.


The battering of Southern morale, in general, was another Christmas gift for the Union. With scarce resources, Confederate governors had to determine who should receive assistance in the aftermath of Sherman’s March—wealthy plantation owners or lower-income whites? This hastened the fall of the Confederacy by destroying civilian unity and support of the war effort. By “making Georgia howl,” Sherman removed much Southern stomach for continued fighting, and the war was almost entirely over less than five months after Sherman reached Savannah.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.