Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas

ShermansMarchCarolinas

This is a book by John G. Barrett and covers William T. Sherman’s “other march,” his march from Savannah, Georgia through South Carolina and North Carolina up to the surrender of the confederate Army of Tennessee.  The book was originally published in 1956 and while dated still holds up in many respects.  It’s deeply researched and is loaded with anecdotal gems that give color and humanize the men being discussed.

In discussing the evolution of Sherman’s philosophy, Professor Barrett tells us, “A few weeks in Memphis changed Sherman’s ideas.  Of special concern to him was the Federal government’s cotton buying activities centering in this river port, the largest cotton market north of New Orleans.  To encourage the loyal planters of the border states, as well as New England textile interests, Union authorities permitted open trading in cotton between the Southern farmer and the Northern buyer.  For their bales the planter received either gold or supplies which, in Sherman’s opinion, were eventually used by the civilian population to aid the Confederate cause.  This fact plus guerilla [sic] activity and unorganized civilian resistance in the region around Memphis caused Sherman to conclude that ‘when one nation is at war with another all the people of one are enemies of the other.’  For his brother in Congress the General made the following observations: ‘It is about time the North understood the truth.  The entire South, man, woman, and child are against us, armed and determined.’ ” [p. 15]  He tells us, “But with Sherman ‘war … [was] war and not popularity seeking.’ … ‘You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will.  War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. …’ He thought the South, for its part in bringing on the war, deserved ‘all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.’  Nevertheless, he held out to his enemies the sincere promise of a helping hand if they would lay down their arms and rejoin the Union.  It was not a sense of cruelty and barbarism that prompted Sherman to formulate his theory of total war.  This concept was the outgrowth of a search for the quickest, surest, and most efficient means to win a war.  Victory, he determined, could be won more easily by moving troops than by fighting.  Strategy had become to him the master of tactics.  The purpose of his strategy was to minimize fighting by playing on the mind of the opponent.” [p. 16]  Barrett here misstates what Sherman had done.  Sherman didn’t develop a theory of total war.  Sherman didn’t practice total war.  But the rest of the excerpt outside the total war comment is well stated.  Sherman sought to end the war as quickly as possible, and he sought to do it while minimizing casualties.

In discussing the destruction of Columbia, South Carolina, Barrett tells us, “It was the drunken soldier who was primarily responsible for the holocaust of February 17, but he was not acting under orders from his commanding general.  Sherman’s orders for the campaign of the Carolinas contain no instructions for the molestation of private property in Columbia.” [p. 89]

Later, some “bummers” set fires in the town of Winnsboro.  “General John W. Geary, leading the advance of the left wing, saw the heavy smoke rising from these fires and ordered his two most advanced regiments to move at ‘double-quick’ in hope they would reach Winnsboro in time to arrest the flames.  These two regiments, along with the remainder of the Second Division of the Twentieth Corps, performed the part of firemen with great efficiency and soon had the fires under control.  Learning that the ‘bummers’ were not his men, Geary ordered the men back to their respective commands.  He put Brigadier General N. Pardee in charge of the town with orders to protect private property. … In all probability, between twenty and thirty buildings, including homes, stores, and public edifices, were destroyed in the town. … At the urgent request of local citizens, General Geary left behind two mounted troopers from his provost guard to protect the town from stragglers.” [pp. 96-97]

Sherman’s operations had a distinct impact on Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond.  “Late in February General Lee declared that the despair of the North Carolinians was destroying his army.  He wrote Governor Vance: ‘Desertings are becoming very frequent and there is reason to believe that they are occasioned to a considerable extent by letters written to the soldiers by their friends at home.’  The diaries and letters of the men in the line around Richmond show that Lee had reason to be concerned.  ‘Deserters increase … we had three more last night’ is the February 21 entry in the diary of Samuel Hoey Walkup of the Forty-eighth North Carolina regiment.  On March 6 Walkup expressed the sentiments of those soldiers whose homes were in Sherman’s path: ‘I am in agony of suspense to hear from home.  It has been nearly a month since I left them and have received no letter since.  The Yankees were there.  Between them and our forces I can only look Heavenward for comfort.’  It was not those soldiers who looked to heaven for comfort but those who took off for home themselves that occasioned six North Carolina regimental commanders to write Senator William Alexander Graham of the Confederate Congress: ‘Numerous desertions are now occurring among the troops from our state. … We believe that the spirit of discontent among our soldiers owes its birth and growth to the influences of those of our citizens at home, who by evil councils and by fears have been made to despair of the success of our cause and are constantly, while the soldier are home on furlough and through the mails, instilling into them opinions which too often culminate in desertion.  We are led to this conclusion by intercepted letters, addressed to those who deserted.’ ” [p. 118]

Professor Barrett does a really good job in discussing the military movements and the battles Sherman’s troops engaged in with the confederate forces resisting his advance.

In evaluating Sherman’s Performance, Professor Barrett tells us, “From Savannah to Fayetteville Sherman had moved his corps in flawless fashion, but from this latter place to Goldsboro his operations were definitely characterized by carelessness in the management of a large army.  From Fayetteville he had written: ‘I will see that this army marches … to Goldsboro in compact form.’  But this resolve was forgotten and when Johnston made his bold gamble, the Federal columns were strung out over a considerable distance.  This is all the more significant when one considers the fact that Sherman supposed the Confederate forces to be stronger than either one of his wings alone.  Neither would he give credence to the reports that the enemy was concentrating on his front.  In the General’s defense, however, it can be said that a combination of adverse weather, topography, and poor roads in part explain why the divisions were so far apart.  On the field of battle Sherman erred on two occasions.  First, he failed to follow up Mower’s break through of Johnston’s flank on March 21.  Secondly, he did not pursue the Confederate forces after the battle.  Sherman readily admitted he was wrong in halting Mower’s charge.  Concerning this movement he said: ‘I think I made a mistake there, and should rapidly have followed Mower’s lead with the whole of the right wing, which would have brought on a general battle, and it could not have resulted otherwise than successfully to us, by reason of our vastly superior numbers.” [p. 183]

In summing up William T. Sherman, Professor Barrett writes, “For a true insight into Sherman’s character one must balance the man in wartime against the man in peacetime, otherwise the picture is distorted.  Though pitiless in campaign and intemperate in language, Sherman was not a cruel individual with the instincts of a barbarian.  ‘He had a big heart, filled with a great deal of kindness for his fellow man.  To him, war must be fought effectively or not at all.  An enemy in war, in peace a friend.’ ” [p. 281]

While some parts of his interpretation need to be updated, overall the book is really well done, well researched, and well argued.  Much of the book remains unaffected by the time between its writing and today.  I can highly recommend it for those who want to understand Sherman’s march from Savannah to Bennett Place.

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13 comments

  1. ‘when one nation is at war with another all the people of one are enemies of the other.’
    So sir you do you agree with General Sherman that the Confederates States of America was a free and independent country?I am sure we will disagree, but one thing we can agree on “General Sherman was one [edit] war fighter” to bad he didn’t fight for the South.

    1. Sherman didn’t say that. There’s a difference between a “nation” and an “independent country.” You should learn it. A nation is a group of people with a common history, language, and culture. There can be a “nation” that isn’t an independent country. The Kurds in the Middle East, for example, comprise a nation, but they are not a free and independent country. Gen. Sherman obviously felt the confederacy had built a nation, and it did in fact have a national structure. But it was never an independent country, and Sherman never considered them to be so. He correctly considered confederates to be traitors. He couldn’t consider them to be traitors if he considered the confederacy to be an independent country. There are a number of requirements in order for an entity to be considered an independent country. The confederacy failed two of them. They were never able to successfully defend their borders, losing territory nearly every day of their existence, and they were never recognized by the international community as being an independent country. And being based on slavery, there was nothing “free” about the confederacy.

      1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

        Very nice answer.

        1. Thank you, sir.

  2. In the 1860s Southerners were selling cotton to the North. The money they made was was helping the Confederate cause. A hundred years later in the 1960s The USSR was buying wheat from farmers in the USA. Wasn’t the USSR shipping weapons to the Communists in Vietnam? So, what lesson did we learn from Gen. Sherman?

    1. The fundamental assumption I learned in Econ 101 was that people tend to act in their own self-interest. We sold wheat to the Russians because it was good for our farmers, and Iowa was the first caucus in the nation for the presidential primary season.

  3. Pat Young · · Reply

    Al, what book do you think is best on the Carolinas Campaign?

    1. I can’t say, Pat. I have Jackie Glass’ book, When Sherman Marched North from the Sea, in the queue to be read, along with two books by Mark Bradley on the North Carolina campaign. Maybe someone else can make a recommendation.

  4. rcocean · · Reply

    Sherman’s mistakes at Bentonsville [sic] aren’t surprising. If look at Sherman’s performance as a tactical battlefield commander either as a Corps or Army commander its spotty to say the least. In fact, its almost impossible to find a brilliant maneuver in his battles. Castel in his book points out error after error. One wonders how he would have done against Bobby Lee in his prime. He was a *strategic* genius though.

    1. Uncle Billy’s talents lay outside the realm of battlefield tactics.

  5. Question, I have noticed on some Confederate muster roll cards and a few pension applications that Company Shop’s is listed as the place of surrender. These were muster roll cards and pension applications of those in cavalry units under Hampton. Did some of the cavalry units surrender in a different place than the Bennett house?

    1. Company Shop’s, also seen as Company Shops, is modern-day Burlington. There were some troops, primarily cavalry, there. These messages may shed light on it.

  6. Thanks, something have been wondering about

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