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This Day in History: Sherman’s March to the Sea

On this day in 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s notorious “March to the Sea” would reach the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. Within a matter of days, Union forces would seize first Fort McAllister, then Savannah as well.

It was the latest in a series of victories for the Union Army. Several weeks earlier, Sherman had captured Atlanta. He next set his sights on cutting a swath through Georgia, and he finally got Union Army leaders to agree to his plan. Sherman sought to crush the Confederacy psychologically: He wanted southern states to lose confidence in their ability to win.

His march would have the added advantage of putting pressure on Robert E. Lee from the South while Ulysses S. Grant kept up pressure from the North.

Sherman and his army of more than 60,000 men began their march on November 15.

Sherman broke his men into two columns, traveling 20 to 40 miles apart. He took minimal rations, expecting to live off the homes, farms and plantations in his path. He was fighting a “scorched earth” war. “[W]e are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people,” he later wrote, “and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war . . . .”

Sherman’s army stole supplies and food. His soldiers laid waste to whole plantations. They tore up bridges, roads, and railroads. When they were destroying the railroads, his men would heat the rails so they could wrap them around trees. They were called “Sherman’s Neckties.” Throughout the march, Sherman managed to keep the Confederate Army confused about his destination.

One southern woman, Dolly Sumner Lunt, described the scene as Sherman’s army came through:

“To my smoke-house, my dairy, pantry, kitchen, and cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way. The thousand pounds of meat in my smoke-house is gone in a twinkling, my flour, my meat, my lard, butter, eggs, pickles of various kinds—both in vinegar and brine—wine, jars, and jugs are all gone. My eighteen fat turkeys, my hens, chickens, and fowls, my young pigs, are shot down in my yard and hunted as if they were rebels themselves. . . . All day, as the sad moments rolled on, were they passing not only in front of my house, but from behind; they tore down my garden palings, made a road through my back-yard and lot field, driving their stock and riding through, tearing down my fences and desolating my home—wantonly doing it when there was no necessity for it.”

Sherman finally reached Fort McAllister, about 15 miles south of Savannah. On December 13, Sherman sent more than 4,000 men to take the fort. It wasn’t too hard. The fort was defended by a little more than 200 men. It fell in just 15 minutes. Sherman turned his sights on Savannah, but that turned out to be relatively easy also. By then, the Confederate soldiers knew that the Union Army was coming. They had already evacuated the city.

Sherman soon sent a telegram to Abraham Lincoln. It read: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.”

To be fair to Sherman, he claimed his policy of “total war” would bring the Civil War to an end sooner, thus ultimately saving lives. But it was a funny kind of Christmas gift, wasn’t it? Weeks of rampaging, fear, and fighting among men who should have been family, friends and fellow countrymen.

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