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On November 15th, 1864 Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Grand Army of the West, embarked on a raid which would become known as the march to the sea designed to cut a 60 mile wide swath from Atlanta to Savannah. Once in Savannah he would turn north through South and North Carolina and on into Virginia to help Grant defeat Lee at Richmond. As Sherman's soldiers were leaving Atlanta, now in flames, they went forward with the intent of shortening the Civil War. Sherman's troops accomplished this with a brand of warfare seen only sporadically in the previous four years of battle. Sherman decided to turn his attention on destroying the "enemy's war economy" (Oates, 1998, p.594), going after the infrastructure of the South. Along the way his troops burned, pillaged, stole personal belongings, and confiscate possessions and property of the civilian population. Did the end justify the means and was this a just course of action?
By November 1864, the Civil War had seen gruesome days to be sure. By the end of the war the total number of soldiers killed in combat and by disease and other non-combat related causes for both the North and South were 623, 026 (Foote, 1974). The total wounded for both sides were 471,427 (Foote, 1974). These numbers are staggering in that only 2,750,000 soldiers participated in the war. The battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Antietem to name a few, were some of the most bloody of the war. The Union Army had changed commanders many times, among them Meade, Hooker, McClellan twice, Burnside, and Grant. Ulysses S. Grant was there to stay. Grant's best subordinate officer was General Sherman.
Sherman had taken command of the Western Theater and pushed Joseph Johnston off Lookout Mountain outside of Chattanooga, then maneuvered him out of position after position until Johnston fell back upon Atlanta, where Joe Johnston was relieved and the firebrand John Bell Hood took command. This was significant because Hood's aggressiveness, it was feared by his troops, would surely get them killed (Carter, 1976). They were not very wrong. Hood attacked Sherman almost immediately, launching several failed attacks intended to push Sherman away from Atlanta. They all failed and weakened Hood's army so severely he had to give up Atlanta and allow Sherman many options on what to do next.
Sherman's intent was to tear through the heart of Georgia wrecking the infrastructure of the state. Sherman's orders upon leaving Atlanta were "that nothing be left intact that might be of use to the rebs when they returned" (Foote, 1974, p. 641). Sherman's orders for the march were similar, though he instructed his troops not to enter civilian dwellings or commit any trespass (Foote, 1974). Sherman did order his men to "forage liberally" (Oates, 1998) in organized details. Sherman wanted to bring the war to a region of the South previously untouched, middle Georgia.
The tactic of foraging has certainly been used throughout history. Sun Tzu wrote essays about the art of war around 500 BC and even that far back the concept he proposed was "the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy" (Griffith, 1971, p. 74). When discussing doctrinal stability, Archer Jones writes "the Union's logistic strategy never had a chance to demonstrate its effectiveness" (1987, p. 417) because what ultimately shortened the war was Southern troops deserting their units. This may have been a lesser factor, but was likely brought about due to raids like Sherman's that showed the true vulnerability of the South.
The destruction of the South's infrastructure such as rail lines, bridges
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Sherman, General Sherman, John Bell Hood, Oates, Foote,
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