- Historic Sites
More than any other Civil War general, says a distinguished British critic, he grasped the possibilities and requirements of warfare in the modern age
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
Sherman’s own habit of living “rough” made his troops more ready to follow his example, while his lack of regard for outward appearance and the trappings of dignity strongly appealed to such pioneer types. So did his air of restless energy and constant alertness. At night he would often be seen prowling around the camp with his feet in old slippers, his legs covered only by a pair of red flannel drawers, his tall, spare body wrapped in a travel-worn dressing gown, with sometimes a short blue cape or cloak over all as a concession to convention. He was the lightest sleeper in his army, and by four o’clock in the morning liked to be up and about, thinking or listening—for that, he said, was “the best time to hear any movement at a distance.” While his eccentricities endeared him to the troops, his alertness inspired their confidence, and “There’s Uncle Billy. All’s right,” became a common saying.
More forgiving than most commanders where tactical errors occurred, knowing that the enemy’s resistance and counteraction is the most incalculable factor in war, Sherman would rarely tolerate excuses for delays in the movement of supplies, believing that, by due foresight, preparation, and initiative, material obstacles could always be overcome. Those who obstructed or clung to the letter of regulations suffered sharply from his tongue. One officer who made difficulties was spurred to overcome them by the vehement retort, “If you don’t have my army supplied, and keep it supplied, we’ll eat your mules up, sir—eat your mules up.” Later in the advance, when there was urgent need to replace a burnt railroad bridge and the chief engineer estimated that he would require four days for the task, Sherman is credited with the reply, “Sir, I give you forty-eight hours or a position in the front ranks.”
When he had taken Atlanta, Sherman took a much bolder course, which carried greater strategic risks but diminished tactical risks. He felt sure that if he could march through Georgia and wreck its railway system, and then continue in the same way through South and North Carolina, the psychological impact of this strategic thrust into the heart of the South, coupled with the material effect of stopping the northward flow of supplies to Richmond and Lee’s army, would produce the collapse of the Confederacy’s resistance. So, ignoring Hood’s army, which he had forced to evacuate Atlanta, he abandoned his own line of supply and set out on his famous “march to the sea” through Georgia—moving with the minimum of transport and living on the country while destroying its railways. Starting from Atlanta in mid-November, he reached the outskirts of Savannah within four weeks and there reopened his communications, this time by sea. A discerning Confederate commander and historian, General E. P. Alexander, wrote that “the moral effect of this march … was greater than would have been the most decided victory.”
At the beginning of February, 1865, Sherman moved northward through the Carolinas toward Lee’s rear. By mid-March, after reaching North Carolina, he heard from Grant that Lee’s army “is now demoralized and deserting very fast, both to us and to their homes.” Yet Grant’s own army was still immobilized in the trench lines round Petersburg and Richmond, where it had been brought to a halt the previous summer. It was not until the beginning of April that Grant resumed his advance. This now had a quick and dramatic success—retreating from Richmond, Lee’s army was headed off and forced to surrender within a week.
Sherman’s conduct of operations during the cam»3 paigns of 1864 and 1865 showed that the North had found a strategist who had diagnosed the causes of the prevalent paralysis and developed a remedy for it.
The increased facility of supply that came with the development of railroads had led commanders to build up increased numbers of troops at the railhead, without pausing to consider the hampering effect on their own power of maneuver. Thus the first result of the new means of strategic movement was, paradoxically, to reduce strategic mobility. The railroad fostered the expansion of armies—it could forward and feed many more than could operate effectively. It also tended to inflate their wants and demands, so that they became more closely tied to the railhead.
A further result was that their own strategic vulnerability increased because their sustenance and progress “hung on a thread”—the long stretch of rail line behind them, which could be all too easily cut by a small force maneuvering in such wide spaces. The Northern armies, accustomed to more plentiful rations, were more susceptible to paralysis than their opponents. That became increasingly evident in 1864, when, with growing strength, they pushed deeper into hostile territory. In the western theater the precarious situation of such rail-fed masses was exploited by the mobile raids of such brilliant Confederate cavalry leaders as Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan.
Sherman grasped the problem and produced a solution—the only one then technically possible. The enemy had struck him through his rail communications; he would strike at theirs, while immunizing himself. He saw that to regain and secure mobility he must free himself from dependence on a fixed line of supply. So he organized a force that was self-contained as to supplies, carrying the necessary minimum along with it and supplementing this by foraging from the countryside through which it passed. He then cut loose from his own railway.