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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
Having shown in the march through Georgia how light an army could travel, Sherman now proved that it could move lighter still. Before starting northward through the Carolinas, he sought to convert his army “into a mobile machine willing and able to start at a moment’s notice and to subsist on the scantiest of food.” Although it was winter, officers as well as men were now made to bivouac in pairs under a strip of canvas stretched over sticks or boughs; all tents and camp furniture were discarded. Once again, as in his march on Atlanta, Sherman took a deceptive line between alternative objectives so that, time after time, his opponents could not concentrate their forces effectively to stop him.
Sherman’s flexible organization of his army contributed almost as much as his variability of direction to his continuous progress. Moving on a wide and irregular front—with four, five, or six columns, each covered by a cloud of foragers—if one was blocked, others would be pushing on. The opposing forces became so jumpy that they repeatedly gave way to the psychological pressure and fell back before they felt any serious physical pressure. The mere shout, “We’re Bill Sherman’s raiders, you’d better git,” sometimes sufficed to make opposing detachments retreat.
Sherman’s strategy, and grand strategy, foreshadowed the aim that was pursued in the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign of the Second World War. But that bombing offensive was too gradual in development to produce a quickly decisive effect, while it offered no such good opportunity for the opposing troops and people to escape from their leaders’ grip by desertion and surrender—for it is not possible to surrender to an attacker who stays aloft in the sky. A closer parallel to, and fulfillment of, Sherman’s strategy is to be found in the paralyzing and demoralizing shock effect, on the opposing armies and peoples simultaneously, of the blitzkriegs of 1939-41 carried out by the Germans, who combined deep thrusting armored forces with air attack.
Since General Heinz Guderian, the creator and leader of the panzer forces, has stated that he derived this new technique from my writings, it may be of historical interest to mention that the concept developed in my mind partly in studying the course and effect of Sherman’s operations.
This was the first war between modern democracies, and Sherman saw clearly that the resisting power of a democracy depends even more on the strength of the people’s will than on the strength of its armies. His unchecked march through the heart of the South, destroying its resources, was the most effective way to create and spread a sense of helplessness that would undermine the will to continue the war.
The havoc that his march produced in the Deep South left a legacy of bitterness in later years—more than in the immediate postwar years. That has recoiled on Sherman’s historical reputation. But it is questionable whether that bitterness or the impoverishment of the South would have been prolonged, or grave, if the peace settlement had not been dominated by the vindictiveness of the northern extremists who gained the upper hand after Lincoln’s assassination.
For Sherman himself bore in mind the need of moderation in making peace. That was shown in the generous terms of the agreement he drafted for the surrender of Johnston’s army—an offer for which he was violently denounced by the government in Washington. Moreover, he persistently pressed the importance, for the future of the forcibly reunited nation, of reconciling the conquered section by good treatment and help toward its recovery. His vision extended beyond the horizon of war to the peace that would follow.