August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
by Burke Davis Random House Photographs, maps 320 pages, $12.95
On November 16, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman, with sixtytwo thousand men, set off “on a thousand-mile foray through the heart of the reeling Confederacy that would leave a path of destruction eighty miles wide” and for the first and only time, Davis writes, expose Americans to “the terrors of total warfare.”
The basic facts of Sherman’s fearful march are well known—the foraging, the senseless looting, the joyous slaves and brave Southern women, the acts of hideous cruelty and individual kindness, and so much burning that the marchers could follow those ahead of them by watching the billows of smoke in the sky. But the literally hundreds of participants and witnesses on whose previously unused testimony Burke Davis has based his new account give a shocking immediacy to the story.
For their task of destroying the South’s will to fight, Sherman’s men had some technically advanced equipment. Union regiments carried portable pontoon bridges, but what dismayed the Rebels most were the enemy’s new repeating rifles. “They say we are not fair,” a Federal soldier wrote, “that we have guns we load up on Sunday and shoot all the rest of the week.”
Sporadic efforts were made to control looting, but it was a hopeless task. To many of Sherman’s tough young soldiers, rioting, stealing, and bullying their way across the countryside was a “lark” they wished “would have no end. ”
South Carolina was the state that suffered most. Sherman felt that the South Carolinians, the original Secessionists, bore a major share of the blame for the war. In that state, he said, “the Devil himself couldn’t restrain my men.” He would not stand for killing civilians, however: “I don’t war on women and children.”
Davis depicts Sherman as a puzzling and fascinating man. Erratic, touchy, kindly and ruthless by turns, stubborn and brilliant, he was a man, as a friend said, who “never acknowledged an error and never repeated it.”