After capturing Atlanta, General Sherman faced a potentially risky situation. He was deep in hostile territory, dependent for supplies and ammunition on the single-track railroad from Chattanooga and thus vulnerable to Hood’s still dangerous Rebel army. Indeed, Hood was quick to move against Sherman’s lifeline, forcing the Union general to divert most of his army to the defense of the railroad. After a month of inconclusive skirmishing, the two generals each made a crucial decision. Seeking to pull Sherman out of Georgia in pursuit, Hood moved north and threatened an invasion of Tennessee. Sherman’s decision was militarily more radical. Dispatching General George H. Thomas and reinforcements to Tennessee to keep a standing watch on Hood, he himself would cut his communications entirely and with 62,000 men march straight for the Atlantic coast.
Like Sheridan’s recent destruction of the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman’s March to the Sea was an exercise in total war. Its target was not the South’s armed forces, but instead its basic resources for making war. On November 15, leaving Atlanta in ruins, Sherman set out for Savannah on the coast. The reeling Confederacy could muster little more than cavalry to try to harass him. The Yankees were ordered to live off the land and destroy anything and everything they could not use. “The boys were allowed to do just as they pleased,” was how one of Sherman’s men put it; what pleased them was to break or burn whatever they encountered in their path. Railroads were systematically demolished. After the track sections were lifted, the rails were heated red-hot over bonfires of ties and twisted into “Sherman hairpins” around trees and telegraph poles. Mills and bridges and cotton gins were wrecked. Barns and smokehouses and corn cribs were set afire and domestic animals taken or slaughtered down to the last chicken. “What the inhabitants are going to do for subsistence is more than I can tell,” an Ohio soldier observed. “They must emigrate or starve.” In his official report on the campaign, Sherman estimated the damage at $100 million, four-fifths of it “simple waste and destruction.” Georgians called the 60-mile-wide swath across the state the “burnt country.”
Private dwellings were supposed to be spared, but it was an order not always enforced. Plantation houses in uncounted numbers were looted and ravaged, and many were then burned to the ground. The worst offenders came to be known as “bummers,” military stragglers—not all from Sherman’s army, to Southerners’ disgust—who turned into outright bandits. After witnessing the bummers sweep across her lands like locusts, a Georgia woman wrote in her diary, “ Such a day, if I live to the age of Methuselah, may God spare me from ever seeing again!”
On December 21 Sherman’s army captured Savannah and through it the Federal navy regained communications with the North. The March to the Sea, for all practical purposes, had taken Georgia out of the Confederacy.
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