Sherman’s March to the Sea

*Note: This post is part of an assignment for my AP US History students. You are welcome to comment even if you are not a student.

In 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was named Supreme Commander of the Union Army. This move left William Tecumseh Sherman as Union commander in the western theater of the Civil War. These men had a special bond, and Sherman would later remark:

“We were as brothers. I the older man in years, he the higher in rank.”

With a new strategy in place, Grant would focus his attention of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, and Sherman would lead a force of about 100,000 men from Chattanooga, TN toward Atlanta, GA.

Sherman’s courage can hardly be questioned. In the Battle of Shiloh, Sherman lost two of his horses and was shot in the hand, but he continued to fight. His actions and excitable personality led some to believe he was crazy. In fact, his plan to march through Georgia was doubted by many. Sherman and his army proved the naysayers wrong as they marched to Atlanta and destroyed virtually everything in their path. Dr. Frank Clark tells us that

“Sherman was not content simply to use what food and supplies he needed, but boasted that he would ‘smash things to the sea’ and make Georgia howl.  His men entered dwellings, taking everything of value that could be moved, such as silver plate and jewelry; and killed and left dead in the pens thousands of hogs, sheep and poultry. Many dwellings were burned without any justification. Sherman in his own Memoirs testifies to the conduct of his men, estimating that he had destroyed $80,000,000 worth of property of which he could make no use.”

And he didn’t stop there. In November of 1864, Sherman and his men marched all the way to Savannah, Georgia then on to South Carolina…finally ending in North Carolina.

In a letter to the city of Atlanta, Sherman said:

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”

Some historians have argued that Sherman’s campaign was too destructive. Others have argued that the infrastructure of the South had to be destroyed in order for the Civil War to come to an end.

So what do you think? Was William Tecumseh Sherman a hero or a villain?

Resources you may want to consult:
From PBS


Add yours
  1. 1

    Sherman was intelligent, he clearly was a psychopath. War gives crazy people excuses to do the horrible things they would like to have done prior to the war. (Note
    Abu Grabe!) You fail to mention the burning of Jackson, Ms. Twice!
    S.C. and N.C. When you wage war on women and children you are just being cruel!
    There is one in Tennessee who is, if possible hated as much as W.T. Sherman, his name is Fielding Hurst. Radical Republican Union Army. He owned slaves, had black Mistresses. lived in middle Tenn. Loved killing mutilating beheading civilians.
    Nathan Bedford Forrest pleaded with the Union to stop this murder of innocent people.
    NBF who was called much worse after Ft. Pillow (massacre) Yet, Included in his report besides the 197 white soldiers captured (and released) were 75 black males and 45 black women and Children!
    If there is a Hell, Sherman is there.

  2. 2

    Oh yes, Sherman the liberator. You may want to check out his desire to kill every man, woman and child of the plains Indians.
    Check out the Salt Creek Massacre.
    This didn’t free anyone.
    It is a stain on America forever.

  3. 3

    Can we look at this issue from a modern standpoint?

    Let’s assume the US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan decide to take a “total” approach to war. In doing so, they move from city to city and encounter women and children, as most men are at war. In these cities they enter the homes and take whatever they want from the civilians. They eat all of the food in the homes and storehouses, kill all of the livestock, pull up and burn all of the crops growing, destroy all home furnishings and then leave the inhabitants with only the clothes on their backs and no way of providing for their next meal. In addition, they burn most of the homes they enter thus leaving the women and children homeless as well….as winter approaches.

    In some towns, the forces come upon women working in factories. In these cases, the women are rounded up, along with their children and sent away by train to another country and are never heard from again. (Roswell Mills incident).

    US soldiers enter the homes of the citizens and steal whatever they need, or want, and collect souvenirs (jewelry, silver, art, etc) to take home to their loved ones back home.

    Tell me. Would we regard these to be acts of heroes or villains?

  4. 4

    With regards to Ledley Swain’s comment: What acts of brutality did Confederate troops wage against Northern civilians?

    Some point to the terrible conditions at Andersonville prison as mistreatment against POW’s. What these people fail to admit, or understand, is that the guards received the same rations as the prisoners due to the South’s supply lines and food sources being destroyed.

  5. 5


    Thanks for your comments. I think modern analogies are helpful, and I certainly understand what you’re trying to convey with the Afghanistan example.

    I intentionally don’t share my view on Sherman in this post (or with my students), but here are a few questions that I think everyone needs to consider as they “choose” a side.

    1. What is war? Are there any limits to what can/should take place during war? If so, where should the line be drawn?

    2. Can someone still be a hero in spite of their atrocities? Is taking a life an atrocity?

    3. Did the South get what they asked for? Would the South have acted the same way, given the chance? If so, does that justify the actions of the North?

    4. Are there universal standards for right and wrong? If so, can they be proven?


  6. 6


    Thanks for responding to my post. As a former history teacher myself I also tried to get my students to see both sides of an issue and was careful to not share my own personal views.

    As a current school principal (and Civil War buff) I admire the means by which you gave students an opportunity to share their views online. Good show!

    To answer your questions….

    1. I think there are limits to war, though I have always thought it curious that it is okay to kill enemies by shooting them, but not okay to kill them using mustard gas, or other “outlawed” means. Certainly the treatment of POW’s has its limits as defined by the Geneva Convention.

    2. Can someone by a hero even if they kill someone? Yes, I suppose someone can still be a war hero by killing the enemy. The mistreatment of civilians, however, would be over the line and make that person more of a war criminal.

    3. Did the South get what it asked for? Perhaps in some respects, but it depends on the viewpoint. What the South asked for was independence…so it did not get that. I know that is not what you meant but it is important to remember the viewpoint. If you meant did the South get what it deserved because they rebelled for independence, then I could argue, as I have above, that Sherman went way over the line. In punishing women, children and the 75 percent or more of Southerners who had nothing to do with slavery, Sherman caused many years of hardship.

    The second part of your question: I believe the South did have the opportunity to invade the North just after the Battle of Bull Run. And, no, I cannot see Lee allowing his men to commit the same atrocities.

    4. Universal standards? I suppose there are some in place already though they seem to frequently get ignored.

    Do you ever tell your students about Sherman’s actions against the Native Americans after the Civil War? That might help some of them make up their minds. I personally think he was insane and never fully recovered from his stay in the asylum in the years before the Civil War.

    Thanks for the discourse. Again, I admire your teaching methods and your encouragement to get kids to think beyond the stories in their textbooks.

  7. 7
    Paul wilcox

    When Sherman’s soldiers raided souithern plantations that was just what the slaveowners deserved. It would have been much better if they had given more of the wealth on the plantations to the freed slaves, but that did not happen. However, his army did issue Field Order #40 allowing former slaves to claim the well-known “40 acres and a mule”. UNfortunately that didn ‘t happen either, for many reasons. But it was the slaves whose labor made this wealth, and they had a right to it. IMO the burning of the slaveowners mansions was a pretty sight. Too bad more slaveowners weren’t in them at the time.

  8. 8
    Olivia Garber

    I think that in order to evaluate whether or not Sherman was a hero, you have to look at the problem from both sides of the conflict. To the south and the Confederacy, he was most definitely a villain. He was a nightmare that people prayed they would never have to encounter; the destruction he brought with him was cataclysmic. Sherman burned and tore apart everything he and his troops came across. I believe that if you were a member of the Confederate states, Sherman was as big a villain as they come. He threatened the way of life for those living in the south during that time. However, when looked at from a Union opinion, Sherman was a hero. His efforts allowed the Union to grab a foothold in their mission again. Without his march, the north would have had to deal with a Confederacy still abundant in supplies and spirit, but after both of those were dramatically damaged the south had a hard time keeping their heads up. Now in terms of history, Sherman was a hero. He worked to defend what he believed in. His methods may have been harsh, but he was dealing with an impossible issue that needed to be handled as soon as possible. Sherman knew it was time for the Civil War to be over, and he knew how to accomplish that even if it was controversial. It is in my opinion that looking back, without Sherman, it would have been very difficult to abolish slavery which was absolutely horrid. So in conclusion yes Sherman was ultimately a hero.

  9. 9

    In my eyes I see Sherman as a villain. He may have helped to end the civil war but two wrongs do not make a right. His actions were unnecessary, the situation could have been handled differently. All this is coming from an anti-war kind of person, however, so my eyes may be a little jaded to the consequences if he hadn’t done it. Terrorizing people into doing something you want them to do is wrong in so many ways.

  10. 10
    Morgan Beckerdite

    Although Sherman’s tactic helped win the war, it was cruel and inhumane. It destroyed the lives of innocent civilians. In the end, this tactic would only make reconstruction harder for the government. In some cases, the end does not justify the means. Unfortunately, civilians are killed and their homes are destroyed due to military activity all the time. This is something that should not happen. War should not take the lives of those who are not fighting. There are certain lines that should not be crossed.

  11. 11

    Although I do not support random acts of violence or justify Sherman’s brutality during this time, I have to award him the title of military hero. A great leader does what he must to ensure the better outcome for the people he leads. Although he was being unnecessarily cruel, his destruction contributed to the demoralization of many confederate soldiers as they watched their homes be desecrated and their families suffer. Was his plan not the most strategic and logical of all? Instead of strategizing to hunt and kill soldiers, Sherman went deeper and tried to win the war by changing people’s minds about whether fighting was worth the cost it took. Although lives are precious, he took something that could affect even people whose family was not involved in the war. I think his emotion-ripping take on battle was genius.

  12. 12
    Katlyn Lawhorne

    I think that, while Sherman’s actions were questionable in origin and destructive, whether he was a villain or a hero depends which side of the war you sympathized with. For example, if you lived in the North and sided with the Union, you would be more likely to think that Sherman’s actions were well-deserved punishments to the slave owners in the South. However, if you were a loyal member of the Confederacy, then you would be more likely to think he was a horrible person who was a great threat to the livelihoods of many Southerners. I personally think that he was a great war hero, but a war hero and a regular hero are two very different things. In war, actions that would not be tolerated normally become not only tolerable, but expected. His actions were very heroic towards his fellow Northerners and in the context of war. When taken out of that context, Sherman becomes a man who steals from those who have done nothing to him simply because he can, and if that doesn’t constitute him being a villain, I don’t know what would.

  13. 13
    Max Hamlyn

    I believe that Sherman did what he needed to do to win the war. Destruction of private property and food goods happens in every war. The United States used herbicide and carpet bombed suspected Vietcong dwellings during the Vietnam War causing famine throughout all of Vietnam. Is this any better than Sherman?

  14. 15

    I think we tend to talk about Sherman’s tactics as economic warfare, glossing over the fact that these things don’t simply destroy property, they kill people.
    According to the Freedmen’s Bureau, 1/4 of the freed slaves died of famine or disease after the war. That’s a death toll of 850,000. Records from refuge camps for blacks often show much higher rates death of around 50%, so there is no reason to think the number is exaggerated. The most accepted estimates for whites in the South is 50,000 and another 50,000 missing. (This is nearly 1/9 of the total Southern population! If you killed 1/9 of the American population, that be 34-35 million people.) It’s in no small part to Sherman destroying civilian infrastructure and food supplies that so many civilians died, since very few died in actual battles.

    Since the Union was near victory and could have won without Sherman’s March to the Sea, I see little reason to credit him as even a hero to the former slaves. Wars are best kept on the battle field as much as possible.

  15. 16

    war begins when diplomacy fails. when one is clad in a uniform, traveling gear, weapons – and his opponent is a woman her five year old son – then that is not war is it? but it still happens, like the blitz or the dresden firestorm.
    war is considered incarnate

  16. 17

    After 150 years the healing no were near complete. He was a crazed killer with the governments blessing behind him. Only a handful of rich opportunist wanted the war anyway. Lincoln was a smart compassionate man that in my opinion was played. Yes slavery is a horrific inhumane thing and still going on strong today. America righted a wrong as most civilized society do. The country would have been a lot better without him being in the fray. Just look up some of the old pre-war cartoon drawings showing certain union fat cats by name coming south so they can rebuild it after its been destroyed maybe a few generations from now will get the truth on who was pulling the strings on the darkest time in our country history so far. I could right a page about his part in the genocide of our native American. Yes he should have been taken out at birth!

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