To many Southerners then and now, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman was and is considered the Devil Incarnate. To his troops he was affectionately known as ‘Uncle Billy’. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Sherman began the war as an infantry brigade commander. After the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas to the Confederate victors) Abraham Lincoln saw that Sherman was one of the few officers who distinguished himself and promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers (effective May 17, 1861, with seniority in rank to Ulysses S. Grant, his future commander). He was assigned as second-in-command of the Department of the Cumberland but succeeded to command of the entire department in October 1861 when Robert Anderson (of Fort Sumter fame) retired due to failing health.
Within a month Sherman asked to be relieved when he had a breakdown. By December he was sufficiently recovered to return to duty under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. Operating from Paducah, Kentucky, he provided logistical support for the operations of Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to capture Fort Donelson. Grant, the previous commander of the District of Cairo, had recently won a major victory at Fort Henry and been given command of the ill-defined District of West Tennessee. Although Sherman was technically the senior officer at this time, he wrote to Grant, “I feel anxious about you as I know the great facilities [the Confederates] have of concentration by means of the River and R Road, but [I] have faith in you — Command me in any way.”
Grant had been promoted to the command of the Army of the Tennessee on March 1, 1862. This partnership of the two was to lead to the ultimate Union victory in the Western Theater. They were severely tested at Shiloh in early April. but retrieved victory from the jaws of defeat on the second day of fighting. Grant’s and later Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee had nothing but victories.
They captured Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 splitting the Confederacy in half. Jefferson Davis had called the Mississippi River town, ” Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” The Army of the Tennessee, now commanded by Sherman, participated in the defeat of Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga in November 1863.
When Grant was promoted to General-in-Chief Sherman succeeded to the overall command of the Western Theater. Sherman proceeded to invade the state of Georgia with three armies: the 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland under George Henry Thomas, the 25,000-strong Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson, and the 13,000-strong Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield.
He fought a lengthy campaign of maneuver through mountainous terrain against Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, attempting a direct assault only at the disastrous Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. In July, the cautious Johnston was replaced by the more aggressive John Bell Hood, who played to Sherman’s strength by challenging him to direct battles on open ground. Meanwhile, in August, Sherman “learned that I had been commissioned a major-general in the regular army, which was unexpected, and not desired until successful in the capture of Atlanta.”
Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign concluded successfully on September 2, 1864, with the capture of the city, which Hood had been forced to abandon. This success made Sherman a household name and helped ensure Lincoln’s presidential re-election in November. Lincoln’s defeat could well have meant the victory of the Confederacy, as the Democratic Party platform called for peace negotiations based on the acknowledgment of the Confederacy’s independence. Thus the capture of Atlanta, coming when it did, may have been Sherman’s greatest contribution to the Union cause.
After ordering almost all civilians to leave the city in September, Sherman gave instructions that all military and government buildings in Atlanta be burned, although many private homes and shops were burned as well. This was to set a precedent for future behavior by his armies.
Meanwhile, after the November elections, Sherman began a march with 62,000 men to the port of Savannah, Georgia, living off the land and causing, by his own estimate, more than $100 million in property damage. It was a huge sum for 1864. Sherman called this harsh tactic of material war “hard war,” often seen as a species of total war. At the end of this campaign, known as Sherman’s March to the Sea, his troops captured Savannah on December 21, 1864. Sherman then dispatched a famous message to Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas present.
If the march through Georgia was devastating Sherman’s March through the Carolinas was even more so. He persuaded Grant that he should march north through the Carolinas, destroying everything of military value along the way, similar to his march to the sea through Georgia. Sherman was particularly interested in targeting South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, for the effect it would have on Southern morale.
Sherman’s army commenced toward Columbia, South Carolina, in late January 1865. His 60,079 men were divided into three wings: the Army of the Tennessee, under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (who succeeded to command after James McPherson was killed during the Atlanta Campaign), the Army of the Ohio under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, and two corps, the XIV and XX, under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, which was later formally designated the Army of Georgia. Reinforcements arrived regularly during his march north, and by April 1 he commanded 88,948 men.
The Confederates were hopelessly outnumbered. The primary force in the Carolinas was the battered Army of Tennessee, again under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston (who had been relieved of duty by Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the Atlanta Campaign against Sherman). His strength was recorded in mid-March at 9,513 and 15,188 by mid-April. The army was organized into three corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart, and Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee. Also in the Carolinas were cavalry forces from the division of Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton and a small number in Wilmington under Gen. Braxton Bragg.
His army proceeded north through South Carolina against light resistance from the Confederate troops Upon hearing that Sherman’s men were advancing on corduroy roads through the Salkehatchie swamps at a rate of a dozen miles per day, Johnston “made up his mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.”
Sherman captured the state capital of Columbia, South Carolina, on February 17, 1865. Fires began that night and by next morning most of the central city was destroyed. The burning of Columbia has engendered controversy ever since, with some claiming the fires were accidental, others a deliberate act of vengeance, and still others that the retreating Confederates burned bales of cotton on their way out of town. One Union soldier wrote,”Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it will end!”
The Union Army destroyed everything of military value in its path. They burned barns, government buildings and warehouses. They paid special attention to the railroads. Sherman’s men removed the rails, softened them over fires made from the sleepers and wrapped them around poles and trees. They came to called Sherman’s neckties or bowtie’s.
Sherman’s Carolina Campaign, in which his troops marched 425 miles (684 km) in 50 days, had been similar to his march to the sea through Georgia, although physically more demanding. However, the Confederate forces opposing him were much smaller and more dispirited. When Joseph E. Johnston met with Jefferson Davis in Greensboro in mid-April, he told the Confederate president:
Our people are tired of the war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight. Our country is overrun, its military resources greatly diminished, while the enemy’s military power and resources were never greater and may be increased to any extent desired. … My small force is melting away like snow before the sun.
On April 18, three days after the death of President Abraham Lincoln, Johnston signed an armistice with Sherman at Bennett Place, a farmhouse near Durham Station. Sherman got himself into political hot water by offering terms of surrender to Johnston that encompassed political issues as well as military, without authorization from General Grant or the United States government. The confusion on this issue lasted until April 26, when Johnston agreed to purely military terms and formally surrendered his army and all Confederate forces in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.