Monday, December 22, 2014

Sherman's March to the Sea

I have been neglecting my Civil War posts - but I can't ignore Sherman's March to the Sea. This week is the end - he reached Savannah, Georgia on December 21, 1864.


The story - after taking Atlanta, Sherman stayed there; Confederate General John B. Hood took his army west, after a while, hoping to cut Sherman's lines, renew the war in the west (the Confederacy was being sliced up by this time, but that still left big chunks of land under their control - geography was their friend), and generally - find something useful to do. Sherman chased him around for a while, but not long - he gave it up, figuring that the Union forces in the west were more than adequate for the task. Instead, Sherman would take his army and head for the Atlantic - cutting the Confederacy into smaller pieces; wrecking their means of supporting the war; and teaching them what it meant to lose a war. So off they went, and they made gruesome work of it.

Behind him, John Schofield and George Thomas handled Hood easily enough. At the end of November, Hood wrecked his army with direct attacks on Schofield's entrenchments at the Franklin. Hood didn’t have much left after that, but Thomas took a couple weeks to finish him off - but on December 15 and 16, at the Battle of Nashville, he attacked, and didn’t leave much doubt about it. Hood’s army was ruined, taken out of the war, and the Union got on with the job of finishing the Rebels off.

Sherman’s army was already well on their way by then, though no one knew it. When he headed east from Atlanta, he cut off all ties with the rest of the United States. No communications, only the supplies he could carry - but his armies lived off the land, while wrecking it for the Confederacy. They tore Georgia apart - destroying everything of use to the enemy - the food supplies (still producing in this part of the country), industry, transportation, everything. By this time in the war, the places that had seen fighting - Virginia (especially the north), big chunks of Tennessee, Mississippi and such - had been ravaged for years; they could not support what was left of the Confederate armies. But the deep south had been spared - it still could supply Lee and the other armies still in the field - but not when Sherman was done with them. He destroyed that resource base, destroyed the transportation need to get supplies to Virginia. And on top of that, a big part of his goal was to show them the war was over except for the formalities - that Union armies could come and go as they pleased and do as they pleased...

It's hard to argue with the results. Sherman certainly demonstrated that the confederacy was beaten, and had best give up. He wrecked Georgia, and even if Lee and Johnston hadn't been finally beaten in the field in early 1865, they would probably have had no means of carrying on much longer. They were running out of room anyway; and by the end of Sherman's march, he'd reached the southern border of Virginia. At the same time, though the march wrought havoc on the south, there wasn't a lot of direct violence - property was ruined; lives were generally spared.

Still. A thing that works in one context might not be right for another; a thing that seems just and effective in one place, might not be so in another. You can detect the ghost of Sherman and his marchers in many of the wars we've fought since. It was immediately applied to the plains Indians - Sherman and Sheridan (who did the same thing to the Shenandoah) were in charge of those campaigns, and adopted a similar scorched earth policy. You can see its legacy in World War II's strategic bombing campaigns - hoping to destroy the enemies' ability to make war; and to demonstrate to the civilians that they were losing, and should surrender now. But whatever you think of what Sherman did - those later campaigns were a different sort of affair. Starting with the fact that the campaigns against the Sioux and Cheyenne and such were aimed as much against people as resources - they were genocidal, or at least willing to be genocidal - and the talk was certainly genocidal. And in WWII, there was no pretense at sparing the lives of civilians - bombing campaigns were meant to kill people, as much as to destroy war resources. No one pretended otherwise.

They were terrorism. And so was Sherman,strictly speaking. He certainly thought so - whatever he might have called it, his goal was to teach he south that they had lost, and break their will to continue fighting. That is what terrorism is - attacking not military targets in an effort to break the will of the population to fight. And - it might have worked in 1864 - though the history of the south after the Civil War tends to undermine that theory. It certainly didn't work in WWI or WWII - Zeppelin bombings didn't break the English in the Great War; the Blitz didn't break them in the second war; neither Germany or Japan broke, on the home front, in WWII, for all the devastation raised on them from the sky. Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have convinced the Emperor to intervene to force his more suicidal officers to surrender - but that is all. Even on the plains - the US did destroy the power of the plains tribes, but they did it by sheer force of numbers, and by obliterating their food supply. Which is what really worked against Georgia and the Shenandoah in 1864 (and worked against the Japanese in 1945) - destroying resources made it impossible for the CSA or Imperial Japan to resist. (Germany was beaten by main force: they maintained their war production fairly well to the end. In WWI, they were beaten largely by the blockade, which also ruined their resources, and starved the people to the point where they did turn against their government. That, in fact, might come closer to a parallel with Sherman - the British blockade starved them, without killing people openly; as did Sherman. Maybe economic warfare does work, when not coupled with (too much) open violence - bombs made people fight harder; hunger convinces them that getting rid of the Tsar or the Kaiser can save them. A thought anyway.)

So in the end - you have an event that in itself was very effective - not all that excessive - and, well - the Confederacy deserved what they got, and a good deal more. But - but - the precedents were bad; and in the back of my mind, it's hard to avoid the thought that what really won the war (in this part of the South) was the combination of John Hood heading of for nowhere and Schofield and Thomas blasting his army to shreds. Once the southern armies were gone - the war was won. Sherman gets the press - but Thomas and Schofield (and Grant and Sheridan) did the work.

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