Sherman?s Army: An Examination Of The March To The
Sea And BeyondSherman’s Army:
An Examination of The March to the Sea and Beyond
The Civil War is arguably the most interesting and enigmatic subject in American history. Even after rigorous study of the topic, it is difficult to fully comprehend the motives for the war. Part of this is because of the inherent complexity of the conflict, but it can also be attributed to the manner about which it is written historically. Much of the military history of the Civil War concerns itself with the broad tactics and strategies of the armies. Historians often focus solely on the command structure of the respective forces, and lump the soldiers under those commands in one group. An exception to this is Joseph T. Glathaar’s work, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolina Campaigns.
The title of Glathaar’s work is misleading – it implies that it is just another military history. Glathaar, however, examines Sherman’s march through the lenses of the common soldier, making the work more of a social history. Glathaar uses the diaries and journals of the enlisted men and junior officers to scrutinize their views of battle, their reasons for fighting, blacks, southern whites, camp life, foraging and pillaging, and the march itself. Glathaar makes it clear that he is not seeking to pass judgment on the participants of one of the most controversial military campaigns in history:
My objective, however, is neither to condemn nor condone the behavior of Sherman and his men. As I see it, my job is not to cast moral judgment upon the conduct of others; rather, it is to ascertain exactly what they did and understand why they did it.
Glathaar introduces the subject with a brief overview of the political and military situation in early 1864. The Army of the Potomac had experienced a series of military defeats, and President Lincoln had lost faith in several of his highest military commanders, resulting in their termination. Most notable among these was General McClellan, who accepted the Democratic nomination for President in 1864. It appeared as though the failures of the Army of the Potomac would essentially take the Presidency away from the Republicans until General Sherman’s successful Atlanta campaign. Therefore, the March to the Sea was not only strategically important in a military sense; its success or failure could determine the political leadership of the entire Union.
Necessarily, Glathaar also conducts an abbreviated examination of General Sherman’s character and his relationship with Ulysses S. Grant. Grant and Sherman “had forged over the course of several years a strong friendship and a high-level working relationship that was probably unequaled in military history.” Their relationship stemmed from their common backgrounds (geographic and education) and their abhorrence for military pomp and circumstance; both Sherman and Grant believed that the military’s primary purpose “was to wage war, not to parade.”
Their most significant bond, however, was their sordid backgrounds. Sherman had suffered a nervous breakdown early in the war, while Grant had combated alcoholism. Throughout the war, their peers consistently challenged their capabilities, which only strengthened their friendship and resolution to succeed. Indeed, Sherman once remarked that, “He Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now sir, we stand by each other always.”
After the brief scrutiny of Union command, Glathaar focuses primarily on the attitudes and experiences of the common soldier, only invoking Sherman’s name to indicate the reverence the army had for their commander. Glathaar first establishes the composition of Sherman’s Army. Sherman amassed an army primarily composed of veterans, as:
Sherman realized from the start that in campaigns to Savannah and through the Carolinas the burdens were going to shift from headquarters to lower-grade officers and enlisted men. Once the march began, success would depend on the ability of company-level soldiers to perform critical tasks independent of high-level officer supervision.
As the army was composed primarily of soldiers and officers with several years of service, Sherman’s troops had more campaign experience than any other Federal Army. In a random sample, Glathaar determines that over 50 percent of Sherman’s captains and 90 percent of the lieutenants had served in the war as enlisted men, which increased the troops’ confidence in command. The troops also underwent a grueling physical prior to the Savannah campaign to weed out those soldiers unfit for the expected rigors of the march. The result was that those selected for the campaign had increased morale.
The veteran composition of Sherman’s army and the resulting high morale were largely responsible for differentiating Sherman’s men from the Army of the Potomac. The majority of men involved in the Savannah and Carolina campaigns had faced combat; this necessarily led to the heightened sense of respect and camaraderie indicative of Sherman’s troops. In addition, Sherman’s Army was far from the District of Columbia. This distance made the army less vulnerable to the political constraints that faced the Army of the Potomac, which was constantly conducting drills and parades for the entertainment of Washington bureaucrats and politicians. Glathaar illustrates the disparity between Sherman’s Army and the Army of the Potomac in his introduction:
The army that marched with Shermanwas vastly different from the Army of the Potomac. Sherman’s was an army of veterans, men who had learned the art of soldiering through several years of actual campaigning. Nearly all the troops had received their training in the West, where prolonged campaigns, lengthy marches, supply shortages, and success in battle were the rule rather than the exceptionAt the expense of rigid discipline, precision drills, and tidy appearance, all trademarks of the Army of the Potomac, Sherman’s command developed a sense of self-reliancebased on several years of active campaigning.
The high morale indicative of Sherman’s army can also be attributed to the soldiers’ keen awareness of “whom and for what they were fighting.” The overarching sentiment in the army of veterans was patriotism; it follows that the majority of soldiers fought for the restoration of the Union. Glathaar uses excerpts from soldier’s diaries to establish their view of the cause. Consider this statement from a soldier that admitted he would “never tirn my back to a reb as long as I have two armes to fight,” :
An we now like true Soldier go determed not to yeal one inch rather than yeal. We will Stane this Suthrn Soil with our blood. And leave meney of our boddyes there in memory of the day that we Stood like a Stone wall and fight to the last to Conquer this Rebelien or Die.
It is interesting to note that the majority of Sherman’s men did not fight for the purpose of emancipation. In fact, many were unapologetic about their racism. Only after witnessing the barbarism of slavery during the Savannah and Carolina campaigns did their attitudes toward the institution change. Indeed, “most troops began to see emancipation as a powerful tool in crushing secession.”
Glathaar also discusses the election of 1864, and how it related to the cause. Sherman’s army abhorred the Copperheads, and vehemently supported Lincoln’s reelection. It was commonplace for the troops to discuss the political situation around the campfire after a long day of campaigning. The idea that Abraham Lincoln ” had come to represent the struggle to preserve the Union,” is evidenced by the polling data. In states where election returns were available, a staggering 86 percent of soldiers cast their ballot for Lincoln. Indeed, many of Sherman’s soldiers feared that McClellan would end the war without any resolution. One soldier wrote to his girlfriend, “If McClellan gets the reins he will have peace sooner than Abe, but by letting them have their slaves. Then we can fight them again in ten years. But let Old Abe settle it, and it is always settled.”
While Sherman’s Army did not have incredibly favorable opinions of Blacks, they loathed Southern whites even more. The soldiers not only believed that the educated class of the South had caused the war, they also saw that the same class was responsible for the social stratification of the region. A member of Sherman’s staff wrote, “Talk about negro slavery! If we haven’t seen white slaves from Atlanta to Goldsboro, I don’t know what the word means.” Interestingly, the army’s hatred of the whole of Southern aristocracy did not prevent some of the men from forming intimate relationships with women who were not spoken for.
Perhaps the most controversial subject broached by Glathaar is the pillaging and destruction wrought by Sherman’s Army. The destruction that Sherman’s men left in their wake has been somewhat exaggerated and demonized by popular culture. In truth, the mobile nature of Sherman’s campaign prevented the establishment of viable supply lines, and made foraging for food and supplies a necessary endeavor. Sherman’s plan of selective destruction was designed to make the South “feel the hard hand of war.” The destruction of railways and private property was not only aimed at the defeat of the Confederate army, “but also had to break the will of the Southern people to resist Federal authority.” In a review of Glathaar’s work, Richard M. McMurry stresses the importance of this distinction:
Freed from the necessity of daily fighting, Sherman’s men could concentrate upon their main mission – the wrecking of the South’s infrastructure, especially its railroads, and the crippling of the rebels’ will to continue the war. By demonstrating both the helplessness of the Confederate government and the danger and suffering to which continued fighting would expose the families of southern soldiers, Sherman’s march helped to demoralize the rebel armies.
Glathaar does not make pillaging and destruction the focal point of his work, however. His intent is to offer an expansive social history of the men who participated in Sherman’s march. In his introduction, Glathaar indicates that only one scholar before him had undertaken a similar task. Bell Irvin Wiley authored the classic The Life of Billy Yank, which Glathaar considers the “starting point for all work on the common soldier.” Yet, Wiley’s work failed to examine thoroughly Sherman’s Army. Indeed, The Life of Billy Yank has less than two dozen references to Sherman’s men, instead focusing on the Army of the Potomac.
A more recent publication, James M. McPherson’s For Cause and Conflict, also concentrated on the social history of the Civil War. Contrary to Glathaar, McPherson’s work has a definite thesis: that the men who fought in the Civil War maintained their convictions throughout the conflict, and remained stringently attached to the principles of liberty, freedom, and justice. A review of McPherson’s work illustrates his thesis further:
Soldiers on both sides harkened back to the Founding Fathers, and the ideals of the American Revolution. They fought to defend their country, either the Union–“the best Government ever made”–or the Confederate states, where their very homes and families were under siege. And they fought to defend their honor and manhood. “I should not lik to go home with the name of a couhard,” one Massachusetts private wrote, and another private from Ohio said, “My wife would sooner hear of my death than my disgrace.” Even after three years of bloody battles, more than half of the Union soldiers reenlisted voluntarily. “While duty calls me here and my country demands my services I should be willing to make the sacrifice,” one man wrote to his protesting parents. And another soldier said simply, “I still love my country.”
Though McPherson and Glathaar both make extensive use of the journals and letters of the common soldier, McPherson addresses the soldiers’ motivations for fighting without broaching more controversial subjects like slavery and racism. Indeed, Glathaar and McPherson’s works differ not only in content, but also in the messages each seeks to convey. McPherson is wholly intent on establishing the reasons men fought in the war; Glathaar also establishes the cause, but only as a means of establishing the sociology of Sherman’s Army:
Against this background of the veteran character of Sherman’s army, I have attempted to develop several peripheral themes. First, the plethora of campaign studies havestripped away much of the reality of warfare. War as seen from a headquarters field tent, although important in understanding the campaign or battle, is very different from war from a soldier’s perspective.
Glathaar is not the first to investigate Sherman’s Army, however. The difference between his work and that of most other historians is his synthesis of the motivations and feelings of the common soldier within the larger context of Sherman’s march to the sea. In a review of Glathaar’s work, John T. Hubbell indicates that Glathaar stresses the role of the enlisted man versus those in high command. Hubbell writes:
Others (most notably B.H. Liddell-Hart and Lloyd Lewis) have focused on Sherman and the grand strategy that lead to the sweep through Gerogia and the Carolinas. Though important, such studies necessarily lose the perspective of the soldiers who fought the war and are to that extent unrealistic in their portrayal of the war.
In another review of the work, John C. Barrett praises Glathaar for his endeavor. Barrett writes that, “The in-depth look at the common soldiers who marched with Sherman marks this volume’s contribution to Civil War literature. Glathaar is the first historian not only to record fully what these veterans did, but why they did it.” Richard McMurry also concedes that Glathaar’s work is deserved of a place in American history: “Glathaar has produced a fine volume that adds greatly to our knowledge of nineteenth-century Americans and their role in the Civil War.”
The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolina Campaigns certainly has historiographical merit. Glathaar offers a fascinating work that succeeds in entertaining and educating the reader. Through his extensive research on the pervasive attitudes of Sherman’s soldiers, Glathaar’s work humanizes the army and enlightens the reader. The sheer complexity of the war becomes apparent through the work, yet certainly gives the reader a greater understanding of the greatest conflict in American history.
1. Barrett, John G. “The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolina Campaigns.” The American Historical Review 91, no. 2 (1986): 469.
2. For Cause and Conflict.” Civil War Book Review. n.d., <http://www.civilwarbookreview.com> (5 December 2000).
3. Glathaar, Joseph T. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolina Campaigns. New York: New York University Press. 1985.
4. Hubbell, John T. “Atlanta to the Sea.” Reviews in American History. 14, no. 3 (1986): 377-381.
5. McMurry, Richard M. “The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolina Campaigns.” The Journal of Southern History. 52, no. 3 (1986): 468.