Of his contemplated foray through the fat farm lands that lay between Atlanta and the sea, a confident William Tecumseh Sherman wired U.S. Grant in the winter of 1964-65: "I can make the march and make Georgia howl."

He could indeed. But most accounts of the march itself have been relegated to the background; the focus has been on Sherman. The detail that has emerged has tended to be quantitative -- miles of railroad destroyed, numbers of houses burned or chickens stolen. What was missing were the physical and psychological dimensions of the story. How did Americans war on Americans? And at what costs?

In "Sherman's March," Civil War historian Burke Davis fills in the details of those five months of orchestrated hell and provides valuable insight into its enigmatic conductor. Piecing together accounts from the diaries, letters and published reminiscences of the invaders and the invaded, Davis constructs a grim and disquieting narrative of anything but a well-disciplined fighting machine cutting a surgically precise swath through the Confederate heartland.

"I don't war on women and children," Sherman assured an apprehensive Georgia minister. Yet in this last winter of the war, little else stood in the way of his army or his foraging "bummers." If not the intended targets of the campaign, they were certainly the victims.

Occasional acts of soldierly largesse were engulfed in the wave of plunder, arson, rape and wanton destruction that too often served as the invaders' calling card. Vandalism was commonplace: Among the booty lugged north was a golden figure of Christ that once stood in a Columbia, S.C., church. Fire was everywhere: Sherman's cavalry, south of Savannah, sent a signal to gunboats offshore by burning the local church; the South Carolina town of Barnwell was jocularly (and aptly) rechristened "Burnwell." At a local millowner's home in Fayetteville, troops improvised a makeshift game of skeet: mServants released chickens and ducks onto the back lawn as officers took aim from their seats on the porch.

Not surprisingly, the outmanned Confederates moved to check Union excesses, and a grisly round of reprisals -- Union troops murdered by rebels, and Confederate prisoners ordered to be executed in revenge -- was played out in South Carolina. It was a seamy underside of the war, removed from the likes of Little Round Top or Antietam by much more than geography.

At the center of the drama is Sherman. Davis rehearses the traditional Sherman, the professional soldier, who eschewed the Machiavellian intrigues of Union Army politics, distrusted journalists and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, had little time for abolition -- and none whatsoever for secession. As strategist, he brought an abrupt end to the vestiges of antebellum plantation society by administering a jarring dose of 20th-century total warfare. As tactician, he feinted toward unwanted Augusta; watched Confederates scramble to defend, then turned on Columbia, bringing the terrible truth home to a hoping-against-hope populace.

But another, troubling, aspect of Sherman's generalship emerges in this book. He could command, but would not -- or could not -- control. His orders were explicit: organized, liberal foraging; dwelling houses to remain inviolate. Yet, at times, it was a mob, not an army, that made Georgians (and Carolinians) howl.

When the general was confronted with direct evidence of a breakdown of discipline, whether in the form of a surly Union teamster telling the unrecognized Sherman to mind is own business or by a drunken troop tipping his stolen top hat in salute, he smiled and rode on. His reaction poses a troubling question: Did he choose wholesale destruction as the best military means of crushing the rebellion, or was his method merely one that dovetailed nicely with his inability to restrain?

Davis shines harsh light in the dark corners of a dark episode. He has shown that in cutting that swath through the countryside of the Confederacy, Sherman's army inflicted an even deeper scar on the psyche of its inhabitants -- scars that would not disappear with the spring planting and a good rain.