Portrait of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. ( Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In the autumn of 1863, a Union general with a sandy-colored beard and a piercing gaze produced a grim assessment of conditions in the South that foreshadowed one of the Civil War’s most controversial campaigns.

Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman dispatched his appraisal to Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington after the fall of Vicksburg in July. Halleck was anticipating the possibility of reestablishing loyal governments in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, and he asked Sherman for his views.

Sherman’s response, written from his camp along the Big Black River in Mississippi, was uncompromising.

Planters in territory controlled by Union armies still pined for a revival of Confederate fortunes that would restore their slaves and privileges, Sherman believed, while the region’s small farmers and mechanics were too easily manipulated by politicians who favored secession. Political ineptitude plagued weak-willed Southern Unionists, while another class — the “young bloods of the South” — loved the thrill of combat. “War suits them,” Sherman believed, “and the rascals are brave, fine riders, bold to rashness, and dangerous subjects in every sense.”

All things considered, continued instability seemed likely unless belligerent Southerners were made to suffer for the conflict Sherman blamed them for starting. “War is upon us, none can deny it,” Sherman told Halleck. “I would not coax them, or meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.”

After his capture of Atlanta less than a year later, the wiry, intense Union general departed for the seacoast port of Savannah with 62,000 troops in a campaign that brought the horror of the war deep into the Confederacy.

The March to the Sea, which culminated with the fall of Savannah in December 1864, cut a swath of torn-up railroads, pillaged farms and burned-out plantations through the Georgia countryside. After reaching Savannah, Sherman extended his campaign of destruction into the Carolinas. Like Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., was consumed in flames.

With the march, Sherman hoped to deprive troops of food and other material support. Guided by his view of Southern culpability for the war, Sherman had another objective as well — the demoralization of the Southern civilian population.

“It’s very much about saying, ‘Here’s the power of the Union army,’ ” said historian Anne Sarah Rubin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Sherman’s purpose, she said, was to convey to the South that “you cannot stop us. You cannot resist us. You just need to give up.”

In the South, civilians followed the Union advance through Georgia with dread.

“Georgia has been desolated,” observed Emma Florence LeConte in her diary after the fall of Savannah, and she feared that South Carolina was next. “They are preparing to hurl destruction upon the State they hate most of all, and Sherman the brute avows his intention of converting South Carolina into a wilderness.”

In the years to come, this view became widely accepted throughout the South, but Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas was not an exercise in gratuitous barbarity. President Abraham Lincoln and his generals had come to believe that the Union needed to target not only the Confederate armies but the morale of the civilian population that supported them, said Christian Keller, a history professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

The “hard war” policy of the North was manifest as early as the summer of 1862, Keller said, when Gen. John Pope assumed command of Union forces in north-central Virginia. Pope ordered the destruction of any home from which Federal troops were fired upon and the exile of any Virginian unwilling to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. He also warned that anyone living within five miles of a road or telegraph line damaged by rebels would be required to repair the damage. The Confederates responded by declaring that Pope and his officers “were not entitled to be considered as soldiers” if captured.

Although Sherman’s March to the Sea and his campaign in the Carolinas differed in scale from Pope’s policies in north-
central Virginia and similarly severe actions in the Shenandoah Valley, it was consistent with the approach increasingly favored by Lincoln and some of his generals, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Keller said.

“What Sherman is doing in Georgia and the Carolinas is his manifestation, his personal take, on the evolution of an overall federal policy that has been moving forward since 1862,” Keller said.

Sherman was born in 1820 in Ohio, when memories of the War of 1812 remained fresh. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote that he acquired his distinctive middle name because his father “seems to have caught a fancy” for Tecumseh, the Native American war leader who fought with the British against the Americans.

Despite the martial overtones of his name, war was not a romantic undertaking for Sherman, who understood the horror of battle even though he had seen little of it prior to secession. He graduated from West Point in 1840 and went to Florida during the war against the Seminoles, but did little fighting. During the Mexican War, he was stationed in California.

Sherman, who liked Southerners and had been stationed at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, S.C., in the 1840s, was “a far cry from any kind of abolitionist,” Rubin said. In the months leading up to secession, while superintendent of Louisiana’s new military academy, he watched the budding sectional crisis with alarm.

Upon learning that South Carolina had voted to secede, “he burst out crying like a child,” David F. Boyd, a faculty member from Virginia and a friend of Sherman, wrote later. For more than an hour, Sherman anxiously paced in his room and warned of the carnage to come. “You think you can tear to pieces this great Union without war! But I tell you there will be blood shed — and plenty of it! And God only knows how it will end.”

By the time he wrote to Halleck, Sherman had fought in several of the war’s most significant battles. As an untested colonel, he led troops at the battle of Bull Run in July 1861, where he saw “for the first time in my life” the devastating effect of artillery “and realized the always sickening confusion as one approaches a fight from the rear.”

At Shiloh the following April, Sherman endured what he called “the extreme fury” of a two-day clash in which more than 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded. In the months that followed, he campaigned along the Mississippi and its tributaries as Grant besieged Vicksburg.

At one point, the responsibilities of command proved overwhelming. Sherman resigned his appointment as commander of the Army of the Cumberland soon after a meeting with Secretary of War Simon Cameron at which he alarmed Cameron and others with an overwrought warning about his vulnerability to Confederate attack.

Whispers of mental instability followed Sherman when he was transferred to Missouri, and they were amplified in the press. “The painful intelligence reaches us in such form that we are not at liberty to discredit it,” the Cincinnati Commercial reported, “that Gen. W.T. Sherman, late commander of the Army of the Cumberland, is insane.”

Sherman, “a very conflicted man emotionally,” probably suffered a breakdown during his tenure as a Union commander in Kentucky, Keller said. But he recovered in time to join Grant’s move south along the Mississippi — and initially favored a relatively relaxed approach to dealing with Southern civilians.

In September 1862, as military governor of Memphis, Sherman assured residents that he was committed to preventing pillage of crops and that troops under his command would issue receipts for confiscated property. Even then, however, he warned that he had little patience for those who voiced contempt for their occupiers.

“I will not tolerate insults to our country or cause,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Memphis Bulletin. “When people forget their obligations to a Government that made them respected among the nations of the earth, and speak contemptuously of the flag which is the silent emblem of that country, I will not go out of my way to protect them or their property.”

Impatience with Confederate sympathizers evolved into something more severe as the war continued.

In a Jan. 31, 1864, letter to Maj. R.M. Sawyer, Sherman advised his officers to seize crops, horses and wagons “because otherwise they might be used against us.” Civilians who keep to themselves should be left alone, he said, but anyone who made a public demonstration against the Union war effort was subject to punishment. “These are the well-established principles of war, and the people of the South, having appealed to war, are barred from appealing to our Constitution, which they have practically and publicly defied. They have appealed to war, and must abide by its rules and laws.”

By the time he decided to order the evacuation of Atlanta’s civilian population in September, Sherman professed to be utterly indifferent to the outcry that would ensue. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking,” he wrote to Halleck. “If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.”

After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman believed he needed to press on to Savannah to stay on the offensive and keep Confederate Gen. John B. Hood guessing as to his intentions. At the same time, Sherman believed he could wreak havoc on the crops, farms, roads and railroads that helped supply rebel troops in Virginia.

The march also offered the opportunity to bring his hard-war philosophy deep into territory thus far untouched by the war. “I can make this march, and I can make Georgia howl!” Sherman assured Grant.

Although he demonstrated a willingness to “skate right up to the line” when it came to observing generally accepted rules governing combat and the treatment of civilians, Sherman regarded himself as a stickler when it came to following the laws of war, Rubin said. As he began his march to Savannah, he issued a detailed order that allowed soldiers to gather food and “forage liberally on the country” but prohibited troops from trespassing or entering homes.

The Union rank-and-file was often less scrupulous. As Sherman’s forces moved southeast from Atlanta, Maj. Henry Hitchcock, Sherman’s military secretary, recorded in his diary numerous episodes of ill-
disciplined Union stragglers burning homes and pillaging farms. “With untiring zeal,” Union veteran George Ward Nichols wrote in an account of the campaign, “the soldiers hunted for concealed treasures” and confiscated jewelry, plate and other valuables in addition to food. “It was all fair spoil of war,” Nichols wrote, “and the search made one of the excitements of the march.”

Sherman’s indulgent attitude about misbehavior by his troops appalled his secretary. “I am bound to say,” Hitchcock noted in his diary, “I think Sherman lacking in enforcing discipline. Brilliant and daring, fertile, rapid and terrible, he does not seem to me to carry out things in this respect.”

In military terms, Sherman’s march proved an unqualified success. The campaign thoroughly succeeded in smashing railroads and laying waste to the Southern agricultural economy that fed Confederate armies in Virginia, and in so doing shortened the war, Keller said.

But the hard-war strategy left a legacy of bitterness that lasted for generations.

“I wonder if the vengeance of heaven will not pursue such fiends!” Le Conte wrote of Sherman’s army. “Before they came here I thought I hated them as much as was possible — now I know there are no limits to the feeling of hatred.”