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Chapter XVII

  • Sherman's purpose in marching to the sea
  • -- his expectations that the change of base would be ‘statesmanship,’ if not ‘War’ -- the Thousandmile march of Hood's men to surrender to Sherman -- the credit given by Grant to Sherman— ‘master of the situation’ -- the fame of Sherman's grand marches -- his great ability as a strategist.

the actual result in Tennessee was more decisive than Sherman had any good reason to expect. But he had good reason to expect, and evidently did, that Thomas would be able, after he had concentrated his troops, and after Hood had done considerable damage, to drive the latter out of Tennessee and pursue him with such force and energy as fully to occupy his attention and prevent him from interfering in any manner with Sherman's own operations. Hence Sherman as well as Grant had reason to assume that Hood's army would be eliminated from the military problem in the Atlantic States. Again, the general military situation as known to General Sherman, or probably to anybody else, in October and November, 1864, did not indicate that Grant, with the force he then had in Virginia, would be able to capture or destroy Lee's army. He might undoubtedly capture Petersburg and Richmond, but Lee would probably be able to withdraw his army toward the south, nearer to his sources of supply, and by skilful maneuvers prolong the contest until the National Government might abandon it. Grant's [330] letters at that time confirm this view of the military situation.

Some writers have attempted to explain and justify Sherman's action in taking with him so large an army, while leaving with Thomas one so much smaller, on the ground that he might meet in his march to the sea such opposition as possibly to require so large a force to overcome it. But to any one familiar with the facts, and to no one more than to Sherman, his army of 60,000 men was evidently out of all proportion to any possible resistance it could meet in Georgia. But when he should start northward from Savannah the case would become vastly different. At any point in the Carolinas he might possibly meet the whole of Lee's army. That is to say, Sherman's ulterior plan could not be prudently undertaken at all without an army as large as that with which he actually marched to the sea, namely, 60,000 men. Indeed, as the records show, Sherman considered a long time before he decided that he could spare the Twenty-third Corps to go back and help Thomas. If any question can possibly exist as to what was the essential part of Sherman's plan in marching to Savannah, what other possible military reason can be given for that march except to make the subsequent march to Virginia with so large an army? Why change his base to Savannah? What was he to operate against after he got there?

Nothing could have been clearer to any military mind in the fall of 1864, than that if either Lee's or Hood's army could be captured or destroyed, the surrender of the other must necessarily follow very quickly, and the rebellion be ended. No man could have been more earnest than Sherman in his laudable desire to make the capture of his own adversary the beginning of the end. Sherman's well-known character leaves this beyond question. It is not possible that he could have preferred a manifestation of the power of the nation by destroying Southern [331] property rather than by destroying a Southern army.

But there was one objection—absolutely overruling, apparently, in Sherman's mind—to any further attempt by Sherman himself, with the main body of his army then in Georgia, to prosecute the primary military object of his campaign—the destruction or capture of Hood's army. To have done so would have conceded a temporary triumph to the chief of the Confederate armies, who had loudly proclaimed his purpose to drive Sherman out of Georgia, and protect that State from any further invasion. Such a concession, however temporary, was manifestly intolerable to Sherman's mind.1 Besides, Sherman had formed and announced, with Grant's cordial concurrence, a well-matured plan of future operations. As ‘master of the situation,’ he could afford to go on and substantially execute that plan, or at least the primary part of it,—the change of base,—treating almost with contempt the enemy's bold design to thwart him. Although this must, at least for the time being, compel him personally to forego and leave to a subordinate the primary operations of a military campaign,—those directly against the opposing army,—the joint action of Sherman and Grant, each with a powerful army, directly against Lee's army in Virginia, was the surest and probably the shortest possible way to end the war. Hence Sherman's broad view of the entire national military situation, including the moral aspect of it, which was then of very great importance, gave rise to that grand conception of far-reaching strategy which must ever stamp its author as a master of that great art.

Sherman having thus come to the conclusion that he personally must abandon the attempt to ‘catch Hood,’ as he called it, his ‘busy brain’ did not fail to perceive every possible alternative plan of operations. The abandonment [332] of Georgia by Hood had completely opened up two other alternatives, one of which was before not possible, and the other only partly so. The one was a movement upon Richmond or its communications to join with Grant in the capture of Lee's army, and the other was to destroy the military resources of the Southern Atlantic States. The first was too grand, and perhaps might seem too visionary, to be talked about at first, nor was any mention of it at that time necessary. Besides, events might possibly render the march to Richmond unnecessary or impracticable; or, possibly, Sherman might be compelled for some reason to make his new base at Pensacola or Mobile, though he was determined to make it at Savannah, if possible; and hence it was necessary to have, in reserve as it were, a sufficient logical reason for the preliminary operation, if that finally had to stand alone.

Again, that part of the original plan which contemplated the capture of Savannah in advance could not be carried out. Grant could not spare the troops from the east for that purpose. If that had been done, Sherman could have marched to Augusta, there replenished his supplies by the river from Savannah, and marched thence northward by the upland route instead of through the swamps of South Carolina. But, as it was, Sherman was, as he thought, compelled to go to Savannah first, capture that place himself, and make that the base for his northward march. Hence there was no need to say anything to anybody about what further was to be done until after Savannah was in Sherman's possession, and the time had arrived for him to consult Grant about the future. Yet in Sherman's remarkable letter to Grant, dated November 6, 1864,2 written after it was too late to have any influence upon Grant's approval of Sherman's march, he disclosed to Grant the ulterior object he had in [333] view. In discussing the reasons for selecting the route to Savannah rather than either of the others, he said: ‘Incidentally I might destroy the enemy's depots at Macon and Augusta, and reach the sea-shore at Charleston or Savannah, from either of which points I could reinforce our armies in Virginia.’

Of course Grant, no less than Sherman, must have perceived instantly the full significance of Sherman's change of base to Savannah the moment that move was suggested. The question in what manner that concerted action between Grant and Sherman against Lee should be arranged could well be considered later, after that march had been made and a new base established at Savannah. The correspondence between Grant and Sherman previous to Hood's march to the west, including the letters of September 12 and 20, simply shows that neither had at that time conceived the possibility of any movement of Sherman toward Virginia. All their thoughts had reference to continuing operations in the south, Sherman's most important object being to get control of the Savannah River; or, as expressed, in his last words: ‘If you can whip Lee, and I can march to the Atlantic, I think Uncle Abe will give us a twenty days leave of absence to see the young folks.’ Their joint action against Lee does not appear to have been suggested by either until Sherman's letter of November 6, which was probably received by Grant after Sherman started.

The first thought suggested to Sherman by Hood's movement ‘leaving open the road to Macon, as also to Augusta,’ as embodied in his despatch to Halleck on September 25, related simply to the opportunity thus offered to carry into effect without difficulty the original plan of a change of base to Savannah. But when Hood's movement had gone so far, and his designs were so fully disclosed, as practically to eliminate his army from the problem in the Atlantic States, Sherman determined to [334] march as soon as possible, with the ulterior purpose to ‘reinforce our armies in Virginia.’ He telegraphed his determination to Grant on November 1, and on November 6 wrote him very fully, giving his reasons, including that to reinforce Grant. Hence Sherman was well able to say at Savannah on December 24: ‘I feel no doubt whatever as to our future plans. I have thought them over so long and well that they appear as clear as daylight.’

It should be observed that Sherman's letter of November 6 to Grant was strictly confidential. ‘I have still some thoughts . . . that should be confided to you [that is, to Grant and to nobody else] as a key to future developments.’ Neither Grant nor Sherman appears to have made any use of that ‘key’ for the public benefit. But it now unlocks the store-house of Sherman's mind, and shows to the world more of the real character of the great strategist than any other public document he ever wrote.

Then Grant was ready with his plan, first to seize and hold the Southern railroads by which supplies could reach Lee, and second, for Sherman and the most of his army to come to Virginia by sea, to which Sherman responded with all the loyalty of his most loyal nature, only mentioning incidentally his own plan. Thereupon, when Grant gave him an invitation to speak freely, he replied as above quoted, and explained in detail his plans for the northward march, to ‘be on the Roanoke, either at Raleigh or Weldon, by the time the spring fairly opens; and if you feel confident that you can whip Lee outside of his intrenchments, I feel equally confident that I can handle him in the open country.’

But Sherman's ‘busy brain’ had provided in advance even for the worst possible contingency—that after all his long march, however long it might prove to be, that march might have to ‘stand alone’—he might not actually take part in the capture of either of the Confederate [335] armies. Hence, before starting on his march, in his letter of November 6 to Grant he explained that his march would be ‘statesmanship’ anyway, even if it was not ‘war.’ Sherman was not a man to be ‘left out,’ no matter what might happen.

But Sherman's good fortune was almost equal to his strategy and his skill in marching an army. Although, as fate would have it, he did not have a chance to assist in the capture of Lee, Thomas had failed to obey his instructions to pursue Hood into the Gulf States, whereby the fragments of that ‘broken and dispirited’ army, as Thomas well called it, were gathered together, under their old, able commander, General Johnston, and appeared in Sherman's front to oppose his northward march, and finally to capitulate to him at ‘Bennett's House’ in North Carolina. The remnant of that army which Sherman had disdained to pursue into Alabama or Mississippi had traveled a thousand miles to surrender to him! No story of fiction could be more romantic than that fact of real war history.

It was not necessary for Sherman to produce his letter of November 6, 1864; but I have quoted from it here very largely to show that there was no possible contingency which his far-reaching mind had not foreseen and provided for.

Sherman's plan was so firmly fixed in his own mind, almost from the very start, that he was determined to adhere to it in spite of all possible opposition, even including the adverse opinions and advice of General Grant. Hence, as was his habit in such cases, he invented every imaginable reason, without regard to their logical or illogical character, to convince others of the soundness of his conclusion. But the logic of the real reasons which convinced his own mind is, when the chaff is all winnowed away, as clear and bright as the golden grain.

In view of the great strategical project which Sherman [336] had mapped out for himself and which required a formidable army, and of his responsibility for what might be the result of operations against Hood in Tennessee, it was a difficult and delicate question to decide what force he should take with him, and what send back. My own belief always has been, and is now, that in view of his exact knowledge of Thomas's character and habits of thought and action, Sherman ought to have sent back another corps of veteran troops, or else have waited to see that Thomas was actually prepared to cope with Hood, preferably the latter, before going so far away that he could not render him any assistance. Yet, as has heretofore been shown, if Thomas had carried out Sherman's instructions by promptly concentrating his troops, there would have been no risk of serious results in Tennessee.

In connection with Sherman's operations it is essential to bear in mind the distinction between two radically different kinds of strategy, one of which has for its object the conquest of territory or the capture of places by defeating in battle or out-manoeuvering the defending armies; while the other has for its object the destruction or capture of those armies, resulting, of course, in the conquest of all of the enemy's territory. The first kind may be all-sufficient, and hence best, in a foreign war having for its object anything less than total conquest; but in the suppression of a rebellion, as in a foreign conquest, the occupation of places or territory ought to be entirely ignored except so far as this contributes to the successful operation of armies against opposing forces. This fundamental principle appears to have been duly appreciated by the leading Union commanders near the close of the Civil War, though not so fully in its earlier stages. Military critics are apt to fall into error by not understanding the principle itself, or by overlooking the change of policy above referred to.

It is necessary not to confound the ‘march to the [337] sea’ as actually conceived and executed by Sherman as a preliminary to the march northward for the capture of Lee's army, with the previous far-reaching strategic plans of Grant, of which Sherman and other chief commanders were informed in the spring of 1864.

Grant's plans had in view, as their great object, again to cut in two the Confederate territory, as had been done by the opening of the Mississippi River to the gulf. This next line of section might be Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Savannah, or Chattanooga, Atlanta, Montgomery, and Mobile. But with the disappearance of Hood's army from that theater of operations, all reason for that plan of ‘territorial’ strategy had disappeared, and the occasion was then presented, for the first time, for the wholly different strategical plan of Sherman, of which Lee's army was the sole military objective. Grant was perfectly just to himself as well as to Sherman in giving the latter full credit for this last plan; and he modestly refrained from any more than a brief mention of his own plans, which unforeseen events had made it unnecessary fully to execute. But history will do justice to Grant's great strategical designs as well as to his great achievements. I trust it may be my good fortune to contribute something hereafter toward the payment of this debt of gratitude which all Americans owe to the greatest soldier of the Union.

The fact that Savannah was one of the points in both Grant's plans and Sherman's was merely an incident, and a very unimportant one. Indeed, after Hood got out of his way, Sherman might as well, and I think better, have marched direct to Augusta, and thence northward, wholly ignoring Savannah as well as Charleston, except that he would have arrived in Virginia rather early in the season. Savannah was a good place to go to in order to spend the winter, besides destroying Georgia en route.

Of course it is much easier to see what might have been [338] done than to see in advance what can or ought to be done. But it can hardly be believed that Sherman did not think of everything that was possible, as well as many things that were not. At least, so simple a proposition as the following could not have escaped his mind.

Sherman was, as he so confidently said, absolute ‘master of the situation’? before he started for Savannah. Hood and Forrest had utterly failed so to damage his communications that they could not be put in order again in a few days. He was able, if he chose, to remain in perfect security at Atlanta all winter, with two or three corps, while he sent back to Thomas ample force to dispose of Hood. Then, if the result of the operations of a larger force in Tennessee had been as decisive as they actually were with the smaller one Thomas had, Sherman could have recalled to Atlanta all of the troops he had sent to Tennessee, and thus marched toward Virginia with eighty-five or ninety or even one hundred thousand men, instead of sixty thousand. All this could have surely been accomplished by the middle of January, or before the time when Sherman actually began his march from Savannah. From Atlanta to Columbia, South Carolina, crossing the Savannah River at or above Augusta, is an easier march than that from Savannah to Columbia. Or if Sherman had not cared about paying a visit to Columbia en route, he could have taken the much shorter ‘Piedmont route’ to Charlotte, North Carolina, and thence northward by whichever route he pleased. Instead of retaining the dominant attitude of ‘master,’ Sherman lost it the moment he started eastward with his main army, leaving an inferior force to cope with his enemy; and the march through Georgia and the capture of Savannah did not by any means restore that mastery to Sherman. It was not restored until Hood was actually defeated in Tennessee.

I have referred to the possibilities of a direct march [339] from Atlanta via Columbia or Charlotte, with a much larger army, at exactly the same time, for the purpose of showing that even Sherman's grand strategic plan to assist in the capture of Lee's army did not necessitate or justify his action in marching to Savannah and quitting his own theater of operations before his adversary there had been disposed of. The plan above suggested would have negatived even more positively the boast and promise of the Confederate chief that Sherman should be driven out of Georgia. The fact that Sherman personally, with an army about as large as, or larger than, Hood's, could and did remain quietly at Atlanta while one of his subordinates disposed of Hood and his army, would have been the most emphatic possible defeat of the Confederate plan to force him back by operations in his rear. Only one part of Sherman's earnest desires would have been unrealized—namely, to destroy Georgia. But even that could have been, at least in a great measure, compensated for by the more complete destruction of South Carolina, the cradle of secession and rebellion.

The more carefully Sherman's great operations are examined, the more clearly it will appear that while his plans were magnificent, their execution was not perfect. And this is the legitimate aim of just military criticism, not to build up or pull down the reputations of commanders, but to assist military students in their efforts to perfect themselves in the art and science of war.

Sherman's great marches, especially through the enemy's country and over such obstacles as those found from Savannah to Goldsboroa, showed him to be a master of the auxiliary art of logistics no less than of the great science of strategy. Even to those who have had no means of duly appreciating the higher merits of Sherman's general plans, his marches have seemed the wonder of the world. Yet, strangely enough, the march through Georgia, which was in fact the simplest thing possible, has been regarded [340] as the great exploit, while the vastly more difficult and important march through the Carolinas appears to have been taken as a matter of course, perhaps because of the conviction, which had by that time become general, that Sherman could do anything he might undertake.

In respect to Sherman's skill in grand tactics, I have only a few words to say here. The part assigned him in Grant's general plan of operations for all the armies, in 1864, in his ‘private and confidential’ letter of April 4, was as follows: ‘You I propose to move against Johnston's army to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.’ It is a simple, plain matter of history that Sherman did not accomplish the first and more important part of the task assigned him—‘to break it up’—in the four months of almost constant fighting with Johnston's army. In the comments I have made upon the Atlanta campaign, I believe I have shown clearly why Sherman did not accomplish that result by the tactical operations to which he limited himself. The manner in which that army, then under Hood instead of Johnston, was finally broken up, by Sherman's subordinates in Tennessee, slows clearly enough what kind of modification of Sherman's tactical methods was requisite to enable him to reach the same result in Georgia.

Sherman's tactical operations during the entire Atlanta campaign were marked by the highest degree of prudence and caution. Even his one assault upon fortified lines at Kenesaw was no exception; for the worst that could happen in that was what actually did happen, namely, a fruitless loss of a considerable number of men, yet a number quite insignificant in comparison with the total strength of his army. Johnston displayed similar qualities in an equal degree so long as he was in command; and his well-known ability may have suggested to Sherman [341] the wisdom of like prudence in all his own operations. But Hood signalized his accession to the command by the boldest kind of tactics, amounting even to rashness in the commander of a force so inferior to that of his adversary. Yet Sherman continued his own cautious methods to the end. Even his last move, which resulted in the capture of Atlanta,—the only one which had even the general appearance of boldness,—was, in fact, marked by the greatest prudence throughout. The Twentieth Corps occupied a strongly fortified bridge-head at the Chattahoochee River, and the Twenty-third Corps another equally strongly fortified ‘pivot’ around which the grand wheel of the army was made. That moving army was much larger than Hood's entire force, and had all the advantage of the initiative, which completely disconcerted the opposing commander, and caused him to commit a blunder that ought to have proved fatal, namely, that of dividing his inferior force and permitting his superior opponent to occupy a position between the widely separated wings of his own army. Yet Sherman refused to take any advantage of that blunder, and sat still while Hood leisurely reunited his divided forces.

Even if such extreme caution in handling a superior force against such an antagonist as Johnston could be. regarded as wise, it surely could not against such an antagonist as Hood, whose character of extreme audacity in the aggressive should have assured his destruction by a more skilful adversary in command of a superior force. But Sherman's own knowledge of his own impulsive nature made him unduly distrustful of his own judgment when under great responsibility in emergencies, and this in spite of his unusual intellectual activity and his great confidence in his deliberately matured judgment. This is the opinion of Sherman's character formed by me after the closest possible observation and study. For this reason Sherman's capacity as a tactician [342] was not by any means equal to his ability as a strategist. He lacked the element of confident boldness or audacity in action which is necessary to gain the greatest results by taking advantage of his adversary's blunders, and by tempting or forcing his adversary into positions of which he might take advantage. Yet Sherman was very far from lacking skill as a tactician. Both he and Johnston might well be likened to masters of the sword so skilful and so equally matched that neither could gain any material advantage over the other. In my opinion, their duel of ten weeks duration was never surpassed in the history of the world for the masterly skill and caution with which the one pressed the other back step by step, and the other disputed every foot of the ground, neither giving nor attempting to make an opportunity to strike a decisive blow. If the object of that campaign was to capture Atlanta on the one side, and to defend it on the other, the handling of those two splendid armies was simply magnificent. It would be a great pity that an end was put to that duel by the removal of Johnston, and the military world thus deprived of a complete lesson, except for the fact that, whether or not the contest finally resulted in the fall of Atlanta, the rebellion in that part of the South would have been practically as far from an end as it was the first of May! Johnston would have been there in front of Sherman, all the same, and at least one more campaign would have been required before the march to the sea could have been made.

Although Sherman did not himself accomplish the first part of Grant's plan in respect to Johnston's army,— namely, ‘to break it up,’—the second part, ‘to get into the interior of the enemy's country, . . . inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources,’3 was carried out as thoroughly as Grant or anybody else could have [343] wished. It is also true that Sherman claimed the credit for the breaking up of Hood's army in Tennessee, while he was marching to Savannah, as a legitimate and foreseen part of his general plan, like his successful march and capture of Savannah. But he appeared not to see that in such a claim he was condemning himself for not having done with a superior force what Thomas actually did with a smaller one. That result was, in fact, due largely to an accident which, in the ordinary course of military operations, ought not to have happened, and by which Hood was tempted to make at Franklin one of those furious assaults upon troops in position and ready to receive him which are almost always disastrous. It was just the kind of temptation to Hood's army that was necessary ‘to break it up,’ and it did so very effectually. The old ‘Army of Tennessee,’ which had been so formidable, ceased to be a formidable army on November 30. Its fighting days were nearly over. After that it never did any fighting at all worthy of its old record. And there was hardly a single day while Hood was in command in the Atlanta campaign when a similar result might not have been reached by a similar method, and that without any risk of disaster to the Union army, because the force assaulted by Hood might always have had a more powerful army near at hand to support it if necessary.

In his special field order of January 8, 1865, announcing to all the troops of his military division the results of his great campaign, General Sherman said: ‘Generals Thomas and Schofield, commanding the departments to our rear, returned to their posts and prepared to decoy General Hood into their meshes.’ If the purpose that prompted Sherman to send me back to Tennessee was to serve as a ‘decoy’ to Hood, I must say that my part of the sport would have been more enjoyable if it had taken place earlier in the season, when [344] Sherman was near by with his sixty thousand men to help ‘bag the game.’

It has occurred to me as at least possible that Sherman's recollection of the suggestions I had repeatedly made to him during the Atlanta campaign may have been in his mind when he ordered me back to report to Thomas, and when he wrote his special field order. If so, I must protest my innocence of any intention to play the role of ‘decoy’ at Franklin when one of the great gunners was twenty miles away, and the other several hundred!

Yet, accepting even the most unfavorable view of Sherman's tactical as well as of his strategical operations in connection with the operations of all the other armies under Grant's general plans and direction, there was nothing in them all that could possibly have prevented their complete ultimate success in the capture of Lee's army. If Grant had not captured that army, Sherman would. And the surrender of Lee was necessarily followed by that of all the other Confederate armies. Hence, whatever might have happened if Sherman's great march had not been made, that march with so large an army made the end of the rebellion in the spring of 1865 sure beyond any possible doubt. In view of a public service so original in its conception, so grand in its magnitude, and so brilliant in its execution, any criticism respecting details cannot diminish the fame of the general who planned and executed that grand campaign, nor that of the general-in-chief, the success of whose far-reaching plans had made the brilliant exploit of his subordinate possible. Such criticisms are justifiable only in the interest of exact truth and of exact military science, so that imperfections in the operations of the greatest commanders may not be mistaken by the military student as having been among the causes which led to success.

1 Sherman's ‘Memoirs,’ Vol. II, p. 141.

2 War Records, Vol. XXXIX, part III, p. 658.

3 War Records, Vol. XXXII, part III, p. 245.

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