Friday, January 02, 2015

Sesquicentennial, Part XLII: The Penultimate Campaign


"An army marches on its stomach." -- Napoleon Bonaparte

Atlanta had fallen, but John Bell Hood knew that wasn't necessarily the end. Sherman's men needed food, and supply. These, he'd have to get from the North. So, reasoned Hood, if he stood astride Sherman's line of supply, he'd have to come out and give battle on Hood's terms. It was with this general intent that Hood marched to the northwest, more or less leaving Georgia the way Sherman came in.

Sherman mounted a brief, half-hearted attempt to follow, then apparently gave it up as a bad idea. This perplexed Hood. He attacked Union forces at Spring Hill, then at Franklin, finally attacking Nashville itself in mid-December, but not a peep came from Sherman. Did Sherman care nothing for his lines of supply?

Hood, in the end, accomplished nothing but the destruction of the Army of Tennessee as an actual fighting force. I wonder if Hood knew what Sherman's plan actually was.

Because Sherman had deduced the dread secret of industrial-age war. Armies marched on their stomachs, yes. But that's a sword that cuts both ways. There are more ways than one to deny Lee's army of its supply. And there are more ways than one of supplying his own men at the same time. And Georgia's rich farmlands had not, as yet, felt the hard hand of war...

This was the bold plan he'd advanced to Grant and Lincoln, so bold that it bordered on suicidal rashness: cut loose. Head southeast towards Savannah, relying on the farmlands themselves for his sustenance. On the way, tear up telegraph wires, rail lines, and anything else of military significance. He had over sixty thousand men, even after cutting General Thomas and his men loose to keep Hood occupied in Tennessee. He had detailed maps drawn up, using data from the 1860 census, showing where the richest farms and plantations were, and what they'd be likely to have.

"I can make this march," Sherman wrote in a telegram to Grant, "And I will make Georgia howl!"

In opposition, General William Hardee could only muster some thirteen thousand troops with which to defend Georgia and the Carolinas. In open country ... that wouldn't be much of a fight. Hardee, not being an idiot, wasn't about to fight in open country. He fortified the approaches to Savannah as best he could, and awaited Sherman's arrival.

There were a few skirmishes along the way, but nothing really worth mentioning. The March itself remains somewhat controversial. His supporters have called Sherman the first modern general, the first to truly understand that by attacking the Confederacy's logistical underpinnings, he was taking the most direct path possible to defeating the Confederate armies in the field. His detractors call him many things -- some not repeatable in a family publication -- but also lay the charge of war criminal at his feet for making war upon civilians. He had an answer for them:

"You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have a peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for if it relaxes one bit to pressure it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling."

Sherman believed that what he called "Hard War" (and what we would call today "Total War") made for a shorter conflict, and would lead to a swifter peace with less overall bloodshed. And to be sure, Sherman had drawn up orders to the effect that civilians were to be left unmolested, so long as they did not impede the army's march. Their excess produce would be confiscated, to be sure, but their persons were to be safe.

By mid-December, Sherman's army was arrayed outside of Savannah, and Sherman went about the business of reducing the fortifications that prevented his access to the sea -- and with it, communication with the Union Naval forces in command there. On December 17th, having made contact with Admiral John Dahlgren, he issued an ultimatum to General Hardee in Savannah. Surrender and accept generous terms, or resist and face obliteration. Hardee took a third option: he and his troops slipped out and escaped. In his stead, the mayor of Savannah surrendered the city to Sherman.

A few days later, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln:

"I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton."

Unwritten, but obviously implied and easily seen by anyone paying attention, was the fact that a Union army would roam at will through the Confederate heartland. That the Confederate army was powerless to defend the Confederacy. This is the point Lee had hoped to make with his two invasions of the North ... but didn't swing enough heavy iron to make the point stick.

Sherman had heavy iron to swing, and plenty to spare. The only question remaining was, who's next?

Actually, that's a trick question. Sherman was heading North, along the coast, to link up with Grant. South Carolina would be next to feel the sting. And there wasn't a blessed thing Jefferson Davis could do to stop him.

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