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Gen. Sherman’s critical turn of events

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

As the summer of 1864 gave way to autumn, Maj. Gen.William T. Sherman was restless.

What remained of Atlanta was under Union control. Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood had by Sherman’s reckoning lost his enthusiasm for head-to-head fighting. Instead, Hood busied himself by disrupting Union supply lines and trying to bully U.S. garrison commanders, some of whom were creatively courteous in inviting Hood to go to blazes. Still, that was a far cry from anything Sherman regarded as success.

Being on the defensive ran counter to his plans as well as his instincts. He was convinced his army should be gearing for a great and bold move. But he couldn’t leave Atlanta while Wheeler’s and Forrest’s cavalry menaced corridors that he couldn’t abandon for fear of losing what had been won at no small cost in Tennessee. In fact, Sherman’s superiors had not yet authorized any “march to the sea,” let alone a left turn at Savannah. So the general waited, uneasily, pressing his case in correspondence and his enemies on the ground.

To the north, in the Upper South, others were uneasy as well — but for a different reason. Sherman had just altered the science of war and no one, secessionist or unionist, knew what refinements he would add next. Atlanta had fallen under an artillery barrage aimed directly into parts of the city occupied by what civilians had stayed behind. And while only a few civilians were killed, Southerners in his path could no longer expect to find refuge in such quaint conventions as social standing or chivalry.

Sherman was not content to win battles; he intended to break the South itself.

Imagine the anxiety of people in Columbia, Camden, Florence, Cheraw, Charlotte, Raleigh and Fayetteville. They didn’t know how Sherman intended to get his huge force out of the Confederate heartland, but they did know their geography. Unless Sherman marched to the coast and made his exit by sea, all of them were in grave danger.

Now try to imagine the cotton-dry throats after Sherman’s 60,000-man army had burned, smashed, slaughtered and eaten its way to Savannah — and then the terror as it took that fateful left turn toward the Carolinas.

The state capitals were obvious targets. Charlotte would have made a fine prize, too, and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard reportedly took the threat seriously enough that he gave orders for its defense. But, possibly because Charlotte involved a detour, or because a place seized becomes a place to be held and Sherman was done with being anchored to a single chunk of real estate, Charlotte got a pass.

Columbia did not. The city was left in flames, and Sherman and Confederate cavalry commander Wade Hampton feuded long after the war ended over who was to blame.

Prompt surrender saved Raleigh, where a lone reb was chased through the streets and hanged for having turned to fire a single, futile pistol shot at Sherman’s juggernaut.

Sherman’s objective was the railhead at Goldsboro. But some paths almost choose themselves, and Fayetteville offered an irresistible incentives package: communications and resupply by way of the Cape Fear River; a chance to offload his wounded and the many noncombatants clinging to his coattails; a U.S. arsenal that had served the rebel army for four years; mills awaiting the torch, and what Sherman calculated to be unimpeded progress toward a decisive battle with a waiting Joe Johnston.

Discounting a cavalry clash at Monroe’s Crossroads and some skirmishing in Fayetteville, only a costly two-day engagement below Averasboro marred his calculation. From Columbia to Fayetteville to Kyle’s landing, “resistance” often meant unarmed women standing their ground on their own property as Sherman’s foragers and the army they fed, largely oblivious to these displays of defiance, went about their business.

Sherman’s “hard war” tactics are still in dispute 150 years after that restless autumn. But not their results: morale broken, enemy desertions surging, supplies drained off, entire institutions smashed with the same ease as the locks on fine southern furniture in fine southern mansions. And within weeks the nation’s bloodiest war was over. History, in rendering its judgment, cannot be expected to ignore that.

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