“Atlanta is ours, & fairly won.” This dispatch from General William T. Sherman on September 3, 1864, set off wild celebrations in the North. A prominent New Yorker wrote in his diary: “Glorious news this morning—Atlanta taken at last!!!…it is (coming at this political crisis) the greatest event of the war.”1 President Abraham Lincoln ordered a salute of one hundred guns to be fired in no fewer than eight cities. From the siege lines at Petersburg, Virginia, General Ulysses S. Grant informed Sherman that “in honor of your great victory I have ordered a salute to be fired with shotted guns from every battery bearing upon the enemy.”

Southern dejection mirrored Northern elation. “The disaster at Atlanta,” lamented the Richmond Examiner, came “in the very nick of time” to “save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin.” A North Carolinian wrote: “Never until now did I feel hopeless but since God seems to have forsaken us I despair.” The famous Confederate diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut foresaw the doom of her new nation: “Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead within me…. We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth.”2

The fall of Atlanta did indeed portend the end of the Confederacy seven months later. By assuring Lincoln’s re-election, this Northern victory proved to be the final and most important turning point of the Civil War. It also offered the most graphic illustration of the Siamese-twin connection between military and political events, between the battlefront and the home front. The famous maxim of the nineteenth- century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the American Civil War, especially in 1864, politics was the continuation of war by other means. No other country before World War II held general elections in the midst of war. Twice in the twentieth century, Britain canceled elections because of wartime emergencies.

The American experiment of holding an election during a civil war whose result would determine the nation’s very existence is surely unique. But the constitutional requirement for quadrennial presidential elections is inflexible. No one in 1864 proposed to cancel or postpone the polling, even though the government’s prospects for reelection appeared dim until the capture of Atlanta. As Lincoln himself explained: “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”3

As the year 1864 opened, Northern prospects for winning the war before the November elections appeared bright. Victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and elsewhere in the latter half of 1863 left Union armies poised for campaigns to crush out the last vestiges of Confederate resistance. Lincoln appointed Grant general in chief. Grant took charge of operations in Virginia and put Sherman in command of the army group to invade Georgia. Many in the North believed the war would be over by the Fourth of July.

Southern leaders had other ideas. Gone were the hopes of 1862 and 1863 that Confederate offensives could win smashing victories to demoralize Union armies and the Northern people. In 1864 Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee adopted what was, in effect, a defensive strategy of psychological and political attrition: to wear out the Northern will to continue fighting. If Southern armies could hold out until November and inflict heavy casualties on attacking Northern armies, the Northern people might repudiate Lincoln and elect a Democratic president who would accept an armistice and peace negotiations—a settlement tantamount to Confederate victory. Southern General James Longstreet explained this strategy: “If we can break up the enemy’s arrangements early, and throw him back, he will not be able to recover his position nor his morale until the Presidential election is over, and we shall then have a new President to treat with.”4

It almost worked. The war was not over by the Fourth of July; quite the contrary, Union armies had experienced reverses in Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and above all in Virginia, where Grant and the Army of the Potomac had bogged down in a stalemate before Petersburg and Richmond after suffering 65,000 casualties in the past two months. Only Sherman had made any significant progress, but by August he too seemed stymied before Atlanta. More than 100,000 Union casualties on all fronts with little to show for them shocked and depressed Northern morale. “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed at the opening of Grant’s campaign?” asked the New York World. “Patriotism is played out,” declared another Democratic newspaper. “All are tired of this damnable tragedy.”5

Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, the most powerful Republican newspaper, told Lincoln that “our bleeding, almost dying country… longs for peace—shudders at the prospect of fresh conscriptions, of wholesale devastation and of new rivers of human blood.” Unless Union arms won a victory, despaired Greeley, “we shall be beaten out of sight next November.” Lincoln agreed. “I am going to be beaten,” he said in August 1864, “and unless some great change takes place badly beaten.”6 On August 31 the Democrats nominated George B. McClellan on a platform declaring the war a failure and calling for an armistice and peace negotiations. Confederates were elated. McClellan’s certain victory “must lead to peace and our independence,” declared the Charleston Mercury, if “for the next two months we hold our own and prevent military success by our foes.”7


Richard McMurry agrees. The subtitle of his Atlanta 1864 makes the point: to hold Atlanta until the Northern election was the “last chance” for Confederate victory. But the news of Atlanta’s fall reached Charleston only hours after the Mercury had gone to press with the editorial quoted above. This news plunged the South into gloom, raised Northern morale almost to euphoric heights, and set the stage for Lincoln’s reelection two months later.

McMurry adds little to what is known about Sherman’s Georgia campaign. But he does write with a clarity and economy of style that provide a succinct and lucid military narrative and relate it to political events and public opinion in both North and South. He also offers incisive analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the commanding generals in this campaign: Sherman on the Union side; Joseph E. Johnston and his successor, John Bell Hood, on the Confederate side. McMurry is most critical of Johnston for his neglect of opportunities to strike the enemy when he had an advantage, his failure to use cavalry to attack Sherman’s supply line, his refusal to keep his own government informed, and his indifference to the impact on Southern morale of his constant retreats without fighting. McMurry is not much kinder to Hood, whose overaggressiveness decimated the Confederacy’s second-largest army.

Sherman comes off with high marks for logistics and strategy, but low marks for tactical execution. “Nor did [Sherman] have the ‘killer instinct’—the driving compulsion to inflict maximum casualties on his opponent”—a compulsion that Grant, Sheridan, Lee, and Jackson had in abundance. Thus Sherman, according to McMurry, missed two opportunities to trap and perhaps destroy the Confederate Army of Tennessee during the Atlanta campaign, thereby enabling that army to fight another day (and to be destroyed by General George Thomas in the battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 1864). McMurry comes to the paradoxical—and speculative—conclusion that Sherman’s failure to destroy his adversary when he had the chance prolonged the war and cost more lives in the end. This conclusion does not quite fit with the book’s main thesis that the capture of Atlanta assured Lincoln’s reelection which in turn assured ultimate Union victory.

McMurry is right, however, that as a battlefield commander Sherman lacked the killer instinct. Despite his reputation in the South as a ferocious ogre of vengeance and spoliation, Sherman was actually sparing of the lives of his own soldiers, of the enemy’s soldiers, and of civilians. He preferred to accomplish his strategic goals by maneuver rather than by all-out combat. After the battle of Shiloh in 1862, he wrote to his wife: “The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war. Mangled bodies, dead, dying, in every conceivable shape, without heads [or] legs.” Sherman tried to conduct his campaigns to avoid another Shiloh. Of seventeen Civil War army commanders on both sides, Sherman’s armies suffered the second-lowest percentage of casualties (Robert E. Lee’s army had the highest).8

McMurry’s narrative shows how Sherman repeatedly flanked his adversary out of strong positions by threatening their supply lines. Atlanta fell because Sherman’s troops destroyed or blocked all of its railroad communications, forcing Hood’s army to evacuate the city or starve. While each army experienced about 35,000 casualties during the four-month campaign, half of these resulted from tactical offensives launched by the Confederates even though it was Sherman who was prosecuting the strategic offensive.

Although McMurry clearly analyzes these maneuvers, the best study of Sherman’s strategy remains Basil H. Liddell Hart’s biography, published more than seventy years ago but strangely neglected by modern scholars.9 There is a whiff of armchair generalship, or Monday-morning quarterbacking, in the writings of most Civil War historians (myself included) who have never been in combat. Not so with Liddell Hart. A student at Cambridge when World War I began, Liddell Hart was commissioned in 1914 and fought on the Western front until he was wounded and gassed at the Somme in 1916. After the war he became one of the foremost experts on military history and strategy in the English-speaking world. His main effort in the 1920s was to develop alternatives to the devastating trench warfare and frontal assaults that he had experienced firsthand on the Western front. He found his alternative in the restoration of mobility and surprise, which he termed a “strategy of the indirect approach.”10


Searching military history for examples to illustrate this strategy, Liddell Hart discovered Sherman’s Georgia campaign of 1864. So impressed was he with Sherman that he not only drew upon this example in many articles and books, but also wrote his 450-page biography of Sherman in 1929. Liddell Hart’s ideas on mobility, deception, and the indirect approach shaped the new doctrine of armored warfare, which envisaged the employment of tanks and motorized infantry for deep penetration behind enemy lines. Liddell Hart helped create the British Mechanized Force in 1927. His writings were translated into German and had a large impact on the ideas of Heinz Guderian, the chief architect of the Wehrmacht’s Panzer strategy. In this indirect fashion, Sherman’s Atlanta campaign influenced the development of Germany’s blitzkrieg strategy in 1940.11

The Civil War as well as World War I offered many examples of a strategy of direct approach—an advance against the enemy by the most obvious routes and an attack on the enemy’s chosen defensive position. An indirect approach involved feints and turning movements to confuse the enemy and get on his flank or into his rear, forcing him out of position and compelling him to retreat or fight at a disadvantage. Liddell Hart’s (and Sherman’s) indirect approach also included two other maneuvers. First, “organized dispersion,” an advance in wide, loosely grouped formations on separate roads within supporting distance of each other “like the waving tentacles of an octopus” to confuse the enemy and conceal the actual objective until the last moment. Second, the use of a “baited gambit” (Liddell Hart was a chess player) to tempt an enemy force to attack an apparently isolated unit of one’s own army, only to discover that this gambit was a trap that brought the enemy’s flank or rear under attack once he was committed.12

In Sherman’s Georgia campaign, Liddell Hart found many illustrations of deep turning movements, organized dispersion, and the baited gambit. With these concepts in mind, the reader of McMurry’s book can gain a bet-ter appreciation of Sherman’s strategic brilliance, which achieved greater results at a lower cost in casualties than any other Civil War campaign—except Grant’s Vicksburg campaign of 1863, from which Sherman, as Grant’s subordinate, learned much of what he put into effect in 1864. Five times from May to July 1864 Sherman flanked Johnston out of strong defensive positions with deep turning movements. On the map, these advances look like Liddell Hart’s “waving tentacles of an octopus” (regrettably, McMurry’s inadequate maps show none of this). Two of the movements also involved baited gambits, though on one of these occasions Sherman’s corps commander failed to spring the trap and on the other the enemy refused the bait. After Hood succeeded Johnston as the Confederate commander, Sherman’s turning movements and baited gambits caused Hood to batter his army to pieces in four attacks that resulted in 7,500 Union casualties, 18,000 Confederate casualties, the loss of Atlanta—and Lincoln’s reelection.

These events broke the spirit of many in the South. But not Jefferson Davis, who insisted that the Confederacy remained “as erect and defiant as ever. Nothing [has] changed in the purpose of its Government, in the indomitable valor of its troops, or in the unquenchable spirit of its people…. There is no military success of the enemy which can accomplish its destruction.” As for Sherman, said Davis, Southern guerrillas and cavalry would swarm in his rear and chop his army off at the knees. “The fate that befell the army of the French Empire in its retreat from Moscow will be re-enacted. Our cavalry and our people will harass and destroy his army as did the Cossacks that of Napoleon, and the Yankee General, like him, will escape with only a bodyguard.”13

When Grant read Davis’s speech, he scoffed: “Mr. Davis has not made it quite plain who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat.” 14 A clever riposte; but Sherman proposed to break Davis’s last-ditch defiance with more than words. One week after Lincoln’s reelection, his army set forth from Atlanta on its famous march to the sea. This operation gave Sherman an opportunity to spread his octopus tentacles by sending each of his four corps on separate roads covering a swath of Georgia sixty miles wide, using baited gambits to keep the enemy in the dark about his objective. “Sherman had sought and found a solution in variability, or elasticity,” wrote Liddell Hart, “the choice of a line leading to alternative objectives with the power to vary his course to gain whichever the enemy left open.”15

Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah in November-December 1865 has become the stuff of legend. But the campaign of his army northward from Savannah to North Carolina in February-March 1865 was an even more stunning achievement. In both campaigns Sherman’s 60,000 men lived off the land they marched through. But the Georgia march covered 285 miles in a direction parallel to the principal rivers in relatively dry fall weather against token enemy opposition. The march through the Carolinas covered a distance 50 percent greater and crossed many rain-swollen rivers and swamps in an unusually wet winter against increasing opposition as the Confederates scraped together a small army in a futile effort to stop Sherman. General Joseph Johnston, whom Jefferson Davis reluctantly restored to command in February, believed that it would be “absolutely impossible for an army to march across lower portions of [South Carolina] in winter.” But, he later wrote,

when I learned that Sherman’s army was marching through the Salk swamps, making its own corduroy roads at the rate of a dozen miles a day and more, and bringing its artillery and wagons with it, I made up my mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.16

The mobility and logistics of these marches were part of Sherman’s strategy of the indirect approach. Without any large battles, they devastated Confederate resources and undermined the will of the Southern people to continue fighting. Sherman had long pondered the nature of this war. The evolution of his thinking can be traced in the superb collection of his official and personal wartime correspondence edited by Brooks Simpson and Jean Berlin. At first Sherman, like many professional officers, believed that the war was a conflict solely between armies that should scrupulously respect the rights and property of enemy civilians. But by 1862 he had become convinced by the fierce resistance of the whole Southern white population that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” The Union array must act “on the proper Rule that all in the South are Enemies of all in the North…. The whole Interior is alive with Guerrillas…. The entire South, man woman & child, is against us, armed & determined.” Sherman thus told the Southern people that an invading army

may take your house, your fields, your everything, and turn you all out, helpless, to starve. It may be wrong, but that don’t alter the case. In War you can’t help yourselves, and the only possible remedy is, to stop war…. Our duty is not to build up, it is rather to destroy both the Rebel Army and whatever of wealth or property it has founded its boasted strength upon.

In his actions, Sherman showed that he preferred to destroy wealth and property that sustained the enemy army rather than that army itself. This was the strategy that underlay the legendary ruin wreaked by his “bummers” in the marches through Georgia and South Carolina. It was a strategy of the indirect approach that anti-cipated the rationale for strategic bombing in World War II. In another respect, also, Sherman anticipated twentieth-century ideas of psychological warfare. The terror and destruction spread by his soldiers, he wrote, “was a power, and I intended to utilize it…to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and to make them fear and dread us.” 17 At the outset of his march through Georgia, Sherman vowed to show Southerners that “we have a power which Davis cannot resist. This may not be war, but rather Statesmanship.”

Did it work? Did it shorten the war by persuading Southerners to give up? Much evidence indicates that it did. After the march through Georgia, a Confederate soldier wrote in frustration: “i hev conkludud that the dam fulishness uv tryin to lick shurmin Had better be stoped. we havbeen gettin nuthin but hell & lots uv it ever sinse we saw the dam yankys & i am tirde uv it…. Thair thicker an lise on a hen and a dam site ornraier.”18 After the march through South Carolina, a physician in that state wrote: “All is gloom, despondency, and inactivity. Our army is demoralized and the people panic stricken. To fight longer seems to be madness.”19

Much of the burning of houses, looting of jewelry, smashing of grand pianos, and other wanton destruction by Sherman’s bummers was mere pillage such as armies have committed since time immemorial. But even Southern whites who believed—and continue to believe—that Sherman was no better than Attila the Hun concede that Sherman’s soldiers committed surprisingly little personal violence against the white civilian population compared with what many soldiers through history have done. For 60,000 tough veterans who were turned loose among the Southern people for five months, there were remarkably few rapes and fewer murders. Southern civilians suffered less than the European civilian population in the Napoleonic wars, during which it is estimated that twice as many civilians as soldiers lost their lives. Sherman’s bummers destroyed property; Allied bombers in World War II also destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. Neither was pretty; neither was glorious. But as Sherman himself put it in a famous speech fifteen years after the Civil War, the notion that war is glorious was nothing but moonshine. “When…you come down to the practical realities, boys,” said Sherman, “war is all hell.”20

This Issue

November 30, 2000