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About the Book

Beyond the Book

192 pp., 5.5 x 8.5, 1 map, notes, bibl., index

Civil War America

ISBN  978-0-8078-5659-8
Published: August 2005

When Sherman Marched North from the Sea

Resistance on the Confederate Home Front

By Jacqueline Glass Campbell

Chapter Excerpt


In February 1865 a Confederate officer learned that William T. Sherman's soldiers were an imminent threat to his South Carolina family. He warned his mother and sisters that they were likely to lose all their material possessions, yet his words expressed no concern over their physical safety. In fact, he advised his female kin that, "should any scoundrel intrude or go rummaging round the place, don't hesitate to shoot." Ten days later, hearing that his family had survived the ordeal, he thanked God for having provided him with "such a brave mother & Sisters," and he renewed his own commitment to the Confederate cause. "With such a spirit emanating from you," he wrote, "how could we [soldiers] do else but perform our duty noble and manfully." At the same time a Union officer surveyed the charred remains of Columbia, the South Carolina capital, and openly wept at the distress of homeless women and children. An ex-slave who had decided to remain on her South Carolina plantation, rather than flee with the Union army, also remembered that month with bitterness. All she had to thank the Yankees for was "a hungry belly and freedom."[1]

These three commentaries on the nature of Sherman's campaign through the Confederate heartland convey a very different picture from traditional accounts of a military strategy that destroyed both the war resources and the morale of the Southern people. But by integrating evidence from soldiers and civilians, black and white, at a moment when home front and battlefront merged, Sherman's March becomes a far more complex story—one that illuminates the importance of culture for determining the limits of war and how it is fought. If we understand war as culturally sanctioned violence, we can place a military campaign in a much broader social context, one that takes into account a wider array of behavioral patterns. These patterns include racial attitudes, gender ideology, and perceptions of the military as a cultural entity.

Sherman's March was an invasion of both geographic and psychological space. The Union army constructed a vision of the Southern landscape as military terrain. When they brought war into Southern households, however, soldiers were frequently astounded at the fierceness with which many white Southern women defended their homes. Whereas some lauded women's bravery, many others concluded that such inappropriate displays crossed the boundaries of acceptable feminine behavior. But in the rural South, where the household remained the political center, white women could see themselves as both mothers and warriors, giving them material and ideological reasons to resist. African Americans' reactions to Union soldiers were even more complex. Their initial delight at the coming of the "army of emancipation" was often replaced with terror as Yankees plundered black homes and assaulted black women.

This work differs from other studies of Sherman's March in yet another, and extremely important, way. It has its starting point in Savannah, Georgia, the culmination of the general's much-studied March to the Sea. Sherman himself saw the campaign of the Carolinas as crucial and a great deal more difficult than his all-but-unobstructed advance through Georgia; his soldiers frequently referred to this first stage in their journey in festive terms. Nevertheless, both in academic circles and in popular culture, Sherman's entire offensive is often called his "March to the Sea," completely obscuring the importance of his continuing advance.[2]

It was in the wake of a major turning point in the war that Sherman devised his plan to take the conflict to the Southern home front. In September 1864 Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were entrenched around Petersburg, Virginia. In Georgia, Sherman's campaign to take Atlanta was being frustrated by a determined Confederate force that, despite having sustained heavy losses, still clung to the city. This apparent stalemate in the field, coupled with increasing casualties, escalated a downward slide of morale in the North that could only be reversed by a major Union victory. Sherman's capture of Atlanta could hardly have come at a more propitious time, and his success had major political and military repercussions. The fall of the city ensured Abraham Lincoln's election to a second term, which, in turn, indicated to the Confederacy that the North would continue the fight. This message was clearly brought home to the South when, on November 16, 1864, Sherman left Atlanta with an army of sixty thousand handpicked men on a path to the Atlantic Ocean.

Conventional wisdom tells us that in wartime men are both the protectors and the threat. The army regulates the exercise of violence against an enemy and exacts kudos and support from the protected. Logically then, if noncombatants find their guarantees of protection gone, they will withdraw their support and help end the war.[3] When Sherman led his army through the Confederate heartland, he recognized this relationship of battlefront and home front. Although fighting had occurred on home ground before, he deliberately targeted the Southern home front. His hardened veterans, who had seen the worst war had to offer, were now engaged in a campaign designed to simultaneously destroy the military resources and the morale of the Southern people. By Christmas 1864 Sherman's troops had swept through Georgia, cutting a path that penetrated the very heart of the Confederacy.

This is the story we have become accustomed to, yet neither the official record nor the private papers of Union soldiers reflect the March to the Sea as either grueling or devastating. It was, in fact, the psychological rather than the physical aspects of the campaign that had the most effect on soldiers and civilians alike. In the wake of Sherman's March to the Sea, Georgians were dazed, confused, and humiliated; Union troops, on the other hand, arrived in Savannah elated and confident. It was the ongoing journey of Sherman's men through the Carolinas that would test the endurance of soldiers and civilians, blacks and whites, and this confrontation forms the heart of our story.

We begin, in Chapter 1, with the occupation of Savannah. The study of this city highlights the nature of the Georgia campaign as Union soldiers perceived it. It also opens up a new story of the city itself, which was surrendered without a struggle and offered as a Christmas present to Abraham Lincoln. But a closer examination of the seemingly orderly interactions between citizens and the army reveals that, while many cold and hungry people welcomed the arrival of Federal troops and the consequent distribution of supplies, others hid burning resentments and sought to survive through enterprise or manipulation. By the time Sherman's men reached Savannah, many had determined that Confederate women were the staunchest supporters of the war, and this perception was confirmed by their month-long hiatus in the city.[4]

Chapter 2 follows Sherman and his army into South Carolina. Armed with weapons, detailed maps, and a spirit of revenge, these veterans overcame harsh weather and hostile terrain in ways that fueled white Southerners' increasing panic. The anticipatory elements among soldiers and civilians add a special dimension to the story and help to explain why confrontations often played out differently from the grand narrative of pillage and destruction. This chapter also focuses on the experiences of African Americans and the difficulties they faced in deciding whether to flee with, or from, Union troops.

In Columbia, the wrath of the army reached its zenith as a large part of the city was consumed by flames. Chapter 3 uses the destruction of this city to explore the concept of female honor and white women's relationship to the Confederate nation. It also examines the dynamic nature of Southern morale, arguing that civilians showed more resiliency than previously noted. Here I test the hypothesis that an initial wave of despondency might, in fact, be only the first step in a longer process of rededication and resistance.[5]

The North Carolina home front has most often been the focus of studies of conflict within the Confederacy, particularly along class lines.[6] In Chapter 4, I argue that, although many North Carolinians protested the burdens of war, this did not necessarily mean that they were disloyal; rather, they sought to negotiate a moral economy of war by which hardships would be more equitably distributed. The arrival of Sherman's forces in the state served as a catalyst to redirect these resentments toward the enemy. Consequently, many citizens proved more loyal than previous studies suggest.[7]

Finally, Chapter 5 examines the peace treaty that Sherman negotiated with Confederate general Joseph Johnston. All but reinstating the status quo in the South, this document was harshly criticized and rejected by the Union government. Although the victorious North forgave Sherman this political error, he became the devil incarnate in the Southern mind. It was this demonization of Sherman and Southerners' quest to win a moral victory that served, in the postwar period, to obscure elite white women's active role in the shaping of Confederate nationalism.

The most daunting challenge of this work, which blends civil war, gender, and military history, was to find a language acceptable to scholars from each of these fields. Equally as important to me, however, was to make this study accessible to the Civil War enthusiast. Historians constantly struggle with balancing narrative and analysis, often choosing a language so heavy with theoretical jargon that it speaks only to other academics. I believe that history can, and should, be both engaging and thought provoking, and that has been my goal. Practitioners of each of the aforementioned subfields strongly disagree on what constitutes accessible language, and I cannot expect to satisfy all of my colleagues. I have, therefore, chosen the path that I believe will come closest to providing my colleagues with a sophisticated analysis, as well as engaging the general reader who desires both historical knowledge and a good read!

Thus, while the body of the text contains sufficient analysis to inform, without disrupting the narrative flow, I have consigned questions of historiography and larger theoretical implications to the endnotes. In the Epilogue I stray most from this path. Although I have endeavored to avoid obscure language, this section is highly speculative and may be of more interest to academicians. Still, I trust that a broader audience will share my fascination with these intriguing ideas.

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