Often when historians offer a “wrap-up” of Sherman’s March to the Sea, there is focus, for good reasons, on this letter to President Abraham Lincoln:
It is the numbers – 150 guns and 25,000 bales of cotton – which often get some play as representative of the damage to the Confederate war effort. Facts are, however, both numbers are incorrect. The number of guns captured at Savannah alone was upwards of 160 (a total of over 200 captured in the campaign). The amount of cotton captured reached 38,000 bales. Not mentioned in the message, but often brought up in relation to the campaign, are the over 200 miles of railroad destroyed and an estimated $100 million in damage (in 1864 dollars).
These numbers are stark figures easily illustrating how Sherman’s campaign did much to topple the Confederacy (not the whole way, of course, as that would come in 1865, but the “teetering” was made acute). And while I do not downplay the damage done, truth is that most of it was recoverable. Within weeks, the railroads were running, somewhat. Telegraph lines between Mobile and Richmond were working again. The cotton lost was value on the docks, and not cash in hand. So another year’s crop might have resolved the shortfall. Perhaps the only items not “recuperated” were the cannons, as the Confederacy’s ability to manufacture such items was limited. Indeed, Georgia rebuilt… and faster than we often give credit.
However, there is something that changed forever in the wake of Sherman’s March. If you study the Civil War, you should be acquainted with this map showing the distribution of slaves in the South (and if not, shame on you!).
Looking specifically at Georgia, consider the general route of the march in relation to the density of slave populations:
Notice how the line of march (and I’ve included Liberty and McIntosh Counties here as those were affected for weeks after the fall of Savannah) crosses some of the counties with the densest slave populations. In 1860, Georgia had over 460,000 slaves, constituting 44% of the state’s population. Sherman estimated some 20,000 escaped slaves joined his column by the time it reached Savannah. That figure does not count those who, heeding Sherman’s advice, stayed at home.
There were, as mentioned, some problems with the followers. And certainly such brought to the fore attitudes of some officers, as we consider events at Ebenezer Creek and other crossing points. But on whole, the burden created by those following the columns was accepted by those in command – often utilized to the favor of military operations. The pioneer corps formed from the freed blacks should be credited as an important force enabling the Federals to cross the low-country swamps with relative ease. And the escaped slaves turned expert guides where the maps were lacking.
And let us also not steer away from Sherman’s personal opinion about the free slaves and in general their race. But no matter how pointed that was, Sherman was an instrument of policy and complied with orders. The excess animals from the march were turned over to Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton for use in the contraband camps setup on the barrier islands. The “mule” in the “Forty acres and a mule” often came from those herds. We can debate the failures of that program at another time. But for the moment consider that any limited success of the project was also a function of Sherman’s march.
Sherman’s march, regardless of what its leader may or may not have desired, brought emancipation to a large swath of Georgia. That, unlike the material damage brought by the Federals, could not be rolled back. It is, I contend, the real lasting legacy of the march.