“I am going into the very bowels of the Confederacy,” wrote William Tecumseh Sherman early in 1864 to his superiors in the Union command, “and will leave a trail that will be recognized fifty years hence.” It seemed at the time a rather over-the-top pronouncement from the Civil War’s most quotable and strategically sophisticated general.
Yet in hindsight, it’s clear that “Uncle Billy” had understated the impact of his deep incision into the enemy’s heartland. Even today, the trail of terror and destruction wrought by his army in Georgia and the Carolinas remains indelibly fixed in the collective consciousness of the American South. And the strategic rationale behind Sherman’s famous march continues to be a subject of intense study and controversy among historians, as a torrent of biographies over the last thirty or so years attests.
For the first two years of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Union command made a sharp distinction between their army’s treatment of Confederate combatants and Southern civilians. The former were to be attacked with the utmost violence, and if necessary, annihilated; the latter treated with restraint and respect. As the war ground on into its third year with casualties mounting at a ghastly rate and no Union victory on the horizon, it was Sherman—not Ulysses S. Grant or Lincoln—who most forcefully called into question the viability of that policy, and put forward a devastatingly effective alternative.