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southern storm

15 november 2008

Very few Civil War battles were decisive. Ultimately the Civil War was won not in huge field engagements like Chancellorsville or Chickamauga, but in, or at least after, large strategic movements like the Vicksburg campaign or Sherman's march to the sea. The latter is the subject of a thoroughly detailed new history by Noah Trudeau, Southern Storm.

The idea that Sherman's march won the war is not new at all; people have been saying that since 1864. What comes out vividly in reading Trudeau's day-to-day narrative is the length to which Sherman went to avoid Confederate field armies. (To be fair, those field armies weren't trying very hard to find him.) Between Bull Run in 1861 and Cold Harbor in 1864, most Federal generals had sought out rebel armies and sought to destroy them. This was sound Napoleonic doctrine: destroy your enemy's army, and you will win the war. When Sherman started his march, his commander U.S. Grant had Robert E. Lee's army pinned down around Richmond and Petersburg, trying to destroy it. But Sherman ignored his opposite number, rebel general John Bell Hood, who took off in the opposite direction and invaded Tennessee. Sherman avoided the strategic industrial cities of Macon and Augusta. He tore up the rural Georgia infrastructure – and, a few months later, the war was over.

The indecisiveness of Civil War field battle can be seen in Trudeau's treatment of a "minor" battle during the March to the Sea, the 22 November 1864 engagement at Griswoldville, Georgia. A force of Georgia militia set out from Macon, trying to reach Augusta. They ran into elements of Sherman's Right Wing as it was fanning out across central Georgia. The Union troops set up a classic defensive line, and the Georgia troops enacted their own miniature Pickett's Charge across a bullet-raked field. The Georgia men held their own, pinned down behind what little cover the field offered. They then retreated in good order.

Trudeau describes Griswoldville as pointless and bloody. It neither slowed the March nor seriously dampened rebel efforts to slow the March (which were impeded more by Jefferson Davis dividing responsibility for Confederate resistance than by the zeal of the Georgian defenders). All the battle really did was kill about 60 soldiers and wound about 600 more. That's a drop in the balance against huge engagements like Chickamauga, but it is nearly one-fifth of the casualties incurred in Sherman's entire campaign. And it made no difference at all to the outcome.

Sherman, says Trudeau, was not engaged in "total war": his policies of rapine and pillage were later overstated by both Lost Cause and Bloody Shirt contingents for their own rhetorical purposes. Still less, obviously, was he engaged in war proper, as Napoleon or even Grant and Lee might have understood it. But Sherman wasn't just on a wander, either. He prepared carefully for his march, and took an immense supply train along with him. The four corps that crossed Georgia were no "flying column," cut off from the materiel of war. They had enough supplies to get to Savannah while "foraging liberally," and they moved to Savannah with despatch. As it turned out, despite its symbolic value as a Christmas present to President Lincoln, Savannah was beside the point. Sherman had proved he could raid the Confederate heartland with impunity. Once he had proved that, the war was as good as over.

Trudeau is the author of the excellent Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (2002), which makes use of the extensive "microspecialist" literature on that battle to put together an intensely detailed chronology of the three days of battle. There is no such literature on the March, which was a diffuse process as opposed to a single sharp event. Here, Trudeau has synthetically assembled primary sources to write a definitive documentary history that never quite existed in this form before. We think we know a great deal about Sherman's march; but as Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown have recently shown, most of what we know is myth, not memory. Trudeau lays out the record in its contingency, its day-to-dayness, and its fog of war. It's a much-needed documentation, and a much better story than one might have expected.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Southern Storm: Sherman's march to the sea. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.