Trudeau, Noah Andre. Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea. Harper (August 5, 2008). 688 pages, maps, illustrations, index. ISBN: 978-0060598679 $35.00 (Hardcover).
What event in Civil War history excites more emotions and is the subject of more misconceptions than any other? The answer is probably Sherman’s famous (or infamous depending on your home’s direction from the Mason-Dixon Line) March to the Sea. Using many primary sources, especially from soldiers and civilians who witnessed the campaign firsthand, Noah Andre Trudeau seeks to set the record straight in Southern Storm, his military history of this famous event. Despite the more than necessary number of quotations which added length to the book and made it tougher to read in some respects, Trudeau mainly succeeds in his task.
Sherman’s March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia in November-December 1864 is one of the most famous and misunderstood campaigns of the entire Civil War. After burning all buildings in Atlanta important to the Confederate cause, Sherman set out from that city with 60,000 men divided into two wings under Henry Slocum and Oliver O. Howard on November 15, 1864. Only one division of cavalry under Hugh Judson Kilpatrick accompanied the infantry. Where Sherman was going almost no one knew. In the month or so that followed, Sherman feinted first at Macon, then at Augusta before finally marching through the Georgia capital of Milledgeville and finally on to Savannah and the coast. Sherman’s men foraged liberally during the march, cutting a swath of destruction through the state 60 miles wide. The Union general purposely spread his four corps out onto roads leading in the same general direction in order to allow them to mutually support each other and move as quickly as possible. It also caused major Confederate confusion as to his intentions and whereabouts. Ultimately Sherman and his men proved the Confederacy at this point was a hollow shell, helping to destroy the Southern will to continue the fight and transferring some of the suffering to Southern civilians who had allowed the war to continue by supporting the Confederate government. After capturing Savannah just prior to Christmas, Sherman’s men set out on a final campaign through the Carolinas which ultimately ended with the surrender of Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina in April 1865.
Andy Trudeau, author of numerous other books on the Civil War, has written a mainly military history of the campaign. He allows readers to experience the march through the eyes of Sherman’s soldiers and the civilians who were unfortunate enough to be in the path of Sherman’s army. Relying on primary sources to help tell the tale is always a worthy endeavor, but in Sherman’s Storm the sheer number of stories and anecdotes makes the book longer than it needed to be and at times a bit difficult to read. Despite this minor criticism, I personally enjoyed the numerous stories from the March which Trudeau presented. The insights of Sherman aide Henry M. Hitchcock were particularly relevant and insightful.
Trudeau sets the record straight on many topics central to the theme of Sherman’s March. This was not a lightly considered campaign launched impulsively. Sherman had carefully studied the 1860 census for details of the Georgia counties he might traverse in his route to Savannah. Sherman’s army was not traveling light when they set out from Atlanta in mid-November 1864 either. Sherman’s army had 5,250 wagons accompanying the soldiers which were filled with enough food to keep the men fed for over a month. Sherman’s Meridian Expedition in Mississippi the previous year had been a sort of dry run for what was about to occur in Georgia. Despite the widespread and amazingly persistent belief that civilians who were unlucky enough to be in Sherman’s path lost everything they had, Sherman only approved of and had his soldiers execute a more targeted destruction. Government buildings and others useful to the Confederate war effort were fair game and were consistently destroyed. Railroads and the buildings and machinery which supported them were also destroyed, though how thorough the destruction was often hinged on Sherman’s proximity to the area. Many civilians did lose almost everything on their property other than their homes and enough food to get them through the winter, but the misconception that the Yankees burned everything in their path simply does not hold up under Trudeau’s (and others’) scrutiny. Although their opposition was divided and often ineffective, Southern soldiers did try to retard Sherman’s march in places, though Trudeau believes they did not have enough men to ever truly turn Sherman back the way he had come. Wheeler’s cavalry was the main force which kept up attacks on the fringes of Sherman’s force. Trudeau concludes that the Confederate policy of having area commanders each with their own region settled on by Jefferson Davis was flawed from the start. In addition, Pierre G.T. Beauregard’s decision to provide very little direction as overall commander also caused major problems. The author addresses rumors of Yankee foragers being caught and executed on the periphery of the main columns. His detailed study of this topic led him to conclude that stories of atrocities are overblown, concluding less than one half of one percent of foragers sent out over the course of the march were likely to run into trouble.
A recurring and major topic of the book involved Sherman’s attitude toward and treatment of the thousands of African-Americans he encountered along the way. Sherman’s view was that African-Americans were inferior to Whites and that they should be left alone rather than dealt with directly. It should be pointed out that his racist attitude was commonplace at this point in history, both in the North and the South. One of Sherman’s Corps commanders, Jefferson C. Davis, even caused thousands of Blacks to be left behind when he prevented them from crossing two bridges at Ebenezer Creek before destroying the spans. He did this, he said later, to free himself of the burden these men, women, and children caused as they tagged along behind the main column. Edwin Stanton later pointedly questioned Sherman about this incident and even asked Black authorities in Savannah how they felt about the general. Sherman, according to Trudeau, quietly steamed over the incident and never forgot it.
Sherman’s March was not without difficulties. Sherman had to span quite a few rivers and streams, natural features which could have severely slowed down the pace of the campaign. Trudeau credits Orlando Poe and his engineer regiments, later supplemented by hundreds of African-Americans, with keeping the Northern army moving through all sorts of natural obstacles. Poe’s engineers were the unsung heroes of the campaign. Had the Confederates mounted a more coordinated defense they had a real opportunity to slow the Yankees down and perhaps prolong the war, though Trudeau isn’t in doubt of the final result even had that happened.
The maps in this book deserve a paragraph of their own. In a surprising result HarperCollins allowed Trudeau to include maps for almost every day of the March with some maps showing two days instead of one. This made it easy to follow along with the text. Towns displayed as open circles had already been visited by Sherman while those with filled in circles represented upcoming possible targets. The routes of march are shown for each day, though it is sometimes difficult to tell which wing consisted of which of the numerous set of arrows for each day. Weather for each day was also included, a welcome addition which helped to explain the difficult process of tramping over wet roads or in less than ideal weather conditions. Trudeau also managed to include maps of the several small battles and skirmishes fought along the road to Savannah, including the fight with Confederate militia at Griswoldville. The maps were not without flaws however. For instance, no scale is shown for the daily maps, though it does appear for several others. In addition, the road network on the daily maps is not represented either. I would have preferred a few larger “theater level” maps showing Atlanta to Milledgeville, Milledgeville to Millen, and Millen to Savannah. The daily maps, however, could have been more zoomed in to properly show the road network. These are minor complaints, however, and HarperCollins and Trudeau are to be commended for the sheer number of maps which were included at a time when publishing trends continue to reduce maps, illustrations, notes, and anything else other than the text of books.
Southern Storm, then, is an informative and mostly entertaining book which succeeds at correcting some misconceptions about Sherman’s March once and for all. The primary sources were at times overdone but some previous reviews of this book seem overly critical in this regard. Though Southern Storm is mainly for students of the Civil War who enjoy military history, Trudeau’s book will also appeal to those interested in the history of the South and in how we remember the Civil War today. Readers uninterested in primary accounts of Civil War events may be somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of anecdotes but these do not detract substantially from the book’s purpose or its usefulness. Other works have done more with the historiography of Sherman’s March, but for an overall view of what happened in Georgia in November and December 1864 this is the book to buy.
I would like to thank Heather Drucker at Harper Collins.
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