Sherman’s March, Modern Warfare, and Total War

November 14, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 46 (214 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Ten-Year-Old Atlanta Resident Carrie Berry’s Diary

About the days immediately before Sherman’s departure, ten-year-old Carrie Berry, a resident of Atlanta, wrote in her diary:

Nov. 12, 1864. — “We were fritened almost to death last night. Some mean soldiers set several houses on fire in different parts of the town. I could not sleep for fear that they would set our house on fire. We all dred the next few days to come for they said that they would set the last house on fire if they had to leave this place.”

Carrie Berry

Carrie Berry

Nov. 15. — “This has ben a dreadful day. Things have ben burning all around us. We dread to night because we do not know what moment that they will set our house on fire. We have had a gard a little while after dinner and we feel a little more protected.”

Nov. 16. — “Oh what a night we had. They came burning the store house and about night it looked like the whole town was on fire. We all set up all night. If we had not set up our house would have ben burnt up for the fire was very near and the soldiers were going around setting houses on fire where they were not watched. They behaved very badly. They all left the town about one o’clock this evening and we were glad when they left for no body know what we have suffered since they came in.”

Nov. 17.– “Everything was so quiet we were afraid that the yankees would come back and finish burning the houses but they did not. They have left. Some Confederates came in here to day and the town is full of country people seeing what they can find. We have ben picking up some things.”

Amidst war and desperation, human and family stories continue. Three weeks later, on December 7, Carrie’s mother would give birth to a baby girl.

Union Soldier Remembers the Burning of Atlanta

Remembering the burning of Atlanta between November 14 and 16, 1864. Union Army soldier George Ward Nichols wrote in his book, The Story of the Great March:

“A grand and awful spectacle is presented to the beholder in this beautiful city now in flames. By order, the chief engineer has destroyed by powder and fire all the store-houses, depot buildings, and machine-shops. The heaven is one expanse of lurid fire; the air is filled with flying, burning cinders; buildings covering two hundred acres are in ruins or in flames; every instant there is the sharp detonation or the smothered booming sound of exploding shells and powder concealed in the buildings, and then the sparks and flames shoot away up . . . scattering cinders far and wide.”

After destroying Atlanta’s warehouses and railroad facilities so they could not be used again by the Confederacy, Sherman, with 62,000 men, began his march to the sea on November 16. His 350-mile trek to Savannah, on the coast, would leave a wide path of destruction as Sherman’s army lived off the land and destroyed everything it did not need in an effort to break the South’s will and ability to continue the war. Upon advice from Grant, President Lincoln had approved the idea. “I can make Georgia howl!” Sherman boasted.

Sherman’s March in the Context of Modern Warfare: Total War, Targeting Not Just Armies but Also Societies’ Will to Wage War

Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan wrote that Sherman’s “march went down in Southern annals as perhaps the most brutal act of the conflict.  But it needs to be understood that the brutality of the march was asserted in the context of [Confederate General John Bell] Hood‘s [loud and public] assertions [of unprecedented cruelty] and Sherman’s [intentional and] widely broadcast threats of terrible consequences of continued opposition to Union rule. There is no doubt that the march was devastating, but whether it deserves to rank with the most horrible deeds of modern war is questionable.

“Vast amounts of property were destroyed. Guerrillas who fired on the army were hunted down and executed. But destruction of enemy property and execution of guerrillas fell within the existing rules of warfare. Civilians suffered undoubted hardship, but there were no documented cases of unarmed civilians being murdered. Rape was similarly almost unheard of. From time to time the Union soldiers got out of hand in their foraging, but their excesses did not even approach the horrors of more modern wars. Victims of the war in Vietnam, for example, would have been grateful indeed if their war had been as restrained as this one was.

“The march of Sherman’s army stood at the beginning of modern warfare, a warfare in which the will of societies and not just the army in the field became the target. The purpose of the war was not just to conquer enemy troops but to undermine the will of the nation. Southern hopes for victory rested upon war weariness in the North. Northern hopes similarly rested on teaching the rebel society the cost of making a rebellion. Once societies became targets, war would be experienced not only by soldiers but by those they left behind. To that extent the Civil War raised the level of war’s brutality.

“On the other hand, the Civil War actually advanced the international law of war toward more humane standards, even while nurturing new concepts of war. This was the first war in which rebels were considered to be within the restraints of international law. Previously the laws of war permitted rebels to be killed indiscriminately. Prisoners of war, even women and children, were all legitimate victims if they were rebels. Sherman’s army expanded the destruction of war, but fought under a new code of conduct developed by German-American Francis Lieber that protected rebels and helped restrain the impact of war. In addition, of course, restraint was necessary because rebels might retaliate. But Sherman’s army, faced with small danger of such retaliation at this stage of the war, almost unanimously respected that code and waged total war against the property, not the lives, of Confederate civilians.

“As the army brought victory to the Union cause, however, it also generated new perceptions about the meaning of the conflict. . . .”


A Confederate Girl, The Diary of Carrie Berry, 1864, Christy Steele editor, 2000, p. 23, 24.

Paludan, “A People’s Contest,” pp. 303-45.

Pastry Chef’s Son Killed

On November 17, 2014, dairist Mary Chesnut wrote,

” . . . War comes in everywhere. At a party at the Martin’s, supper was cut short because Mrs. McKenzie, the pastry cook and the confectioner of Columbia par excellence, heard that her son was killed the very day of the party. Instead of a tray of good things came back that news to the Martins. We must sup on death and carnage, or go empty! . . .”


Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, Ben Ames Williams, ed., p. 450

– All stories in this edition submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert.

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1864

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