Even war criminals get attention these days. Must be websites out there celebrating the accomplishments of Pol Pot, Stalin and FDR by now.
This campaign is more popularly known as Sherman’s March to the Sea. It is dated from 15 November, in the aftermath of General John Bell Hood’s accidental razing of much of Atlanta, Georgia, to 21 December 1864. Hood’s intent was to burn military supplies lest they fall into General William Sherman’s hands, but most of the city was made of wood and the winds were high.
Sherman ordered his army of 62,000 men with 64 cannons to march from Atlanta 300 miles southeast to Savannah, Georgia and destroy absolutely everything in their path, especially the railroads. They ripped apart the ties, heated and wrapped the rails around trees, dynamited factories, and burned down towns, farms, banks and courthouses. Sherman had given orders that the civilian population was not to be harmed personally unless they resisted, and that his intent was to break the South’s back, physically and psychologically, and put an end to its stubbornness.
Whether the march itself constitutes a war crime is still a fiercely contended subject. It is effectively the same form of warfare as dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was understood in both cases that the civilians, not just the military, would suffer terribly, and civilian outcry would help put an end to the war.
Nevertheless, Sherman knew that civilian deaths would be unavoidable and explained himself in a speech after the war with the statement, “War is Hell.” Uncorroborated reports exist of a massacre of 200 civilians north of Columbia, South Carolina a few months before the march commenced, so Sherman knew full well what his men would do whenever no responsible eyes watched them. Three days after Atlanta was fully evacuated, Sherman ordered the city’s unburned sections shelled to ruins. One shell passed down through a house and blew off the legs of a man named Warner. The same shell cut his daughter in half.
Sherman personally saw his men rape and murder unyielding slaves throughout the march and gave no order to stop this. Those slaves who accepted the offer to enlist were given unarmed porter duties and treated comparatively well, but could only rely on food and water provisions when they were in surplus after the army was satisfied. Sherman also ordered the execution by firing squad of a 50-year-old man accused of espionage. He was most likely not guilty but was given no trial. All crops were either consumed or burned, as were all livestock slaughtered. It is surmised that 50,000 civilians were killed during the war, and possibly 1,000 of them died during the Savannah Campaign at the hands of soldiers unlawfully entering their houses to pillage. The 3rd and 4th Amendments to the Constitution prohibit this.