Ken Burns Classroom

Sherman’s March to the Sea

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 5-8

Run Time: 1 class period

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.
– William Tecumseh Sherman
Letter to the city of Atlanta, 1864

Overview

This activity helps students understand how the Union’s March to the Sea was one of the most controversial aspects of the later phases of the Civil War. Sent by Ulysses S. Grant to create havoc and destruction of all resources that would be beneficial to the enemy, Sherman began his Atlanta Campaign in May 1864. Students will view a video clip from The Civil War series that explains how after capturing Atlanta, Sherman marched his army to the sea, capturing the city of Savannah in December, and then marching through South Carolina into North Carolina. Students will then analyze two primary sources. First, they will look at a letter written by Sherman to Grant as Sherman’s army approached Savannah. Second, they will review the\ lyrics to the popular song of that period, Marching Through Georgia. Student questions follow, which can be used for general class discussion or individual assessment. Answers to the questions are included.

Standards

McREL

U.S. History
Standard 13: Understands the causes of the Civil War

  • Level II (Grades 5-6)
    • Understands the economic, social, and cultural differences between the North and South (e.g., how the free labor system of the North differed from that of the South)
  • Level III (Grades 7-8)
    • Knows the locations of the southern and northern states and their economic resources (e.g., the industries and small family farms of the industrial North, the agricultural economy and slavery of the South).

Standard 14: Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people

  • Level II (Grades 5-6)
    • Understands the technological, social, and strategic aspects of the Civil War (e.g., the impact of innovations in military technology; turning points of the war; leaders of the Confederacy and Union; conditions, characteristics, and armies of the Confederacy and Union; major areas of Civil War combat).
  • Level III (Grade 7-8
    • Understands the circumstances that shaped the Civil War and its outcome (e.g., differences between the economic, technological, and human resources of both sides; the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation on the outcome of the war)

Common Core

  • Key Ideas and Details
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2
      Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source;
      provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course
      of the text.
  • Craft and Structure
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4
      Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.8
      Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.

Extension Activities

  • Have students imagine that they are writers or editors for Civil War period newspapers (both North and South). Prompt them to write editorials regarding the march, either as editors of Northern newspapers or Southern newspapers.
  • Have students compare Sherman’s march with other instances of total war in World War I or World War II. (Some examples include the firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden during World War II, as well as the London Blitz or bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
  • Have students debate the issue of total war (regarding whether it is humane or inhumane) as a class, or may wish to conduct a mock trial of Union officers who were engaged in the practice, such as Sherman.

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.

Handout: Letter from General Sherman to General Grant

From the Memoirs of General William T. Sherman

Date: December 16, 1864
Location: Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, in the Field, Near Savannah
To: Lieutenant-General U. S. GRANT, Commander-in-Chief, City Point, Virginia

GENERAL: I received, day before yesterday, at the hands of Lieutenant Dunn, your letter of December 8d, and last night, at the hands of Colonel Babcock, that of December 6th. I had previously made you a hasty scrawl from the tugboat Dandelion, in Ogeechee River, advising you that the army had reached the sea-coast, destroying all the railroads across the State of Georgia, investing closely the city of Savannah, and had made connection with the fleet.

Since writing that note, I have in person met and conferred with General Foster and Admiral Dahlgren, and made all the arrangements which were deemed essential for reducing the city of Savannah to our possession. But, since the receipt of yours of the 6th, I have initiated measures looking principally to coming to you with fifty or Sixty thousand infantry, and incidentally to capture Savannah, if time will allow.

At the time we carried Fort McAllister by assault so handsomely, with its twenty-two guns and entire garrison, I was hardly aware of its importance; but, since passing down the river with General Foster and up with Admiral Dahlgren, I realize how admirably adapted are Ossabaw Sound and Ogeechee River to supply an army operating against Savannah. Seagoing vessels can easily come to King’s Bridge, a point on Ogeechee River, fourteen and a half miles due west of Savannah, from which point we have roads leading to all our camps. The country is low and sandy, and cut up with marshes, which in wet weather will be very bad, but we have been so favored with weather that they are all now comparatively good, and heavy details are constantly employed in double-corduroying the marshes, so that I have no fears even of bad weather.
Fortunately, also, by liberal and judicious foraging, we reached the sea-coast abundantly supplied with forage and provisions, needing nothing on arrival except bread. Of this we started from Atlanta, with from eight to twenty days’ supply per corps and some of the troops only had one day’s issue of bread during the trip of thirty days; yet they did not want, for sweet-potatoes were very abundant, as well as corn-meal, and our soldiers took to them naturally. We started with about five thousand head of cattle, and arrived with over ten thousand, of course consuming mostly turkeys, chickens, sheep, hogs, and the cattle of the country. As to our mules and horses, we left Atlanta with about twenty-five hundred wagons, many of which were drawn by mules which had not recovered from the Chattanooga starvation, all of which were replaced, the poor mules shot, and our transportation is now in superb condition. I have no doubt the State of Georgia has lost, by our operations, fifteen thousand first-rate mules. As to horses, Kilpatrick collected all his remounts, and it looks to me, in riding along our columns, as though every officer had three or four led horses, and each regiment seems to be followed by at least fifty negroes and foot-sore soldiers, riding on horses and mules. The custom was for each brigade to send out daily a foraging-party of about fifty men, on foot, who invariably returned mounted, with several wagons loaded with poultry, potatoes, etc., and as the army is composed of about forty brigades, you can estimate approximately the number of horses collected. Great numbers of these were shot by my order, because of the disorganizing effect on our infantry of having too many idlers mounted. General Euston is now engaged in collecting statistics on this subject, but I know the Government will never receive full accounts of our captures, although the result aimed at was fully attained, viz., to deprive our enemy of them. All these animals I will have sent to Port Royal, or collected behind Fort McAllister, to be used by General Saxton in his farming operations, or by the Quartermaster’s Department, after they are systematically accounted for. While General Easton is collecting transportation for my troops to James River, I will throw to Port Royal Island all our means of transportation I can, and collect the rest near Fort McAllister, covered by the Ogeeehee River and intrenchments to be erected, and for which Captain Poe, my chief-engineer, is now reconnoitring the ground, but in the mean time will act as I have begun, as though the city of Savannah were my objective: namely, the troops will continue to invest Savannah closely, making attacks and feints wherever we have fair ground to stand upon, and I will place some thirty-pound Parrotts, which I have got from General Foster, in position, near enough to reach the centre of the city, and then will demand its surrender. If General Hardee is alarmed, or fears starvation, he may surrender; otherwise I will bombard the city, but not risk the lives of our men by assaults across the narrow causeways, by which alone I can now reach it.

If I had time, Savannah, with all its dependent fortifications, would surely fall into our possession, for we hold all its avenues of supply.

The enemy has made two desperate efforts to get boats from above to the city, in both of which he has been foiled-General Slocum (whose left flank rests on the river) capturing and burning the first boat, and in the second instance driving back two gunboats and capturing the steamer Resolute, with seven naval officers and a crew of twenty-five seamen. General Slocum occupies Argyle Island and the upper end of Hutchinson Inland, and has a brigade on the South Carolina shore opposite, and is very urgent to pass one of his corps over to that shore. But, in view of the change of plan made necessary by your order of the 6th, I will maintain things in status quo till I have got all my transportation to the rear and out of the way, and until I have sea-transportation for the troops you require at James River, which I will accompany and command in person. Of course, I will leave Kilpatrick, with his cavalry (say five thousand three hundred), and, it may be, a division of the Fifteenth Corps; but, before determining on this, I must see General Foster, and may arrange to shift his force (now over above the Charleston Railroad, at the head of Broad River) to the Ogeeohee, where, in cooperation with Kilpatrick’s cavalry, he can better threaten  the State of Georgia than from the direction of Port Royal. Besides, I would much prefer not to detach from my regular corps any of its veteran divisions, and would even prefer that other less valuable troops should be sent to reenforce Foster from some other quarter. My four corps, full of experience and full of ardor, coming to you en masse, equal to sixty thousand fighting men, will be a reenforcement that Lee cannot disregard. Indeed, with my present command, I had expected, after reducing Savannah, instantly to march to Columbia, South Carolina; thence to Raleigh, and thence to report to you. But this would consume, it may be, six weeks’ time after the fall of Savannah; whereas, by sea, I can probably reach you with my men and arms before the middle of January.

I myself am somewhat astonished at the attitude of things in Tennessee. I purposely delayed at Kingston until General Thomas assured me that he was all ready, and my last dispatch from him of the 12th of November was full of confidence, in which he promised me that he would ruin Hood if he dared to advance from Florence, urging me to go ahead, and give myself no concern about Hood’s army in Tennessee.

Why he did not turn on him at Franklin, after checking and discomfiting him, surpasses my understanding. Indeed, I do not approve of his evacuating Decatur, but think he should have assumed the offensive against Hood from Pulaski, in the direction of Waynesburg. I know full well that General Thomas is slow in mind and in action; but he is judicious and brave and the troops feel great confidence in him. I still hope he will out-manoeuvre and destroy Hood.

As to matters in the Southeast, I think Hardee, in Savannah, has good artillerists, some five or six thousand good infantry, and, it may be, a mongrel mass of eight to ten thousand militia. In all our marching through Georgia, he has not forced us to use any thing but a skirmish-line, though at several points he had erected fortifications and tried to alarm us by bombastic threats. In Savannah he has taken refuge in a line constructed behind swamps and overflowed rice-fields, extending from a point on the Savannah River about three miles above the city, around by a branch of the Little Ogeechee, which stream is impassable from its salt-marshes and boggy swamps, crossed only by narrow causeways or common corduroy-roads.

There must be twenty-five thousand citizens, men, women, and children, in Savannah, that must also be fed, and how he is to feed them beyond a few days I cannot imagine. I know that his requisitions for corn on the interior counties were not filled, and we are in possession of the ricefields and mills, which could alone be of service to him in this neighborhood. He can draw nothing from South Carolina, save from a small corner down in the southeast, and that by a disused wagon-road. I could easily get possession of this, but hardly deem it worth the risk of making a detachment, which would be in danger by its isolation from the main army. Our whole army is in fine condition as to health, and the weather is splendid. For that reason alone I feel a personal dislike to turning northward. I will keep Lieutenant Dunn here until I know the result of my demand for the surrender of Savannah, but, whether successful or not, shall not delay my execution of your order of the 6th, which will depend alone upon the time it will require to obtain transportation by sea.

I am, with respect, etc., your obedient servant,
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General United States Army.

Handout: Lyrics from Marching to Georgia

From the New Georgia Encyclopedia

Ring the good ol’ bugle, boys, we’ll sing another song,
Sing it with the spirit that will start the world along,
Sing it as we used to sing it 50,000 strong
While we were marching through Georgia.

[Chorus]: Hurrah, hurrah, we bring the jubilee!
Hurrah, hurrah, the flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
While we were marching through Georgia!

How the darkies shouted when they heard the joyful sound!
How the turkeys gobbled which our commissary found!
How the sweet potatoes even started from the ground
While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]

Yes, and there were Union men who wept with joyful tears
When they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years.
Hardly could they be restrained from breaking forth in cheers
While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]

“Sherman’s dashing Yankee boys will never reach the coast!”
So the saucy rebels said, and ’twas a handsome boast,
Had they not forgot, alas, to reckon with the host
While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]

So we made a thoroughfare for freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, 300 to the main.
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain
While we were marching through Georgia! [Chorus]

Handout: Question Sheet: For Students

Questions on the Video Clip, “Sherman’s March”

  1. What was the general strategy behind General Sherman’s march to Savannah, Georgia?How important was this march to both the North and the South?
  2. Accounts by historians and men on the march give the impression that the march to Savannah was an easy one. Why were Sherman and his men confident that this would be the case?
  3. There were many factors that led both Yankee and Rebel armies to be so destructive throughout the war. How did the spectacle of Andersonville Prison and Sherman’s March to the Sea burn in the memory of the Union and Confederate populations respectively?
  4. Explain how the tactic of Southern General John Bell Hood in Tennessee led to the destruction of his army.

Questions on General Sherman’s Letter to General Grant

  1. Describe how Sherman believed the geographic conditions and recent good weather would assist his army in taking Savannah.
  2. How did Sherman describe how he provisioned his men? Describe the type of food his men had. Why did the army have more food at this point in the march compared to when it began?
  3. Why was Sherman confident Savannah would fall into Union possession? What evidence did he present to Grant that the position of his army would prevent the city from obtaining necessary supplies?
  4. Summarize the report Sherman gave Grant on General Thomas and his actions against General Hood’s army.
  5. How did Sherman describe General Hardee’s Confederate forces and defenses in Savannah? Why was he confident Savannah could not successfully defend itself?

Questions on the Lyrics of the Song “Marching Through Georgia”

  1. Explain how the first two stanzas of “Marching through Georgia” describe Sherman’s March to the Sea.
  2. How does the song corroborate Sherman’s remarks about foraging through Southern farms?
  3. The song mentions “Union men” people who disagreed with succession and wanted to keep the Union together. How does the song describe these Union men’s reaction to seeing Sherman’s army? How realistic do you think this claim is and why?
  4. How does the song summarize the mission of the Union to defeat the South?

Handout: Question Sheet: For Educators

Questions on the Video Clip, “Sherman’s March”

  1. What was the general strategy behind General Sherman’s march to Savannah, Georgia?How important was this march to both the North and the South?
    Sherman proposed to march his army all through the heart of Georgia, destroying everything in the path that could conceivably aid the Confederacy. This not only reduced needed supplies for the Rebel Army, but also psychologically demoralized the Southern population, hindering their will to fight. If the strategy failed, the Union, and especially its leaders, would be ridiculed for not ending the war. If it succeeded, it would mean the end of the Confederacy.
  2. Accounts by historians and men on the march give the impression that the march to Savannah was an easy one. Why were Sherman and his men confident that this would be the case?
    Some of the statements made by Sherman and his men can be attributed to military bravado. But they understood that the Confederate armies were in shambles, and no Confederate force was strong enough to directly confront Sherman’s army. The best the Confederate forces could do was to divert the Union army’s attention with efforts to regain territory elsewhere, and hopefully slow its progression or pick it apart.
  3. There were many factors that led both Yankee and Rebel armies to be so destructive throughout the war. How did the spectacle of Andersonville Prison and Sherman’s March to the Sea burn in the memory of the Union and Confederate populations respectively?
    Andersonville Prison was a prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia. Overcrowded with inadequate water and food supplies and unsanitary conditions, nearly one-third of the prisoners died there. The discovery of the prison during Sherman’s march further motivated the Union Army (and the Northern population) to take vengeance out on the South. Sherman’s army wrought total war on Georgia, tearing up railroads, plundering private homes, and killing or taking everything in their way. Southerners never forgot the sight of burned out houses and dead livestock left along the path.
  4. Explain how the tactic of Southern General John Bell Hood in Tennessee led to the destruction of his army.
    General Hood moved his army north to join forces with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry and invade Tennessee, hoping that the threat of retaking Tennessee would stop or slow down Sherman’s march. What he did not count on was meeting up with Union General George Thomas and his fresh and larger army. At the Battle of Franklin, Hood ordered several hopeless charges directly into the heart of the Union army, destroying his own army in the process. Hood’s decimated troops were eventually defeated a month later at Nashville.

Questions on General Sherman’s Letter to General Grant

  1. Describe how Sherman believed the geographic conditions and recent good weather would assist his army in taking Savannah.
    Sherman wrote of how the Union’s control of the Ossabaw Sound and Ogeechee River gave it an advantage in supplying an army operating against Savannah. Seafaring vessels could navigate the Ogeechee River up to fourteen and a half miles west of Savannah. The terrain was low and marshy. This would be difficult in wet weather, yet Sherman reports that the weather had been favorable, and they had an opportunity to double-corduroy the marshes, reinforcing these areas with logs placed side-by-side.
  2. How did Sherman describe how he provisioned his men? Describe the type of food his men had. Why did the army have more food at this point in the march compared to when it began?
    The army had various kinds of livestock, including cattle, turkeys, chickens, sheep, hogs, as well as poultry, potatoes, bread, and sweet potatoes. The men were able to forage by taking supplies from farms they passed on their way to Savannah.
  3. Why was Sherman confident Savannah would fall into Union possession? What evidence did he present to Grant that the position of his army would prevent the city from obtaining necessary supplies?
    Sherman reported that Savannah “would surely fall into our possession, for we hold all the avenues of supply”. He went on to say that the enemy had made two desperate efforts to get boats above the city which were both foiled by General Slocum, “capturing the steamer Resolute, with seven naval officers and a crew of twenty-five.”
  4. Summarize the report Sherman gave Grant on General Thomas and his actions against General Hood’s army.
    Sherman noted, “I myself am somewhat astonished at the attitude of things in Tennessee.” He added that he was concerned about Thomas because of Thomas’s lack of action against Hood in Tennessee. He stated he knew “that General Thomas [was] slow in mind and action, but…judicious and brave, and the troops [felt] great confidence in him.”
  5. How did Sherman describe General Hardee’s Confederate forces and defenses in Savannah? Why was he confident Savannah could not successfully defend itself?
    Sherman believed General Hardee had “good artillerists, some 5,000 or 6,000 infantry, and… a mongrel mass of 8,000 to 10,000 militia.” However, during Sherman’s entire march though Georgia, Hardee had not forced Sherman’s army to employ anything greater than a skirmish line (a defensive line for light combat operations).

Questions on the Lyrics of the Song “Marching Through Georgia”

  1. Explain how the first two stanzas of “Marching through Georgia” describe Sherman’s March to the Sea.
    The song mentions the 50,000 strong singing as it marches through Georgia, singing the chorus from Atlanta to the sea.
  2. How does the song corroborate Sherman’s remarks about foraging through Southern farms?
    The lyrics note “the turkeys gobbled which our commissary found… how the sweet potatoes even started from the ground…”
  3. The song mentions “Union men” people who disagreed with succession and wanted to keep the Union together. How does the song describe these Union men’s reaction to seeing Sherman’s army? How realistic do you think this claim is and why?
    The song states the “Union men who wept with joyful tears when they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years.” The song was sung to raise the spirits of those who supported the Union and, though there were very few Union sympathizers in the South. As such, it is unrealistic to imagine that Union men wept with joy at the sight of the flag while the Union Army was marching through Georgia.
  4. How does the song summarize the mission of the Union to defeat the South?
    The song speaks of making a “thoroughfare for freedom” and that “Treason fled before us for resistance was in vain.” These lyrics underscore the stance that the war was fought for freedom of the slaves, and to stop the traitors attempting to divide the country.