The Re-Construction of Sherman’s March

This is as solid an essay as you will find on the history and legacy of Sherman’s March. And yet there is something missing in this story.

The destruction caused by Sherman’s army almost always eclipses the rebuilding that took place immediately following the war. In his excellent book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, William G. Thomas explores the effort by Sherman’s men to rebuild what it destroyed during its 1864 campaign.

Reconstruction of the South in this respect was literally re-construction, a fact long obscured in the era’s twisted history, which the white South remembered long as punishment and subordination, conveniently forgetting the generous terms of their restoration….

No railroad suffered more than the Western and Atlantic (what Wright called the Chattanooga and Atlanta) because of both Union army maneuvers across it and Confederate cavalry raids against it during the Atlanta Campaign in the summer of 1864.  The Confederates tore up twenty-five miles of the railroad in a massive raid aimed at disabling the Union’s key supply route.  And in an effort to cut off Atlanta from external communication, Sherman just before his November March to the Sea, “very effectually destroyed the road” and gave orders for Wright’s Corps to remove sixteen miles of track between Resaca and Dalton.  Yet, after Sherman’s March was completed, Wright’s Corps went back to Atlanta and rebuilt nearly all of the Western and Atlantic, laying down 140 miles of new track and cross-ties, raising 16 bridges, and erecting 20 new water tanks.  Close to $1 million in construction labor and $1,377,145 in new material were expended on the Western and Atlantic before turning it over to the state of Georgia and its original corporate officers in September 1865. (pp. 183-84)

According to Thomas, in less than one year rail service in the South had been largely restored.

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8 comments… add one
  • David Nov 18, 2014 @ 13:24

    Re: What I still find so interesting is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Sherman’s men went after more in South Carolina than in Georgia and yet we hear so little about this aspect of the story.

    Isn’t it true, (to some extent anyway), that South Carolina was the focus of any retribution to most Union soldiers, as they wouldn’t be fighting, and dying, if they hadn’t been the first to rebel? That the other states probably wouldn’t have pulled the trigger and followed suit, if they hadn’t started the ball rolling? Also, that the retribution against Georgia was mostly caused by the discovery of POW camps……..especially Andersonville? I’ve always thought that this was the way most historians figured it, but the posts above have made me think twice.

  • David Nov 18, 2014 @ 5:00

    I remember watching a History Channel show that touched on Sherman’s March. The gist of it was a modern day interview with a gentleman from South Carolina who told the interviewer that his family lore was that Sherman destroyed his home. The interviewer asked him where his home was, and when told, it turned out that Sherman’s armies hadn’t been within 50 miles of it. It just goes to show that people believe what they want to believe……facts be damned.

  • Jack Nov 18, 2014 @ 4:49

    Sherman himself estimated about $100 million of damage with only about 20% of that for tactical reasons and the remainder “simple waste and destruction”. And the South was supposed to be thankful for the restoration of a couple of million?

    Again, the focus is away from the human cost of the invasion of the South to bring states whose self-rule long pre-dated the Union back under Federal control. This is why you aren’t getting history correct. Perhaps Sherman had generous terms because he was guilty of so much destruction.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2014 @ 5:15

      You would do well to do some reading on the subject.

    • Jimmy Dick Nov 18, 2014 @ 8:31

      Self-rule predating the Union? Where do you get these ideas from? You might do well to read some documentation on who ruled the colonies and how they did so. Salutary neglect did not necessarily mean complete self-rule in the colonies. To interpret it as such shows a lack of understanding colonial history.

      You do a lot of generalization in your statements but never offer any proof to back them up. In the case of colonial history, Alan Taylor can give you a quick overview before going into primary sources, David Ramsey’s work being a good example.

    • Bob Huddleston Nov 18, 2014 @ 9:11

      No, Jack, you are wrong. Sherman did a whole lot more damage to Georgia than that. 462,000 slaves at $800 each — Sherman destroyed $370,000,000 worth of property. While the half million white Georgians were hardly thankful, I suspect the 48% of the population who were freed by Uncle Billy thought differently.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2014 @ 9:43

        What I still find so interesting is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Sherman’s men went after more in South Carolina than in Georgia and yet we hear so little about this aspect of the story.

        • Bob Huddleston Nov 18, 2014 @ 12:05

          Amen to that! Sherman’s boys took SC apart. But the destruction stopped as soon as they crossed into NC.

          A few years ago there was a proposal to erect a statue to Uncle Billy at Bentonville. The NC Sec State, in charge of state parks, threatened to withdraw all funding for the park it the statue was erected.

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