In General Sherman’s Christmas, award-winning author and historian Stanley Weintraub has provided an engrossing, up-close-and-personal narrative describing Union General William T. Sherman’s famous month-long “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, just before Christmas in 1864. Weintraub has built a name for himself by shedding light on some of history's most memorable holidays, and this latest addition is another success.
In his daring 300-mile foray across the state, Sherman’s plan was not to enjoin his troops in battle, but to cut an intimidating swath with his army of 62,000 men through the civilian heart of Georgia, destroy Confederate supplies, and strike a psychological blow to civilian morale, convincing the populace of the futility of the Rebel effort.
A risky venture indeed, and to ensure its success, Sherman had to cut himself off from all avenues of supply and communication with the rest of the Union army. His troops had to forage for the 300 tons of food they needed to consume each day throughout the march. No humvees here, these soldiers marched with packs and muskets through the desolate and tarnished Georgia landscape, completing anywhere from 10 to 15 miles a day and confiscating everything edible in their path. While leaving the populace and most homes relatively untouched, they burned cotton gins, granaries, supply depots and armories, and destroyed rail lines and bridges as they went, in what later historians would call an early example of “total war” strategy.
A hero to Northerners, who welcomed news of the Union’s advance through the deep South, and a blackguard and villain to the civilian population through whose fields and forests he tramped, Sherman’s daring strategy paid off, and he was able to telegraph his now-famous message to President Lincoln on December 22: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” Sherman’s march had effectively ended all chances for the survival of the Confederacy.
Weintraub has filled his book with the reminiscences of actual participants in the momentous events, from an officer’s poignant description of soldiers’ songs echoing from campfire to campfire in the dusk, to the diary entries and letters of terrified Southern women desperate to find food after their carefully filled larders have been looted by passing troops, to the false optimism in the headlines of Confederate newspapers. These contributions form the real tapestry of the narrative, and furnish a dramatic backdrop to the march that changed the face of the war. By April of 1865, the Southern cause was dead.