The March to the Sea was successful: Sherman captured Savannah and in that process, crippled vital military resources, brought the war to the heart of the South, and demonstrated the Confederacy's inability to protect its own people. It was, however, at a terrible price. Early in the war, the North had maintained a conciliatory policy towards the south, in fact, there were explicit orders to leave families enough to survive on. As a result, the rebels pushed their limits: there was a steep rise in guerrilla warfare on the part of Confederate civilians. Sherman was convinced that nothing short of total war brought to the homes of Confederate civilians could change Southern attitudes about "fighting to the death." He had been considering the tactic for years. In a letter written home in 1862, he told his family that the only way to defeat the south was as he had defeated Native Americans—by destroying their villages.
One word still resonates more deeply in the American psyche than any other in the field of Civil War study: Sherman. The name immediately conjures visions of fire and smoke, destruction and desolation; Atlanta in flames, farms laid to waste and railroad tracks mangled beyond recognition. In our collective memory, blue-clad soldiers march with impunity, their scavenged booty draped about them, leaving a trail of white women and children to sob at their losses and slaves to rejoice at their emancipation. Sherman himself is remembered through a nearly ubiquitous photograph, with a glare so icy it can chill us even across time. To average Americans, whether they are Northerners or Southerners, Sherman was a hard, cruel soldier, an unfeeling destroyer, the man who rampaged rather than fought, a brute rather than a human being.
After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman believed he needed to press on to Savannah to stay on the offensive and keep Confederate Gen. John B. Hood guessing as to his intentions. At the same time, Sherman believed he could wreak havoc on the crops, farms, roads and railroads that helped supply rebel troops in Virginia.
Sherman's march frightened and appalled Southerners. It hurt morale, for civilians had believed the Confederacy could protect the home front. Sherman had terrorized the countryside; his men had destroyed all sources of food and forage and had left behind a hungry and demoralized people. Although he did not level any towns, he did destroy buildings in places where there was resistance. His men had shown little sympathy for Millen, the site of Camp Lawton, where Union prisoners of war were held. Physical attacks on white civilians were few, although it is not known how slave women fared at the hands of the invaders. Often male slaves posted guards outside the cabins of their female friends and relatives.
The purpose of this “March to the Sea” was to frighten Georgia’s civilian population into abandoning the Confederate cause. Sherman’s soldiers did not destroy any of the towns in their path, but they stole food and livestock and burned the houses and barns of people who tried to fight back. The Yankees were “not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people,” Sherman explained; as a result, they needed to “make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”