Why didn’t Sherman burn Savannah?
Why didn’t Union General William T. Sherman burn Savannah during the Civil War? In fifteen years as a tour guide in Savannah, I’ve heard a lot of theories. One of the local myths that refuses to die is the claim that General Sherman didn’t burn Savannah in late 1864 because “he had a girlfriend here.” Another version claims that Sherman’s officers talked him out of torching the city because they themselves had illicit extramarital loves with many of Savannah’s women. Yet another tale says that Sherman spared the city because Savannah was too beautiful to burn. These stories ignore the brilliant brutality of Sherman’s (and the Union’s) strategy.
The ‘Girlfriend(s) Theory’ is ludicrous. Not a single piece of documented evidence backs that story up. The ‘Beauty Theory’ ignores the fact that Sherman’s troops burned Atlanta and some (but not all) plantation homes that they encountered. Then, after Savannah’s capture, these same Union troops reputedly burned Columbia SC to the ground. Were these cities and elegant mansions deemed ugly enough to burn?
What is the real reason why Sherman didn’t burn Savannah to the ground? The answer has nothing to do with romance or beauty, and everything to do with FOOD. Sherman was famously instructed by General Grant “to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” The Union was trying to disrupt Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s supply lines to force him into a desperate situation. Sherman did exactly that in his fiery March to the Sea. By capturing and holding Savannah, Sherman turned one of the Confederacy’s own vital supply depots against itself. This meant that in coastal Georgia, the Union forces could feed and resupply itself, and the Confederate Army could not. The ability (or lack thereof) of the Southern states to feed the soldiers they put into the field was vital to their cause.
Did Sherman’s (and Grant’s) policy work? Yes. The Union’s successful disruption of General Lee’s supplies for his exhausted army meant that many of Lee’s troops were forced to desert rather than starve. Lee finally surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia in April of 1865.
So now you know why Sherman didn’t burn Savannah. It was food, not bedroom politics or even picturesque squares, which caused Sherman to put away the torches.