When Louisiana seceded Sherman resigned from the military academy (Jan., 1861), and in May he rejoined the U.S. army as a colonel. Sherman commanded a brigade in the first battle of Bull Run (July) and in August was made a brigadier general of volunteers and sent to Kentucky. There he succeeded Robert Anderson in command of the Dept. of the Cumberland (Oct.), but in November he was transferred to the Dept. of the Missouri.
Sherman distinguished himself as a division commander at Shiloh (Apr., 1862) and was promoted to major general in May. He took part in the operations about Corinth, occupied Memphis (July), and commanded the Dist. of Memphis (Oct.–Dec., 1862). After his defeat at Chickasaw Bluffs in the first advance of the Vicksburg campaign, he served under John A. McClernand in the capture of Arkansas Post (Jan., 1863). In the successful move on Vicksburg, Sherman ably led the 15th Corps. In July he was made a brigadier general in the regular army.
When Ulysses S. Grant assumed supreme command in the West, Sherman became commander of the Army of the Tennessee (Oct., 1863). He commanded the Union left at Missionary Ridge in the Chattanooga campaign (Nov.), went to the relief of Ambrose E. Burnside at Knoxville (Dec.), and destroyed Confederate communications and supplies at Meridian, Miss., in Feb., 1864.
When Grant became commander in chief, Sherman succeeded him as supreme commander in the West (March). His Atlanta campaign (May–Sept., 1864) resulted in the fall of that city on Sept. 2. The Confederate attempt to draw him back failed, and Sherman burned (Nov. 15) most of Atlanta and the next day, with 60,000 men, began his famous march to the sea. With virtually no enemy to bar his way, he was before Savannah in 24 days, leaving behind him a ruined and devastated land. Savannah fell on Dec. 21.
In Feb., 1865, Sherman started northward to close in on Robert E. Lee from the rear. Every step now reduced the area upon which the Confederates in Virginia could depend for aid. His advance through South Carolina (the state that in the eyes of Sherman's men had provoked the war) was slower but even more destructive than the march through Georgia.
In North Carolina, Joseph E. Johnston opposed Sherman in engagements at Averasboro and Bentonville, but after hearing of Lee's surrender, he asked for terms. Sherman, understanding the South and the devastation it had suffered better than any other Union general, offered him generous terms, but Secretary of War Stanton repudiated them. Johnston then surrendered (Apr. 26, 1865) the last major Confederate army on the same terms as Lee.
Sherman saw more clearly than any other Civil War general that modern warfare was completely unlike its 18th-century counterpart. In fact, he is sometimes credited with reinventing war, stressing the destruction of the infrastructure necessary to support an enemy army more than the killing of its soldiers, and establishing rules of conflict that are still in effect today. Since the Civil War was a war between free peoples, Sherman maintained that only by breaking the war spirit of the enemy, noncombatant as well as combatant, could victory be won—hence the march through Georgia and South Carolina. His famous statement that "war … is all hell" epitomizes his sentiments.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.