Myth: General William Sherman’s “March to the Sea” destroyed supplies that would have gone to the prisoners at Andersonville, and bears some responsibility for the suffering endured there. He could have liberated Andersonville.

A post-war engraving of Sherman's March to the Sea

Library of Congress/Alexander Ritchie

Many Georgians grow up hearing about the devastation wrought by General William T. Sherman's army as it marched from Atlanta to Savannah. Visitors to Andersonville frequently make the connection between Sherman's destruction and the lack of supplies at Andersonville. It's not uncommon to hear, "What were they supposed to feed the prisoners with after Sherman destroyed all the food?" He's often criticized for not swinging his army further south and liberating Andersonville and its 30,000 captives.

General William T. Sherman remains one of the most controversial and divisive figures of the Civil War

National Archives

The problem with this narrative is that it does not fit the timeline of Andersonville's operation. General Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864. Word quickly reached Andersonville and mass evacuations began immediately. In just the one week of September 7-13 nearly 17,000 prisoners were transferred to other prisons in Georgia and the Carolinas. In mid-September, Sherman and Confederate General Hood negotiated a "special exchange" for those captured in the Atlanta campaign and around 2,000 prisoners were sent to Atlanta for exchange. By the end of the month less than 9,000 prisoners remained at Andersonville. When Sherman began his March to the Sea on November 15, 1864, there were less than 200 prisoners in the stockade and less than 2,000 in the hospital. That very day an additional 500 were transferred to Savannah lowering the prison's population even further. The death count on November 15, 1864 stood at around 12,100.

Whether or not Sherman should have moved towards Andersonville and the 1,500 prisoners there is subject to speculation and debate. However, the implication that he intentionally left 30,000 men to rot is simply inaccurate. Sherman was aware of the evacuations taking place and he knew that the prison would be virtually empty by the time he was prepared to move. More importantly, Sherman did not cut off the prisoners' food supplies. Virtually all of the deaths at Andersonville occurred before Sherman destroyed anything in central Georgia.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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