On November 9, 1864, Major General William T. Sherman prepared his 60,000-man Federal Army of the West to advance through Georgia from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean. This was a highly risky strategy; according to Special Field Orders Number 120, Sherman’s men would be “detached and cut off from all communication with the rear.” They would also be cut off from supply lines, instead ordered to “forage liberally on the country” and confront Confederate soldier or civilian resistance with “a devastation more or less relentless.”
Cutting themselves off from supplies would negate Confederate efforts to destroy their supply lines. However, it would also cut Sherman off from communicating with Washington until he reestablished contact with Federal naval vessels on the Atlantic. President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant had been reluctant to approve this march, but now that Lincoln had won reelection, there was no political consequence for failure, so Sherman was authorized to proceed.
Before moving out, the Federals destroyed bridges, foundries, mills, shops, warehouses, and other useful Confederate property at Rome and Atlanta to prevent residents from returning. This added to southern bitterness toward Sherman’s policy of “total war” on southern property and civilians. Sherman instructed Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland at Nashville, to defend against General John Bell Hood’s imminent Confederate invasion of Tennessee.
On November 15, Sherman’s Army of the West began its “march to the sea.” Marching orders included bringing no supply trains, instead foraging and looting for subsistence. Destruction of property was prohibited except when ordered by corps commanders as retaliation for attacks on the marchers. Slaves who could be used as laborers could join the marchers, but the army would not become a slave sanctuary. The marchers would begin at 7 a.m. each morning and cover 15 miles each day. The Federals moved southwest in two columns, encountering little resistance along the way as they sang “John Brown’s Body” and other northern patriotic songs.
This evening, Federal Chief Engineer Orlando Poe burned Atlanta’s industrial area, including the oil refinery, which soon spread to other buildings and resulted in massive explosions as regimental bands played. Reporter David Conyngham of the New York Herald wrote, “The heart was burning out of beautiful Atlanta.” Sherman had ordered that no private residences be touched, but looters had been at work for the last four days. Poe estimated that 37 percent of Atlanta was destroyed.
Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown called for all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 55 to oppose Sherman’s march, but few men were available. Within a week, the Federals captured the state capital at Milledgeville; the legislature fled after approving a levee en masse.
The Federal advance continued, as foragers nicknamed “bummers” ransacked and burned homes and buildings along the way. President Jefferson Davis wired Georgia officials “that every effort will be made by destroying bridges, felling trees, planting sub-terra shells and otherwise, to obstruct the advance of the enemy.”
General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry tried disrupting the advance, but they were ineffective. President Davis hurried General Braxton Bragg to Georgia to join Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and William Hardee to assemble an army to stop Sherman. Meanwhile, John Bell Hood continued efforts to reclaim Nashville and then invade the North.
Regarding William T. Sherman’s plans, President Davis told William Hardee, “When the purpose of the enemy shall be developed, every effort must be made to obstruct the route on which he is moving, and all other available means must be employed to delay his march, as well to enable our forces to be concentrated as to reduce him to want of the necessary supplies.”
The march continued into December. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry fought Federal cavalry led by Judson Kilpatrick at Waynesboro until dismounted Federals finally drove Wheeler off. As the Federals advanced further into Georgia, Confederate opposition diminished.
Sherman’s vanguard reached Savannah on December 10. The city was strongly defended by Confederates under General William Hardee. In addition, the rice fields surrounding Savannah had been flooded to block the main approaches. As Sherman prepared to besiege Savannah, he sent Federal troops to probe nearby Fort McAllister, which guarded the Ogeechee River.
Sherman positioned Federal forces between the Ogeechee and Savannah rivers, and Admiral John A. Dahlgren’s Federal naval fleet awaited contact with Sherman while moving along the coast. Confederate President Davis frantically sought reinforcements without weakening General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Richmond and Petersburg.
Charging through mines and obstructions, the Federals captured Fort McAllister on December 13. This enabled Sherman to link with Dahlgren and reestablish contact with the North. Federal vessels could now steam up the Ogeechee River, which meant the fall of Savannah was imminent.
Sherman prepared a Federal assault on the key port city of Savannah. Within the city, William Hardee was informed by President Davis that no reinforcements were available, and that Hardee should make arrangements “needful for the preservation of your Army.” The Federals began surrounding Savannah and Sherman demanded its surrender.
P.G.T. Beauregard, who was with Hardee in Savannah, urged him to evacuate the city before the Federals captured the northern escape routes across the Savannah River. On December 20, the Confederates evacuated across a pontoon bridge made of rice flats. About 10,000 troops were left, along with large quantities of cotton and artillery.
The next day, the Federals entered Savannah unopposed. Mayor Richard Arnold formally surrendered the city, and most of the 20,000 weary residents approved the surrender. Sherman wired President Lincoln, “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” Sherman was generally praised throughout the North, but some criticized him for allowing Hardee to escape.
The capture of Savannah ended Sherman’s march to the sea. The Federals had advanced 275 miles through the southern heartland while sustaining less than 2,000 casualties. In the process, Sherman had destroyed large tracts of southern property and inflicted harsh depredations upon civilians that have never been forgotten. At Savannah, Sherman regrouped his forces in preparation for a northern advance into South Carolina.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967)
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)
- Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983)
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)