September 20, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman wrote a long letter to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant offering ideas on what the Federals should focus on next.
As General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee continued regrouping, Federal forces herded the civilians out of Atlanta and Sherman looked to the future. He wrote Grant, “The exodus of people is progressing and matters coming into shape.” Grant allowed Sherman a few days to clear the city out, but then he wrote that it was “desirable that another campaign should be commenced… We want to keep the enemy constantly pressed to the end of the war. If we give him no peace while the war lasts, the end cannot be distant.”
Grant had hoped that Major General E.R.S. Canby, commanding the Federal Trans-Mississippi region, could send troops east to reinforce Sherman in Georgia. However, Major General Sterling Price’s Confederate incursion into Missouri prevented that. Instead, Grant proposed sending one of his staff officers to Sherman’s headquarters, “not so much to suggest operations for you as to get your views and have plans matured by the time everything can be ready.”
Sherman responded on the 20th with a long letter in which he offered his views on not only the Georgia situation but all others as well. He expressed hope that Grant would soon capture Petersburg, and he wrote that overall, “We ought to ask our country for the largest possible armies that can be raised, as so important a thing as the ‘self-existence of a great nation’ should not be left to the fickle chances of war.”
Regarding Grant’s idea of capturing the vital blockade-running seaport of Wilmington, North Carolina, Sherman wrote, “If (David G.) Farragut can get across the bar, and the move can be made quick, I suppose it will succeed.” If that happened, the fleet could then move to capture Savannah. If the Federal navy captured Savannah, Sherman stated that he “would not hesitate to cross the State of Georgia with 60,000 men, hauling some stores and depending on the country for the balance.”
Sherman wrote, “Where a million of people live my army won’t starve, but as you know, in a country like Georgia, with few roads and innumerable streams, an inferior force could so delay an army and harass it that it would not be a formidable object.” If the navy held Savannah, “I could rapidly move to Milledgeville, where there is abundance of corn and meat, and would so threaten Macon and Augusta that he would give up Macon for Augusta; then I would move to interpose between Augusta and Savannah, and force him to give me Augusta, with the only powder mills and factories remaining in the South, or let us have the Savannah River.”
According to Sherman, he could “start east and make a circuit south and back (to Atlanta), doing vast damage to the State.” This would “hold a rod over the Georgians who are not overloyal to the South.” However, Sherman also wrote, “The more I study the game the more am I convinced that it would be wrong for me to penetrate much farther into Georgia without an objective beyond.”
This “objective beyond” involved Canby being “reenforced to the maximum; that after you get Wilmington, you strike for Savannah and the (Savannah) River; that General Canby be instructed to hold the Mississippi River and send a force to get Columbus, Ga., either by the way of the Alabama or the Appalachicola, and that I keep Hood employed, and put my army in fine order for a march on Augusta, Columbia, and Charleston, to be ready as soon as Wilmington is sealed as to commence, and the city of Savannah is in our possession.” Sherman concluded:
“The possession of the Savannah River is more than fatal to the possibility of a Southern independence; they may stand the fall of Richmond, but not of all Georgia… If you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic, I think Uncle Abe will give us a 20 days’ leave of absence to see the young folks.”
Grant was doubtful because he envisioned the Federal navy focusing on Wilmington, and considering that it had not been able to capture Charleston, he did not think it could capture Savannah. Also, a march of the kind that Sherman proposed had not been done since General Winfield Scott abandoned his supply base at Veracruz and moved inland to capture Mexico City 17 years earlier. Such a move was risky then and would be riskier now. The strategy discussion would continue.
On the Confederate side, Hood’s Confederates remained at Lovejoy’s Station, 20 miles south of Atlanta, where Hood hoped to retake the offensive. However, he was still without his main cavalry force, which had gone north in August to unsuccessfully disrupt Sherman’s supply line. This had left Hood without adequate reconnaissance at a time when he needed it most.
Led by Major General Joseph Wheeler, the cavalry ended their raid early this month in northern Alabama. Wheeler reported that his men had “averaged 25 miles a day (and) swam or forded 27 rivers.” They seized “1,000 horses and mules, 200 wagons, 600 prisoners, and 1,700 head of beef cattle” while they “captured, killed, or wounded three times the greatest effective strength it has ever been able to carry into action.”
However, Federal repair crews quickly fixed the railroad tracks that Wheeler’s men had wrecked, and Sherman experienced no supply problems. And Wheeler ended up in Alabama, where he could do little good for Hood’s army at Lovejoy’s Station. Also, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown granted furloughs to all state militia “to return to their homes and look for a time after other important interests.” This left Hood even more shorthanded.
But Hood resolved to go on the offensive regardless. On the 21st, he began moving his Confederates to Palmetto, 20 miles west. This put them southwest of Atlanta, where they could easily move north and destroy Sherman’s supply and communication lines. Hood explained his reasoning to his superiors at Richmond, “Sherman is weaker now than he will be in the future, and I as strong as I can expect to be.”
The move also blocked Sherman from getting to the Federal prisoner of war camp at Andersonville in southwestern Georgia. Confederate officials had long feared that the 30,000 inmates there could be freed to reinforce Sherman’s army. Those officials did not know that the prisoners were too emaciated for service. In late September, Confederate officials began transferring the Andersonville inmates to a prison in Florida to better guard against a Federal breakout attempt.
Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 819; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10881-901, 12672-93, 12872-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 495; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 15-16, 19