Sherman Plans to Leave Atlanta

November 2, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman prepared to lead his Federal forces southeast from Atlanta to the Atlantic coast, despite General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee disrupting his supply lines.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

In October, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had authorized Sherman to strike out for the Atlantic in Georgia. But since then, Hood’s Confederates had moved west and were now threatening Sherman’s supply lines in Tennessee. Undaunted, Sherman went ahead with his plan, leaving Hood for Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland at Nashville.

Sherman had dispatched elements of his armies under Thomas to defend Federal bases in Tennessee. Thomas was building up his force to defend against not only Hood but Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. Sherman wrote Thomas on the 1st:

“The fact that Forrest is down about Johnsonville, while Hood, with his infantry, is still about Florence and Tuscumbia, gives you time for concentration. The supplies about Chattanooga are immense, and I will soon be independent of them; therefore I would not risk supplies coming in transit from Nashville to Chattanooga. In like manner we have large supplies in Nashville, and if they be well guarded, and Hood can’t get our supplies, he can’t stay in Tennessee long.”

Sherman’s plan was to cut his Federals off from their supply base and live off the land as they marched to the coast. But he knew that both Hood and President Jefferson Davis planned to harass him from the rear; Davis had imprudently divulged as much on his speaking tour through Georgia. Sherman wrote Grant:

“As you foresaw, and as Jeff. Davis threatened, the enemy is now in the full tide of execution of his grand plan to destroy my communications and defeat this army. His infantry, about 30,000, with Wheeler’s and Roddey’s cavalry, from 7,000 to 10,000, are now in the neighborhood of Tuscumbia and Florence, and the water being low is able, to cross at will. Forrest seems to be scattered from Eastport to Jackson, Paris, and the lower Tennessee, and General Thomas reports the capture by him of a gunboat and five transports. General Thomas has near Athens and Pulaski Stanley’s corps, about 15,000 strong, and Schofield’s corps, 10,000, en route by rail, and has at least 20,000 to 25,000 men, with new regiments and conscripts arriving all the time; also Rosecrans promises the two divisions of Smith and Mower, belonging to me, but I doubt if they can reach Tennessee in less than 10 days.

“If I were to let go Atlanta and North Georgia and make for Hood, he would, as he did here, retreat to the southwest, leaving his militia, now assembling at Macon and Griffin, to occupy our conquests, and the work of last summer would be lost. I have retained about 50,000 good troops, and have sent back full 25,000, and having instructed General Thomas to hold defensively Nashville, Chattanooga, and Decatur, all strongly fortified and provisioned for a long siege.

“I will destroy all the railroads of Georgia and do as much substantial damage as is possible, reaching the sea-coast near one of the points hitherto indicated, trusting that General Thomas, with his present troops and the influx of new troops promised, will be able in a very few days to assume the offensive. Hood’s cavalry may do a good deal of damage, and I have sent Wilson back with all dismounted cavalry, retaining only about 4,500. This is the best I can do, and shall, therefore, when I can get to Atlanta the necessary stores, move as soon as possible.”

To Sherman’s dismay, Grant began reconsidering the whole plan. He wrote Sherman on the night of the 1st:

“Do you not think it advisable now that Hood has gone so far north to entirely settle him before starting on your proposed campaign? With Hood’s army destroyed you can go where you please with impunity. I believed, and still believe, that if you had started south whilst Hood was in the neighborhood of you he would have been forced to go after you. Now that he is so far away, he might look upon the chase as useless and go in one direction whilst you are pushing in the other. If you can see the chance for destroying Hood’s army, attend to that first and make your other move secondary.”

Grant’s reluctance came not only from rumors that the Confederates planned to isolate and destroy Sherman’s Federals in Georgia, but also from the Lincoln administration, which strongly suggested that no risky maneuvers should be attempted before the elections took place on the 8th. But Sherman tried reassuring Grant in a message he sent on the 2nd:

“If I could hope to overhaul Hood I would turn against him with my whole force. Then he retreats to the southwest, drawing me as a decoy from Georgia, which is his chief object. If he ventures north of the Tennessee I may turn in that direction and endeavor to get between him and his line of retreat, but thus far he has not gone above the Tennessee… No single army can catch him, and I am convinced the best results will result from defeating Jeff. Davis’ cherished plan of making me leave Georgia by maneuvering.”

Sherman offered to hold Decatur, Atlanta, and other points to chase down Hood, “but unless I let go Atlanta my force will not be equal to his.” In a final plea, Sherman sent a second message:

“If I turn back the whole effect of my campaign will be lost. By my movements I have thrown Beauregard well to the west, and Thomas will have ample time and sufficient troops to hold him until re-enforcements reach him from Missouri and recruits. We have now ample supplies at Chattanooga and Atlanta to stand a month’s interruption to our communications, and I don’t believe the Confederate army can reach our lines, save by cavalry raid, and Wilson will have cavalry enough to checkmate that. I am clearly of opinion that the best results will follow me in my contemplated movement through Georgia.”

Before these messages arrived at Grant’s headquarters, he had reconsidered his reconsideration. Sherman received Grant’s message that night:

“With the force, however, you have left with Thomas, he must be able to take care of Hood and destroy him. I do not really see that you can withdraw from where you are to follow Hood, without giving up all we have gained in territory. I say, then, go as you propose.”

This final, permanent authorization galvanized Sherman as he prepared for the march. He wrote, “Jeff. Davis will change his tune when he finds me advancing into the heart of Georgia instead of retreating, and I think it will have an immediate effect on your operations at Richmond.”

—–

References

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 13034-54; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34-35

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