Sherman Prepares to March to the Sea

November 6, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman, having received formal authorization, finalized plans to advance his Federal armies through Georgia, from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:

Sherman explained his intentions to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Sherman wrote that his Federals would “act in such a manner against the material resources of the South as utterly to negate (President Jefferson) Davis’ boasted threat” to cut them off from the rear. Sherman wrote:

“If we can march a well-appointed army right through his territory, it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which Davis cannot resist. This may not be war, but rather statesmanship… If the North can march an army right through the South, it is proof positive that the North can prevail.”

To ensure high morale and support for President Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming election, Federal paymasters visited all the camps before the troops moved out. Sherman informed Grant that he would begin moving after Lincoln’s victory, “which is assured.” Once in motion, “I will not attempt to send couriers back, but trust to the Richmond papers to keep you well advised.” Grant replied the next day, “Great good luck go with you. I believe you will be eminently successful, and at worst can only make a march less fruitful than is hoped for.”

On the 9th, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 120 from his Kingston, Georgia, headquarters. These detailed the upcoming march. The army would consist of 60,000 infantrymen in two wings:

  • Major General Oliver O. Howard would lead XV and XVII corps (i.e., the Army of the Tennessee) on the right wing.
  • Major General Henry W. Slocum would lead XIV and XX corps (i.e., the Army of Georgia) on the left wing.

A cavalry division of 5,500 men under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick would also join the march, and artillery would be “reduced to the minimum, one gun per 1,000 men.”

Each regiment was assigned just one wagon for ammunition and other “essentials.” Sherman wrote, “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march,” taking food, horses, and other necessities from civilians as needed. If the people resisted, officers “should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless…” Sherman’s plan was loosely based on Grant’s march down the west bank of the Mississippi River to get into the rear of Vicksburg in 1863.

The next day, Federals began returning to Atlanta from various stations north of the city, particularly Kingston and Rome. They burned factories, foundries, mills, and warehouses as they left, and they destroyed the Western & Atlantic Railroad connecting Atlanta to Chattanooga. Sherman wrote, “My army stood detached and cut off from all communication with the rear.”

In Atlanta, the Federals destroyed anything that Sherman feared the Confederates could salvage for military purposes after his army left town. Churches and private homes were to be spared, but many of these burned as well. Sherman went to Marietta on the 13th and saw that his men had already destroyed most of that town. Sherman motioned to the troops still there and said:

“There are the men who do this. Set as many guards as you please, they will slip in and set fire. That Court House was put out–no use–dare say the whole town will burn, at least the business part. I never ordered burning of any dwelling–didn’t order this, but can’t be helped. I say Jeff. Davis burnt them.”

This marked the beginning of Sherman’s legacy of destruction in the South. As the troops assembled in Atlanta for the southeastern movement, Sherman later recalled:

“The most extraordinary efforts had been made to purge this army of non-combatants and of sick men, for we knew well that there was to be no place of safety save with the army itself; our wagons were loaded with ammunition, provisions, and for age, and we could ill afford to haul even sick men in the ambulances, so that all on this exhibit may be assumed to have been able-bodied, experienced soldiers, well armed, well equipped and provided, as far as human foresight could, with all the essentials of life, strength, and vigorous action.”

Sherman allowed slaves who escaped from nearby masters to join the army if they worked as laborers or cooks. But he placed severe restrictions on this to prevent his troops from being bogged down by a mass slave exodus along the way.

The only real opposition to Sherman’s army was Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry at Jonesboro, south of Atlanta. Wheeler dispatched scouts on the night of the 13th, and they quickly confirmed rumors that Sherman would be heading southeast soon, possibly bound for Augusta or Savannah. Wheeler did not have enough men to stop the Federals, so all he could do was notify the garrison and militia commanders in Sherman’s supposed path and hope for reinforcements.

The next day, Sherman issued specific marching orders:

“The armies will begin the movement on Milledgeville and Gordon tomorrow, the 15th of November as follows: I. The Right Wing will move, via McDonough and Monticello, to Gordon. II. The Left Wing, General Slocum, will move, via Covington, Social Circle, and Madison, to Milledgeville, destroying the railroad in a most thorough manner from Yellow River to Madison. III. The cavalry, General Kilpatrick commanding, will move in concert with the Right Wing, feigning strong in the direction of Forsyth and Macon, but will cross the Ocmulgee on the pontoon bridge of General Howard. IV. Each column will aim to reach its destination–viz, Gordon and Milledgeville–on the seventh day’s march, and each army commander will on arrival communicate with the other wing and the commanding general, who will accompany the Left Wing.”

The wings would move along parallel routes, starting at 7 a.m. each morning and averaging about 15 miles per day. The wanton destruction of civilian property was prohibited, but officers were authorized to order retaliatory attacks against anyone resisting the advance. The Federals had 1.2 million rations, or 20 days’ worth, with orders to live off the land beyond that time.

Sherman reported that by the night of the 14th, the Federals about to leave Atlanta had–

“–leveled the great depot, round-house, and the machine-shops of the Georgia Railroad, and had applied fire to the wreck. One of these machine-shops had been used by the rebels as an arsenal, and in it were stored piles of shot and shell, some of which proved to be loaded, and that night was made hideous by the bursting of shells, whose fragments came uncomfortably near Judge Lyon’s house, in which I was quartered. The fire also reached the block of stores near the depot, and the heart of the city was in flames all night, but the fire did not reach the parts of Atlanta where the court-house was, or the great mass of dwelling-houses.”

The destruction continued through the night, with the long-anticipated march to begin the next morning.



Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 184-85;; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 485-87; 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 13044-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 519-20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 594-96; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q464

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