November 15, 1864 – Leading elements of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies began moving out of Atlanta, headed southeast toward the Atlantic Ocean.
By the 15th, Federal troops were continuing to burn Atlanta’s business and industrial sections, as well as anything else that Confederates could use for military purposes. Churches and homes were swept up in the destruction as well. New York Herald correspondent David Conyngham noted, “The heart was burning out of beautiful Atlanta.” The devastation spread over 200 acres, and Captain Orlando Poe, the chief Federal engineer, estimated that 37 percent of Atlanta lay in ruins.
Meanwhile, Sherman was ready to start his precarious march to the sea. He reorganized his army into four corps totaling some 62,000 men in 218 regiments. The vanguard headed out in two wings:
- Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia (formerly Army of the Cumberland), consisting of XIV and XX corps, comprised the left wing.
- Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, consisting of XV and XVII corps, comprised the right wing.
Slocum would follow the Georgia Railroad east toward Augusta, while Howard would follow the Macon & Western Railroad southeast toward Macon. The cavalry, led by recently arrived Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick, would screen Howard’s right. Sherman’s armies would move along diverging paths to avoid crowding on one road and keep the Confederates guessing as to their final destination. As Sherman later explained, “My first object was, of course, to place my army in the very heart of Georgia.”
Sherman would be violating a key military axiom by detaching himself from all lines of communication and supply deep in enemy territory. He would not be able to contact any of his Federal comrades outside his armies–superior or subordinate–and with supply wagons severely restricted, his men would not be regularly fed. Sherman therefore ordered them to live off the land, allowing them to cut a path of destruction 60 miles wide through the state.
As regimental bands played patriotic songs, the leading Federals marched out of Atlanta in high morale. The fires continued raging behind them, leading an officer to later write, “All the pictures and verbal descriptions of hell I have ever seen never gave me half so vivid an idea of it as did this flame-wrapped city tonight.”
Confederate opposition consisted only of a few thousand militia under Major General Howell Cobb and 3,500 cavalry troopers under Major General Joseph Wheeler. Kilpatrick later recalled, “We left Atlanta on the morning of November 15, crossed the Flint River and occupied Jonesboro. A portion of General Wheeler’s cavalry, and the Georgia militia under General Cobb, was reported to be at Lovejoy’s Station.”
Wheeler reported, “Enemy have burned many houses in Rome, Marietta, and Atlanta; also destroyed railroad and burned bridge over Chattahoochee.” Wheeler tried slowing the Federal advance by ordering that “all mills near the enemy’s lines of march will be rendered useless to the enemy by breaking the machinery, and, when practicable, by drawing off the water.” However, “no mill building, corn-crib, or any other private property will be burned or destroyed by this command.” Wheeler authorized his men to seize farm animals to prevent them from Federal capture, but he urged the troopers to account for them so their owners could be reimbursed.
The rest of Sherman’s forces left Atlanta on the 16th. This included Sherman himself, who later recalled:
“About 7 a.m. of November 16th we rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles… Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.
“Away off in the distance, on the McDonough road, was the rear of Howard’s column, the gun-barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south; and right before us the Fourteenth Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond. Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of ‘John Brown’s soul goes marching on;’ the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!’ done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.
“Then we turned our horses’ heads to the east; Atlanta was soon lost behind the screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem like the memory of a dream; and I have never seen the place since. The day was extremely beautiful, clear sunlight, with bracing air, and an unusual feeling of exhilaration seemed to pervade all minds–a feeling of something to come, vague and undefined, still full of venture and intense interest.”
Northerners would not hear from Sherman or his army for nearly a month. During that time, nobody in the North knew for sure whether Sherman was triumphant or vanquished deep in enemy territory.
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