Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ Devastates the Confederacy
After occupying the city of Atlanta for two months in the fall of 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman decided his army was ready for another offensive. At that stage of the Civil War, Sherman and the overall Union commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, determined that it was not enough to defeat the enemy’s troops in battle. To truly win the war, both men agreed, they had to destroy not only the Confederacy’s ability to fight, but its willingness.
To implement this, Sherman left Atlanta on Nov. 15, 1864, on his great “march to the sea”—300 miles to the coastal city of Savannah, which was captured on December 21. On this march Sherman’s army blazed a path of almost complete destruction, a “scorched earth” approach to warfare meant to show the Southern people that the Confederate army could no longer protect them. It was terror and destruction used as a psychological weapon to demoralize the enemy—and its devastating impact contributed greatly to the war ending the following spring.
The fall of Atlanta propelled the Civil War into its final stage. As the summer of 1864 was drawing to a close, the Confederacy was holding onto a glimmer of hope that it could still “win” the Civil War. The South’s Robert E. Lee was tying up the Union army under Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, and Sherman’s attempt to capture Atlanta was bogged down in a four-month-long siege that seemed to be going nowhere. Without a major Union victory before the fall’s presidential election, it appeared that President Lincoln would lose to his challenger and former general, George Brinton McClellan. If McClellan became president, he would sign a peace treaty with the South and the Confederate States of America would secure their independence.
On Aug. 31, 1864, the two-day Battle of Jonesborough began. Badly outnumbered, the Confederates lost the battle, suffering around 2,500 casualties. The rail line at Jonesborough south of Atlanta fell into Union hands September 1, cutting the Southern army’s supply line. That night Confederate General John Bell Hood ordered the Army of Tennessee to abandon Atlanta. In doing so he saved his army to fight another day, but the Union capture of Atlanta lifted Northern morale, and the important victory was the boost Lincoln needed to win his re-election bid and continue the war.
On Sept. 2, 1864, Sherman marched into Atlanta and triumphantly telegraphed his superiors: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.” The capture of this strategic Southern city was of great importance to the North, both militarily and politically. For the Confederacy, the loss of Atlanta was the beginning of the end.
And now Sherman was leaving Atlanta, beginning his march of devastation to hasten the war’s conclusion. On November 11 he gave an order to burn all public buildings in the city, relenting at the last moment to spare churches and hospitals. In his later memoirs, Sherman remembered the scene as his men began the march: “Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.”
Sherman’s plan was bold: he would march deeply through enemy territory without a supply line or means of communication, living off the land and destroying everything in his path, in a relentless drive to the Atlantic coast. He telegraphed his superiors: “Georgia and South Carolina are at my mercy, and I shall strike. Do not be anxious about me, I am all right.” On the day his 62,000-man army left Atlanta, newspapers both North and South speculated where Sherman was going and what his intentions were, as seen in the following historical newspaper accounts (all published on Nov. 15, 1864). This first article was published by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York):
The Movements of Gen. Sherman
Where Is He Going?
Georgia and South Carolina at His Mercy
No dispatches have been received from Gen. Sherman for several days past, for the reason, as is supposed, that he is now beyond the reach of immediate communication with Washington. That part of the country in which he is now operating will afford him ample subsistence and supplies without the trouble of transporting. By this time he may be far beyond points where the enemy in formidable numbers can do him any harm. It is not known how long our forces may continue to occupy Atlanta. This will depend on circumstances soon to be developed.
Whatever may be Sherman’s programme, gentlemen who are good judges of military matters anticipate damaging results to the enemy.
New York, Nov. 15.
The Herald has a sketch of the movements of Sherman and Hood since September, when Hood commenced his flank movement. By November, says the Herald, the Army of the Tennessee had left Rome and was en route to Atlanta. On November 4th, the Fifth Corps, the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Twentieth had been concentrated at the last named city, and rapid preparations are being made to begin the march. Sherman felt in the highest spirits and telegraphed his intentions in these remarkable words: “Hood has crossed the Tennessee. Thomas will take care of him and Nashville, while Schofield will not let him into Chattanooga or Knoxville. Georgia and South Carolina are at my mercy, and I shall strike. Do not be anxious about me, I am all right.” This is his adieu.
The Rebel papers announce that he has already started on his march.
Where is he going?
Andersonville, where the Rebels have 20,000 Union prisoners penned up like hogs, lies in his way.
But a few days ago, Sherman wrote to the President of the St. Louis Sanitary Commission: “I thank you for the prompt fulfillment of the request to send certain articles for our prisoners at Andersonville. Things have changed since, and I may have to go in person to deliver these articles to the prisoners.”
This notice was published by the Macon Daily Telegraph and Confederate (Macon, Georgia):
It was reported that Sherman had destroyed the railroad between Chattanooga and Atlanta, and burnt the latter place, and at the head of five corps was marching on Charleston. The report was not credited in military circles at Washington.
This article was published by the New York Herald (New York, New York):
…That General Sherman, after chasing Hood well on towards the Tennessee river, abandoned the pursuit and returned to Atlanta, leaving a sufficient force in Tennessee and Northern Georgia to take care of the projected great northern invasion of Beauregard and Hood, we know; and with the fact that, after returning to Atlanta, taking with him five corps of his magnificent army of veterans, he cut loose from that place, and commenced a march into the heart of the enemy’s country, we are also fully conversant. Exactly where General Sherman now is, though, even the authorities at Washington cannot tell; for he has cast himself off from communication with Northern telegraphs, and, like a giant, is stalking unopposed through the States of the South, destined either for the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. That he will be successful in this grand and novel campaign no one can doubt, and we shall probably soon hear from him somewhere on the seaboard.
Another by the New York Herald:
Sherman’s Movement from Atlanta—‘Startling News’ in Richmond
General Sherman has already made himself felt in the weak places of the rebel confederacy. He has rather disturbed the propriety of the establishment. The Richmond papers tell their readers to prepare to be startled at a moment’s notice. They also tell them that the news that is to startle them is news of General Sherman; and they give indication that the rebel War Department is already in possession of this news that by and by is to startle the people. On the 7th inst. Mr. Jefferson Davis announced to his Congress of rebels that Sherman had been “compelled to withdraw on the line of his advance.” On the same day Mr. Seddon, rebel Secretary of War, announced to the same Congress that General Sherman, by the capture of Atlanta, was “chained down to the tenure of a far inland position, of no real strategic value.” These were the latest rebel accounts of General Sherman. He was in retreat, or he was in harmless occupation of Atlanta. Only a little while ago it was even worse. Sherman was to have been overwhelmed by Hood, and his retreat into Tennessee from the “Sunny South” was to have been as ruinous as the retreat from Moscow. But now the news is all on another key—it is “startling”—and the rebel President and his Secretary of War are afraid to let it be known to the Southern people.
Our readers are already aware that General Sherman was to leave Atlanta on our about the 8th instant for a further advance into the rebel States of Georgia and perhaps South Carolina, which States lay entirely at his mercy, Jeff. Davis having assured us that the last available soldier in that part of the world had been sent to Hood’s army, and Hood’s army having gone on a wild goose chase to Tennessee.
This article was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania):
‘Startling News’ from Sherman
Text and Comment
In his late report, the Rebel Secretary of War, in making an effort to be jolly over the loss of Atlanta, observed that Sherman’s capture of that city had “chained down his (Sherman’s) army to the tenure of a far inland position.” This is the text.
Now for the comment. This is to be found in the Richmond papers of the 12th, which urge upon their readers “the necessity of being prepared for startling news from General Sherman.”
Where Sherman is, or what he is doing, everyone must conjecture for himself, for it is evident the Government is not quite ready to make these matters public; but it may be suggested to Mr. Seddon, that the next time he “chains down” Sherman he had better look a little better to the length of his cable.
This article was published by the Daily Richmond Examiner (Richmond, Virginia):
The War News
The lines of Richmond and Petersburg continue to enjoy a profound quiet.
An exchange of papers took place on yesterday. New York journals of the 12th were delivered, but none of the 10th or 11th were to be had. Deserters say that every number of the 10th were seized by officers, acting under orders from headquarters, and burnt. The supposition of these men was that the papers of the 10th contained some news which was not thought proper for Confederate ears. One number of the 10th has, however, come to hand, and there is little difficulty in discerning the points which were considered contraband. Here they are:
“Cincinnati, Nov. 9.—Yesterday’s Indianapolis Journal says:
“Officers from Chattanooga report that Sherman returned to Atlanta early last week with five corps of his army, leaving two corps in Tennessee, under Thomas, to watch Hood. He destroyed the railroad from Chattanooga to Atlanta, and is sending the iron to the former place.
“Atlanta is burned, and Sherman is marching directly for Charleston, South Carolina.”
“Washington, November 9.—The story published today, that Atlanta has been burned and that Sherman was marching directly for Charleston, South Carolina, is not believed in military circles. The official information received yesterday from General Sherman cannot, for prudential reasons, be now made public; but it may be said that the prospect for success in his present movements is highly encouraging, and that his supplies are ample and in no danger of interruption.”
Sherman and Hood
…General Sherman may or may not be organizing an offensive movement, with Atlanta as his base. We get no confirmation of the report from Confederate sources. It is certainly one of the most extraordinary features of this war, that two large armies should diverge from each other and move in opposite directions, and stranger still, that they conduct their movements with such secrecy that no one outside of reticent official circles can ascertain within a week the localities of their respective headquarters.
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