Sherman’s “March to the Sea” followed his successful Atlanta Campaign of May to September 1864. He and the Union Army’s commander, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, believed that the Civil War would come to an end only if the Confederacy’s strategic capacity for warfare was decisively broken. Sherman therefore planned an operation that has been compared to the modern principles of scorched earth warfare. Although his formal orders specified control over destruction of infrastructure in areas in which his army was unmolested by guerrilla activity, he recognized that supplying an army through liberal foraging would have a destructive effect on the morale of the civilian population it encountered in its wide sweep through the state.
The second objective of the campaign was more traditional. Grant’s armies in Virginia continued in a stalemate against Robert E. Lee’s army, besieged in Petersburg, Virginia. By moving in Lee’s rear, Sherman could possibly increase pressure on Lee, allowing Grant the opportunity to break through, or at least keep Southern reinforcements away from Virginia.
The campaign was designed by Grant and Sherman to be similar to Grant’s innovative and successful Vicksburg Campaign and Sherman’s Meridian Campaign, in that Sherman’s armies would reduce their need for traditional supply lines by “living off the land” after consuming their 20 days of rations. Foragers, known as “bummers”, would provide food seized from local farms for the Army while they destroyed the railroads and the manufacturing and agricultural infrastructure of Georgia. In planning for the march, Sherman used livestock and crop production data from the 1860 census to lead his troops through areas where he believed they would be able to forage most effectively. The twisted and broken railroad rails that the troops heated over fires and wrapped around tree trunks and left behind became known as “Sherman’s neckties”. As the army would be out of touch with the North throughout the campaign, Sherman gave explicit orders, Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 120, regarding the conduct of the campaign. The following is an excerpt from the general’s orders:
… IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route travelled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten day’s provisions for the command and three days’ forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass, but during a halt or a camp they may be permitted to gather turnips, apples, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock of their camp. To regular foraging parties must be instructed the gathering of provisions and forage at any distance from the road travelled.
V. To army corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighbourhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.
VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or brigades. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.
VII. Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to see to them who bear arms….
— William T. Sherman, Military Division of the Mississippi Special Field Order 120, November 9, 1864.
The march was made easier by able assistants such as Orlando Metcalfe Poe, chief of the bridge building and demolition team. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman selected Poe as his chief engineer in 1864. Poe oversaw the burning of Atlanta, for which action he was honoured by Sherman. Poe directly supervised the dismantling of all buildings and structures in Atlanta that could have provided any military value to the Confederates once Sherman abandoned the city; rail depots, roundhouses, arsenals and storage areas were manually disassembled and the combustible materials then destroyed by controlled fires. He served in this capacity past the fall of Atlanta to the end of the war. Dozens of river crossings, poor or non-existent roads and the extensive swamps of southern Georgia would have fatally slowed Sherman’s force had not Poe’s skills as leader of the bridge, road and pontoon building units kept the army moving. He also continued to supervise destruction of Confederate infrastructure. Promoted by Sherman by two steps in rank to colonel after the fall of Savannah, he continued in that capacity in the war’s concluding Carolinas Campaign as Sherman headed northwards from Savannah to link up with Grant and the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and to cut another swath through South and North Carolina.
Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, did not employ his entire army group in the campaign. Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood was threatening Sherman’s supply line from Chattanooga, and Sherman detached two armies under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas to deal with Hood in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign. For the Savannah Campaign, Sherman’s remaining force of 62,000 men (55,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 2,000 artillerymen manning 64 guns) was divided into two columns for the march:
The right wing was the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, consisting of two corps:
XV Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Charles R. Woods, William B. Hazen, John E. Smith, and John M. Corse.
XVII Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Frank Blair, Jr., with the divisions of Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower and Brig. Gens. Mortimer D. Leggett and Giles A. Smith.
The left wing was the Army of Georgia, commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, also with two corps:
XIV Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. William P. Carlin, James D. Morgan, and Absalom Baird.
XX Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Nathaniel J. Jackson, John W. Geary, and William T. Ward.
A cavalry division under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick operated in support of the two wings.
The Confederate opposition from Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee’s Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida was meagre. Hood had taken the bulk of forces in Georgia on his campaign to Tennessee in hopes of diverting Sherman to pursue him. Considering Sherman’s military priorities, however, this tactical manoeuvre by his enemy to get out of his force’s path was welcomed to the point of remarking, “If he will go to the Ohio River, I’ll give him rations.” There were about 13,000 men remaining at Lovejoy’s Station, south of Atlanta. Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith’s Georgia militia had about 3,050 soldiers, most of whom were boys and elderly men. The Cavalry Corps of Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, reinforced by a brigade under Brig. Gen. William H. Jackson, had approximately 10,000 troopers. During the campaign, the Confederate War Department brought in additional men from Florida and the Carolinas, but they never were able to increase their effective force beyond 13,000.
Both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant had serious reservations about Sherman’s plans. Still, Grant trusted Sherman’s assessment and on November 2, 1864, he sent Sherman a telegram stating simply, “Go as you propose.” The 300-mile march began on November 15. Sherman recounted in his memoirs the scene when he left at 7 a.m. the following day:
… 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. We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering 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 Body”; 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.
— William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman, Chapter 21
The two wings of the army attempted to confuse and deceive the enemy about their destinations; the Confederates could not tell from the initial movements whether Sherman would march on Macon, Augusta, or Savannah. Howard’s wing, led by Kilpatrick’s cavalry, marched south along the railroad to Lovejoy’s Station, which caused the defenders there to conduct a fighting retreat to Macon. The cavalry captured two Confederate guns at Lovejoy’s Station, and then two more and 50 prisoners at Bear Creek Station. Howard’s infantry marched through Jonesboro to Gordon, southwest of the state capital, Milledgeville. Slocum’s wing, accompanied by Sherman, moved to the east, in the direction of Augusta. They destroyed the bridge across the Oconee River and then turned south.
The first real resistance was felt by Howard’s right wing at the Battle of Griswoldville on November 22. Confederate Maj. Gen. Wheeler’s cavalry struck Brig. Gen. Kilpatrick’s, killing one, wounding two and capturing 18. The infantry brigade of Brig. Gen. Charles C. Walcutt arrived to stabilize the defense, and the division of Georgia militia launched several hours of badly coordinated attacks, eventually retreating with about 1,100 casualties (of which about 600 were prisoners), versus the Union’s 100.
At the same time, Slocum’s left wing approached the state capital at Milledgeville, prompting the hasty departure of Governor Joseph Brown and the state legislature. On November 23, Slocum’s troops captured the city and held a mock legislative session in the capitol building, jokingly voting Georgia back into the Union.
Several small actions followed. Wheeler and some infantry struck in a rear guard action at Ball’s Ferry on November 24 and November 25. While Howard’s wing was delayed near Ball’s Bluff, the 1st Alabama Cavalry (a Federal regiment) engaged Confederate pickets. Overnight, Union engineers constructed a bridge 2 miles (3.2 km) away from the bluff across the Oconee River, and 200 soldiers crossed to flank the Confederate position. On November 25–26 at Sandersville, Wheeler struck at Slocum’s advance guard. Kilpatrick was ordered to make a feint toward Augusta before destroying the railroad bridge at Brier Creek and moving to liberate the Camp Lawton prisoner of war camp at Millen. Kilpatrick slipped by the defensive line that Wheeler had placed near Brier Creek, but on the night of November 26 Wheeler attacked and drove the 8th Indiana and 2nd Kentucky Cavalry away from their camps at Sylvan Grove. Kilpatrick abandoned his plans to destroy the railroad bridge and he also learned that the prisoners had been moved from Camp Lawton, so he re-joined the army at Louisville. At the Battle of Buck Head Creek on November 28, Kilpatrick was surprised and nearly captured, but the 5th Ohio Cavalry halted Wheeler’s advance, and Wheeler was later stopped decisively by Union barricades at Reynolds’s Plantation. On December 4, Kilpatrick’s cavalry routed Wheeler’s at the Battle of Waynesboro.
More Union troops entered the campaign from an unlikely direction. Maj. Gen. John G. Foster dispatched 5,500 men and 10 guns under Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch from Hilton Head, hoping to assist Sherman’s arrival near Savannah by securing the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. At the Battle of Honey Hill on November 30, Hatch fought a vigorous battle against G.W. Smith’s 1,500 Georgia militiamen, 3 miles south of Grahamville Station, South Carolina. Smith’s militia fought off the Union attacks, and Hatch withdrew after suffering about 650 casualties, versus Smith’s 50.
Sherman’s armies reached the outskirts of Savannah on December 10 but found that Hardee had entrenched 10,000 men in favourable fighting positions, and his soldiers had flooded the surrounding rice fields, leaving only narrow causeways available to approach the city. Sherman was blocked from linking up with the U.S. Navy as he had planned, so he dispatched cavalry to Fort McAllister, guarding the Ogeechee River, in hopes of unblocking his route and obtaining supplies awaiting him on the Navy ships. On December 13, William B. Hazen’s division of Howard’s wing stormed the fort in the Battle of Fort McAllister and captured it within 15 minutes. Some of the 134 Union casualties were caused by torpedoes, a name for crude land mines that were used only rarely in the war.
Now that Sherman had contact with the Navy fleet under Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, he was able to obtain the supplies and siege artillery he required to invest Savannah. On December 17, he sent a message to Hardee in the city:
I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah, and its dependent forts, and shall wait a reasonable time for your answer, before opening with heavy ordnance. Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, or the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army—burning to avenge the national wrong which they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.
— William T. Sherman, Message to William J. Hardee, December 17, 1864, recorded in his memoirs
Hardee decided not to surrender but to escape. On December 20, he led his men across the Savannah River on a makeshift pontoon bridge. The next morning, Savannah Mayor Richard Dennis Arnold, with a delegation of aldermen and ladies of the city, rode out to offer a proposition: The city would surrender and offer no resistance, in exchange for General Geary’s promise to protect the city’s citizens and their property. Geary telegraphed Sherman, who advised him to accept the offer. Arnold presented him with the key to the city, and Sherman’s men, led by Geary’s division of the XX Corps, occupied the city the same day.
Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” On December 26, the president replied in a letter:
Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift, the capture of Savannah. When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained,’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is yours; for I believe none of us went further than to acquiesce. And taking the work of General Thomas into the county, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success. Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages, but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole – Hood’s army – it brings those who sat in darkness to see a great light. But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave General Grant and yourself to decide. Please make my grateful acknowledgments to your whole army, officers and men.
The March attracted a huge number of refugees, to whom Sherman assigned land with his Special Field Orders No. 15. These orders have been depicted in popular culture as the origin of the “40 acres and a mule” promise.
From Savannah, after a month-long delay for rest, Sherman marched north in the spring through the Carolinas, intending to complete his turning movement and combine his armies with Grant’s against Robert E. Lee. After a successful two-month campaign, Sherman accepted the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston and his forces in North Carolina on April 26, 1865.
We are not only fighting armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the belief that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience.
Letter, Sherman to Henry W. Halleck, December 24, 1864.
Sherman’s scorched earth policies have always been highly controversial, and Sherman’s memory has long been reviled by many Southerners. Slaves’ opinions varied concerning the actions of Sherman and his army. Some who welcomed him as a liberator chose to follow his armies. Jacqueline Campbell has written, on the other hand, that some slaves looked upon the Union army’s ransacking and invasive actions with disdain. They often felt betrayed, as they “suffered along with their owners, complicating their decision of whether to flee with or from Union troops”. A Confederate officer estimated that 10,000 liberated slaves followed Sherman’s army, and hundreds died of “hunger, disease, or exposure” along the way.
The March to the Sea was devastating to Georgia and the Confederacy. Sherman himself estimated that the campaign had inflicted $100 million (about $1.6 billion in 2020 dollars) in destruction, about one fifth of which “inured to our advantage” while the “remainder is simple waste and destruction”. The Army wrecked 300 miles of railroad and numerous bridges and miles of telegraph lines. It seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle. It confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, and destroyed uncounted cotton gins and mills. Military historians Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones cited the significant damage wrought to railroads and Southern logistics in the campaign and stated that “Sherman’s raid succeeded in ‘knocking the Confederate war effort to pieces’.” David J. Eicher wrote that “Sherman had accomplished an amazing task. He had defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South’s potential and psychology to wage war.”
According to a 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research paper which sought to measure the medium- and long-term economic impact of Sherman’s March, “the capital destruction induced by the March led to a large contraction in agricultural investment, farming asset prices, and manufacturing activity. Elements of the decline in agriculture persisted through 1920.
Union soldiers sang many songs during the March, but it is one written afterward that has come to symbolize the campaign: “Marching Through Georgia”, written by Henry Clay Work in 1865. Sung from the point of view of a Union soldier, the lyrics detail the freeing of slaves and punishing the Confederacy for starting the war. Sherman came to dislike the song, in part because he was never one to rejoice over a fallen foe, and in part because it was played at almost every public appearance that he attended. It was widely popular among US soldiers of 20th-century wars.
Hundreds of African Americans drowned trying to cross in Ebenezer Creek north of Savannah while trying to follow Sherman’s Army in its March to the Sea. In 2011 a historical marker was erected there by the Georgia Historical Society to commemorate the African Americans who had risked so much for freedom.
Mark E. Neely rejects the notion that the Civil War was a “total war.” W. Todd Groce, the president of the Georgia Historical Society, stated that the “hard war” practiced by Sherman did not prefigure the “total war” practiced in World War II. He argues:
But “hard war” was not total war. While the march destroyed property and infrastructure and visited suffering and fear on the civilian population, it lacked the wholesale destruction of human life that characterized World War II. Sherman’s primary targets — foodstuffs and industrial, government and military property — were carefully chosen to create the desired effect, and never included mass killing of civilians…. He was fighting to bring rebels back into the Union, not to annihilate them.