November, 1864-April, 1865: Sherman’s March to the Sea Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Following his victory at Chattanooga, Ulysses S. Grant went to Washington, D.C., to become the general in chief of the Union army. His successor in the Western theater was William T. Sherman. In the spring of 1864, both generals launched offensives, Grant against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and Sherman against Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Grant spent the spring and summer fighting Lee in northern Virginia, suffering heavy casualties but forcing the Confederates to fall back. By fall, the Union forces were besieging Richmond in overwhelming numbers.

Following his victory at Chattanooga, Ulysses S. Grant went to Washington, D.C., to become the general in chief of the Union army. His successor in the Western theater was William T. Sherman. In the spring of 1864, both generals launched offensives, Grant against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and Sherman against Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Grant spent the spring and summer fighting Lee in northern Virginia, suffering heavy casualties but forcing the Confederates to fall back. By fall, the Union forces were besieging Richmond in overwhelming numbers.

The Campaign Begins

Sherman began his campaign on May 7, starting from Chattanooga with a hundred thousand troops and heading toward Atlanta. Johnston, his opponent, had a strength of about sixty-two thousand. Johnston used delaying tactics, refusing to fight a major battle and falling back toward Atlanta. Johnston’s tactics exasperated Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood. Despite inferior numbers, Hood attacked Sherman twice, at Peachtree Creek on July 20 and in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22. Hood lost eighty-five hundred soldiers to Sherman’s loss of thirty-seven hundred and had to abandon Atlanta. Hood then slipped around Sherman’s flank, heading toward the Union supply dumps at Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee.

Artist’s depiction of the destruction wreaked during Sherman’s march through Georgia. (F. R. Niglutsch)

Grant, Union chief of staff Henry Halleck, and President Abraham Lincoln all wanted Sherman to follow Hood and to destroy his army, but instead, Sherman left a comparatively small force under George Thomas at Nashville and prepared to march across Georgia to the Atlantic seaport of Savannah. After burning Atlanta, he began the march on November 15. With Hood moving against Thomas in Nashville (where he eventually lost most of his army in the Battle of Nashville), the Confederates could oppose Sherman’s sixty thousand troops with only thirteen thousand soldiers, mostly cavalry.

Sherman moved in two wings, brushing all opposition aside. His men lived off the land. “Bummers” went out each morning to the flanks, taking chickens, cows, vegetables, and whatever else they could find. They burned down homes and buildings and destroyed the railroad system. Sherman was determined to see to it that Georgia’s civilians realized the horrors of war, and he succeeded. He also wished to cut off Lee’s food supply and to encourage desertion in the Army of Northern Virginia, hoping that Confederate soldiers would return to their homes to protect them from Union “bummers.” As Sherman expressed his philosophy, “Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and people will cripple their military resources. … I can make the march, and make Georgia howl.”

Sherman reached Savannah on December 10. He sent Lincoln a telegram stating that he wished to offer Savannah as “a Christmas present” to the commander in chief. After refitting his army with supplies brought down from Washington by sea, he marched north into the Carolinas. Again his troops, facing no major opposition, devastated the countryside.

The Northern troops were even more severe in South Carolina than they had been in Georgia, since they tended to blame South Carolina, the first state to secede, for the war. As Sherman put it: “We can punish South Carolina as she deserves. … I do sincerely believe that the whole United States, North and South, would rejoice to have this army turned loose on South Carolina to devastate that State, in the manner we have done in Georgia.” South Carolina’s capital city, Columbia, was engulfed in flames in late February.

Union Victory

By late March, 1865, Sherman was in the middle of North Carolina, where his old opponent, Joseph Johnston, had scraped together a small force to resist him. In Virginia, meanwhile, Grant had forced Lee to abandon Richmond and retreat toward western Virginia. By early April, Grant was in close pursuit. Lee, his army almost gone as a result of starvation and desertion, surrendered on April 9 at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. By then, the proud Army of Northern Virginia was reduced to a force of 26,700, while Grant had nearly 113,000 troops.

Johnston, with the major Confederate Army gone, decided to follow Lee’s example, and on April 18 he signed an armistice with Sherman. The Civil War was over. As Sherman, who earlier in his career had directed a Louisiana military school, explained succinctly, “The South bet on the wrong card and lost.” His fifty-seven-mile-wide path of destruction demoralized the South’s population and, with Grant’s military success, helped hasten the war’s end.

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