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American Civil War: Sherman's March to the Sea

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American Civil War: Sherman's March to the Sea

Major General William T. Sherman, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

March to the Sea - Conflict:

Sherman's March to the Sea took place from November 15 to December 22, 1864, during the American Civil War.

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederates

March to the Sea - Background:

In the wake of his successful campaign to capture Atlanta, Major General William T. Sherman began making plans for a march against Savannah. Seeking to destroy the South's economic and psychological will to resist, he intended to conduct a campaign designed to eliminate any resources that could be used by Confederate forces. Presenting his plan to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman received approval and began making preparations to depart Atlanta on November 15, 1864. During the march, Sherman's army would cut loose from its supply lines and would live off the land.

To ensure that adequate supplies were gathered, Sherman issued strict orders regarding foraging and the seizure of material from the local population. Known as "bummers," foragers from the army became a common sight along its route of march. Dividing his forces in two, Sherman advanced along two major routes with Major General Oliver O. Howard's Army of Tennessee on the right and Major General Henry Slocum's Army of Georgia on the left. To oppose Sherman's 62,000 men, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, commanding the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida had approximately 13,000 troops.

March to the Sea - Sherman Departs:

Departing Atlanta by different routes, the Howard and Slocum's columns attempted to confuse Hardee as to their ultimate objective. Initially moving south, Howard's men pushed Confederate troops out of Lovejoy's Station before pressing on towards Macon. To the north, Slocum's two corps moved east then southeast towards the state capital at Milledgeville. Realizing that Savannah was Sherman's target, Hardee began concentrating his men to defend the city, while ordering Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry to attack the Union flanks and rear.

March to the Sea - Laying Waste to Georgia:

As Sherman's men pushed southeast, they systematically destroyed all manufacturing plants, agricultural infrastructure, and railroads they encountered. A common technique for wrecking the latter was heating railroad rails over fires and twisting them around trees. Known as "Sherman's Neckties," they became a common sight along the route of march. The first significant action of the march occurred at Griswoldville on November 22, when Wheeler's cavalry and Georgia militia attacked on Howard's front. This assault was beaten off with heavy casualties and the march resumed.

During the remainder of November and in early December, numerous minor battles were fought, such as Buck Head Creek and Waynesboro, as Sherman's men pushed relentlessly on towards Savannah. As they approached the city, additional Union troops entered the fray as 5,500 men, under Brigadier General John P. Hatch, descended from Hilton Head, SC in an attempt to cut the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. Encountering Confederate troops on November 30, Hatch was forced to withdraw after a defeat at the Battle of Honey Hill.

March to the Sea - A Christmas Present for Pres. Lincoln:

Arriving outside Savannah on December 10, Sherman found that Hardee had flooded the fields outside the city which limited access to a few causeways. Entrenched in a strong position, Hardee refused to surrender and remained determined to defend the city. Needing to link up with the US Navy to receive supplies, Sherman dispatched Brigadier General William Hazen's division to capture Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River. This was accomplished on December 13, and communications were opened with Rear Admiral John Dahlgren's naval forces.

With his supply lines reopened, Sherman began making plans to lay siege to Savannah. On December 17, he contacted Hardee with a warning that he would begin shelling the city if it were not surrendered. Unwilling to give in, Hardee escaped with his command over the Savannah River on December 20 using an improvised pontoon bridge. The following morning, the mayor of Savannah formally surrendered the city to Sherman.

Aftermath of the March to the Sea

Known as "Sherman's March to the Sea," the campaign through Georgia effectively eliminated the region's economic usefulness to the Confederate cause. With the city secured, Sherman telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln with the message, "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton." The following spring, Sherman launched his final campaign of the war north into the Carolinas, before finally receiving the surrender of General Joseph Johnston on April 26, 1865.

Selected Sources

 

 

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