American Civil War: Sherman's March to the Sea

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Major General William T. Sherman. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Conflict & Dates:

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

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederates

Background:

In the wake of his successful campaign to capture Atlanta, Major General William T. Sherman began making plans for a march against Savannah.

Consulting with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the two men agreed that it would be necessary to destroy the South's economic and psychological will to resist if the war was to be won. To accomplish this, Sherman intended to conduct a campaign designed to eliminate any resources that could be used by Confederate forces. Consulting the crop and livestock data from the 1860 census, he planned a route that would inflict maximum damage upon the enemy. In addition to the economic damage, it was thought that Sherman's movement would increase pressure on General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and allow Grant to gain a victory in the Siege of Petersburg.

Presenting his plan to Grant, Sherman received approval and began making preparations to depart Atlanta on November 15, 1864. During the march, Sherman's forces would cut loose from their 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 three, Sherman advanced along two major routes with Major General Oliver O. Howard's Army of the Tennessee on the right and Major General Henry Slocum's Army of Georgia on the left.

The Armies of the Cumberland and Ohio were detached under the command of Major General George H. Thomas with orders to guard Sherman's rear from the remnants of General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee. As Sherman advanced to the sea, Thomas' men destroyed Hood's army at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. To oppose Sherman's 62,000 men, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, commanding the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida struggled to find men as Hood had largely stripped the region for his army. Through the course of the campaign, Hardee was able to utilize those troops still in Georgia as well as those brought in from Florida and the Carolinas. Despite these reinforcements, he seldom possessed more than 13,000 men.

Sherman Departs:

Departing Atlanta by different routes, the Howard and Slocum's columns attempted to confuse Hardee as to their ultimate objective with Macon, Augusta, or Savannah as possible destinations. 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. Finally 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.

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. The initial assault was halted by Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's cavalry which in turn counterattacked. In the fighting that followed, Union infantry inflicted a severe defeat on the Confederates.

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.

At the former, Kilpatrick was surprised and nearly captured. Falling back, he was reinforced and was able to halt Wheeler's advance. As they approached Savannah, 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 near Pocotaligo. Encountering Confederate troops led by General G.W. Smith on November 30, Hatch moved to attack. In the resulting Battle of Honey Hill, Hatch's men were forced to withdraw after several assaults against the Confederate entrenchments failed.

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:

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

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Sherman's March to the Sea." ThoughtCo, Aug. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/shermans-march-to-the-sea-2360914. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, August 11). American Civil War: Sherman's March to the Sea. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/shermans-march-to-the-sea-2360914 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Sherman's March to the Sea." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/shermans-march-to-the-sea-2360914 (accessed December 15, 2017).