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Sherman's Famous March to the Sea

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By Jacob Dolson Cox, 1910
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General William T. Sherman's March to the SeaAt Rome, Georgia, when parting with one of the officers he was sending back to Tennessee, Union General William T. Sherman said, "If there's to be any hard fighting, you will have it to do." He perfectly understood that there was no sufficient force in Georgia to thwart his plan or even to delay his march. Before leaving Atlanta he pointed out to one of his principal subordinates that a National army at Columbia, South Carolina, would end the war unless it should be routed and destroyed. Deprived of the material support of all the States but North Carolina, it would be impossible for the Confederate Government to feed its army at Richmond, Virginia, or to fill its treasury. The experience it had with the country west of the Mississippi River proved that a region isolated from the rest of the Confederacy would not furnish men or money, and could not furnish supplies; while anxiety for their families, who were within the National lines, tempted the soldiers from those States to desert, and weakened the confidence of the whole army.


In such a situation, credit would be destroyed, the Confederate paper money would become worthless, its foreign assistance would be cut off, and the rebellion must end. The one chance left would be for Confederate General Robert E. Lee to break away from Union General Ulysses S. Grant, overwhelm Sherman, and re-establish the Confederate power in a central position by the abandonment of Virginia. But, this implied that Lee could break away from Grant, who, on the south side of Petersburg, was as near Columbia as his opponent, and would be close upon his heels from the moment the lines about Richmond, Virginia were abandoned.

If Sherman, therefore, should reach Columbia with an army that could resist the first onslaught of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the last hope of the Confederacy would be crushed between the national forces meeting from the east and west. Of course, this implied that Union Major General George H. Thomas should, at least, be able to resist Confederate General John Bell Hood until the Eastern campaign should be ended, when, in the general collapse of the Richmond Government, Hood must abandon the hopeless cause, as Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was in fact forced to do after General Robert E. Lee's surrender in the following spring.

Establishing a new base upon the sea was a necessary part of such a plan, so that the practical separation of the Carolinas from the Gulf States could only be accomplished. This would require the thorough destruction of railway lines in Georgia. The army could live upon the country while marching, but, it must have the ordinary means of supply within a very few days from the time of halting, or it would starve. The country through which it moved was hostile, no local government could be made to respond to formal requisitions for subsistence, and the wasteful method of foraging itself made it a necessity for moving on into new fields. A rapid march to the sea, the occupation of some harbor capable of becoming a fortified base, and the opening of lines of ocean communication with the great depots of the North must, therefore, constitute the first part of the vast project. Beyond this, Sherman did not venture to plan in detail, and recognizing the possibility that unlooked-for opposition might force a modification, he kept in mind the alternative that he might have to go west rather than east of Macon. He requested that the fleets on the coast might watch for his appearance at Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina; at Ossabaw Sound just south of Savannah, Georgia; and at Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama. If he should reach Morris Island, it would naturally be by the way of Augusta, Georgia and the left bank of the Savannah River. Ossabaw Sound would, in like manner, indicate the route by way of Milledgeville, Millen, and the valley of the Ogeechee. The Gulf ports would only be chosen if his course to the east should be made impracticable.


On November 12, 1864 communication with the rear was broken. The railway bridge at Allatoona, Georgia was taken to pieces and carried to the rear to be stored; but, from the crossing of the Etowah River, southward to Atlanta, the whole line of the road was thoroughly destroyed. The foundries, machine shops, and factories at Rome were burned, lest they should be again turned to use by the enemy, and on the 14th, the army was concentrated at Atlanta. The troops from numerous corps and divisions, under various commanders, was estimated to be more than 59,000 men, but, furloughed men and recruits hurried so fast to the front in those last days that the muster at Atlanta showed a total of over 62,000.


No pains had been spared to make this a thoroughly efficient force, for an army in an enemy's country and without a base, cannot afford to be encumbered with sick, or to have its trains or its artillery delayed by weak or insufficient teams. The artillery was reduced to about one gun to a thousand men, and the batteries usually to four guns each with eight good horses to each gun or caisson. Twenty days' rations were in hand, and 200 rounds of ammunition of all kinds were in the wagons. Droves of beef cattle to furnish the meat ration were ready to accompany the march, and these grew larger rather than smaller as the army moved through the country.



Altoona Pass, Georgia about 1863

The railroad bridge at Allatoona, Georgia was destroyed during Sherman's March to the Sea. This image available for photo prints & commercial downloads HERE!

The determination to abandon Atlanta also involved the undoing of much work that had been done there in the early autumn. As the town could not be used by the National forces, the defenses must be destroyed, the workshops, mills, and depots ruined and burned. This task had been given to Colonel Poe, Chief Engineer, and was completed by the time the army was assembled and ready to march southward. On the morning of November 15th the movement began. The two corps of each wing were ordered to march upon separate roads, at first diverging sharply, and threatening both Macon and Augusta. Sherman himself accompanied the left wing, which followed the line of railway leading from Atlanta to Augusta; for, by doing so, he could get the earliest and best information of any new efforts the Confederate Government might make for the defense of the Carolinas. In this way, he could best decide upon the proper direction for his columns after he reached the Oconee River.

The general line of Sherman's march was between the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers, though he sent his right wing, at first, along the Macon Railroad by more westerly routes, for the purpose of deceiving the enemy, and to drive off Confederate General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry and some 3,000  Georgia Militia, under General G. W. Smith, which had been assembled at Lovejoy’s Station for some days. General Oliver O. Howard's right (Fifteenth Corps) marched by way of Jonesborough, McDonough, and Indian Spring to the crossing of the Ocmulgee River at Planters' Factory, the Seventeenth Corps keeping a little farther east, but reaching the river at the same place. Union General Judson Kilpatrick, with most of the cavalry, was upon this flank, and drove the enemy's skirmishers before him to Lovejoy’s Station. Smith had retired rapidly upon Macon with his infantry, but the old lines at Lovejoy’s Station were held by two brigades of cavalry with two pieces of artillery. Kilpatrick dismounted his men and charged the works on foot, carrying them handsomely. He followed his success with a rapid attack by another column, which captured the guns and followed the retreating enemy some miles toward Macon. The cavalry continued its demonstrations nearly to Forsyth, creating the impression of an advance in force in that direction; then it turned eastward and crossed the Ocmulgee River with the infantry.


Pontoon Train, Civil WarA section of pontoon train was with each corps, and Howard put down two bridges; but, though his head of column reached Planters' Factory on the 18th, and the bridges were kept full day and night, it was not till the morning of the 20th that the rear guard was able to cross. The bank on the eastern side of the river was steep and slippery from rain, making it tedious work getting the trains up the hill. His heads of columns were pushing forward in the meantime, and reached Clinton, a few miles north of Macon, by the time the rear was over the river. Kilpatrick now made a feint upon Macon, striking the railway a little east of the town, capturing and destroying a train of cars, and tearing up the track for a mile. Under cover of this demonstration and while the cavalry were holding all roads north and east of Macon, Howard's infantry, on November 22nd closed up toward Gordon, a station on the Savannah railroad, 20 miles eastward.

Union General Charles R. Woods's division of the Fifteenth Corps brought up the rear and was approaching Griswoldville. The left wing, which Sherman accompanied, applied itself in earnest to the destruction of the railway from Atlanta to Augusta, making thorough work of it to Madison, 70 miles from Atlanta, and destroying the bridge over the Oconee River, 10-12 miles further on. Here, the divergence between the wings was greatest, the distance from General Henry Slocum's left to Kilpatrick, on the right, being 50 miles in a direct line.  

Sherman's advance from Atlanta drew from Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, a rattling volley of telegraphic dispatches to all the Confederate officials, civil and military. In these, he made much of the fact that he had ordered General Richard Taylor in Alabama to move with his available forces into Georgia; but, Taylor had no available forces, and could only go in person to Macon, where he arrived on November 22nd, just in time to meet Governor Joseph E. Brown with his Adjutant, Robert Toombs, escaping from the State Capitol on the approach of General Slocum's columns. The only organized troops were Wheeler's cavalry, Smith's division of Georgia Militia, and a couple of battalions of local volunteers. General Howell Cobb was nominally Confederate commander of "reserves," but, there seems to have been no reserves to command.


The Birth of Freedom DVDBeauregard issued from Corinth, Mississippi, a proclamation to the people of Georgia, calling upon them to arise for the defense of the State, and to "obstruct and destroy all roads in Sherman's front, flank, and rear," assuring them that the enemy would then starve in their midst. He strove to raise vague hopes also by announcing that he was hastening to join them in defense of their homes and firesides. A more practical step was his order to General Hood to begin the Tennessee campaign, the only counter-stroke in his power. At Milledgeville, Georgia, the approach of Sherman was met by an Act of the Legislature to levy en masse the population, with a hysterical preamble, picturing the National general as an ogre, and exhorting the people "to die freemen rather than live slaves." The act, to have been of any use, should have been passed a month before, when Hood was starting west from Gadsden. It was now only a confession of terror, for there was no time to organize. Any disposition of the inhabitants along his route to destroy roads was effectually checked by Sherman's making it known that the houses and property of those who did so would be destroyed. Such opposition to a large army can never be of real use; its common effect is only to increase by retaliation the miseries of the unfortunate people along the line of march, and in this case there was, besides, no lack of evidence that most of them were heartily tired of the war, and had lost all the enthusiasm which leads to self-sacrifice.

However, as the troops continued to move forward, they would encounter resistance and participate in numerous skirmishes, including the Battle of Griswoldville on November 22nd when Union Brigadier General Charles Walcutt's six infantry regiments ran into the Georgia Militia. The Union force withstood three determined charges before receiving reinforcements of one regiment of infantry and two regiments of cavalry. The Rebels did not attack again and soon retired. The Union victory resulted in estimated casualties of 62 Union and 650 Confederate.

The work of destroying the railway was begun by the right wing at Griswoldville, and of the 100 miles between that station and Millen, Georgia very little of the road was left. General Oliver O. Howard found the crossing of the Oconee near Ball's Ferry a difficult operation, for the river was up and the current so swift that the ferry could not be used. Confederate General Wheeler's cavalry made some resistance from the other side. A detachment of corps, directed by the engineers, succeeded in constructing a flying bridge some two miles above the ferry, and getting over to the left bank, moved down to the principal road, which had been cleared of the enemy by the artillery on the other side. The pontoons were then laid and the march resumed.

General William Tecumseh ShermanSherman ordered Kilpatrick to make a considerable detour to the north, feinting strongly on Augusta, but, trying hard to reach and destroy the important railway bridge and trestles at Briar Creek, near Waynesboro, half way between Augusta and Millen. He was then to move rapidly on Millen in the hope of releasing the National prisoners of war who were in a prison camp near that place. Kilpatrick moved by one of the principal roads to Augusta, giving out that he was marching on that city. After he had passed the Ogeechee Shoals, Wheeler heard of his movement, and rapidly concentrated his force on the Augusta road, where it debouches from the swamps of Briar Creek. Kilpatrick, however, in obedience to his orders, turned the head of his columns to the right, upon the road running from Warrenton to Waynesborough, and they were well on their way to the latter place before Wheeler was aware of it.

Murray's brigade was in the rear, and two of his regiments, the Eighth Indiana and Second Kentucky, constituted the rear-guard. These became too far separated from the column when they camped at evening near a place called Sylvan Grove. Wheeler heard of their whereabouts, and attacked them in the middle of the night. Though surprised and driven from their camps, the regiments stoutly fought their way back.


Confederate General Wheeler followed up persistently with his superior forces, harassing the rear and flank of the column, and causing some confusion, but gaining no important advantage, except that Kilpatrick was obliged to abandon the effort to burn the Briar Creek bridge and trestles, and to turn his line of march southwesterly from Waynesborough, after destroying a mile or two of the railroad. He reported that he learned that the Millen prisoners had been removed, and determined to rejoin the army at Louisville. Early in the morning of the 28th Kilpatrick himself narrowly escaped capture, having improperly made his quarters for the night at some distance from the body of his command, the Ninth Michigan being with him as a guard. The enemy got between him and the column, and it was with no little difficulty he succeeded in cutting his way out, and saving himself from the consequences of his own folly.


The long causeway and bridge at Buck Head Creek was held while the division passed, by Colonel Heath and the Fifth Ohio, with two howitzers, and Wheeler received a severe check. The bridge was destroyed, and Kilpatrick took a strong position at Reynolds's plantation. Wheeler then attacked in force, but, was decisively repulsed, and Kilpatrick effected his junction with the infantry without further molestation. Wheeler's whole corps was engaged in this series of sharp skirmishes, and he boasted loudly that he had routed Kilpatrick, causing him to fly in confusion with a loss of nearly 200 in killed, wounded, and captured. Chafing at this rebuff, Kilpatrick obtained permission to deliver a return blow, and after resting his horses a day or two, marched from Louisville on Waynesborough. He attacked Wheeler near the town, and drove him by very spirited charges from three successive lines of barricades, chasing him through Waynesboro, and over Briar Creek. Wheeler admitted that, it was with difficulty, he "succeeded in withdrawing " from his position at the town, but, sought to take off the edge of his chagrin by reporting that he was attacked by the Fourteenth Corps, as well as by Kilpatrick's cavalry.


Millen was reached on December 3rd and the direct railway communication between Savannah and Augusta was cut. Three corps now moved down the narrowing space between the Savannah and Ogeechee Rivers. From Millen onward the march of the whole army was a methodic progress with no noticeable opposition, for even Wheeler's horsemen generally kept a respectful distance, and soon crossed to the left bank of the Savannah River. The country became more sandy, corn and grain grew scarcer, and all began to realize that they were approaching the low country bordering the sea, where but little breadstuffs or forage would be found. On December 9th and 10th the columns closed in upon the defenses of Savannah.


Skillful infantry scouts were sent out to open communication with the fleet and to cut the Gulf Railway, thus severing the last connection of the city with the south.




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