Sherman's March To The Sea
Facts, information and articles about Sherman’s March To The Sea during the Civil War
Sherman’s March To The Sea summary: Sherman’s March to the Sea is the name commonly given to the Savannah Campaign by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman taking place from November 15, 1864 to December 21, 1864. which followed the successful Atlanta Campaign. After leaving the decimated city of Atlanta on November 16, Sherman led his troops on a destructive campaign which concluded with the capture of the port city of Savannah on December 21. It is known for its boldness as well as the sheer destruction inflicted on the south, both to its industry as well as military targets, effectively destroying the Confederate’s capacity to wage war.
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Stumbling in Sherman’s Path
By Noah Andre Trudeau
Hardee’s field headquarters was about 40 miles from Beauregard’s, but Beauregard might as well have been on the moon.
Standard histories of Major General William T. Sherman’s celebrated March to the Sea invariably portray the Confederacy’s response as inconsequential. Former Southern Brigadier General Clement A. Evans asserted, for example, that there was “no force available to obstruct” Sherman’s soldiers. Such broad generalizations may assuage wounded Southern pride, but they also rewrite history.
Efforts to forestall Sherman’s operations in central Georgia began in late September 1864, when President Jefferson Davis personally visited the threatened front. On September 25 he reached Palmetto, Ga., some 25 miles southwest of enemy-occupied Atlanta. Palmetto was then headquarters for General John B. Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Just two months earlier Davis had bumped Hood up the seniority ladder to take over the army after General Joseph E. Johnston had failed to stop Sherman’s march from Chattanooga to the outskirts of Atlanta. Hood quickly launched a series of fierce offensive strikes at the Union forces enfolding the city. None succeeded in halting the enemy, however, and Atlanta was abandoned on September 1.
Hood did have another plan, which, considering his situation, was about as good as could be expected. Outnumbered more than 2-to-1, his best option was to march around north of Atlanta to disrupt the Federals’ attenuated supply line and draw them away from the city in order to protect their vital rail link with their Tennessee depots. Hood planned to strike at exposed portions of the Federal force, but only when the odds favored him. At worst, he thought, if the enemy’s attention was on him, it would mean the rest of Georgia would be left alone.
Should Sherman not play along—by choosing to thrust southward through Georgia instead—Hood would then harry his rear. Add to this the home force’s familiarity with the Georgia countryside, the prospect of a general rising of civilian forces promised by the state’s governor and an active Confederate cavalry, Davis had a “not unreasonable hope that retributive justice might overtake the ruthless invader.”
Hood’s army wasn’t the only piece of Davis’ strategy. His first move solved a prickly personality clash by transferring Hood’s unhappy senior subordinate, Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, from commanding a corps in the Army of Tennessee to taking charge of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Hardee would anchor the defense of Sherman’s likely targets along the Atlantic coast.
Davis also met with Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, commanding the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana. Although skeptical of Hood’s chances for success, Taylor agreed with the president’s belief that having General P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate hero early in the war, coordinate the region’s military response would “awaken a certain enthusiasm” among the citizenry.
On October 3 Davis met with Beauregard in Augusta. It was not a comfortable occasion, since the two had quarreled bitterly over issues of strategy and resources. Even so, Beauregard pronounced Hood’s plan “perfectly feasible…according to the principles of war.” Davis offered Beauregard command of a new organizational jurisdiction, to be called the Division of the West, encompassing five states and including the forces under Hood and Taylor (Hardee’s coastal domain would be added later). His duties would be largely administrative, leaving it to others to command in the field. Beauregard eagerly accepted the new position, afterward insisting that Davis had promised him the cooperation of the Confederate War Department.
Rebel operations began on September 29, when Hood started marching his army counterclockwise around Atlanta. By October 3 his infantry was wrecking the Federal depots at Acworth and Big Shanty. Two days later a Rebel division nearly captured Allatoona Pass, a natural choke point in the Federal supply route. Sherman reacted according to expectations by taking most of his troops out of Atlanta to chase after Hood.
So far, so good. Hood, however, soon tired of playing the spoiler’s role. Worse yet, he would not recognize Beauregard’s ultimate authority. Believing that Hood enjoyed a direct sanction from Davis, Beauregard was reluctant to press the issue and limited his role to that of adviser and facilitator. Not that Hood was interested in his advice as he made changes to the Davis-approved plan. Instead of bobbing, weaving and jabbing to foil his opponent, Hood began thinking of striking into Tennessee to capture its Federal-occupied capital, Nashville.
Toward that end, Hood marched west and north to close on the Tennessee border. Soon he was well out of Georgia, with Sherman between him and the heart of the state. But Sherman quickly reversed course, returned to Atlanta and, on November 15-16, moved his armies out of the city in two large columns, or wings, on routes both east and southeast. Hood was not in position to pursue.
Beauregard was hoping Hood’s surge into Tennessee might eventually draw Sherman back, but he took an important step to bolster the defenses in central Georgia. In early November he freed up the cavalry assigned to Hood under Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler by replacing it with the Tennessee-based command of Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Wheeler’s units were then sent south into the region between Atlanta and the all-important manufacturing center of Macon. Sherman, however, had begun his march before that transfer was completed.
With Hood out of the picture, Wheeler’s troopers, Georgia state militia, and garrisons in Macon, Augusta and Savannah—perhaps 15,000 men altogether, supplemented by an unknown number of small irregular units—remained to oppose Sherman’s 60,000 Federals. In Macon, Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb, a Georgia state officer, remained in charge, but Augusta and Savannah both fell under Hardee’s control. On November 16 Beauregard ordered Taylor to proceed immediately to Macon and take charge.
To slow down Sherman, Beauregard instructed Taylor to “cut and block up all dirt roads in advance of him, [and] remove or destroy supplies of all kinds in his front” while Wheeler’s cavalry harassed his flanks and rear.
Beauregard sent another message to General Cobb, who was with the Georgia militiamen falling back toward Macon from forward positions just south of Atlanta. Cobb was advised to prepare Macon for a siege. In the midst of all the complicated planning for his Tennessee invasion, Hood added his bit to the mix. He advised Wheeler: “If Sherman advances to the south or east destroy all things in his front that might be useful to him, and keep a portion of your force constantly destroying his trains.”
Had it been aggressively pursued, the last suggestion could have caused Sherman real problems. Even though he was counting on foraging to keep his army supplied, Sherman had hedged his bets by filling 2,500 wagons with a 20-day supply of bread; 40 days’ of sugar, coffee and salt, as well as three days’ of animal feed. Moving with the lengthy wagon trains were 5,000 cattle, representing a 40-day beef supply. This long logistical tail was Sherman’s weak point.
It seemed too that “General Weather” was wearing Confederate gray. Just a few days out from Atlanta, Sherman’s men were pummeled by a series of rain and snow storms that slowed the wagons to a crawl. Fearing what would happen if Wheeler’s men got loose among the Yankee supply trains, Sherman’s wing commanders allotted whole brigades and even divisions to the role of protecting them.
Further complicating matters were a series of significant rivers requiring pontoon bridging—natural congestion points that an alert and aggressive enemy could exploit. The prospect greatly worried Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, commanding Sherman’s cavalry, who retorted later: “Was there no enemy to oppose us? Yes, yes! Sufficient, if concentrated in our front, to have disputed the passage of every river and delayed us days and days, which of itself would have been fatal.”
Problems abounded for the Rebels, too. Both Beauregard and Taylor were held up by the Confederacy’s decrepit transportation network. In a pinch, Beauregard summoned Hardee from Savannah to take charge in Macon, with Hardee arriving just as the first elements of Union Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing began appearing north of the city.
Before Hardee reached Macon, it was every officer for himself. The militia field commander, Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, then at Forsyth, determined that the best place for his citizen-soldiers was “in the fortifications at Macon, leaving the outside work to the cavalry.” Wheeler was also getting plenty of advice in lieu of concrete missions. With his units being asked to help protect Macon as well as slow Sherman, the frustrated cavalryman sent an urgent request to Richmond on November 17 asking to be directed to someone “who knows the course they desire pursued.” He never received a clear answer to his query.
Hardee entered Macon on November 19 to grim news: The enemy was close and in strength. There was more bad news. An investigation of Savannah’s landside defenses revealed them to be weak. Hardee told the garrison commander “to press Negroes if you need them.” No effort was to be attempted to save the state capital, Milledgeville, which the Federals finally occupied on November 22.
Hardee paid attention only to Macon’s immediate needs, ignoring the first significant opportunity to upset Sherman’s plans. Thanks to the poor roads and unceasing rain, the Union Right Wing was stretched out for nearly 30 miles, with its head at Clinton while its wagon-heavy tail was greatly delayed getting across the Ocmulgee River.
One unanticipated consequence of the Union feint toward Macon was to concentrate the various Confederate military assets more effectively than it had been ordered when the Federal supply columns were so attenuated. A strike against the Right Wing’s supply train could wreak havoc with Sherman’s tight timetables.
But the command-and-control systems failed to kick in. Beauregard and Taylor were out of touch, and Hardee viewed his task as limited to Macon’s present danger. Wheeler had his hands full scouting the Federal advance and meeting emergencies. All the remaining high-ranking individuals in town were state officers obsessed with protecting Macon. No one was thinking beyond the immediate horizon.
Isolated in Macon, lacking telegraphic connection north or east, Hardee soon reckoned that the city was no longer menaced by Sherman’s forces and reasoned that Augusta must be the Yankees’ true objective. Without any contrary information from Wheeler, Hardee wrongly assumed that the Federal line of march was well to the northeast, leaving the railroad clear from Gordon to the coast.
It would be quickest for Macon’s now superfluous militia to tramp east the 20 or so miles to Gordon, where the men could catch trains to Augusta. Orders to that effect were issued to the various units around the city. Taking his own cue, Hardee packed up, and on the evening of November 21 headed for the coast.
The immediate consequence of Hardee’s decision was the needless Battle of Griswoldville, on November 22. A division’s worth of the militia that he had ordered east collided there with a brigade-sized Union rear guard. The citizen-soldiers were thrown back with serious losses. Even as that combat was unfolding, Taylor arrived at Macon. The experienced field commander at once instructed Macon’s defenders to stand down, but orders to recall the troops from Griswoldville arrived too late to avert the tragedy.
That same day Jefferson Davis sent more of his military brain trust to help by temporarily assigning General Braxton Bragg (then overseeing affairs in North Carolina) to Augusta to “employ all available force against the enemy now advancing into Southeastern Georgia.” Preventing Sherman from capturing Augusta’s irreplaceable powder works was Davis’ top priority.
An effort to better focus the state’s military response to Sherman’s advance became mired in political controversy. Declaring that Governor Joseph Brown was “disabled” by being cut off in Macon (where he had fled before the fall of Milledgeville), Augusta-based Ambrose R. Wright, second-in-command of state forces as president of the Georgia Senate, activated a clause in the law empowering him to intervene. He took control of the militia east of the Oconee River and ordered it to Macon.
Governor Brown’s partisans viewed Wright’s action as a blatant subversion of gubernatorial authority. The resulting clamor prompted Wright to request Brown’s approval of his action, which the governor promptly refused. Wright’s action only compounded the confusion.
One of the Georgia legislature’s final acts that session was to authorize a general mobilization of Georgia civilians against the invaders. While Governor Brown expected thousands to turn out, he hadn’t counted on the inability of the state’s bureaucracy to manage such an enterprise. By the time the machinery finally began to turn, Sherman’s March to the Sea was a matter for the history books.
The one Confederate action that actually stopped Sherman went virtually unnoticed at this time. Near where the Central of Georgia Railroad bridged the Oconee River, a Rebel force of some 700 men held Sherman’s entire Right Wing at bay for nearly three days. This action was undertaken entirely on the initiative of officers on the scene, who reported to Savannah, where Hardee was headed from Macon. Wheeler, on a self-appointed mission to protect Augusta, passed behind the defenders without lending any significant aid, leaving the little force very much on its own.
On the night of November 25, Howard used his superior numbers to flank the defenders and force them to retreat. Hardee, who had just reached Savannah, sanctioned the withdrawal, hoping to save the troops and bolster Savannah’s garrison. Hardee’s field headquarters was about 40 miles from Beauregard’s, but with all telegraphic communication north and east of the city disrupted, Beauregard might as well have been on the moon.
That same day Braxton Bragg reached Augusta. The threat posed by Sherman’s army caused Jefferson Davis to break his own rule by allowing Bragg to bring with him some Regular CSA units (a few hundred men) assigned to defend coastal North Carolina. He also suspended a law restricting the use of militia reserves to their own states, so that there would be nothing to hinder South Carolina units from coming into Georgia.
Bragg and Hardee turned their attention to protecting Augusta and Savannah. After sending Taylor to assist in Savannah and urging Hood to move promptly to divert Sherman’s attention, Beauregard departed for Mobile, for reasons not entirely clear.
After reaching Montgomery, Ala., on December 1, Beauregard received a message from Richmond informing him that all coastal forces opposing Sherman’s march had been added to his command. He didn’t make it back to Augusta until December 6.
There was one last opportunity to stop Sherman before he reached Savannah. Nearly 4,000 Rebels, including reinforcements sent by Hardee, were aligned before the advancing Federals near the modern town of Oliver, at the naturally strong defensive position formed where Ogeechee Creek and the Ogeechee River meet.
Sherman placed one corps to flank the position from the north and another across the river to the south. On December 4 Hardee sent his veteran commander Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws to the post for an assessment. Deciding that the 4,000 muskets were more crucial to Savannah’s defense, McLaws ordered a withdrawal. The last best chance to stop Sherman had been abandoned without a fight.
Once Wheeler drew close to Augusta, he came under the jurisdiction of Bragg, who used the cavalry to blunt Federal thrusts toward the city. The result was a series of mounted clashes between Wheeler and his Federal counterpart Kilpatrick that climaxed at Waynesboro on December 4. Wheeler always believed that his stubborn defense of that point halted Sherman’s grab for Augusta, although Kilpatrick’s orders were to turn south there to shield the rear of the infantry columns while they pivoted into a swampy, peninsulalike corridor with little to forage from as they closed on Savannah. But yet again no concerted action was taken against Sherman’s vulnerable logistical tail.
When Beauregard arrived in Augusta, a new phase began in the campaign. He first sent a long report to Richmond expressing concern over the lack of Confederate success but also declaring that Sherman would “doubtless be prevented from capturing Augusta, Charleston, and Savannah, and he may yet be made to experience serious loss before reaching the coast.”
Beauregard moved his headquarters to Charleston. On December 8 he instructed Hardee that if he were forced to choose between the safety of his army or “that of Savannah, sacrifice the latter.”
Davis reluctantly seconded Beauregard’s priorities, hoping that “the fullest possible defense consistent with the safety of the garrison” would be made. Beauregard promptly directed all his resources toward holding open the narrow land corridor north of Savannah that was Hardee’s only escape route.
On the night of December 20, with Sherman well away from the front in Hilton Head and most of the Union troops besieging Savannah in a purely defensive posture, the Confederates evacuated the city. Sherman’s March to the Sea was over.
The Jefferson Davis scheme to subvert Sherman in his mission failed in every aspect. Once Hood was permitted to pursue an independent agenda, he completely removed his army from the Georgia arena. Hood failed to realize that the Union strength remaining in Tennessee was sufficiently large enough to stop him outside Nashville, and Sherman never gave a second thought to turning back.
When P.G.T. Beauregard was not ineffectively carping at John B. Hood, he seemingly managed to be anywhere except where he was most needed. Once Beauregard was finally in a position to influence events, his determination to preserve military assets at all costs doomed Savannah.
Hardee, Taylor and then Bragg limited their participation to narrowly focused defensive measures, leaving larger strategic issues hanging. Wheeler never looked beyond the enemy in his immediate front, and though he may have banged up Kilpatrick’s cavalry from time to time, his men never posed a serious threat to Sherman’s timetables.
Southern soldiers who found themselves in Sherman’s path fought hard, but most of the opposition was limtited to hit-and-run attacks that the Federals could easily counter. Approximately 2,300 Confederates were killed, wounded or captured in the efforts to defend Georgia.
Sherman’s surge through the state was not unstoppable. If Wheeler’s mounted units had been concentrated against the Federal army’s logistical tail, with intelligent deployment of the militia to cover those actions, the Union columns would have been considerably impeded and Sherman would have reached Savannah in a much weakened condition. Had Hardee issued orders to defend the city to the fullest, risking his small garrison in the process, it would have taken Sherman much longer to capture the city. All of which might have delayed his departure into the Carolinas well into March.
What the badly hemorrhaging Confederacy might have done with the extra time, however, is another question altogether.
Noah Andre Trudeau’s latest book, Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea, reexamines that event and the Southern response to it.
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