American Civil War: Sherman's March through the Confederacy

Back: Tennessee and Kentucky

To the Sea
South Carolina
North Carolina
In at the Kill


Until 1864, Georgia had been barely touched by the war. The Confederate victory at Chickamauga in 1863 had seen off a previous Union invasion, and forced the fighting back north into Tennessee. At the start of 1864, the new commander of the Division of the Mississippi was William Tecumseh Sherman. He was in the pleasant situation of being a friend and colleague of General Grant, now General in Chief. Grant appears to have modified his orders to Sherman to take into account his friend’s dislike of major battles. While Grant set out to destroy Lee’s army, Sherman was ordered to move against Johnston’s army and also to do as much damage as possible to the interior of Georgia.

Sherman interpreted his orders as allowing him to concentrate on the capture of Atlanta. While his attitude did allow him to capture the city with suffering heavily losses, it did mean that Johnston’s army survived and had to be defeated elsewhere. This does not mean that Atlanta was not a valid target. It was a key railroad junction, especially important as a connection to Richmond. It had also developed into a major centre of Confederate munitions production.

Sherman’s advance on Atlanta saw two generals with a similar attitude to the major fixed battle engage in one of the most skilful campaigns of the war. Joseph Johnston, the Confederate commander, had held the Virginia command before suffering serious wounds in 1862. In 1863 he had failed to prevent the loss of Vicksburg, partly because he was unwilling to throw away the lives of his men in what he rightly saw as a futile attack on superior Union forces.

Now he had the sort of situation in which he could thrive. Sherman had close to 100,000 men to launch his invasion, while Johnston could muster 75,000 men. If he could persuade Sherman to attack strong positions, then he would have enough men to inflict a heavy defeat on the attacking army. Northern Georgia was perfectly suited to his defensive strategy. Sherman would have to cross a series of rivers and mountain barriers between Chattanooga and Atlanta.

Johnston began his defence close to the Tennessee border. His first plan was to defend Dalton, where two railroads met. His defences ran along Rocky Face Ridge, to the west of the main railroad, before turning to block the line north. Sherman’s advance was still tied to the railroads. Even at the start of his campaign, he had to protect 150 miles of railroad across Tennessee back to Union territory.

The same single track railroad that Sherman was hoping to advance along was also Johnston’s main line of retreat. Faced with the Rocky Face Ridge defences, Sherman attempted to cut Johnston off. He send two thirds of his arm to launch a feint again Johnston’s right, and the remaining third was sent south through the mountains to cut the railway line at Resaca, fifteen miles further down the line. The plan almost succeeded. James McPherson’s flanking attack managed to get through the mountains, but failed to assault weak Confederate defences at Resaca (9 May).

Although Sherman had not cut Johnston off, he was now dangerously close to the railroad, and so Johnston was forced to withdraw from his strong position at Rocky Face Ridge to Resaca. The same pattern repeated itself at Resaca, from where Johnston withdrew to Cassville. There, Johnston had a chance to strike at part of Sherman’s force, isolated from the rest of his army in the search for faster routes through the mountains.

Unfortunately, the counterattack was never launched. Johnston’s strategy of trading space for time, only attacking when he had a chance to fall on an isolated part of the Union army, was probably the best one available to the Confederacy. Stonewall Jackson had certainly agreed with it. However, it was not popular with the Southern population, who expected their generals to fight the invader. As Johnston’s army got closer to Atlanta, the pressure on him to fight increased.

Ironically Sherman provided him with an opportunity to fight the sort of battle Johnston preferred. Johnston had prepared another defensive position at Allatoona, thirty miles from Atlanta. Sherman outflanked this position, and made for Dallas, twenty miles south of Allatoona. Johnston received news of the move just in time to get his men in place to block Sherman at New Hope Church (25-27 May). The weather now played a role. Heavy rain on clay roads meant that there was little chance of any fast flanking moves. Sherman was stuck in front of Johnston’s defensive positions on Kennesaw Mountain.

After a month of skirmishing, Sherman decided to attempt a frontal assault on the Confederate position, partly to encourage his men’s attacking spirit! The attack on 27 June was a total failure. Sherman suffered 1,999 killed and wounded, Johnston only 270. This was the sort of battle that Johnston needed to fight if he was to defeat Sherman’s invasion.

He was not to get another chance. The rain stopped, the roads dried out, and Sherman was finally able to outflank the Kennesaw Mountain position. Johnston was forced to fall back into the defences of Atlanta after Sherman forced him out of two final defensive positions. In Atlanta, Johnston now hoped to use the local militia to defend the city, leaving his army free to deal with Sherman, whose numerical advantage might be negated by the need to maintain a siege. However, President Davis had lost patience with Johnston, and on 18 July replaced him with General John Hood.

Hood was a much more aggressive commander. Sherman was later to say that he welcomed this appointment because Hood was likely to launch the sort of attack that would give Sherman’s men the chance to defeat the Confederate armies. Two days after his appointment, Hood launched his first attack. However, this was not a reckless assault, but an attempt to take advantage of a genuine opportunity, following a plan that was already in place when Hood was appointed.

Two of Sherman’s Armies were to the east of Atlanta, trying to move around the Confederate right. The third, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, was crossing over Peach Tree Creek, north of the city, and was at least two miles distant from the nearest reinforcements. Hood planned to fall on this isolated Union army as it was crossing the creek. If his plan had succeeded then he might have inflicted a heavy defeat on one part of Sherman’s army. In the event (battle of Peach Tree Creek, 20 July 1864), Hood’s attack came too late to catch the Union forces in the crossing, and was repulsed with heavy losses.

Undaunted, Hood launched another attack against a potentially isolated section of the Union line, this time McPherson’s army east of the city. Once again, this attack was repulsed (Battle of Atlanta, 22 July 1864), although McPherson was killed in the fighting.

Sherman’s attention now moved to the remaining rail links in Confederate hands, the Macon and Western Central Railroad, heading south, and the Montgomery and West Point Railroad, which split from the first line five miles outside Atlanta and headed south west. He sent McPherson’s army, under its new commander, Oliver O. Howard, on a long march around the back of the Union position to attack the railroad. On 28 July, Howard’s army defeated the Confederate force sent to stop him (Battle of Ezra Church), but the advance was still halted.

For the next month the fighting around Atlanta settled into a regular siege. Public opinion both North and South began to believe that Sherman’s expedition was about to end in failure. On 26 August the Confederates found all but one corps gone from the trenches, they celebrated victory, assuming that cavalry raids against the long Union supply line had worked and forced Sherman to withdraw.

They were wrong. Sherman had withdrawn from the siege lines in order to free his army for one final outflanking march. This time they swept around the Confederate left wing, quickly cutting the Montgomery and West Point railroad far beyond any Confederate defences. If Hood had reacted in time, he could have used the Macon Railroad to at least attempt block Sherman’s move, but he didn’t believe that Sherman’s attack was in earnest until 30 August, by which time it was too late.

Sherman’s men were only four miles from the Macon Railroad on 30 August. The next day they repelled a Confederate attack (Battle of Jonesboro, 31 August) and then seized control of the Railroad. Finally, on 1 September, Hood realised that his last railroad had been cut. Overnight, he withdrew from the city, and on 2 September the corps that Sherman had left in the trenches outside Atlanta was able to occupy the city.

The risks of concentrating on the capture of Atlanta rather than the destruction of the Confederate army were soon demonstrated. With Atlanta lost, Hood was now free to roam around northern Georgia attacking Sherman’s extended supply lines. Sherman spent two months after the fall of Atlanta fending off these attacks, without ever coming to grips with Hood.

Ironically, it was Hood who provided Sherman with the solution to this problem. In an attempt to force Sherman to pull back from Atlanta, Hood decided to invade Tennessee. Sherman’s response was to dispatch General Thomas back to Tennessee with enough men to deal with Hood. This left Sherman free to consider his next move. First, he decided to expel the civilian population of Atlanta. Across the second half of September an orderly evacuation took place. Many civilians had already fled from the city as Sherman’s siege tightened. Now most of those who had remained were shipped south across the Confederate lines. Sherman did this in part to send a message to the southern population and in part to reduce the need for a large garrison in Atlanta.

To the Sea

This was important because Sherman’s new plans would require all of his resources. From late September, Sherman became convinced that he could abandon his supply line, turn east and march across the heart of Georgia to the sea. His army would forage as it marched, living off the land in the same way that the Confederates had often done during the war. By the end of October he had convinced Grant of the wisdom of this plan. Once at the coast, Sherman could turn north into the Carolinas, the most substantial part of the Confederacy as yet to be significantly touched by the war, at least away from the coast.

Sherman saw his expedition as having several complementary aims. The areas he was planning to march through would be physically devastated so that they could neither support a Confederate army nor provide any more aid to the war effort. Civilian morale, crucial to the maintenance of the Confederate war effort, would be badly damaged. Finally, the image of a Union army able to march through the middle of the Confederacy would destroy what little credibility the rebels had internationally. It would be a clear sign that the end of the war was close.

Sherman and Grant were right. On 15 November Sherman’s army began their famous ‘march to the sea’. It was possible for a large Union army to survive by foraging in enemy territory. Sherman’s 60,000 soldiers became expert scavengers, leaving a trail of devastation behind them. They faced little or no military opposition. Hood marched north to Tennessee and defeat. Between Atlanta and the coast the Confederacy managed to gather no more that a few thousand Georgia militia, who at least attempted one attack on Sherman’s rearguard (22 November) and 3,500 cavalry under Joseph Wheeler, who gained nearly as bad a reputation as Sherman’s foragers. The Confederacy was already fully mobilised by 1864 – there were no more men to be found.

The devastation caused by Sherman’s men was almost entirely material. The people themselves were largely left alone. Even after Sherman’s men liberated a Confederate prisoner of war camp at Millen, the army remained remarkably restrained. On the other hand Sherman was able to report that the army had taken all of the food from a region ‘thirty miles on either side of a line from Atlanta to Savannah’ and inflicted some $100,000,000 worth of damage.

At Savannah Sherman finally found some opposition. General Hardee had managed to gather 18,000 men to defend the port, but when Sherman’s army appeared he decided not to stand and fight. On 20-21 December the Confederate garrison escaped over a bridge of boats. Sherman had reached the sea.

South Carolina

Now Sherman had reached the coast, he and Grant had to decide what his army should do next. Grant briefly considered shipping the army to Virginia, to help finish off Lee. This suggestion appears to have pleased no one – Sherman was furious, while the veterans of the Army of the Potomac felt that they didn’t need any help to finish the job.

Sherman and Grant did not have to look far to find a better use for Sherman’s army. Just over the Savannah River was South Carolina, the first state to secede and the site of the first fighting at Fort Sumter. Many in Sherman’s army felt that South Carolina had caused the war and should be punished. The foraging in South Carolina was to be markedly more severe than it had been in Georgia. The mood of the army was not improved by taunting messages they had been sent from South Carolina promising a sterner fight in that state.

In reality there was little resistance in South Carolina. General Beauregard, now commanding the resistance to Sherman, could field 22,500 men. Sherman still had his 60,000 men. On 1 February 1865 the offensive began.

Beauregard’s best hope was that the appallingly wet winter weather would combine with the dozens of rivers in his path to stop Sherman. This was to underestimate the skills of the Union army. Despite all the obstacles in their way, Sherman’s men moved north at ten miles per day across swamp and river. The very ease with which they overcame natural barriers that the Confederates had regarded as impassable played a major role in demoralising their opponents.

Sherman also out thought his opponents. The Confederates believed that Sherman would either move north west towards the munitions works at Augusta or north east towards Charleston. They split their forces between the two cities. Sherman took advantage of this, moving his armies in a way that threatened both places. However, neither was his target. He drove straight north between them and on 17 February captured Columbia, the state capital. This move isolated Augusta and Charleston, both of which had to be abandoned.

North Carolina

The final stage of Sherman’s march through the Confederacy finally saw the Confederates offer some significant resistance. Sherman once again faced Joseph Johnston, restored to high command at Lee’s insistence. Johnston had 20,000 men under his direct command at Fayetteville, while Braxton Bragg had another 5,500 to the north east at Goldsboro. Even at this late stage, the Confederate command structure left Bragg in independent command until 6 March.

Once again Sherman advanced along a wide front, threatening Goldsboro, where he would be able to meet up with yet another Union army heading inland from the coast, or Raleigh, from where he would threaten Lee’s last remaining supply line. Johnston decided to make use of this wide front to attack one isolated element of Sherman’s army.

This resulted in the two battles of Sherman’s march. On 16 March at Averasboro the Union left wing encountered a Confederate force, which was pushed back after heavy fighting. This told Johnston where Sherman’s left was, and on 19 March he launched his main attack at Bentonville. After some initial success, this last desperate move was repulsed. Over the next two days Sherman marched the rest of his army into place to deliver a decisive blow against Johnston, but on 21 March he held back, letting the Confederate army slip away. His reasons have been the subject of much debate ever since. The most likely explanation is that Sherman did not want to risk the lives of his men (or those of his enemies) when the war was obviously close to its end.

Sherman’s march through the heart of the Confederacy was greatly aided by the replacement of Johnston by Hood before the fall of Atlanta. Unopposed, Sherman was able to reach the sea in just over two weeks. He could do this because Hood had marched the 40,000 strong Confederate Army of the Tennessee north, hoping to cut Sherman’s supply lines and force him to withdraw north. It is hard to imagine Johnston doing the same thing. If that army had instead been used to skilfully slow Sherman’s advance, the entire basis of that move would have been destroyed. Sherman’s men needed to keep moving, to enter new areas for their foragers to find supplies. If Sherman had been slowed or stopped at any point between leaving Atlanta and reaching the sea, his army would have been in very great danger of running out of food.

In at the Kill

Sherman’s march through the Carolinas was far more significant than his march through Georgia. At the end of it, his army was on the southern border of Virginia. From being a distant threat to Lee, the march had transformed it into a real danger to the Army of Northern Virginia, by now the only effective army left to the Confederacy. On 25 March, Sherman temporarily left his army after a march of over 400 miles through enemy territory, to meet with Grant. On the same day, Lee launched the attack on Fort Stedman that marked the beginning of the end for his army of Northern Virginia.

Sherman returned from his meeting with orders to make sure that Johnston’s army did not escape him. His first movements were aimed at preventing a junction between Lee and Johnston, but news soon reached both Sherman and Johnston of Lee’s surrender. Sherman moved to occupy Raleigh in order to block Johnston’s path south. 

Johnston now came under pressure from two directions. Jefferson Davis arrived from Richmond and ordered Johnston to keep fighting while he raised new armies further south. Local leaders, including Governor Vance of North Carolina, were clearer sighted and could see that the Confederacy cause was lost. They wanted Johnston to surrender to avoid unnecessary destruction in their state.

Johnston shared the latter view. He told Davis that he had to made peace and persuaded the Confederate President to give him to authority to meet with Sherman to arrange an armistice. This meeting was to lead to a great deal of controversy and two post-war feuds between Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton and General Halleck. On April 17 Sherman offered Johnston the same terms Lee had accepted at Appomattox. Johnston refused them. On the following day Sherman made a rather more generous offer that included provision (amongst other things) for the existing state governments to re-enter the Union intact. Sherman was motivated by a fear that harsh terms might provoke endless guerrilla warfare throughout the south, a belief encouraged by the assassination of President Lincoln on 14 April. This offer was accepted by Johnston, but was not acceptable to Stanton. Grant was sent to join Sherman, where he was able to calm the situation. On 26 April Johnston and Sherman met again. This time Johnston had no choice but to accept the Appomattox terms. Sherman’s great march through the Confederacy was over.

Next: The Blockade and the War at Sea

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Atlanta 1864 - Sherman Marches South, James Donnell. Covers one of the most important campaigns of the American Civil War, the start of Sherman's devastating march across the heart of the Confederacy, both a crucial military victory and a key element in Lincoln's re-election as President. A good text, supported by a well chosen series of maps, starting with one that covers the opening of the campaign and gives an overview of the entire campaign area, and moving on to maps for each series of battles that give a really good idea of Sherman's fluid movements [read full review]
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Battle Cry of FreedomBattle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, OUP, 1988, 944 pages. One of the best single volume accounts of the Civil War era, taking in the decade before the war before moving on to the conflict itself. McPherson covers the military events of the war well, while also including good sections on politics North and South. [see more]
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 Memoirs, William T. Sherman. One of the classic military auto-biographies, this is a very readable account of Sherman's involvement in the American Civil War, supported by a large number of documents. A valuable, generally impartial work that is of great value to anyone interested in Sherman's role in the war.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 May 2006), American Civil War: Sherman's March through the Confederacy ,

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