Military history


Breaking into the South

SHERMAN, who had been left by Grant to command in the West—a term used during the war to signify the campaigns not fought in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, but geographically in the beginnings of the Deep South—received on April 4 and 19 two letters in which Grant outlined his plans for the conclusion of the western campaign. Grant’s order to Sherman and his armies in Tennessee for the campaign of 1864-65 had been to “move against Johnston’s army, to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”1 In addition to the Army of the Potomac, Grant had three other armies to employ in 1864: those of Banks at New Orleans, Butler on the Virginia coast, and Sigel in West Virginia. Sigel was responsible for the Shenandoah Valley, from which Lee drew many of his supplies; Butler was to operate on the James River near Richmond, with the object of cutting the city’s rail communications with the rest of the Confederacy; Banks, Grant hoped, would get into Mississippi and seize Mobile, an important naval and rail centre.

The key operation, however, was that of Sherman, who commanded, as a combined force, McPherson’s own Army of the Tennessee (24,465), Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland (60,773), and John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio (13,559), total strength 98,797. Its task looked simple enough: to push forward from the neighbourhood of Dalton to Atlanta, ninety miles to the south, dispersing Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, only 60,000 strong, and beating its component units as he went. Easier said than done. Part of Sherman’s problem was his very long and attenuated line of communications, which stretched back along the Western and Atlantic Railroad 470 miles to his main base at Louisville, Kentucky, much of its length running through hostile or at least dangerous territory. Forward of Dalton, moreover, the defenders enjoyed the use of several strong defensible features, notably the Oostanaula, Etowah, and Chattahoochee rivers and the steep slope of Kennesaw Mountain. Johnston’s favoured strategy, moreover, was perfectly suited to the terrain, since he believed in avoiding battle when possible and extracting advantage by manoeuvre.

Sherman began his advance into the South on May 4, 1864, leaving Chattanooga to confront Johnston on the route that led to Atlanta (not then Georgia’s state capital, which was Milledgeville). The fighting opened at Tunnel Hill, one of the features of Lookout Mountain, captured by Sherman the previous month. After some vigorous outpost skirmishing, Thomas, with General Oliver Howard, one of his corps commanders, spent May 7 and 8 trying to clear the Confederates off the high ground, so as to open a way forward. Johnston opposed him very effectively, until McPherson, whose corps was principally engaged, was forced to withdraw and wait between Sugar Hill and Buzzard-Roost Gap for a better opportunity. Johnston denied one until May 12, when, in what Howard called “one of his clean retreats,” he left the way open. Sherman’s men caught up with his at Resaca on May 14 and found that by entrenchment and barricading, Johnston had made the position as strong, in Howard’s opinion, as Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. While the army was advancing, Sherman, who had spent the night at his map table, took the opportunity to snatch a nap against a tree trunk. A passing soldier remarked, “A pretty way we are commanded.” Sherman, who was less asleep than he appeared, called out, “Stop, my man. While you were sleeping last night, I was planning for you, sir; and now I was taking a nap.” Least pompous of men, Sherman left the exchange there. He was sometimes mistaken for a young junior officer, since he stood less than five feet, six inches tall and weighed under 150 pounds.

The Confederate commander opposite at Resaca was Leonidas Polk, the Episcopalian bishop-turned-general. During the evening of May 14, he attempted to drive McPherson’s men away, but his effort was defeated. The Confederates lost 2,800 men to the Union’s 2,747 at the battle of Resaca. Sherman had a thoroughly realistic attitude towards losses: “A certain amount of … killing had to be done, to accomplish the end.” At Resaca Sherman fought offensively, Johnston defensively, aided by earthen parapets. Johnston then fell back to Calhoun, Adairsville, and Cassville, where he halted for the battle of the campaign, but then he continued his retreat beyond the next spur of the Appalachian chain to Allatoona.

Sherman, who knew Allatoona from a previous visit, decided not to fight there. After repairing the railroad he pushed on to Atlanta by way of Dallas. Johnston divined Sherman’s intention and forced him to fight at New Hope Church on May 25-28, a slight Union victory. Sherman remarked that “the country was almost in a state of nature—with few or no roads, nothing that a European could understand.”2 Johnston continued to retreat, picking up reinforcements as he went to raise his strength to 62,000. His route took him to Marietta, between Brush Mountain and Lost Mountain. Johnston’s line was too long for his numbers so he drew in his flanks and concentrated on Kennesaw. Sherman repaired the railroad up to his camp, awaiting a battle he knew must come. During the preliminaries, there was continuous skirmishing, with the batteries and line of battle pushed right forward. Sherman’s effort to carry the Kennesaw position failed, however, with a Union loss of 3,000 to the Confederates’ 630. Yet Johnston was so shaken that he abandoned his lines and retreated to the Chattahoochee River. After a skirmish at Smyrna Church, he was driven across the Chattahoochee on July 10. Sherman paid tribute to Johnston’s conduct of the retreat, saying his movements were “timely, in good order and he left nothing behind.”3 The Union “had advanced into the enemy’s country 120 miles, with a single-track railroad which had to bring clothing, food, ammunition, everything requisite for 100,000 men and 23,000 animals. The city of Atlanta, the gate city opening the interior of the important State of Georgia, was in sight; its protecting army was shaken but not defeated, and onward we had to go,” illustrating the principle that “an army once on the offensive must maintain the offensive.”

The fighting along the Oostanaula River was heavy. On July 15, Sherman committed the troops commanded by Hooker, who since being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac had reverted to corps commander, with remarkable equanimity. After a heavy day’s fighting, he carried most of the ground before him. Sherman committed cavalry and laid pontoons over the Oostanaula, thereby achieving superiority of numbers. During the night Johnston decided he could no longer hold the Resaca position and withdrew the Army of Tennessee. In the day following, the Confederates completed an extended withdrawal, to the line of Rome-Kingston-Cassville, along the Etowah River. Oliver Howard, with Sherman in his command party, pressed forward and was fired upon by rebel artillery, which killed several Union horses. The enemy, however, was now badly demoralised by the successful Union advance from Resaca. Howard captured about 4,000 prisoners, including a whole regiment.

His engineers were also energetically repairing the railroad running back to Nashville and Louisville. On the morning of July 18, word arrived by the repaired telegraph from Resaca that bacon, hardtack, and coffee, the essentials of the Union soldier’s fare, were already arriving. The Confederates continued to fall back, all the more eagerly when Johnston, on the Etowah, discovered that the Union’s advance guards were south of him in force at Cartersville and Kingston, where Sherman had set up his headquarters. General Howard found the countryside of farm and woodland about here so picturesque that it was as if there were no war, and the surroundings encouraged Sherman to give his troops three days’ rest. Nevertheless, the abundance of timber allowed both armies to construct strong defences both in attack and defence and, when fighting broke out, to inflict heavy casualties on each other. It was in this region that, as Sherman pressed his advance towards Atlanta, Bishop Polk was shot through the body by an artillery round, dying instantly. By further disengagement, Johnston had now established his line on high ground at Kennesaw Mountain, one of the last peaks of the Appalachian chain, an obstacle which at last gave him a holding place Sherman could not turn. Sherman was in practice more concerned with Hood’s suddenly evinced determination to cut the Army of the Tennessee’s connection with its distant base, an aim that had drawn Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry into an attack on the Union’s railroad link. Sherman had despatched a counter-attack force from Memphis to run Forrest down, angrily proclaiming that there would never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest was dead. The Memphis force brought Forrest to battle at Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi, where it was badly defeated. At a second encounter Forrest was defeated at Tupelo and wounded, but he did not die. There was a lot of life in the old hellhound yet.

Johnston’s success in holding the Kennesaw position came, however, too late to save his own position. Jefferson Davis had an old grudge against him, over a trifling dispute about rank, but the real cause of his fall was popular dissatisfaction with his strategy of evasion and delay, which was almost universally misunderstood as reluctance to risk battle. He was now removed from command in the West and replaced by Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, who, by contrast, was aggressive, bold, and personally brave. Sherman, a friend and intimate of Grant’s recorded his feelings as he embarked on his first major independent campaign:

We were as brothers, I the older man in years, he [Grant] the higher in rank. We both believed in our hearts that the success of the Union cause was necessary not only to the then generation of Americans, but to all future generations. We both professed to be gentlemen and professional soldiers, educated in the science of war by our generous government for the very occasion which had arisen. Neither of us by nature was a combatative man [this was disingenuous of Sherman since the two were to prove themselves the most ruthless commanders of the whole war]; but with honest hearts and a clear purpose to do what man could, we embarked on that campaign which I believe, in its strategy, in its logistics, in its grand and minor tactics, had added new luster to the old science of war. Both of us had at our front generals [Lee and Johnston, then Hood, respectively] to whom in early life we had been taught to look up to,—educated and experienced soldiers like ourselves, not likely to make any mistakes, and each of whom had as strong an army as could be collected from the mass of the Southern people,—of the same blood as ourselves, brave, confident, and well-equipped; in addition to which they had the most decided advantage of operating in their own difficult country of mountain, forest, ravine and river, affording admirable opportunities for defense, besides the other equally important advantage that we had to invade the country of our unqualified enemy, and expose our long lines of supply to guerrillas of an “exasperated people.” Again, as we advanced we had to leave guards to bridges, stations and intermediate depots, diminishing the fighting force, while our enemy gained strength, by picking up his detachments as he fell back, and had railroads to bring supplies and reinforcements from his rear. I instance these facts to offset the common assertion that we of the North won the war by brute force and not by courage and skill.4

Johnston’s last act before his dismissal was to defend the earthworks he had built at the crossings over the Chattahoochee above Atlanta, which the Union overcame by finding crossings elsewhere, and then to withdraw into the defences of Atlanta itself. His conduct in the preceding weeks had been by no means contemptible; he had forced Sherman to spend seventy-four days in advancing a hundred miles, and was still in fighting form.

Hood’s first battle as commander of the Army of Tennessee was at Peach Tree Creek, north of Atlanta, where he intended to carry out Johnston’s plan to drive the Army of the Cumberland farther west so that Sherman could not concentrate his forces on Atlanta. Hood first came forward from the Peach Tree Creek position on July 20, and attacked the corps opposite, commanded by Hooker, which had crossed the creek on pontoon bridges. A bitter battle ensued, lasting five hours. The Confederates were driven back, leaving in the fields their dead and wounded, 4,796 altogether, to the Union loss of 1,710. Throughout the Atlanta campaign Confederate losses were to be much heavier than the Union’s, a grievous disadvantage for the Confederacy, which could afford the losses much less. Hood fell back into his lines around Atlanta. Sherman closed up, and Hood, leaving half his force to defend the city, led the other half, under the cover of darkness, in a long, circuitous march through woodland, round Sherman’s left flank. This led to what Sherman called “the hardest battle of the campaign.”

The outer line of Atlanta’s defences had now been reached. As Grant recalled:

We feigned to the right, but crossed the Chattahoochee by the left, and soon confronted our enemy behind his first line of entrenchments at Peach Tree Creek, prepared in advance for this very occasion. At this critical moment, the Confederate Government rendered us most valuable service. Being dissatisfied with the Fabian policy of General Johnston, it relieved him and General Hood was substituted to command the Confederate army (near Atlanta), July 18. Hood was known to us to be a “fighter,” a graduate of West Point of the class of 1853, No. 44 (in the order of merit), of which class two of my army commanders, McPherson and Schofield were No. 1 and No. 7. The character of a leader is a large factor in the game of war, and I confess, I was pleased at this change, of which I had early notice. I know that I had an army superior in numbers and morale to that of my antagonist; but being so far from my base and operating in a country devoid of food and forage, I was dependent on a poorly constructed railroad, back to Louisville, five hundred miles. I was willing to meet the enemy in open country, but not behind weak constructed parapets.5

Grant may have been exaggerating the value of the change of command. Johnston was not as averse to fighting as he made out, while Hood was a doughtier and cleverer opponent. He would not allow Atlanta to fall easily into Sherman’s hands.

The battle of Atlanta began on July 22, when, believing that Hood had abandoned the city, the Army of the Tennessee advanced to the lines of earthworks the Confederate defenders had dug. At first they settled down, intending to harass the earthworks, to use them for their purposes, when in early afternoon Confederates appeared in large numbers and began to attack them. Hood had planned a complex offensive, sending part of his force to make a long flank march to take the enemy in the rear. The fighting soon became intense, as some of the Union troops found themselves attacked on three sides. Casualties quickly rose high, but the Union forces held their ground, greatly assisted by the presence in their ranks of two regiments of Illinois sharpshooters who had purchased, at their own expense, the Henry sixteen-shot breech-loading rifle. These two regiments inflicted terrible casualties on the Confederates they encountered, at a much smaller cost to themselves. The Confederates lost control of three of the four railroads leading into the city and suffered 8,499 casualties, to 3,641 on the Union side. Among the Union dead was General McPherson, who rode into Confederate lines whilst on reconnaissance, was called upon to surrender, but, tipping his hat to the enemy, turned his horse and was shot and killed as he rode away. His loss was deeply regretted by Sherman, who valued him highly. He was replaced temporarily by General John A. Logan, an Illinois congressman much valued by Lincoln as a political ally. He made an unforgettable impression on the battlefield, where he was temperamentally at home. Black-haired, with fiery eyes, he led by example, waving his sword overhead and shouting encouragement to his soldiers from the back of his warhorse. Unlike other notable mounts which had unmilitary names, such as Lee’s Traveller and Jackson’s Little Sorrell, Logan’s was appropriately called Slasher. Command of the Army of the Tennessee was later given to General Oliver Howard.

In the later afternoon, Hood’s men renewed their attack on the Union’s advance lines in great force and with high ferocity. The fighting became very confused, with the Union jumping from one side to the other of the entrenchments that crisscrossed the battlefield, some Confederate, some Union. Hood’s attack shook the Union lines, opening a wide gap which threatened to collapse Sherman’s army. In this crisis, Logan, who had observed the disaster from a vantage point, turned his horse and galloped to intervene, leading a large reinforcement. As he approached the Union lines a cry of “Black Jack! Black Jack!” sped through the ranks. Inspired by Logan’s arrival, and strengthened by the reinforcements he brought, the Union troops recaptured several guns the enemy had taken and turned them round against the attackers, who were quickly driven into retreat. During the fighting the Union forces were able to retrieve McPherson’s body, sending a special detachment to do so. They also, at one stage of the fighting for the trenches, retrieved McPherson’s hat, binoculars, and documents from Confederate prisoners who had taken them. At about six o’clock, with darkness drawing in, the battle of Atlanta reached its climax, leaving the field, littered with the dead and wounded, in Union hands. Sherman had scored a victory, though one of the most costly and hard-fought of his career as a general.

Sherman’s troops now surrounded Atlanta, though they just failed to cut it off from contact with the outside world. A battle fought at Ezra Church on July 28 was again disproportionately costly to the Confederates, who lost 4,632 to the Union’s 700, but it left them still protecting Atlanta from capture. Thereafter Hood contented himself with holding Atlanta’s earthworks, and accepting siege, which was to last the whole of August.

Sherman spent August manoeuvring around the Atlanta defences with the object of severing the city’s last railroad communications with Alabama. He also sent a large cavalry force, under General George Stoneman, on a raid to liberate the Andersonville prison camp. The raid was badly conducted, however, with the result that it not only failed but that Stoneman and 700 of his men themselves were taken prisoner and interned at Andersonville. Andersonville, a principal Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, had already become notorious in the North because of the very high death rate among its inmates. The prison camps of both sides had high death rates because they were vectors of disease. Disease at Andersonville was enhanced by malnutrition, though perhaps also by mismanagement. The commandant of Andersonville, Captain Heinrich Hartmann Wirtz, a native of Switzerland, was tried and executed on criminal charges after the war. He may have been overwhelmed by circumstances, but not even the most dedicated Confederates have ever tried to argue that he was unfairly treated.

Hood was so encouraged by the Union failure that he sent his 4,000 cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler on a raid of his own against Sherman’s principal supply link, the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Its apparent success led him wrongly to conclude that Sherman was giving up the siege of Atlanta. In fact the Union, which had gone off Hood’s map, had placed themselves astride the railroad to Macon and thus cut off Atlanta from the outside world. During September 1-2, Hood therefore withdrew from Atlanta, correctly recognising that it could no longer be defended. Sherman telegraphed Lincoln on September 3: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”

The sensation aroused in both North and South by the fall of Atlanta reinforced the equal sensation caused by the Union victory at Mobile Bay on August 5. Both Grant and Sherman had long sought to capture Mobile, as a means of opening up a local campaign in Alabama. When Mobile’s fall came, it was as a result of a naval, not a land, battle. Mobile in August 1864 was one of the last active naval bases and blockade-running centres still open to the South, and home to some of the Confederate navy’s most powerful ships, including the ironclad Tennessee. Admiral David Farragut commanded a sizable fleet in the Gulf, and in early August led it into Mobile Bay with the aim of destroying the forts and the Confederate fleet they protected. The anchorage was defended by belts of what were then called torpedoes and today would be called mines, barrels filled with gunpowder to be detonated by fulminate of mercury contact fuses. The Union’s eighteen vessels, some ironclad, most wooden, advanced in pairs, lashed together, starting out early in the morning of August 6. They were brought under fire both by Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, and by the Confederate fleet. Farragut had climbed the mainmast of his flagship, the USS Hartford, where the quartermaster had lashed him to the rigging. When the danger of the mines became apparent, Farragut uttered what were to become immortal words: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” A lively gun duel then opened up, causing heavy casualties on the Union ships. One Union seaman lost both legs to a conical shot, then throwing up his arms in agony, lost both arms to another. The Tennessee, which boldly took on the entire Union fleet single-handed, attempting to sink her enemies by ramming, made herself the target of its combined gunnery and had her rudder chains shot away as a result. Not answering her helm, she was surrendered under a white flag by her captain, and with her capitulation the rest of the Confederate ships gave up the fight. The Union troops in the vicinity then came up and secured the surrender of the forts, though the city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands until April 12, 1865.

The victories of Atlanta and Mobile had a crucial effect on the impending presidential election campaign of 1864. Both parties had already chosen their candidates; the Republicans, known for purposes of the election as the Union Party, had nominated Abraham Lincoln at Baltimore in June; the Democrats were running George McClellan. Frémont, the “Pathfinder,” offered himself as a third-party candidate, tepidly opposed to the war, but made no showing and soon withdrew. McClellan, who had fought to preserve the Union without crushing the South, was identified as an anti-war candidate, though he wisely restored his pro-war position, saying that the sacrifices his comrades in arms had made could not be set aside for electoral purposes. During the Democratic Convention, held in Chicago, proceedings had been disturbed by the intervention of the long-term anti-war campaigner and troublemaker Clement Vallandigham, whose position was dramatised, though he did not deliberately encourage it, by an anti-war conspiracy based in Canada; arms were collected, and there were even some minor attempts at arson in New York and elsewhere, but the conspiracy failed to take fire. It was too blatantly pro-rebellion to win support among the partisans of peace. Nevertheless, at Niagara Falls, emissaries from Richmond hoped to manoeuvre the president into discussing familiar conditions for peace, including recognition, independence, and the continuation of slavery, but Lincoln issued a letter restating his inflexible commitment to restoration of the Union and abolition. At the same time the Republican Party weakly agreed to send its own peace mission to Richmond, with a letter from Lincoln offering peace upon the basis of the Constitution; Lincoln, however, recognised the pitfall, since the Constitution accepted slavery, and at the last moment declined to be caught. Nevertheless, he was, on the eve of the election, wholly uncertain of re-election, apparently believing that McClellan would win and that his last public duty would be to negotiate a way out of the war which would not compromise the Union.

In any event, what saved the Republicans from shaming concessions, besides Lincoln’s unbending refusal to alter his position on the Constitution and slavery, was McClellan’s retreat from an extreme anti-war position together with the news of victory from the fronts now opened within the Southern heartland, which greatly strengthened Lincoln’s leadership. The anti-war movement was also seriously damaged by the violent activities of self-proclaimed anti-war campaigners in some of the border states, notably Missouri and Kansas, where groups calling themselves Sons of Liberty and the Order of American Knights attacked pro-Union people and, if they could get away with it, officeholders and uniformed Union defenders. The worst outrages occurred in Kansas, where a Confederate sympathiser (though probably a temperamental anti-authoritarian) called William Clarke Quantrill, whose band included the future gunfighter Frank James, brother of Jesse, took possession of Lawrence, a well-known centre of anti-slavery opinion, murdered 182 men and boys, and burnt 185 of the town’s buildings. Anti-slavery activists in Missouri and Kansas, known as Jayhawkers, had added their own violent contributions to those states’ sufferings before and during the war. They were multiplied by the enthusiasm with which local Confederate commanders attached terrorist bands to their units. Worst of these hangers-on was “Bloody Bill” Anderson, who attacked Centralia, Kansas, in September 1864, where he, with Frank and Jesse James, murdered 24 unarmed Union solders returning home on leave and killed 124 among the militiamen sent to chase them down. The leading sponsor of partisans among Confederate officers was General Sterling Price, who on the same day as the Centralia massacre fought a pitched battle at Pilot Knob, Missouri, which cost 1,500 Confederate casualties. Eventually Price and his men were driven out of the state, but it required the diversion of a regular Union infantry division to accomplish it. In the presidential election Lincoln took 70 percent of the vote in Missouri.

Voting was staggered in mid-century America, spread out in 1864 from September to November, when the result was declared. The election of 1864 was also complicated by the need to make provision for soldiers away at the front to vote. Some states allowed absentee voting, either by proxy or post; some did not, but insisted on the presence of the voter, which required commanders to permit soldiers to travel to their home states to register their votes. Despite the military difficulties this caused, most commanders were sensible enough of the importance of assisting Lincoln’s re-election, if victory were to be assured, to facilitate their soldiers’ participation. Research makes it possible to identify soldiers’ votes on the returns from many states and reveals that soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln, probably in a proportion of 80 to 20. Soldiers’ votes were decisive in several states, notably New York and Connecticut. On November 8, the official election day, Lincoln received 55 percent of four million votes cast, giving him 234 to 21 of the Electoral College votes. He carried every state still within the Union except for New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. The Republicans also won the governorships and legislatures of all but those three states. The presidential election of 1864 was thus a triumph not only for the Republicans and Lincoln but also for Lincoln’s war policy.

General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union armies, 1863–65, and later president of the United States

General William Tecumseh Sherman, Union commander in the West. The photograph captures his acute intelligence and strength of will.

General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia

General George Thomas, “the Rock of Chickamauga”

Union engineers bridging the North Anna River, May 1864, Overland Campaign. The steep banks and depth of water show what serious obstacles the short Chesapeake rivers formed.

Union engineers destroying a Confederate railroad, Atlanta, 1864. The rails are being heated for twisting, as the man in the foreground is doing.

Confederate dead gathered for burial, Gettysburg, July 5, 1863

The McLean house at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Grant and Lee signed the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, April 9, 1865

The ruins of Richmond, 1865. The James River runs in the background.

The gallows built in the Washington Arsenal for the execution of the conspirators in the assassination of Lincoln, 1865

Veterans of Pickett’s charge on the field of action at the reunion for the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1913

Sherman’s success in capturing Atlanta opened the way for a project close to his heart and increasingly to Grant’s as well, which was to make the civilian population of the South suffer as long as resistance was sustained. On July 15, Grant wrote to Halleck, “Sherman, once in Atlanta, will devote himself to collecting the resources of the country.” He was soon to do worse than that. Shortly afterwards his policy for dealing with the Southerners became even more radical. He began on September 8 by ordering the emptying of Atlanta of what remained of its civilian population. The women and children were loaded onto carts and wagons and sent south to the town of Rough and Ready, which had been fought over during his advance. “Then,” recorded Sherman, “began the real trouble.” Hood had retired from Atlanta, to Lovejoy’s Station, thirty miles to the southeast of the city, on the Savannah railroad. His strength was 40,000, all seasoned troops, and he had a large supply train of wagons. On September 21, he shifted his base to Palmetto Station, twenty-five miles southwest of Atlanta on the Montgomery and Selma railroad and began systematic preparations for a campaign against Sherman’s long line of communications, with the purpose of forcing him to abandon his conquests. As a result, Sherman was forced, during September and October 1864, into marching troops up and down the railroad to keep the line open. Hood was now visited by Jefferson Davis, who promised his army cooperation and made a speech threatening to make Sherman pay as dearly as Napoleon had in his retreat from Moscow. Sherman at once took precautions, sending one division westward to Rome, one to Chattanooga, and strengthening the detachments guarding the railroads. To keep Hood under such pressure that he could not interrupt supplies, General Thomas was sent back to the headquarters of his department at Nashville and Schofield to his at Knoxville, while Sherman remained with the Army of the Tennessee at Atlanta, and awaited Hood’s move, which quickly followed. Hood, behind his cavalry, crossed the Chattahoochee River on October 1, with his main army at Campbelltown and then moved to Dallas, from which he destroyed the railroad above Marietta for fifteen miles. He then sent General French to capture Allatoona. Sherman followed Hood, reaching Kennesaw Mountain in time to see the attack on Allatoona, which was repulsed. Hood then moved westward, bypassing Rome, and by a flank march reached Resaca, which he summoned to surrender but did not attack, continuing up the railroad, destroying it as he moved to the tunnel at Dalton, where he captured the garrison. This was a complete reversal of the campaign which had led Sherman to Atlanta during May. Sherman followed to observe Hood’s movements down the valley of Chattooga, where Sherman failed to intercept him. Hood escaped to Gadsden on the Coosa River. Sherman halted at Gaylesville to observe Hood’s movements across the mountains to Decatur, which, since it was well defended, he avoided, finally halting at Florence, Alabama.

Sherman perceived that Hood’s object was to harass and interrupt his communications, rather than to fight a major battle, which he was unlikely to win. Sherman accordingly made a redisposition of his forces to allow him both to restrain Hood and to prepare for a further march into the Southland. He sent Schofield with two of his six corps by rail to Nashville, gave Thomas the troops he needed to defend Tennessee, and began to concentrate, at Atlanta, the forces necessary for a major offensive into Georgia. Repairing the railroads, he assembled the food and transportation necessary for 60,000 men, sent to the rear all unnecessary baggage and equipment, and called in his detachments to Atlanta, where by November 4, he had had concentrated four infantry divisions, a cavalry division, and 65 field guns, totalling 60,598 men. Hood remained at Florence, preparing either to invade Tennessee and Kentucky or to follow Sherman. “We were prepared for either alternative.”

At the conclusion of the Atlanta campaign, Sherman was supremely confident and looked forward to the next and, he believed, final and decisive stage of the campaign and, indeed, of the war. In his survey of his operations, he quoted the great Napoleon “on the fundamental maxim of war, which was ‘to converge a superior force on the critical point at the critical time.’ “That meant, in 1864, on Lee’s and Johnston’s armies. He reflected that, had Lee abandoned Richmond before Sherman captured Atlanta, Grant would have advanced to meet him. As he had taken Atlanta first, the correct strategy was now to march his army to meet Grant. “The most practicable route to Richmond was a thousand miles in distance, too long for a single march; hence the necessity to reach the sea-coast for a new base. Savannah, three hundred miles distant, was the nearest point.” “‘The March to the Sea’ was in strategy only a shift of base for ulterior and highly important purposes.”6 It was the outcome of the battle and campaign of Atlanta which may thus be seen as one of the most crucial operations of the whole war.

Sherman’s March to the Sea would make him the most hated Northerner in the Confederacy but also crush the South’s spirit of resistance for good. He foresaw coordinating his advance on the ground with naval operations up the Savannah River so that he could “move rapidly to Milledgeville, where there is abundance of corn and meat and could so threaten Macon and Augusta that the enemy would doubtless give up Macon for Augusta; then I would move so as to interpose between Augusta and Savannah, and force him to give up Augusta with the only powder mills and factories remaining in the South.”7 He was actively contriving a scheme to make a war upon food resources turn into a war on industrial production. He was now certain that he could make the march to the sea and “make Georgia howl.” After devastating Georgia he intended to turn on the Carolinas and thence to reach Virginia and Richmond. He now began to organise the troops he had around Atlanta into marching formations for the great advance. The force was divided into a right and left wing, commanded, respectively by General Oliver Howard and General Henry Slocum; the right wing consisted of the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps, the left wing of the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps. There was also a cavalry corps commanded by General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. The army’s strength totalled 55,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 64 guns. What opposed it was 3,500 of Wheeler’s cavalry corps and 3,000 under-trained and poorly equipped Georgia militia.

The order of march arranged the corps on four parallel roads, and allotted a minimum of wheeled transport to each. The surplus and unnecessary were ruthlessly thrown away. Captain David Oakey, of the 3rd Massachusetts Volunteers, described the sorting out. “Each group of messmates decided which hatchet, stew pan or coffee-pot should be taken. The single wagon allowed to a battalion carried scarcely more than a gripsack and blanket, and a bit of shelter tent about the size of a large towel for each officer, and only such other material as was necessary for regimental business. Wagons to carry the necessary ammunition in the contingency of a battle and a few days rations in case of absolute need, composed the train of each army corps and with one wagon and one ambulance for each regiment made very respectable impedimenta, averaging about eight hundred wagons to a corps.”8

The paucity of food carried was because Sherman had quite deliberately decided that the army should eat out the state as it advanced: “We were expected to make fifteen miles a day; to corduroy the roads where necessary; to destroy such property as was designated by our corps commander; and to consume everything eatable by man or beast.” In Georgia, South Carolina, and, to a slightly lesser extent, in North Carolina when it was reached, Sherman’s men found food in abundance, particularly sweet potatoes and hams, for which they developed a keen nose, usually accurate whatever trouble was taken by the inhabitants to hide the produce, often by burying it. The march into Georgia had begun on November 15. By early December, Sherman’s Army of Georgia, as it was now officially known, was halfway to Savannah. A swathe of scorched earth had been driven through the state by the foraging parties which marched ahead of the troop columns, on whose flanks hung parties of “bummers” not under the control of the foraging officers; they were there simply to scrounge whatever they could. By December 10 the army was outside Savannah and poised to capture the city. Sherman wrote that it had pulled up a hundred miles of the three main Georgia railroads and, besides that, had also “consumed the corn and fodder of country thirty miles either side of the line from Atlanta to Savannah, as also the sweet potatoes, cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry and [had] carried away more than 10,000 horses and mules, as well as a countless number of slaves. I estimate the damage done to the State of Georgia and its military resources at $100,000,000…. This may seem a hard species of warfare, but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly and indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.”9

Sherman also wrote, “War is war and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.” “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”10

His march to Savannah brought maledictions in plenty. Before taking Savannah, Sherman had to overcome the defences of Fort McAllister, which guarded the bay. As the troops formed up, a Union gunboat, the USS Dandelion, appeared and signalled, “Is Fort McAllister taken?” and was answered, “Not yet, but it will be in a minute.” Almost at once Hazen’s Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, swarmed over the parapet and swamped the garrison of 200 men and their 24 guns. Following its fall and the arrival of the Federal fleet offshore, Savannah was evacuated on the night of December 20-21. Next day Sherman telegraphed to Lincoln, offering him the city, with 150 heavy guns and 25,000 bales of cotton, as a Christmas present.

The South was now running desperately short of soldiers, as desertion became endemic and widespread. By December 1864, manpower returns showed a nominal strength of 400,787 but only 196,016 actually present with the colours. The state’s authorities, moreover, had generally ceased to run down deserters, who in many cases had formed themselves into armed bands to resist arrest and coercion back into the ranks. There were many reasons why men deserted. Concern for the welfare of their families was an overriding impulse, particularly where farms were falling out of cultivation for want of labour. Husbands and fathers also feared for their womenfolk’s safety, though one of the few barbarities of which the marauding Union marchers were not guilty was rape.

After Savannah, Sherman was on the threshold of carrying his version of war-making into one of the states where slaves formed a majority of the population, South Carolina. It was also, in Northern eyes, the seedbed of the rebellion, and the region most deserving of harsh treatment. It was the home of several of the most fiery theorists of secession and the place where the first shots had been fired in 1861. Many in Sherman’s army were eager to punish South Carolina and its people for their attack on the Union. Thus far, moreover, the state had escaped paying the cost of rebellion, except in the deaths of its sons on the battlefield. Now Sherman was determined to make it howl even louder than Georgia had done. But before the march into South Carolina began, there had to be a preliminary in Tennessee, where Thomas was charged by Sherman into dealing with Hood.

Sherman’s departure into Georgia, which greatly reduced Union strength in the western theatre, prompted Hood to see a chance of reopening the campaign to seize Tennessee for the South. There was an element of fantasy in Hood’s approach to war-making, since he consistently exaggerated his chances of success in whatever campaign he was fighting. Nevertheless, he possessed the valuable gift of boldness, and his courage was unquestionable. By the end of 1864 he was one of the most gravely injured senior officers in either army, having suffered disabling damage to his left arm at Gettysburg and having lost a leg at Chickamauga. Nevertheless he still rode a horse, in his own opinion quite as well as men fitter than himself. Hood was admired by his soldiers but had become a trial to the high command in Richmond because of his insistence on following his own whim and inclination in the conduct of campaigns. He was certainly to do so in the campaign of Franklin and Nashville, where with only 40,000 men he set out to defeat 60,000 Northerners, partly by dint of hard marching, something which his army, much of which was shoeless, was unequipped to achieve. Yet Hood entertained the most extravagant of ambitions. He intended and believed he could break into Tennessee, then into Kentucky, where he counted on recruiting up to 20,000 fresh soldiers, though how they were to be trained and equipped was a matter he did not specify; with them he would complete the defeat of General Thomas and then march northeast, across the mountains, to join forces with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and triumph over Grant and Sherman. Meanwhile, if comforted by fantasy, he was confronted by the demands of reality, which required him to defeat Thomas in the countryside between Franklin and Nashville, state capital of Tennessee. Thomas, whom he now challenged for control of Tennessee, was an old opponent.

Thomas’s advance guard of 30,000 was commanded by General John Schofield, who had previously commanded Union troops in Missouri. Hood’s plan was to get between Schofield at Pulaski, south of Nashville, where Thomas had another 30,000 troops. Schofield learnt of Hood’s approach in time and took up a defensive position on the Duck River at Columbia, where Hood engaged his troops during November 24-27. Not wanting to risk a frontal assault on the Union’s entrenched positions, Hood sent his cavalry, commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, and two of his infantry corps, now much diminished in strength, on a flank march against Schofield’s rear. Schofield, however, detected the move and hastened two divisions to hold the threatened sector at Spring Hill. Confederate attacks on the position failed—here, as elsewhere all over the extended Franklin-Nashville battlefield, the Union troops threw up earthworks in haste wherever attack menaced, though the Confederates dug also. As Confederate attacks died away, Schofield withdrew his troops and led them back to join forces with Thomas at Nashville. Hood’s men had suffered dreadfully, losing 7,000 killed, wounded, and missing, a casualty list as bad as any recorded in Virginia during the Overland Campaign. The colours of thirty-three Confederate regiments had been captured. Casualties among Confederate senior officers were exceptionally heavy. Fifty-four Confederate regimental commanders were hit, as were several generals, including Major General Patrick Cleburne and Brigadier General States Rights Gist, who had been at First Bull Run.

After disengaging at Franklin, Schofield fell back on Nashville, where General Thomas was preparing to attack the Confederates as they approached from a carefully dug line of earthworks crossing all the roads leading into the city from the south. Thomas had conducted the campaign faultlessly thus far, but not to the satisfaction of Grant in his faraway headquarters at City Point. Grant wanted victory and Thomas was not supplying it fast enough for his impatient superior. He had been bombarding Thomas with urgings and most recently with a threat of his removal, even with an actual removal order, which was fortunately delayed in transmission, for Thomas was just about to do all and more than Grant demanded. Thomas attacked the Confederate line on the morning of December 15. The Confederates, to Hood’s disgust, had constructed earthworks as a defensive-offensive base opposite the Union line. Hood had formed the opinion that his army had lost its offensive spirit, but in action it showed no lack of aggressiveness at all, repelling all the Union attacks throughout the day. The attacks were renewed on December 16 and in mid-afternoon, supported by heavy artillery fire, carried a portion of the Confederate line on the left. The Confederates gave way, first at that point and then along the whole line. Hood was watching the action from horseback close in the rear. “I behold,” he recorded, “for the first and only time a Confederate army abandon the field in confusion.”

Worse was to follow. Hood soon discovered that “all hope to rally the troops was vain.” The Confederate army pressed on southward, pursued by Thomas, until it at last was able to halt at Tupelo on January 10. Three days later, Hood wrote to the Confederate secretary of war, requesting to be relieved of command. On January 14 he met General Beauregard, who had arrived to assess the situation. Hood repeated to him his request to be relieved. He also wrote to Jefferson Davis, emphasising that the plan to invade Tennessee was his and his alone. He needed to concede responsibility. The Franklin-Nashville campaign had been a disaster, reducing the Army of Tennessee from a strength of 40,000 to less than 20,000, so rendering it effectively useless. As it had been the second largest in the South’s order of battle, the Confederacy’s force was now reduced to that of the Army of Northern Virginia, itself greatly diminished in number since the beginning of the Overland Campaign and shrinking rapidly as the siege of Petersburg was protracted.

Sherman started the Army of Georgia northward from Savannah on February 1. His march lay through what Carolinians called the Low Country, a zone of rivers and their many tributaries all swollen in that very wet fall by twenty-eight days of continuous rain in forty-five days of marching. General William Hazen, a commander in the Fifteenth Corps, counted thirty-six swamp crossings in his division’s march through South Carolina, and fourteen river crossings. His men built seventeen miles of corduroy roads as well as bridges and fords. The local inhabitants and Confederate commanders believed that the terrain was impassable and made little effort to defend it. On February 22, however, Johnston was appointed commander of all Confederate forces in the Carolinas, and with 20,000 troops scraped together from the garrisons of Charleston and Savannah and Hood’s Army of Tennessee, he organised defences for Charleston and Augusta, site of the South’s most important armaments factories. Sherman, however, while disposing his troops on the line of march so as to appear as if he were threatening both, in practice kept away from them. His aim now was to get into North Carolina and from there to link hands with Grant in Virginia, so as to crush Lee between two Union pincer jaws. Charleston was evacuated on February 18, leaving Columbia, the state capital, the only place of importance in South Carolina still controlled by Confederate forces. By February 17, it too was abandoned, and that night Union troops entered it, finding the streets filled with bales of cotton, some of which were already alight. What followed remains a matter of dispute to this day. Liberated Northern prisoners, free blacks, and troops from Sherman’s army roamed the streets; more cotton took fire, as did parts of the city. By the dark hours of the morning half the city was in flames. A great deal of drink had been consumed. Even so, officers and some of Sherman’s soldiers tackled the flames and the fire did not get completely out of hand. Nevertheless, the burning of Columbia became a Confederate atrocity story and a difficult one for the North to refute, against the background of burning and looting in Georgia and the Carolinas which had been Sherman’s deliberate policy.

The most important military operation in North Carolina during the closing phase of the war was not the work of Sherman’s army but a deliberate and separate operation to close down the South’s last large blockade-running port at Wilmington, on the Cape Fear River. The port was defended by a fortification built to a new engineering design intended to resist bombardment. Brick and masonry, as in the forts of the Third System, had proved vulnerable to gunfire. Indeed, Fort Sumter had been reduced to a pile of debris by 1863, largely as a result of the concentrated Union naval bombardment of that August and September. Fort Fisher, at Wilmington, was constructed on different principles: instead of being a rigid structure of stone walls and casemates which shattered under gunfire, it was a timber framework, covered with turf and sand, which absorbed the impact of shot and could not be fractured, as the great Russian fortress of Bomersund had been by the British during the Crimean War. The Union eventually did not even try to batter Fort Fisher into submission but landed a large force of infantry to carry it by amphibious assault, which was achieved on January 15, 1865. Wilmington was then occupied and the Cape Fear River closed to blockade-running traffic.

After the occupation of Columbia on February 17, 1865, Sherman diverted his army towards Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he hoped to join forces with Grant, then still battling against the defences of Petersburg and Richmond. His advance, impeded by torrential rains, appeared to menace both Goldsboro and Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, and was opposed by most of the surviving Confederate hierarchy, including Johnston, Bragg, and Pierre Beauregard. Between them they had managed to assemble about 21,000 troops, deployed by Johnston at Fayetteville, North Carolina. Sherman accompanied his soldiers, who formed the Armies of Tennessee and Georgia, into action at Bentonville on March 19. Johnston, in opposition, put up a spirited performance. He was too heavily outnumbered, 80,000 to 20,000, to succeed, though Sherman, who was present, seems at this stage of the war to have lost the taste for bloodshed and did not press the issue. It was obvious to all, including most Southerners, in and out of the army, that the war was drawing to a close; only the self-deluding in the Confederacy continued to hope that it could be concluded on conditions that would soften Lincoln’s terms of surrender and black emancipation. On March 25, Sherman left the scene of action in North Carolina and, by rail and then steamer, set out to meet Grant at City Point, Virginia, the Army of the Potomac’s port on the James River, there to describe his march of 425 miles in fifty days, which ended resistance in Georgia and the Carolinas. It had been an extraordinary achievement, though it had inaugurated a style of warfare that boded the worst sort of ill for peoples unable to keep a conqueror at bay, as Hitler’s campaigns in eastern Europe seventy-five years later would testify.

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