previous next

Chapter XVI

during the Atlanta campaign the principal commanders of the army assumed, as a matter of course, that Atlanta would be ours in due time, and hence there was much discussion of the question, What next? It was evident the army could not go much farther and rely upon its present line of supply, although General Thomas said, immediately after the capture of Atlanta, that he had ‘a plan for the capture of Macon’ which he would like to execute. What the plan was he did not divulge, General Sherman turning the conversation in another direction. At that time it was presumed Hood would oppose whatever move was attempted, and hence a new base, to be provided in advance, if practicable, by the capture of some place on the gulf or on the Atlantic, was evidently essential to further operations in Georgia. This new base being provided, Sherman could move out from Atlanta with twenty or thirty days supplies in wagons, and swing round Hood so as to place his rear toward the new base and open communication therewith. Evidently the march to the sea, as it was actually made, [300] was impossible, and was not thought of until Hood moved from Sherman's front and cleared the way.

In the popular judgment formed immediately after important events, success or failure is the only criterion of wisdom; but the historian must go deeper, and consider the merits of a general plan in view of the greater or less probability of failure of any one of its parts. What would have been the just judgment of mankind upon Sherman's march to the sea if Thomas had failed, as Sherman with a much larger force had done, to destroy or seriously cripple Hood's army? Or what, if Hood had succeeded in his projected invasion of Kentucky—an event much less improbable than many that have actually occurred in war? If Hood had succeeded in overwhelming the smaller force that opposed him at Columbia, Spring Hill, and Franklin, as he came near doing, Nashville would have fallen an easy prey, for it was not defensible by the force Thomas then had there. Thomas's cavalry was not yet remounted, and Forrest, with his troopers, would have had nearly a clear field of Kentucky while Hood marched to the Ohio. What offset to this would have been the capture of Savannah as a ‘Christmas gift’ to the nation?

The situation at that time was certainly a perplexing one to Sherman. He could not permit Hood to put him, with his superior force, on the defensive, nor even to appear to do so for a moment; and it was not easy for him to consent that his enemy should entirely nullify all his elaborately considered plans for future operations in Georgia. What operations Sherman decided on in that unprecedented case is well known.

When Sherman cut loose and started for Savannah on November 12, he had not, as events proved, sufficient reason for assuming ‘Thomas's strength and ability to meet Hood in the open field,’ or even to hold Nashville against him, much less to hold ‘the line of the Tennessee [301] River firmly,’ which was the condition upon which Grant at first consented that Sherman might make ‘the trip to the sea-coast.’1

Thomas's concurrence in Sherman's opinion, as shown in his despatch of November 12, simply shows that they were both in the same error; for A. J. Smith's troops did not begin to arrive at Nashville until the day of the battle of Franklin (November 30), and they were a very important part of the force relied upon in Sherman's plan. The whole fate of the Tennessee campaign was decided by the delay of Hood at Columbia and Spring Hill and his defeat in the desperate battle of Franklin, and this by two of Sherman's six corps, without the aid of any of the reinforcements upon which he counted so largely, and about which he says so much. It is not too much to say that the hazards of that retreat from Pulaski and of the defense at Franklin were far greater than any portion of Sherman's army had ever before encountered, and far greater than any army ever ought to meet except in case of necessity—hazards which, at that stage of the war, with our vastly superior armies in the field, it would have been inexcusable voluntarily to incur. If it is asked why such hazard was taken, the answer has heretofore been given. By it alone could the time be gained which was necessary for Thomas's reinforcements to reach Nashville. The time gained was barely sufficient; one day less might have been fatal.

The question that at once arises is, Why have taken even a chance of error in a matter of so vital moment—an error that might have led to disastrous consequences? Hood was already on the Tennessee River, preparing to cross and begin his march to Nashville. Thomas had ready to meet him only about two thirds Hood's strength in infantry, and less than half in effective cavalry. A few days' delay on Sherman's part in commencing his [302] march would have disclosed to him the impossibility of Smith's arrival in time, and have enabled him to send another corps from his superabundant force to assist Thomas. Such delay of only a few days could not have been of serious consequence in respect to Sherman's plans. The near approach of winter was the only reason why an early start was important; and that was not considered any very serious obstacle to the operations of Hood or Thomas in a more unfavorable country for winter operations.

The railroad was in running order to Atlanta, and the enemy's cavalry were then known to be far from it. Sherman could have kept his army supplied, and ready to start any day he pleased. Why not have waited to see whether Thomas could get together troops enough to cope with Hood, and then, when sufficient preparation had been assured to fight the enemy, and only then, start off on a march where there was no considerable enemy to fight?

In the estimate of time, Sherman had no right to disregard even Thomas's well-known ‘slowness of thought and action,’ but was bound to take that into account.

I have never yet been able to see the wisdom of taking any hazard of defeat in Tennessee when we had ample force at command to secure victory there, with enough remaining to march wherever its commander pleased through the South, except where Hood's or Lee's army might be. By this I mean to say that three, or even two, of Sherman's corps could have gone to Savannah, or anywhere else, just as well as four, and thus have left Thomas force enough to make the defeat of Hood sure beyond contingency; or that Sherman should have delayed his march to the sea until Thomas had concentrated troops enough to defeat Hood.

The question which now presents itself for critical consideration [303] is, Upon what military theory was Sherman's ‘march to the sea’ based?

Sherman himself explains it as a change of base, and he estimates its value in comparison with that of his subsequent operations in the ratio of one to ten. But why those subsequent operations, or a change of base with a view to any such ulterior purpose? Grant had not at that time even suggested the need of Sherman's aid against Lee, and events proved that no such need existed. When Sherman started for Savannah from Atlanta, the Confederate force in the Gulf States was quite equal to Lee's army in Virginia, while Grant's army was larger than Sherman's. Could Sherman have contemplated at that time such a thing as going to Grant's assistance, where he was not needed, and leaving Hood's army behind him?

A change of base to Savannah or Mobile had been contemplated as a probable necessity of future operations in Georgia or in the Gulf States, upon the capture of Atlanta; but that of course upon the supposition that there would still be a formidable army of the Confederacy in those States against which operations were to be conducted. When that Confederate army, under Hood, marched toward the west, with the evident intention to carry the war into Tennessee and Kentucky, why a change of base by Sherman in the opposite direction, to Savannah?

Sherman appears to have supposed at first that Hood would follow him when he started on his march through Georgia, as Hood had supposed that Sherman would follow him into Tennessee. Was there any more reason for the one supposition than the other? Ought not Sherman as well as Hood to have known his antagonist better than such a supposition would imply? Was it not extremely unreasonable to suppose that Hood, after he had marched hundreds of miles west from Atlanta and reached the base [304] of his projected operations in Tennessee, would turn back and follow Sherman at such a distance in his rear? It is perfectly evident that such a stern-chase by Hood was contemplated only as a bare possibility, not by any means as a probable result of Sherman's march. It could have had no influence in forming Sherman's final determination to make that march. In fact, the march does not appear to have been finally decided on—certainly it was not commenced—until Hood had gone so far in the opposite direction as to make his pursuit of Sherman out of the question, and had fully disclosed his plan to invade Tennessee. It was surely, therefore, an extraordinary spectacle to see the main Union army marching where there was no considerable hostile force to meet it, leaving a comparatively small detachment to cope with the formidable enemy!

Of course Sherman could not fall back into Tennessee, and thus let Hood put him on the defensive, even for a short time. He could afford only to send back a detachment large enough to enable Thomas, with the other forces he could assemble, to hold Nashville and prevent Hood from crossing the Cumberland. This is virtually but little more than what Sherman did in that regard.

There then remained to Sherman practically only one line of action at all consistent with the dictates of established principles in the conduct of a military campaign: that was to strike with his superior remaining force for Hood's rear, south of the Tennessee River. Such a movement could have been commenced immediately upon Hood's march in that direction. Supplies would have been drawn, first from Chattanooga and afterward from Stevenson, and then from Decatur, Sherman's line of supply being thus very much shortened. A small detachment at Atlanta could have destroyed the works of military value in that place, and the railroad thence back to Chattanooga, being completely covered in this work by [305] Sherman's army, without delaying its march a single day. Sherman could thus have easily struck Hood south of the Tennessee before the latter could have made his preparations for crossing that river. Indeed, with Sherman marching in that direction, even so bold a man as Hood could hardly have been so reckless as to have crossed the Tennessee; and if he had, his destruction must have been sure. Hence the least result would have been simply to transfer the theater of operations from Georgia to Alabama, or perhaps to Mississippi, and greatly to shorten Sherman's line of supply. And what possible difference could it make in which part of the revolted States the theater of war might be, so long as the Confederate army, to destroy which was the only important object of a campaign, was there? To avoid a transfer of the battlefield from Georgia to Alabama or Mississippi, was it wise to run the risk of transferring it to Kentucky or Ohio? Perhaps no movement which could have been contemplated by the Confederate authorities would have been more greatly to Sherman's advantage over Hood than the one they adopted.

I cannot better show my own exact impression at the time respecting the operations of Sherman and Hood in 1864, than by an illustration that will be at once appreciated on every farm in America. When two fighting-cocks meet for the first time, battle is joined without delay, and is prosecuted with all possible vigor and skill. If the result is decisive the victor's triumph is loudly proclaimed, while the defeated combatant, with lowered crest, seeks safety in flight. If, on the contrary, the result is a drawn battle, the two antagonists, as if by common consent, slowly separate, carrying their heads high, and sharply watching each other. When distance has assured the close of that contest, they severally go to feeding, as if nothing unusual had happened, or else march off to seek some less formidable foe. Neither [306] utters a note of defiance until he is well beyond the other's reach.

The correspondence between Grant and Sherman, especially the letters from Grant of September 12, and from Sherman of September 20, both carried by Grant's staff officer, Colonel Horace Porter, show a complete understanding of the situation at that time, and perfect accord in respect to the operations appropriate to that situation.2 Savannah was to be captured, if practicable, by military and naval forces from the east, and Sherman was so to manoeuver in respect to Hood's army as to swing round the latter and thus place himself in position to open communication with Savannah as his new base. This was the simple, logical plan dictated by the situation, which had for a long time been considered and worked out after weighing all the advantages and disadvantages of other possible plans.

But very soon after Sherman despatched his letter of September 20 by Colonel Porter, Hood commenced his movement to Sherman's rear, and then far to the west, which was designed to and did radically change the military situation in view of which the carefully matured plan described in Sherman's letter of September 20 had been formed. Sherman, as clearly appears from his despatches later than September 20, considered long and apparently with great doubt what change ought to be made in his own plans in consequence of the altered situation due to the unexpected movements of his enterprising adversary. That some very important change in Sherman's plans was imperative was a matter of course. A general cannot well make his own plans entirely upon his own theory as to what his enemy will or ought to do, but must be governed in some measure by what the other actually does. General Sherman evidently perceived quite clearly what established rules of action required [307] to be done, and General Grant even more clearly, as was shown in his despatches of October 11, 1864, and others.

It seems hardly possible to speak seriously of many of the reasons given by Sherman for finally deciding to leave his old adversary to the care of Thomas's inferior force. He said, for instance, in his despatch to Grant of November 2: ‘If I could hope to overhaul Hood, I would turn against him with my whole force. . . . No single army can catch him.’3 Sherman had been ‘catching’ Hood with a single army all summer, and without the slightest difficulty. What reason had he to conclude that it would be impossible to do so later? As my experience proved, it was as easy to ‘catch’ him in November, though with a smaller force, as it had been in July and August with a much larger force, and Thomas had the same experience in December. As Sherman knew from his own experience, as well as I, whether the pursuing force was larger or smaller, Hood was about the easiest man in the world to ‘catch,’ even by a ‘single’ army. But Sherman had under his command at that time, in Georgia and Tennessee, as he said with great emphasis and confidence, two armies, each larger than Hood's, even assuming the largest estimate then made of the strength of Hood's army. It appears that Sherman gave Hood credit at that time for only thirty thousand infantry, besides cavalry.4 If that was his estimate, then he had at least three or four armies (including the reinforcements he counted on for Thomas in Tennessee), each equal in strength to Hood's. Is it possible Sherman thought he could not catch Hood with three or four armies? But another despatch from Sherman, dated November 2, seems to show that his estimate of Hood's army was more than 50,000, instead of 30,000; for in that despatch he said in substance that unless he drew Slocum's corps back from Atlanta, and [308] abandoned that place, his army would be inferior to Hood's.5 Now Slocum's corps numbered 10,000 men, and Sherman marched to the sea with 60,000 after stripping down to the best possible fighting condition. Hence Sherman, after sending back the Fourth and Twenty-third corps to Thomas, and leaving out Slocum's corps, had 50,000 men, and therefore according to this reckoning Hood had more than 50,000. Forty thousand would have been a reasonable estimate for Sherman to have made of Hood's strength, with his more accurate knowledge than any of his subordinate commanders could have. But, somehow, the estimate of Hood's force at that time accepted by Thomas and his subordinates in Tennessee was 45,000, besides cavalry, which was understood to be 10,000, or even 12,000 including Forrest's separate command. But even this was less than half of Sherman's two armies.

Sherman made no attempt to ‘catch’ Hood during his raid in Sherman's rear in September, 1864, nor to interfere with his movement to the west. In his ‘Memoirs,’6 Sherman says: ‘At first I thought of interposing my whole army in the Chattooga Valley, so as to prevent Hood's escape south. . . . he would be likely to retreat eastward by Spring Place, which I did not want him to do.’ Even thus early in the game Sherman saw the opportunity Hood was probably going to give him to make his projected change of base to Savannah, and hence he took care not to prevent Hood from completing his ‘cooperative’ movement.

Sherman determined to destroy Atlanta and his railroad back to Chattanooga, abandon entirely his former base of operations and line of supply, and assume a new base of future operations on the Atlantic or the gulf. In other words, Sherman decided that he could not attempt to hold any part of the territory he had conquered in the [309] Atlanta campaign; that conquest was valuable only in the opportunity it gave him to destroy everything of military importance in that territory—that is, Atlanta and the railroads. The question then arises, What possible difference could it make in which direction he moved after having decided not to hold any part of that territory, but to destroy it? Why would a move toward the west any more than a move toward the east have the appearance of losing all that had been gained, after he had destroyed it? The simple fact is, the Confederate commander had abandoned Georgia to its fate in the vain hope of putting Sherman on the defensive, not realizing, apparently, that Sherman had ample force for defensive purposes, besides an army superior to Hood's for aggressive operations. The Southern army was thus placed where Sherman could operate against it by a much shorter line, and hence with a much larger force, if that was what he wished to do. He could at the same time, if he thought it necessary or desirable, inflict upon Georgia the destruction which the Confederate commander wanted to prevent, but had in fact invited by abandoning that State, and that without materially impairing the strength of his (Sherman's) main army operating against the main force of the enemy. As suggested by Grant, a cavalry raid through Georgia would have accomplished that destruction as well as a march of 60,000 men. Hence, in the light of all that appears in the records up to the time when Sherman actually started on his march, no valid military reason had been given why Sherman should not have sent a cavalry raid into Georgia, as Grant suggested, to destroy everything there, and thus negative Mr. Davis's promise of protection, while he (Sherman) pursued relentlessly the strictly military plan Grant had prescribed for him to break up Hood's army or capture it, which Sherman had as yet failed to accomplish.

Manifestly some other motive besides the motives stated [310] in Sherman's telegraphic despatches must have decided him to carry out his plan to make the march to the sea.

The boastful assurance and threat of the Confederate commander-in-chief,7 referred to by Sherman, gave at least some reason for Sherman's defiant response by himself marching through Georgia instead of sending a subordinate; and the partial execution of that threat by Forrest's cavalry, referred to in Sherman's despatch of November 1 to Grant, gave a strong reason for Sherman's eager determination to march at once, without waiting for anything but his own preparations. In his article, ‘The Grand Strategy of the Last Year of the War,’8 Sherman reveals one of the reasons for his haste in starting on his march. ‘How free and glorious I felt,’ he says, ‘when the magic telegraph was cut, which prevented the possibility of orders of any kind from the rear coming to delay or hinder us!’ A letter written by Sherman to Grant, November 6, on the eve of his start for the sea, also gave reasons, other than military, for his famous march. In Sherman's ‘Memoirs’ no quotation is made from this letter,9 and it is referred to very briefly without giving any suggestion of its important contents.

General Sherman thus stated his reasons for writing that letter: ‘I have heretofore telegraphed and written you pretty fully, but I still have some thoughts in my busy brain that should be confided to you as a key to future developments.’

Then Sherman explained, with the art of which he was master, clearly, logically, and convincingly, the reasons for the operations of his army from the fall of Atlanta down to the time of his writing, by which he had completely [311] defeated his adversary's designs, closing with the following language:

Now, as to the second branch of my proposition, I admit that the first object should be the destruction of that army; and if Beauregard moves his infantry and artillery up into that pocket about Jackson and Paris, I will feel strongly tempted to move Thomas directly against him, and myself move rapidly by Decatur and Purdy to cut off his retreat. . . . These are the reasons which have determined my former movements.

General Sherman then continues by explaining the reasons which induced him not to carry out the movement above suggested.

Now come the reasons for the future movements upon which Sherman had then fully decided, after having obtained General Grant's consent, and which he was about to begin. After stating what he had done ‘in the last ten days’ to prepare for his march, he said:

Then the question presents itself what shall be done? On the supposition always that Thomas can hold the line of the Tennessee, and very shortly be able to assume the offensive as against Beauregard, I propose to act in such a manner against the material resources of the South as utterly to negative Davis's boasted threat and promises of protection. If we can march a wellap-pointed army right through his territory, it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which Davis cannot resist. This may not be war, but rather statesmanship; nevertheless it is overwhelming to my mind that there are thousands of people abroad and in the South who will reason thus: If the North can march an army right through the South, it is proof positive that the North can prevail in this contest, leaving only open the question of its willingness to use that power.

It was, perhaps, not war, but rather statesmanship upon which Sherman was about to enter—not to defeat and destroy or capture the Confederate armies, but to demonstrate [312] in the most positive manner that the ‘North can prevail in this contest,’ provided only it is willing to use its power. And by what means was this demonstration to be made? By marching a large army through the South where there was and could be no Confederate army able to oppose it, destroying everything of military value, including food, and continuing this operation until the government and people of the Southern States, and people abroad, should find the demonstration convincing. Again I quote:

Now, Mr. Lincoln's election, which is assured, coupled with the conclusion thus reached, makes a complete, logical whole. Even without a battle, the result, operating upon the minds of sensible men, would produce fruits more than compensating for the expense, trouble, and risk.

The election of Mr. Lincoln meant, of course, continued ascendancy of the ‘war party’ at the North, and that, coupled with the conclusion above reached, made, as Sherman so forcibly stated it, ‘a complete, logical whole.’

General Sherman then went on to give in his masterly way the advantages and disadvantages of the several objectives open to him as the goal of his march, reserving to himself finally the choice between three,—Savannah, Mobile, and Pensacola,—trusting to Richmond papers to keep Grant well advised of his movements and of his final choice of the objective; and then, near the close of this letter, in discussing the military aspects of his proposed march, upon which he was about entering, he reverted to the old theory of the line of the Tennessee— ‘on the supposition always that Thomas can hold the line of the Tennessee, and very shortly be able to assume the offensive as against Beauregard.’

It is impossible not to admire the thoroughness with which Sherman had considered all possible or even imaginary difficulties in his way, nor to suppress a smile at [313] the supreme confidence with which he set out, with sixty thousand of the best soldiers in the world, upon a march through a fine healthy country laden with abundance of supplies for men and animals, at a time when only two armies in the South were strong enough to offer him any serious opposition, both of them farther from his line of march than he was from his goal when he started, one besieged by Grant in Petersburg, and the other already commencing an aggressive campaign against Thomas in Tennessee! It is equally impossible to speak seriously of the apprehension of some geographers and logisticians that Hood would interfere in some way with Sherman's march through Georgia. Hood could not have got within two hundred miles of Sherman before the latter had destroyed as much of Georgia as he wished, and then captured Savannah. Of course Sherman was not disturbed by any apprehension that Hood might possibly oppose his march to Savannah. He could have meant by what he said in his despatches on that subject only that Hood would be compelled by ‘public clamor’ to return to Georgia to defend that State against Sherman's further operations. Hence his strong insistence that Thomas pursue Hood with energy, and thus keep him out of his (Sherman's) way.

It had never occurred to me, if the fact ever existed, that the rebellion could not be suppressed by crushing or capturing the Confederate armies, or that our vastly superior military strength must necessarily be employed in crushing the Southern people, however much they might deserve crushing, or else that we must give up the contest. Yet while I never saw the necessity for what Sherman called ‘statesmanship’ rather than ‘war,’ I would never have hesitated for a moment to say, what I now repeat, if it really was necessary, in order to put down the rebellion and restore the Union, to destroy all the property in the South, in the name of a just and beneficent [314] God, destroy it all! Hence my objection to Sherman's plans was based upon my conviction that such plans were not at that time, and never had been, necessary. Yet such plans are legitimate and often necessary, and no man is wise enough to tell in advance whether they may prove to be necessary or not. The surest way to reach results is the way Sherman adopted. In either a civil or a foreign war, such methods may be very bad policy; but very few men are cool-headed enough in civil war, even if wise enough, to see what good policy dictates, and this is even more true of men at a distance than of those at the front. Men who have been fighting most of the time for three or four years generally become pretty cool, while those in the rear seem to become hotter and hotter as the end approaches, and even for some time after it is reached. They must in some way work off the surplus passion which the soldier has already exhausted in battle. Whatever may be true as to Sherman's methods before Lee surrendered, the destruction inflicted on the South after that time was solely the work of passion, and not of reason. Of this last Sherman was innocent.

Sherman's destruction of military supplies and railroads did undoubtedly render impossible any great prolongation of the war, if that would otherwise have been possible; but it did not materially hasten the actual collapse of the rebellion, which was due to Grant's capture of Lee's army. Besides, if Grant had not captured Lee, Sherman would. Lee could not possibly have escaped them both. Hence Sherman's destruction of property in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina did not hasten the end of the rebellion. If General Sherman was, at the time he planned his march to the sea, informed of the nearly bankrupt condition of the United States treasury, that fact went far toward justifying his action in leaving as small a force as possible with Thomas, and even in starting on his march before Thomas was fully ready to meet Hood. For to make [315] his demonstration early enough and as convincing as possible to the people of the South and all the world, it was important to move at once, and to show that his march was not a mere rapid raid, but a deliberate march of a formidable army capable of crushing anything that might get in its way, and that without waiting for anything that might occur in its rear. Such a march of such an army might well have been sufficient to convince everybody that the United States had the military power to crush the rebellion, and even destroy everything in the South, before the world should find out that the resources of the government had been exhausted, and that the United States had not the financial strength necessary to make any further military use of the million of men they then had on the muster-and pay-rolls. To have given the still more convincing proof of the power of the Union, by destroying one of the Confederate armies, would have taken a longer time.

The following despatches fully show Sherman's first plan, assented to by Grant, the essential feature of which was that Thomas should be able to ‘hold the line of the Tennessee firmly,’ and the corresponding information and instructions to Thomas:

Sherman to Grant.

Cartersville, Ga., October 10, 1864, 12 M.
. . . Hood is now crossing the Coosa; twelve miles below Rome, bound west. If he passes over to the Mobile and Ohio road, had I not better execute the plan of my letter sent by Colonel Porter, and leave General Thomas with the troops now in Tennessee to defend the State? He will have an ample force when the reinforcements ordered reach Nashville.

Grant to Sherman.

City Point, Va., October 11, 1864, 11 A. M.
Your despatch received. Does it not look as if Hood was going to attempt the invasion of middle Tennessee? . . . If he [316] does this, he ought to be met and prevented from getting north of the Tennessee River. If you were to cut loose, I do not believe you would meet Hood's army. . . . Hood would probably strike for Nashville, thinking by going north he could inflict greater damage upon us than we could upon the rebels by going south. If there is any way of getting at Hood's army, I would prefer that, but I must trust to your own judgment. I find I shall not be able to send a force from here to act with you on Savannah. Your movements, therefore, will be independent of mine, at least until the fall of Richmond takes place. I am afraid Thomas, with such lines of road as he has to protect, could not prevent Hood going north. With Wilson turned loose with all your cavalry, you will find the rebels put much more on the defensive than heretofore.

Sherman to Grant.

October 11, 1864, 10 A. M.
Hood moved his army from Palmetto Station across by Dallas and Cedartown, and is now on the Coosa River, south of Rome. He threw one corps on my road at Acworth, and I was forced to follow. I hold Atlanta with the Twentieth Corps, and have strong detachments along my line. These reduce my active force to a comparatively small army. We cannot remain now on the defensive. With 25,000 men, and the bold cavalry he has, he can constantly break my road. I would infinitely prefer to make a wreck of the road and of the country from Chattanooga to Atlanta, including the latter city, send back all my wounded and worthless, and, with my effective army, move through Georgia, smashing things to the sea. Hood may turn into Tennessee and Kentucky, but I believe he will be forced to follow me. Instead of being on the defensive, I would be on the offensive; instead of guessing at what he means to do, he would have to guess at my plans. The difference in war is full 25 per cent. I can make Savannah, Charleston, or the mouth of the Chattahoochee. Answer quick, as I know we will not have the telegraph long.10


Grant to Sherman.

October 11, 1864, 11:30 P. M.
Your despatch of to-day received. If you are satisfied the trip to the sea-coast can be made, holding the line of the Tennessee firmly, you may make it, destroying all the railroad south of Dalton or Chattanooga, as you think best.

Sherman to Thomas. October 20, 1864.
. . . I want all things bent to the following general plan of action for the next three months. Out of the forces now here and at Atlanta I propose to organize an efficient army of from 60,000 to 65,000 men, with which I propose to destroy Macon, Augusta, and, it may be, Savannah and Charleston, but I will always keep open the alternatives of the mouth of Appalachicola and Mobile. By this I propose to demonstrate the vulnerability of the South, and make its inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms. To pursue Hood is folly, for he can twist and turn like a fox and wear out any army in pursuit. To continue to occupy long lines of railroads simply exposes our small detachments to be picked up in detail, and forces me to make countermarches to protect lines of communication. I know I am right in this, and shall proceed to its maturity. As to details, I propose to take General Howard and his army, General Schofield and his, and two of your corps, viz., Generals Davis and Slocum. . . . I will send General Stanley, with the Fourth Corps, across by Will's Valley and Caperton's to Stevenson to report to you. . . . I want you to retain command in Tennessee, and before starting I will give you delegated authority over Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, etc., whereby there will be unity of action behind me. I will want you to hold Chattanooga and Decatur in force, and on the occasion of my departure, of which you shall have ample notice, to watch Hood close. I think he will follow me, at least with his cavalry, in which event I want you to push south from Decatur and the head of the Tennessee for Columbus, Miss., and Selma, not absolutely to reach these points, but to divert or pursue according to the state of facts. If, however, Hood turns on [318] you, you must act defensively on the line of the Tennessee. . . . I do not fear that the Southern army will again make a lodgment on the Mississippi. . . . The only hope of a Southern success is in the remote regions difficult of access. We have now a good entering wedge, and should drive it home. . . .

Sherman to Grant.

Gaylesville, Ala., October 22, 1864.
I feel perfectly master of the situation here. I still hold Atlanta and the road, with all bridges and vital points well guarded, and I have in hand an army before which Hood has retreated precipitately down the valley of the Coosa. It is hard to divine his future plans; but by abandoning Georgia, and taking position with his rear to Selma, he threatens the road from Chattanooga to Atlanta, and may move to Tennessee by Decatur. He cannot cross the Tennessee except at Muscle Shoals, for all other points are patrolled by our gunboats. I am now perfecting arrangements to put into Tennessee a force able to hold the line of the Tennessee whilst I break up the railroad in front of Dalton, including the city of Atlanta, and push into Georgia, and break up all its railroads and depots, capture its horses and negroes, make desolation everywhere, destroy the factories at Macon, Milledgeville, and Augusta, and bring up with 60,000 men on the sea-shore about Savannah or Charleston. 1 think this far better than defending a long line of railroad. I will leave General George H. Thomas to command all my division behind me, and take with me only the best fighting material.

But a few days later Sherman had made a radical change in his previous plan. He telegraphed Grant, from Rome, Georgia, November 1, as follows:

As you foresaw, and as Jeff. Davis threatened, the enemy is now in the full tide of execution of his grand plan to destroy my communications and defeat this army. His infantry, about 30,--000, with Wheeler's and Roddey's cavalry, from 7000 to 10,000, are now in the neighborhood of Tuscumbia and Florence, and, the water being low, is able to cross at will. Forrest seems to be [319] scattered from Eastport to Jackson, Paris, and the lower Tennessee; and General Thomas reports the capture by him of a gunboat and five transports. General Thomas has near Athens and Pulaski Stanley's corps, about 15,000 strong, and Schofield's corps, 10,000, en route by rail, and has at least 20,000 to 25,000 men, with new regiments and conscripts arriving all the time; also Rosecrans promises the two divisions of Smith and Mower belonging to me, but I doubt if they can reach Tennessee in less than ten days. If I were to let go Atlanta and north Georgia and make for Hood, he would, as he did here, retreat to the southwest, leaving his militia, now assembling at Macon and Griffin, to occupy our conquests, and the work of last summer would be lost. I have retained about 50,000 good troops, and have sent back full 25,000; and having instructed General Thomas to hold defensively Nashville, Chattanooga, and Decatur, all strongly fortified and provisioned for a long siege, I will destroy all the railroads of Georgia and do as much substantial damage as is possible, reaching the sea-coast near one of the points hitherto indicated, trusting that General Thomas, with his present troops and the influx of new troops promised, will be able in a very few days to assume the offensive. Hood's cavalry may do a good deal of damage, and I have sent Wilson back with all dismounted cavalry, retaining only about 4500. This is the best I can do, and shall, therefore, when I can get to Atlanta the necessary stores, move as soon as possible.

To that despatch General Grant replied, November 2:

Your despatch of 9 A. M. yesterday is just received. I despatched you the same date, advising that Hood's army, now that it had worked so far north, be looked upon more as the objective. With the force, however, you have left with Thomas, he must be able to take care of Hood and destroy him. I do not really see that you can withdraw from where you are to follow Hood without giving up all we have gained in territory. I say, then, go as you propose.

Thus Grant gave his assent to Sherman's proposition that Nashville, Chattanooga, and Decatur be held defensively, even during a long siege if necessary, instead of the line of the Tennessee, as at first insisted on by General [320] Grant. Yet Grant's assent was given in view of Sherman's trust that Thomas would be able in a very few days to assume the offensive.

Sherman's despatch to Thomas of the same date (November 1) instructed him as to the policy then determined on, in lieu of that which had contemplated holding the line of the Tennessee firmly, as follows:

Despatch of last night received. The fact that Forrest is down about Johnsonville, while Hood, with his infantry, is still about Florence and Tuscumbia, gives you time for concentration. The supplies about Chattanooga are immense, and I will soon be independent of them; therefore I would not risk supplies coming in transitu from Nashville to Chattanooga. In like manner, we have large supplies in Nashville, and if they be well guarded, and Hood can't get our supplies, he can't stay in Tennessee long. General Schofield will go to you as rapidly as cars can take him. I have no doubt, after the emergency is past, and the enemy has done us considerable damage, reinforcements will pour to you more than can be provided for or taken care of. In the meantime do your best. I will leave here to-morrow for Kingston, and keep things moving toward the south; therefore hold fast all new troops coming to you, excepting such as are now at Chattanooga, to whom I will give orders.

Yet in his letter to Grant, five days later, Sherman reverts to the original plan: ‘On the supposition, always, that Thomas can hold the line of the Tennessee.’

November 7, Sherman telegraphed Grant: ‘. . . On that day [November 10] or the following, if affairs should remain as now in Tennessee, I propose to begin the movement which I have hitherto fully described . . .’ To which despatch General Grant replied: ‘. . . I see no present reason for changing your plan. . . .’

General Grant does not refer to the later despatches in his general report, July 22, 1865, quoted in his ‘Memoirs,’ but uses the following language: [321]

With the troops thus left at his disposal, there was little doubt that General Thomas could hold the line of the Tennessee, or, in the event Hood should force it, would be able to concentrate and beat him in battle. It was therefore readily consented to that Sherman should start for the sea-coast.

General Sherman also omits to make any reference in his ‘Memoirs’ to the despatches respecting a possible long siege of Nashville, Chattanooga, and Decatur; but he says in a despatch of November 2 to Grant, quoted in his ‘Memoirs’:

If I turn back, the whole effect of my campaign will be lost. By my movements I have thrown Beauregard [Hood] well to the west, and Thomas will have ample time and sufficient troops to hold him until the reinforcements from Missouri reach him. We have now ample supplies at Chattanooga and Atlanta, and can stand a month's interruption to our communications. I do not believe the Confederate army can reach our railroad lines except by cavalry raids, and Wilson will have cavalry enough to checkmate them. I am clearly of opinion that the best results will follow my contemplated movement through Georgia.

The following language is found in a despatch dated November 11, midnight, from Sherman to Thomas, which is especially important as giving the last expression of his views of the situation, and of what Thomas would be able to do after Sherman started for the sea:

I can hardly believe that Beauregard would attempt to work against Nashville from Corinth as a base at this stage of the war, but all information seems to point that way. If he does, you will whip him out of his boots; but I rather think you will find commotion in his camp in a day or two. Last night we burned Rome, and in two or more days will burn Atlanta; and he must discover that I am not retreating, but, on the contrary, fighting for the very heart of Georgia. . . . These [some Confederate movements about Rome and Atlanta] also seem to indicate that Beauregard expects me to retreat. . . . To-morrow I begin the movement laid down in my Special Field Orders, No. 115, and shall keep things moving thereafter. . . . By using detachments [322] of recruits and dismounted cavalry in your fortifications, you will have Generals Schofield and Stanley and General A. J. Smith, strengthened by eight or ten new regiments and all of Wilson's cavalry. You could safely invite Beauregard across the Tennessee River and prevent his ever returning. I still believe, however, that public clamor will force him to turn and follow me, in which event you should cross at Decatur and move directly toward Selma as far as you can transport supplies. . . . You may act . . . on the certainty that I sally from Atlanta on the 16th instant with about 60,000 well provisioned, but expecting to live chiefly on the country.

The reason for this sudden and radical change of program is made perfectly clear by Sherman's despatch of November 1 and others: ‘The enemy is now in the full tide of execution of his grand plan to destroy my communications and defeat this army.’ Sherman's defiant spirit, thus aroused, brooked no delay. He would not wait for anything but his own necessary preparations. Nashville, Chattanooga, and Decatur could stand a long siege, and these alone he regarded as of strategical importance. The enemy would doubtless do ‘considerable damage,’ but afterward ‘reinforcements will pour to you’ (Thomas). He convinced himself that Thomas had troops enough; but, ‘to make things sure,’ he might ‘call on the governors of Indiana and Kentucky for some militia’! In the meantime, he (Sherman) would ‘destroy all the railroads in Georgia and do as much substantial damage as is possible.’ Thus recklessly challenged by the Confederate chief, Sherman must not only accept that challenge, but do it at once. Perhaps if Jefferson Davis had known William T. Sherman as well as some of us did, he would not have uttered that challenge.

From Grant's ‘Memoirs’ 11 it appears that General Grant not only confirms Sherman's claim in respect to his [323] independent authorship of the plan, but says he (General Grant) was in favor of that plan from the time it was first submitted to him, and credits his chief of staff, General Rawlins, with having been ‘very bitterly opposed to it,’ and with having appealed to the authorities at Washington to stop it.

This recollection of General Grant, after the lapse of so long a time, and when he was suffering almost beyond endurance from a fatal disease, may possibly, it seems to me, not express the views he entertained in October, 1864, quite so fully or accurately as his despatch of October 11, 1864, 11 A. M., to General Sherman, heretofore quoted.

That despatch was a literal prediction of what Hood actually did. It was dictated by clear military foresight, whether of Grant or Rawlins. How far world-wide approval of Sherman's plans after their brilliant success may have obscured the past can only be conjectured. As distinctly stated by Grant himself soon afterward, he clearly saw that somebody ought to be criticized; but, in view of the results, he decided to let it pass.

However all this may be, even my respect for the opinions of the greatest of Union soldiers cannot alter the conclusion I have reached after many years of study and mature consideration. I can only say that the opinion ascribed to General Rawlins, as opposed to General Grant's, was in my judgment the better of the two; and that General Rawlins, though he had not the advantage of an early military education, was a man of great natural ability, and had learned much from more than three years experience in war, after which the differences in military judgment which had existed at the beginning must have very largely, if not entirely, disappeared. General Rawlins was my immediate successor in the War Department, and would, I doubt not, have made a great reputation there if his life had been prolonged. [324]

I believe Grant's own sound military judgment dictated his first answer to Sherman, dissenting from the proposition to begin the march to the sea before Hood's army was disposed of, or that result assured. His great confidence in the genius of his brilliant subordinate, and in Sherman's judgment that he had given Thomas ample means to take care of Hood, no matter what that bold and reckless adversary might do, dictated Grant's final assent to Sherman's project. Their correspondence shows this so clearly and fully that there would seem to be no need of my making any special reference to it. I do so only because of the statement in General Grant's ‘Memoirs.’ Very possibly General Grant may have meant, in his ‘Memoirs,’ only that he approved the general project, under the condition that sufficient force would be left ‘to take care of Hood and destroy him,’ not caring to say anything about the fulfilment or nonfulfilment of that condition.

From about October 1 till the time Sherman started on his march—six weeks—he seems to have been so intent on the execution of that project, and upon doing it with as large an army as possible, that no question of military principle or of fact could be permitted to stand in his way. He assumed and maintained throughout that the only question was whether he should continue the aggressive, or allow the enemy's movements to put him on the defensive, refusing to consider any other possible plan of aggressive operations, except for a moment in response to advice from Grant, and then brushing it aside as impracticable.—‘If I could hope to overhaul Hood,’ etc. In like manner, he appears to have convinced himself that his arrangements for direct operations against Hood by Thomas in Tennessee were very materially more complete than they were in fact, and he so represented the matter to General Grant. It seems quite certain that Grant was laboring under a serious misapprehension in [325] respect to Thomas's condition to cope with Hood, and no doubt Grant's subsequent impatience in respect to Thomas's action was largely due to this fact. This point deserves close consideration.

Grant's first assent to Sherman's plan was made, October 11, on the condition of ‘holding the line of the Tennessee firmly.’ On October 22 Sherman telegraphed: ‘I am now perfecting arrangements to put into Tennessee a force able to hold the line of the Tennessee.’

Even as late as November 1, Grant again suggested to Sherman that Hood ought to be his ‘objective,’ now that he ‘has gone so far north.’ At an earlier hour the same day, in the despatch above quoted, Sherman telegraphed, ‘trusting that General Thomas. . . will be able in a very few days to assume the offensive.’ To this Grant replied November 2: ‘With the force, however, you have left with Thomas, he must be able to take care of Hood and destroy him.’ In that despatch of November 1 Sherman had made a statement of the troops Thomas would have, including A. J. Smith's from Missouri, adding, ‘but I doubt if they can reach Tennessee in less than ten days.’ Now Smith's troops did not reach Tennessee in less than thirty days instead of ten days, and after the crisis of the campaign was passed; and the effective force in Tennessee before Smith's arrival was 13,000 men less than Sherman had stated it. So that the whole brunt of the fight with Hood fell upon the two corps which Sherman had sent back, without any help from the reinforcements upon which Sherman counted so largely. It was, in fact, six weeks instead of a ‘very few days’ before Thomas was able ‘to assume the offensive.’ It was not even attempted to ‘hold the line of the Tennessee’ either ‘firmly’ or at all.

Having been absent from the army in the field during Hood's raid in Sherman's rear, I knew little personally about those estimates of the strength of the opposing [326] forces. For the same reason, I knew nothing of Sherman's plans or correspondence with Grant which were considered or took place after the fall of Atlanta, though I had been perfectly familiar with the plans discussed previous to that time having in view a change of base to some point on the Atlantic or on the gulf, with a view to further operations in Georgia or the Gulf States, wherever there might be a hostile army to operate against. Yet when I met Sherman at Gaylesburg I was surprised to learn that he was going off to the sea with five sixths of his army, leaving Thomas, with only one of his six corps, and no other veteran troops then ready for field service, to take care of Hood until he could get A. J. Smith from Missouri, incorporate new regiments into the army and make them fit to meet the veteran enemy, remount his cavalry, and concentrate his garrisons and railroad guards in Tennessee! Of course I knew far less than Sherman did about all that, for I had no responsibility and little knowledge about Thomas's department. But I knew enough to feel astonished when Sherman told me what he proposed to do. I plainly told Sherman so, and urged him to send me back with my corps to join Stanley and help Thomas.12

Here arise several interesting questions which would be worthy of consideration, although a satisfactory solution of them might not be possible. Under Sherman's assurance as to what he had done for Thomas in Tennessee, Grant appears to have been fully satisfied that Thomas would be able to take care of Hood and destroy him, thus eliminating that Confederate army from the future problem in the Atlantic States. But could Sherman, with his more exact knowledge of what he actually had done, have felt the same confidence? In view of that knowledge and of the results of his own previous operations against Hood, could he have expected any [327] such result? Is it not more probable that Sherman simply expected to take advantage of Hood's temporary absence from Georgia to make his own change of base to Savannah? Did Sherman not, in fact, really expect Hood to follow him, even though at so great a distance, and be prepared to resist his future operations from Savannah? Sherman repeatedly said, in his despatches before he started, that he believed Hood would follow him, being compelled to do so by public clamor. What was Sherman's plan when he started for Savannah? Was it simply to effect a change of base, or was it for well-defined ulterior purposes? When did Sherman mature his plan to march to Virginia, and when did that plan first dawn upon Sherman's mind? In this connection, what significance is to be attached to the dates of events in Tennessee, especially the battles of Franklin and Nashville?

By the first mails which reached Sherman after he arrived on the coast, December 14 and 15, containing letters from Grant dated December 3 and 6, full information was received of the battle of Franklin, which had occurred November 30. Thomas's official report of the battle of Nashville was received by Sherman on December 24, but rumors of that victory had reached him earlier. Sherman's first letter to Grant, relative to future operations, written in reply to those from Grant of December 3 and 6, was dated December 16. In that letter was mentioned Sherman's plan in the following words: ‘Indeed, with my present command I had expected, upon reducing Savannah, instantly to march to Columbia, South Carolina, thence to Raleigh, and thence to report to you.’ Sherman's second letter to Grant, on the same subject, written in reply to Grant's letter of the 18th, was dated December 24, the day on which he received Thomas's report of the battle of Nashville. In this letter Sherman said: ‘I am also gratified that you have modified [328] your former orders. . . . I feel no doubt whatever as to our future plans. I have thought them over so long and well that they appear as clear as daylight.’

When Sherman first mentioned his future plan he knew that the success of his past plan in Tennessee had been assured. Thomas had succeeded in concentrating his forces at Nashville, and Hood had suffered a serious defeat in attempting to prevent it. At the time of Sherman's second letter, mentioning his very mature consideration of his future plans and perfect confidence in respect to them, he knew that Hood's army had been broken up, and had become a small factor in the future problem. How long, and to what extent, had Sherman anticipated these results in Tennessee, and matured his plans of future operations, which were dependent upon those results? I shall consider these several questions, which involve so intimately the character of my old commander.

1 War Records, Vol. XXXIX, part III, p. 202.

2 War Records, Vol. XXXIX, part II, pp. 364, 411.

3 War Records, Vol. XXXIX, part III, p.594.

4 bid., p. 576.

5 Ibid., p. 594.

6 Vol. II, p. 154.

7 Mr. Jefferson Davis's speech. See General Sherman's ‘Memoirs,’ Vol. II, p. 141.

8 See the Century War Book, ‘Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,’ Vol. IV, p. 257.

9 War Records, Vol. XXXIX, part III, p. 658.

10 War Records, Vol. XXXIX, part III, p. 202.

11 Vol. II, pp. 374-6.

12 See my letter to General Sherman, December 28, 1864, p. 254.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Tennessee (Tennessee, United States) (30)
Georgia (Georgia, United States) (26)
Atlanta (Georgia, United States) (25)
Savannah (Georgia, United States) (19)
Edgefield (Tennessee, United States) (17)
Kentucky (Kentucky, United States) (7)
Decatur (Tennessee, United States) (5)
Tennessee River (United States) (4)
Mobile, Ala. (Alabama, United States) (4)
Macon (Georgia, United States) (4)
Selma (Alabama, United States) (3)
Missouri (Missouri, United States) (3)
Decatur, Ga. (Georgia, United States) (3)
Alabama (Alabama, United States) (3)
United States (United States) (2)
Tuscumbia (Alabama, United States) (2)
Spring Hill (Tennessee, United States) (2)
Ohio (Ohio, United States) (2)
Florence, Ala. (Alabama, United States) (2)
Dalton, Ga. (Georgia, United States) (2)
Columbia, Tenn. (Tennessee, United States) (2)
Augusta (Georgia, United States) (2)
Will's Valley (Alabama, United States) (1)
South Carolina (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Rome, Ga. (Georgia, United States) (1)
Raleigh (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Purdy (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Pulaski, Tenn. (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Paris, Tenn. (Tennessee, United States) (1)
North Carolina (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Muscle Shoals (Alabama, United States) (1)
Milledgeville (Georgia, United States) (1)
Kingston, Ga. (Georgia, United States) (1)
Johnsonville, Tenn. (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Indiana (Indiana, United States) (1)
Gaylesville (Alabama, United States) (1)
Eastport (Mississippi, United States) (1)
Coosa River (Alabama, United States) (1)
Columbus (Mississippi, United States) (1)
Columbia (South Carolina, United States) (1)
City Point (Virginia, United States) (1)
Cedartown (Georgia, United States) (1)
Cartersville (Georgia, United States) (1)
Caperton (West Virginia, United States) (1)
Appalachicola (Florida, United States) (1)
America (Alabama, United States) (1)
Ackworth, Ga. (Georgia, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: