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Chapter 29.

  • Sherman's Meridian expedition
  • -- capture of Atlanta -- Hood Supersedes Johnston -- Hood's invasion of Tennessee -- Franklin and Nashville -- Sherman's March to the sea -- capture of Savannah -- Sherman to Lincoln -- Lincoln to Sherman -- Sherman's March through the Carolinas -- the burning of Charleston and Columbia -- arrival at Goldsboro -- Junction with Schofield -- visit to Grant
    While Grant was making his marches, fighting his battles, and carrying on his siege operations in Virginia, Sherman in the West was performing the task assigned to him by his chief, to pursue, destroy, or capture the principal western Confederate army, now commanded by General Johnston. The forces which under Bragg had been defeated in the previous autumn at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, had halted as soon as pursuit ceased, and remained in winter quarters at and about Dalton, only twenty-eight or thirty miles on the railroad southeast of Chattanooga, where their new commander, Johnston, had, in the spring of 1864, about sixty-eight thousand men with which to oppose the Union advance.

    A few preliminary campaigns and expeditions in the West need not here be detailed, as they were not decisive. One, however, led by Sherman himself from Vicksburg to Meridian, must be mentioned, since, during the month of February, it destroyed about one hundred miles of the several railroads centering at the latter place, and rendered the whole railroad system [406] of Mississippi practically useless to the Confederates, thus contributing essentially to the success of his future operations.

    Sherman prepared himself by uniting at Chattanooga the best material of the three Union armies, that of the Cumberland, that of the Tennessee, and that of the Ohio, forming a force of nearly one hundred thousand men with two hundred and fifty-four guns. They were seasoned veterans, whom three years of campaigning had taught how to endure every privation, and avail themselves of every resource. They were provided with every essential supply, but carried with them not a pound of useless baggage or impedimenta that could retard the rapidity of their movements.

    Sherman had received no specific instructions from Grant, except to fight the enemy and damage the war resources of the South; but the situation before him clearly-indicated the city of Atlanta, Georgia, as his first objective, and as his necessary route, the railroad leading thither from Chattanooga. It was obviously a difficult line of approach, for it traversed a belt of the Alleghanies forty miles in width, and in addition to the natural obstacles they presented, the Confederate commander, anticipating his movement, had prepared elaborate defensive works at the several most available points.

    As agreed upon with Grant, Sherman began his march on May 5, 1864, the day following that on which Grant entered upon his Wilderness campaign in Virginia. These pages do not afford space to describe his progress. It is enough to say that with his double numbers he pursued the policy of making strong demonstrations in front, with effective flank movements to threaten the railroad in the Confederate rear, by which means he forced back the enemy successively [407] from point to point, until by the middle of July he was in the vicinity of Atlanta, having during his advance made only one serious front attack, in which he met a costly repulse. His progress was by no means one of mere strategical maneuver. Sherman says that during the month of May, across nearly one hundred miles of as difficult country as was ever fought over by civilized armies, the fighting was continuous, almost daily, among trees and bushes, on ground where one could rarely see one hundred yards ahead.

    However skilful and meritorious may have been the retreat into which Johnston had been forced, it was so unwelcome to the Richmond authorities, and damaging to the Confederate cause, that about the middle of July, Jefferson Davis relieved him, and appointed one of his corps commanders, General J. B. Hood, in his place; whose personal qualities and free criticism of his superior led them to expect a change from a defensive to an aggressive campaign. Responding to this expectation, Hood almost immediately took the offensive, and made vigorous attacks on the Union positions, but met disastrous repulse, and found himself fully occupied in guarding the defenses of Atlanta. For some weeks each army tried ineffectual methods to seize the other's railroad communications. But toward the end of August, Sherman's flank movements gained such a hold of the Macon railroad at Jonesboro, twenty-five miles south of Atlanta, as to endanger Hood's security; and when, in addition, a detachment sent to dislodge Sherman was defeated, Hood had no alternative but to order an evacuation. On September 3, Sherman telegraphed to Washington:

    Atlanta is ours, and fairly won ... Since May 5 we have been in one constant battle or skirmish, and need rest.


    The fall of Atlanta was a heavy blow to the Confederates. They had, during the war, transformed it into a city of mills, foundries, and workshops, from which they drew supplies, ammunition, and equipments, and upon which they depended largely for the manufacture and repair of arms. But perhaps even more important than the military damage to the South resulting from its capture, was its effect upon Northern politics. Until then the presidential campaign in progress throughout the free States was thought by many to involve fluctuating chances under the heavy losses and apparently slow progress of both eastern and western armies. But the capture of Atlanta instantly infused new zeal and confidence among the Union voters, and from that time onward, the reelection of Mr. Lincoln was placed beyond reasonable doubt.

    Sherman personally entered the city on September 8, and took prompt measures to turn it into a purely military post. He occupied only the inner line of its formidable defenses, but so strengthened them as to make the place practically impregnable. He proceeded at once to remove all its non-combatant inhabitants with their effects, arranging a truce with Hood under which he furnished transportation to the south for all those whose sympathies were with the Confederate cause, and sent to the north those who preferred that destination. Hood raised a great outcry against what he called such barbarity and cruelty, but Sherman replied that war is war, and if the rebel families wanted peace they and their relatives must stop fighting.

    “God will judge us in due time, and he will pronounce whether it be more humane to fight with a town full of women, and the families of a brave people at our back, or to remove them in time to places of safety among their own friends and people.” [409]

    Up to his occupation of Atlanta, Sherman's further plans had neither been arranged by Grant nor determined by himself, and for a while remained somewhat undecided. For the time being, he was perfectly secure in the new stronghold he had captured and completed. But his supplies depended upon a line of about one hundred and twenty miles of railroad from Atlanta to Chattanooga, and very near one hundred and fifty miles more from Chattanooga to Nashville. Hood, held at bay at Lovejoy's Station, was not strong enough to venture a direct attack or undertake a siege, but chose the more feasible policy of operating systematically against Sherman's long line of communications. In the course of some weeks both sides grew weary of the mere waste of time and military strength consumed in attacking and defending railroad stations, and interrupting and reestablishing the regularities of provision trains. Toward the end of September, Jefferson Davis visited Hood, and in rearranging some army assignments, united Hood's and an adjoining Confederate department under the command of Beauregard; partly with a view to adding the counsels of the latter to the always energetic and bold, but sometimes rash, military judgment of Hood.

    Between these two Hood's eccentric and futile operations against Sherman's communications were gradually shaded off into a plan for a Confederate invasion of Tennessee. Sherman, on his part, finally matured his judgment that instead of losing a thousand men a month merely defending the railroad, without other advantage, he would divide his army, send back a portion of it under the command of General Thomas to defend the State of Tennessee against the impending invasion; and, abandoning the whole line of railroad from Chattanooga to Atlanta, and cutting entirely loose [410] from his base of supplies, march with the remainder to the sea; living upon the country, and “making the interior of Georgia feel the weight of war.” Grant did not immediately fall in with Sherman's suggestion; and Sherman prudently waited until the Confederate plan of invading Tennessee became further developed. It turned out as he hoped and expected. Having gradually ceased his raids upon the railroad, Hood, by the end of October, moved westward to Tuscumbia on the Tennessee River, where he gathered an army of about thirty-five thousand, to which a cavalry force under Forrest of ten thousand more was soon added.

    Under Beauregard's orders to assume the offensive, he began a rapid march northward, and for a time with a promise of cutting off some advanced Union detachments. We need not follow the fortunes of this campaign further than to state that the Confederate invasion of Tennessee ended in disastrous failure. It was severely checked at the battle of Franklin on November 30; and when, in spite of this reverse, Hood pushed forward and set his army down before Nashville, as if for attack or siege, the Union army, concentrated and reinforced to about fifty-five thousand, was ready. A severe storm of rain and sleet held the confronting armies in forced immobility for a week; but on the morning of December 15, 1864, General Thomas moved forward to an attack in which on that and the following day he inflicted so terrible a defeat upon his adversary, that the Confederate army not only retreated in rout and panic, but soon literally went to pieces in disorganization, and disappeared as a military entity from the western conflict.

    Long before this, Sherman had started on his famous march to the sea. His explanations to Grant were so convincing, that the general-in-chief, on November 2, [411] telegraphed him: “Go on as you propose.” In anticipation of this permission, he had been preparing himself ever since Hood left him a clear path by starting westward on his campaign of invasion. From Atlanta, he sent back his sick and wounded and surplus stores to Chattanooga, withdrew the garrisons, burned the bridges, broke up the railroad, and destroyed the mills, foundries, shops and public buildings in Atlanta. With sixty thousand of his best soldiers, and sixty-five guns, he started on November 15 on his march of three hundred miles to the Atlantic. They carried with them twenty days supplies of provisions, five days supply of forage, and two hundred rounds of ammunition, of which each man carried forty rounds.

    With perfect confidence in their leader, with perfect trust in each others' valor, endurance and good comradeship, in the fine weather of the Southern autumn, and singing the inspiring melody of “John Brown's body,” Sherman's army began its “marching through Georgia” as gaily as if it were starting on a holiday. And, indeed, it may almost be said such was their experience in comparison with the hardships of war which many of these veterans had seen in their varied campaigning. They marched as nearly as might be in four parallel columns abreast, making an average of about fifteen miles a day. Kilpatrick's admirable cavalry kept their front and flanks free from the improvised militia and irregular troopers of the enemy. Carefully organized foraging parties brought in their daily supply of miscellaneous provisions-corn, meat, poultry, and sweet potatoes, of which the season had yielded an abundant harvest along their route.

    The Confederate authorities issued excited proclamations and orders, calling on the people to “fly to arms,” and to “assail the invader in front, flank, and [412] rear, by night and by day.” But no rising occurred that in any way checked the constant progress of the march. The Southern whites were, of course, silent and sullen, but the negroes received the Yankees with demonstrations of welcome and good will, and in spite of Sherman's efforts, followed in such numbers as to embarrass his progress. As he proceeded, he destroyed the railroads by filling up cuts, burning ties, heating the rails red hot and twisting them around trees and into irreparable spirals. Threatening the principal cities to the right and left, he marched skilfully between and past them.

    He reached the outer defenses of Savannah on December 10, easily driving before him about ten thousand of the enemy. On December 13, he stormed Fort McAllister, and communicated with the Union fleet through Ossabaw Sound, reporting to Washington that his march had been most agreeable, that he had not lost a wagon on the trip, that he had utterly destroyed over two hundred miles of rails, and consumed stores and provisions that were essential to Lee's and Hood's armies. With pardonable exultation General Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln on December 22:

    I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition. Also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.

    He had reason to be gratified with the warm acknowledgment which President Lincoln wrote him in the following letter:

    My Dear General Sherman: Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift, the capture of Savannah. When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling [413] that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained,’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours, for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce. And taking the work of General Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is, indeed, a great success. Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages, but in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole-Hood's army — it brings those who sat in darkness to see a great light. But what next? I suppose it will be safe if I leave General Grant and yourself to decide. Please make my grateful acknowledgments to your whole army, officers and men.

    It was again General Sherman who planned and decided the next step of the campaign. Grant sent him orders to fortify a strong post, leave his artillery and cavalry, and bring his infantry by sea to unite with the Army of the Potomac before Petersburg. Greatly to Sherman's satisfaction, this order was soon revoked, and he was informed that Grant wished “the whole matter of your future actions should be left entirely to your own discretion.” In Sherman's mind, the next steps to be taken were “as clear as daylight.” The progress of the war in the West could now be described step by step, and its condition and probable course be estimated with sound judgment. The opening of the Mississippi River in the previous year had cut off from the rebellion the vast resources west of the great river. Sherman's Meridian campaign in February had rendered useless the railroads of the State of Mississippi. The capture of Atlanta and the march to the sea had ruined the railroads of Georgia, cutting off another [414] huge slice of Confederate resources. The battles of Franklin and Nashville had practically annihilated the principal Confederate army in the West. Sherman now proposed to Grant that he would subject the two Carolinas to the same process, by marching his army through the heart of them from Savannah to Raleigh.

    “The game is then up with Lee,” he confidently added, “unless he comes out of Richmond, avoids you, and fights me, in which case I should reckon on your being on his heels. . . If you feel confident that you can whip Lee outside of his intrenchments, I feel equally confident that I can handle him in the open country.”

    Grant promptly adopted the plan, and by formal orders directed Sherman to execute it. Several minor western expeditions were organized to contribute to its success. The Union fleet on the coast was held in readiness to cooperate as far as possible with Sherman's advance, and to afford him a new base of supply, if, at some suitable point he should desire to establish communications with it. When, in the middle of January, 1865, a naval expedition captured Fort Fisher at the mouth of Cape Fear River, an army corps under General Schofield was brought east from Thomas's Army of the Tennessee, and sent by sea to the North Carolina coast to penetrate into the interior and form a junction with Sherman when he should arrive.

    Having had five weeks for rest and preparation, Sherman began the third stage of his campaign on February I, with a total of sixty thousand men, provisions for twenty days, forage for seven, and a full supply of ammunition for a great battle. This new undertaking proved a task of much greater difficulty and severer hardship than his march to the sea. Instead of the genial autumn weather, the army had now to face [415] the wintry storms that blew in from the neighboring coast. Instead of the dry Georgia uplands, his route lay across a low sandy country cut by rivers with branches at right angles to his line of march, and bordered by broad and miry swamps. But this was an extraordinary army, which faced exposure, labor and peril with a determination akin to contempt. Here were swamps and water-courses to be waded waist deep; endless miles of corduroy road to be laid and relaid as course after course sank into the mud under the heavy army wagons; frequent head-water channels of rivers to be bridged; the lines of railroad along their route to be torn up and rendered incapable of repair; food to be gathered by foraging; keeping up, meanwhile, a daily average of ten or twelve miles of marching. Under such conditions, Sherman's army made a mid-winter march of four hundred and twenty-five miles in fifty days, crossing five navigable rivers, occupying three important cities, and rendering the whole railroad system of South Carolina useless to the enemy.

    The ten to fifteen thousand Confederates with which General Hardee had evacuated Savannah and retreated to Charleston could, of course, oppose no serious opposition to Sherman's march. On the contrary, when Sherman reached Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, on February 16, Hardee evacuated. Charleston, which had been defended for four long years against every attack of a most powerful Union fleet, and where the most ingenious siege-works and desperate storming assault had failed to wrest Fort Wagner from the enemy. But though Charleston fell without a battle, and was occupied by the Union troops on the eighteenth, the destructive hand of war was at last heavily laid upon her. The Confederate government pertinaciously adhered to the policy of burning accumulations of [416] cotton to prevent it falling into Union hands; and the supply gathered in Charleston to be sent abroad by blockade runners, having been set on fire by the evacuating Confederate officials, the flames not only spread to the adjoining buildings, but grew into a great conflagration that left the heart of the city a waste of blackened walls to illustrate the folly of the first secession ordinance. Columbia, the capital, underwent the same fate, to even a broader extent. Here the cotton had been piled in a narrow street, and when the torch was applied by similar Confederate orders, the rising wind easily floated the blazing flakes to the near roofs of buildings. On the night following Sherman's entrance, the wind rose to a gale, and neither the efforts of the citizens, nor the ready help of Sherman's soldiers, were able to check the destruction. Confederate writers long nursed the accusation that it was the Union army which burned the city as a deliberate act of vengeance. Contrary proof is furnished by the orders of Sherman, leaving for the sufferers a generous supply of food, as well as by the careful investigation by the mixed commission on American and British claims, under the treaty of Washington.

    Still pursuing his march, Sherman arrived at Cheraw March 3, and opened communication with General Terry, who had advanced from Fort Fisher to Wilmington. Hitherto, his advance had been practically unopposed. But now he learned that General Johnston had once more been placed in command of the Confederate forces, and was collecting an army near Raleigh, North Carolina. Well knowing the ability of this general, Sherman became more prudent in his movements. But Johnston was able to gather a force of only twenty-five or thirty thousand men, of which the troops Hardee brought from Charleston formed the [417] nucleus; and the two minor engagements on March 16 and 19 did little to impede Sherman's advance to Goldsboro, where he arrived on March 23, forming a junction with the Union army sent by sea under Schofield, that had reached the same point the previous day.

    The third giant stride of Sherman's great campaign was thus happily accomplished. His capture of Atlanta, his march to the sea and capture of Savannah, his progress through the Carolinas, and the fall of Charleston, formed an aggregate expedition covering nearly a thousand miles, with military results that rendered rebellion powerless in the central States of the Southern Confederacy. Several Union cavalry raids had accomplished similar destruction of Confederate resources in Alabama and the country bordering on East Tennessee. Military affairs were plainly in a condition which justified Sherman in temporarily devolving his command on General Schofield and hurrying by sea to make a brief visit for urgent consultation with General Grant at his headquarters before Richmond and Petersburg.

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