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  • James Houser

November 15, 1864 - Sherman's Atlanta Campaign

Updated: May 21, 2021

November 15, 1864. With the smoldering ruins of Atlanta behind them, the 60,000 men of General William T. Sherman’s Union army set out on a legendary “March to the Sea.” This 300-mile journey will wreck the economy of Georgia, laying waste to a band of territory 60 miles wide across the middle of the state. Sherman’s campaign marks the final collapse of Confederate military fortunes. The Civil War is all but over.


In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to Commanding General of the United States Army and awarded the full rank of Lieutenant General – the only one to hold that position since George Washington. President Lincoln had found his general, and placed full trust in Grant to prosecute an end to the Civil War and the final defeat of the Confederacy. Grant, though, had spent the entire Civil War in the Western Theater, conducting operations in Tennessee and Mississippi centered around securing control of the Mississippi River. In 1863, he had been appointed to command all forces in the West, but with his departure to take command against Robert E. Lee someone had to fill this position. For Grant, there was no question: the job would go to his most reliable subordinate and personal friend William T. Sherman.


Sherman is one of my “most interesting” people. I can’t read enough about Sherman. Given his later reputation, the strange thing about Sherman is that he loved the South both before and after the Civil War. He had many pro-Confederate family friends, had done a great deal of military service in the future Confederacy, and was never what you might call a “progressive” politically. Nothing indicates this preference more than his pre-war career. Up until 1861, Sherman had been the first superintendent of a newly founded military college in Louisiana, the precursor of LSU. He had been extremely popular in Louisiana high society and built warm relationships in the antebellum South that somehow managed to last until after the war.


But this affection changed with the American Civil War. Sherman had tried to warn his friends and colleagues against secession, telling them that “You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing!... You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”


Of course, his friends didn’t listen, and Sherman retired north to take up the sword. In 1861, he took a commission as a General in the United States Army, and from that point on he was a man with no mercy for the Southern cause. Throughout 1862 and 1863, he served as General Grant’s right-hand man, fighting at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Sherman gained a reputation as a loyal soldier, a fierce fighter, and especially as an excellent administrator and organizer. He also revealed his eternal hatred of the Northern press, a “Fake News” guy if there ever was one.


Grant’s campaign at Vicksburg, in particular, proved to be a major influence on Sherman’s military thinking. Grant’s plan to capture the Mississippi River fortress called for his army to temporarily cut loose from its supply lines and communications and live off the land in order to make a rapid and decisive advance. Sherman advised Grant against this move, claiming it was reckless and nearly impossible, but Grant pulled it off, outmaneuvering his Confederate enemies and pinning them inside Vicksburg. Sherman approached Grant with surprising contrition, saying that “You were right and I was wrong,” and remarking that it was one of the greatest campaigns in military history. What Sherman had learned from Grant was that an army could subsist off hostile country for a long period of time – the lesson he would take to heart in his March to the Sea.


With Grant gone to take the field against Robert E. Lee in Virginia, in early 1864 Sherman took command of all Union forces in the West. He began to assemble a massive Union army of 100,000 men to strike south from Chattanooga, Tennessee, over the Appalachian Mountains. His goal would be to seize the great industrial center and railroad junction of Atlanta, Georgia, 120 miles to the south over mountainous and hilly terrain. His opponent would the Confederate Army of Tennessee, the longtime enemy of Union forces in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, led by General Joseph Johnston and numbering around 70,000 men. Sherman and Grant had agreed, however, that Sherman’s REAL goal would not be Atlanta itself – it would be the destruction of Johnston’s army by any means possible.


Sherman faced a daunting task as he got ready to move towards Atlanta. First, of course, there was the terrain between Chattanooga and Atlanta, dotted with ridges, hills, mountains and rivers – all viable defensive positions for the cautious, foxlike Johnston. Second was the issue of supply. As Sherman advanced south he would have to repair the railroad tracks behind him in order to bring up food and ammunition for his 100,000 man army, and those tracks extended all the way back to Union territory. His supply line would be vulnerable to Confederate raiding parties, especially the scourge of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in western Tennessee. By striking Sherman’s rail communications, Forrest could do more damage with a few thousand men than Johnston could with his 70,000. Sherman railed against Forrest throughout the campaign, demanding that he be “hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the Federal treasury.”


Sherman began his movement south on May 7, 1864, but unlike Grant fighting Lee in Virginia he didn’t go looking for a battle. Johnston had dug himself in along a mountain slope known as Rocky Face Ridge, and any direct attack would be Charge of the Light Brigade-style suicide. Instead, Sherman diverted his troops through a mountain pass far to Johnston’s left, outflanking the Confederate general out of his position without a battle. After a series of skirmishes, Johnston was forced to give up Rocky Face Ridge and take a new position to the south.


This first round in the Atlanta Campaign defined the next few months. Johnston would assume a strong defensive stance along rivers or mountain passes or high ridges. Sherman would probe Johnston’s position, looking for weak points, before finding a way to slip some troops to the left or the right and forcing the Confederates back yet again. Though some appreciable battles did take place at Dallas on May 25-27 and Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, Sherman made slow but steady progress south towards Atlanta, repairing the railroad track as he went. In contrast to Grant and Lee’s absolute bloodbaths in Virginia at the same time, Sherman and Johnston’s sparring was mostly maneuver, with Sherman always finding a quick route around whatever new line the Confederate general had set up.


By mid-July, Sherman had pushed Johnston all the way back to within a few miles of Atlanta itself. The two generals had yet to fight one of the big battles the Civil War was so famous for, and this engendered mixed reactions. The Union soldiers were delighted that Sherman was so sparing with their lives, saying that he made war with their feet and not their blood. The Union public was less pleased, fearing that Sherman was unwilling to take the war to the Confederates, and Lincoln was concerned that Sherman would not take Atlanta before the election.


The Confederates also disagreed about the course of the campaign; though some perceived that Johnston had preserved the Army of Tennessee from being destroyed in battle, Jefferson Davis was furious that Johnston had given up a hundred miles of Georgia without a fight. There were fears in the South that Johnston would give up Atlanta itself without risking a battle. Much as Fabius had done in the Punic Wars against Carthage, Johnston had avoided defeat but had not gained victory, and his tactics frustrated the South as much as Fabius’ had frustrated the Romans.


On July 17, 1864, President Davis replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood, a general who promised to fight. Hood was widely known as a fire-breather and had been waging a scheming campaign behind Johnston’s back for command of the army. Hood was a classic example of the Peter Principle: a man promoted one or two levels above his ability. He had been a capable combat commander at a tactical level under Robert E. Lee throughout 1862 and 1863 and was well-known for leading from the front. This tendency cost his body dearly when his left arm was disabled at Gettysburg and his right leg blown off at Chickamauga. His mangling may have cost him a few hairs of sense – or a whole head. Hood had absorbed all of Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness, but none of his good sense. For an idea of Hood’s tactics, just pull up Pickett's Charge on Youtube and put it on repeat.


As Sherman closed in on Atlanta from the north and east, Hood lashed out in several large attacks, trying to stop the Union by shattering part of their army. In every case, Sherman and his generals were up to the challenge, putting up fierce resistance to the Confederate sledgehammer strokes. The campaign around Atlanta assumed a new character, with Hood launching his army into constant slashes at Sherman’s maneuvering blue-coated columns, and Sherman welcoming the fight whenever it came. The most famous clash was the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, where Hood tried to overwhelm the Union Army of the Tennessee. Though one of Sherman’s favorite generals, General James B. McPherson, was killed in the fighting, the veterans of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg drove the Rebels back with crippling losses.


By September 1864, Hood's army was spent. Sherman had kept a constant stream of reinforcements coming in from the rail line leading back north, while Hood had no more men coming his way. Sherman had methodically circled Atlanta first to the east, then the west, and finally all the way south, snapping every rail line that supplied the Confederate force. On September 1, 1864, he seized the town of Jonesboro to the south of Atlanta and threw back a series of desperate Confederate attacks. Jonesboro, a critical station on the Montgomery and Atlanta Railroad, was Hood’s last link to the outside world. With no option left, Hood abandoned Atlanta that night, and on September 2 Sherman’s troops entered the city.


The Atlanta Campaign itself was technically over: Sherman’s capture of the critical city was a huge boost to Union morale and helped secure Lincoln’s reelection that November. Both sides had lost heavily. Sherman’s men had suffered 31,000 casualties in the campaign, while the Confederates had suffered almost 35,000 – 75% of them under Hood. The South, though, could not afford to lose these men; Hood left Atlanta with only about 40,000 men under arms, while Sherman still had around 85,000 with his reinforcements. Atlanta was captured, and the South had gotten nothing for their trouble but a massive casualty bill. While Sherman had failed to destroy Hood’s army, Hood himself had done a decent job without the Union general’s help.


Though the loss of Atlanta was a huge blow to Southern morale, Hood was undeterred. He saw Sherman’s vulnerable supply line stretching north to Tennessee and believed this was the Union commander’s Achilles Heel. If he could threaten Sherman’s supplies enough, he could force the Union general to abandon Atlanta – or so he believed. After reorganizing his army, Hood struck north to try and attack the railroad at critical points. Sherman was forced to leave a small unit in Atlanta and move north to try and fend Hood off. A series of battles along the railroad in October kept Sherman’s supply line open, but left Hood intact and lurking in Alabama, just waiting for an opportunity to hit Sherman’s logistics yet again.


Hood’s only real hope of retaking Atlanta was in luring Sherman north to defend the already-conquered territories of North Georgia and Tennessee. Sherman realized what his foe was up to. It was in October 1864 that Sherman had his revelation. He had been playing Hood’s game by responding to the Confederate’s threats to his supply line. Even a small army could remain a constant threat and keep Sherman from doing anything but responding to these harassing moves. To strike a mortal blow against the Confederacy, destroying the Rebel armies wasn’t enough. Sherman had to destroy their means and will to continue the war. If holding Atlanta was going to be a burden…well, what if there WAS no Atlanta left to hold? If Georgia was sustaining the Confederate war effort…that could always be a non-factor too.


Sherman’s thinking on the verge of his March to the Sea was thoroughly modern. Instead of fighting battles with Confederate armies, a prospect that was always chancy and had failed to produce lasting results, he would take the war to the Confederate economy and will to continue the war. Anything that sustained the Confederate war effort would be fair game for destruction or confiscation. Factories, farms, mills, depots, railroads – widespread destruction would end the war more quickly than battles and blood. It was war against the Southern economy, not war against their armies, that Sherman now proposed – the same logic used in World War II to justify strategic bombing. And Sherman’s first target would be Georgia.


When Sherman first proposed his plan to his superiors, they balked at the prospect. He didn’t just want to march into Georgia; he was planning to cut loose his entire line of supply and communications. For more than a month, the Union’s largest army in the West would be incommunicado and would not receive a single bullet or biscuit from their supply network. Instead, they would march the 300 miles from Atlanta to Savannah, wreaking havoc and destruction all the way. This was unheard of in military annals at the time, and indeed if a general proposed this TODAY they would be fired. Imagine telling your superiors that you’re going on your own with a backpack and a gun into the woods for a month, and they’re just not going to hear from you. That’s what Sherman was proposing, but with 60,000 men. Only the force of his personality – and the reluctant backing of Grant – gained Sherman permission to make the march.


As for Hood, Sherman knew that the Confederate general was planning to strike into Tennessee. It was one of the main reasons he planned to make his march: the Confederates couldn’t strike his supply line if he didn’t HAVE a supply line. With this decision, he was undercutting Hood’s whole strategy at a stroke. But Sherman was not immune to the concern that Hood would get up to something, so he left behind General George Thomas with some 30,000 men in Nashville to stand off Hood if necessary. With that done, Sherman decided that Hood and the last major Confederate force in the west were no longer his problem. Hood and Thomas would meet their fate at Nashville in December 1864 – but that’s a story for another day. Say, a December 15 post.


The fact that Sherman no longer considered Hood a problem is indicative of just how bad the Confederacy was doing by November 1864. The South only had two real armies left in the field: Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was being slowly squeezed to death by Ulysses S. Grant at Petersburg, and John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee – or what was left of it. Hood’s aggressive, reckless tactics had effectively neutralized his army to the point that Sherman was able to toss out a few units under a trusted general to deal with him. Hood’s Confederates had been reduced from “mortal threat” to “concerning nuisance.” As for Sherman, his eyes were fixed south.


But first, there was the matter of Atlanta itself. Sherman was not prepared to leave a sizeable force to defend the city, since that would require maintaining the long supply line and would leave it vulnerable to attack by Hood. But Atlanta was a major manufacturing and industrial center for the Confederacy, and Sherman was not prepared to just give it up after he had spent so much time, energy, and blood to take it. So there was only one thing to do.


Back in September 1864, Sherman had forced most of Atlanta’s civilians to evacuate the city. Mayor James M. Calhoun of Atlanta pleaded with Sherman not to undertake such a callous act, but Sherman was unmoved. In one of his most famous statements he informed Calhoun that “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. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to Secure Peace… You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war.”


This was the message that Sherman would carry into Georgia. The civilians of the South who had done so much to start the war could not think themselves immune from its consequences. They had begun the war, and they had brought their destruction on their own heads; the only alternative was surrender. If they would not surrender, that was fine. Sherman would bring the inherent cruelty of war home so that they would have no other option.


So it was that in early November, Sherman ordered the total destruction of anything in Atlanta that could be used for the war effort. He ordered his Chief Engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, to destroy “all depots, car-houses, shops, factories, foundries, etc.” He told Poe to begin the destruction at once but “don’t use fire until the last moment.”


Poe’s engineers got to work on November 12, and began to systematically destroy the economy of Atlanta. Every factory, warehouse, railroad station, store, shop and economic building was burned to the ground. Sherman reported that “the heart of the city was in flames all night, but the fire did not reach…the great mass of dwelling houses.” The infamous Burning of Atlanta depicted in “Gone With the Wind” is somewhat exaggerated, since Sherman spared almost all the residential areas, churches, and hospitals – but Atlanta’s city center was a mound of ashes by November 14. (If any city has a grudge against Sherman, it should be Columbia, South Carolina, which Sherman DID burn to the damn ground.)


On November 15, 1864, Sherman’s work was done. Hood was still out there, but Thomas had troops and ability enough to take care of him. Atlanta was a wreck, with the last destruction taking place that morning. Assembled south of Atlanta were 60,000 Union soldiers, with only one mission in sight: march south to Savannah and destroy everything of military value in their path. This would include barns, railroads, factories, warehouses, stores, even down to livestock and crops. It would be a massive spread of destruction the like of which America had never seen. Because, in Sherman’s words, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”


But just as much to the point was Sherman’s message to Grant before he set out to the sea. “I can make the march. And I can make Georgia HOWL.”


Georgia would howl. And Sherman would reach Savannah on December 22, 1864. That post – and Thomas’s final encounter with John Bell Hood at Nashville on December 15 – will wrap up my Civil War posts for my year of military history. I will see you then.


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