After capturing Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Union Major General William T. Sherman spent several weeks considering his army’s next move. Already having indicated a desire to march toward “salt water”, and to disrupt the Confederacy’s ability to continue fighting, possibilities included Savannah, Charleston, Andersonville or Mobile. Sherman received Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant’s approval for a campaign to Savannah, from where his army would be in position to support Grant’s army in Virginia.
When Confederate General John B. Hood’s army left to fight in Tennessee, the defense of Georgia fell upon Lieutenant General William J. Hardee. A seasoned veteran, who like Sherman was a West Point graduate, Hardee was nicknamed “Old Reliable” for his steady leadership during the battles of Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign and many others. Hardee assembled a motley force of 10,000 in Savannah, then settled in for a siege. When the city was nearly surrounded by Sherman’s 6-to-1 advantage, Hardee ordered construction of a pontoon bridge across the Savannah River, enabling his troops to escape to South Carolina.
Other significant commanders during the March to the Sea included the respective cavalry leaders. Known as the “War Child” in part for his 5’5″ 120-pound physique, Confederate Major General Joseph Wheeler was barely 28 years old in late 1864. Wheeler’s 3,500 horsemen harassed Sherman’s columns, preventing destruction of an even wider area. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick commanded Sherman’s 5,000 cavalry troopers, protecting the main army’s flanks. Federal cavalry led feints against Macon and Augusta, causing the Confederates to divide their already badly outnumbered forces. Wheeler’s and Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen clashed on several occasions, in running fights through miles of Georgia’s countryside. Cavalry traveled many miles from their principal sources of supply, often causing both commanders to forage off civilians.
The Home Front
On November 15, 1864, Major General William T. Sherman’s 62,000-man army began its March to the Sea. Sherman cut his army’s supply line, after putting Atlanta to the torch. A raging fire consumed most of the city’s businesses, plus many homes and churches. Sherman’s army “lived off the land” for the next 35 days. The result was a swath of devastation throughout central Georgia.
Each morning mounted foraging parties ranged several miles from that day’s planned march route. Often traveling in units of fifty, smaller groups were frequently attacked by Confederate cavalry. Food and livestock were most commonly taken, leaving civilians destitute. Worst impacted were women and children, plus slaves and old men, because most fighting-age men were away in the Confederate military. Near Covington, Dolly Burge entered in her diary, “But like Demons they rush in! My yards are full. To my smoke-house, my dairy, pantry, kitchen, and cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way… My eighteen fat turkeys, my hens, chickens, and fowls, my young pigs, are shot down in my yard and hunted as if they were rebels themselves… this ended the passing of Sherman’s army by my place, leaving me poorer by thirty thousand dollars than I was yesterday morning. And a much stronger Rebel!”
Some foragers, labeled “bummers”, stole for personal gain whatever they could carry. Although such acts violated Sherman’s orders, they were frequently overlooked. Yet not all soldiers behaved as such, and many officers issued instructions to respect private property. Civilians who did nothing to hinder the army’s activities were often left enough provisions to care for themselves. But any who resisted received the harshest treatment.
Many slaves welcomed the advancing Federals as liberators. Thousands followed Sherman’s columns, burdening supplies and clogging roads. The army generally treated slaves callously, urging most to return home, while employing some able-bodied men. But Federal soldiers were given priority for food.
Sherman’s columns often followed railroads, burning crossties and twisting rails into unusable “neckties.” Mills, depots, factories, bridges, cotton, some homes and other civilian properties were also burned. This left the already war-torn Georgia economy in shambles. Thousands of civilian refugees fled the approaching Federal juggernaut. Some residents of Macon and Augusta, expecting to be attacked, moved to the countryside only to find themselves directly in Sherman’s path.
After Savannah’s fall on December 21, 1864, though the city was protected from foraging, the dying Confederacy was deprived of its important resources. Within weeks, welcome relief arrived from Boston and New York, and was distributed to needy citizens. But this did nothing to relieve the tremendous suffering throughout central Georgia, as the war continued into 1865.