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Sherman's March to the Sea: History, Timeline & Significance

Steve Wiener, Alexandra Lutz
  • Author
    Steve Wiener

    Steve Wiener holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has taught undergraduate classes in ancient and modern political theory, philosophy of history, American political thought, American government, the history the American Civil War, the philosophy of consciousness and rural populist movements in the American Midwest. He has over 20 years experience teaching college students in the classroom, as well as high school students and lifelong learners in a variety non-traditional settings.

  • Instructor
    Alexandra Lutz

    Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

What was Sherman's March to the Sea? Learn about General Sherman and his March to the Sea. Also learn about when and where this happened, why it is significant, and who won. Updated: 11/06/2021

What was Sherman's March to the Sea?

After capturing the city of Atlanta in September 1864, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman proposed a controversial strategy to General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman proposed that his army take Savannah, Georgia. Savannah was an important Confederate supply base of ammunition and cotton. Sherman would then turn north to advance on Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia currently engaged with Grant, and General George Meade's Army of the Potomac at Petersburg, Virginia. This strategy was not the controversial part of Sherman's proposal.

Sherman proposed to cut his army loose from the newly occupied Atlanta as a logistical base to supply his operations and supply itself through foraging. Sherman had two reasons for having his army ''live off the land.''

  • He would not need to leave a garrison in Atlanta to protect his supply base and supply line.
  • Though it was not the military purpose of his March to the Sea, Sherman knew that he would bring the horrors of war to the civilian population of Georgia through the destruction and devastation of the land as his army supplied itself with food and forage. Sherman was a proponent of what came to be called ''Total War'' in the twentieth century.

Major General William Sherman led the March through Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah

General Sherman Shermans March to the Sea

However, Sherman's plan was not wholesale destruction. He was brutal in conducting the war, but as soon as his enemy surrendered, he was generous with terms and sustenance. At the beginning of the march, Sherman issued General Order 120 in which he prescribed what he expected from his officers and soldiers.

  • ''The army will forage liberally on the country during the march.''
  • Each brigade commander would appoint a ''discreet'' officer to organize foraging parties. They would search for and commandeer:
    • Corn or forage of any kind for the army's animals
    • Any kind of vegetables or meat they could find
  • The foraging parties, who Union troops soon nicknamed ''bummers,'' would aim at keeping ten days of food in the supply wagons, and three days of forage for the horses.
  • No soldier would be allowed to enter any dwelling.
  • Only the four corps commanders in the army could order the destruction of any mills, cotton-gins, or houses.
  • Cavalry and artillery units were free to ''appropriate'' any horses they required, but only from the rich slave owners, not ''poor'' or ''industrious'' farmers.
  • The foragers must leave families whose property they have taken enough food for their own maintenance.

Under these general orders, Sherman's 62,000-man army left Atlanta on November 15, 1864. The mayor of Savannah surrendered the city on December 21, 1864. The March to the Sea took 37 days.

Sherman Heads for Atlanta

'We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.' - William Tecumseh Sherman

Sherman reached Atlanta successfully by going around Confederate lines.
Sherman Heads to Atlanta Map

In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant planned a two-part offensive to capture Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and win the war. One part of that plan was for Grant to wear down Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army in a war of attrition, reducing his ability to keep fighting in the east. The second part was for General William Tecumseh Sherman to leave Chattanooga, Tennessee, and capture Atlanta. The two arms of the Union army began their campaigns almost simultaneously in early May 1864.

Soon after Sherman's Atlanta campaign began, Confederate General Joseph Johnston entrenched himself in Sherman's path. But Sherman, having learned the lessons of the eastern army, avoided deadly frontal confrontations. Instead, he moved around the Southern lines, forcing Johnston to continually retreat into another prepared line. This advance lasted for three months, incorporating seventeen engagements with two different Southern commanders. But by late July, he was within sight of Atlanta and dug in for a month-long siege, warning the residents of the city to evacuate. They sent him a letter, begging him to change his mind. This is part of his reply:

'Those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out… You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war… Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes in Atlanta.'

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Sherman's March to the Sea Map

During the siege of Atlanta, Confederate General John Bell Hood had abandoned the defense of the city on September 1, 1864, after Atlanta had been completely cut off from any communication with the rest of the Confederacy. Before Sherman could advance on Savannah, he had to deal with Hood. He ordered Major General George Thomas and the U.S. Army of the Cumberland to follow and engage Hood's Army of Tennessee. Only then, did Sherman and his army begin the March to the Sea.

Sherman's 62,000 soldiers were organized in four corps. Each corps marched out of Atlanta by four different routes, all headed southeast. General Sherman had carefully chosen his army's route. Using the 1860 census numbers about livestock and crop production, Sherman determined to march through the most fertile and agriculturally productive area of Georgia.

Shermans Bummers raided farms and plantations to supply his army in the March to the Sea

Sherman

There were no major Confederate military forces to confront Sherman's army. General Joseph Wheeler's division of 3,500 cavalry troopers was the only real military force opposing Sherman. The only other Confederate force was the volunteer Georgia militia which was militarily insignificant in numbers and ability.

As Sherman's army advanced, it destroyed Georgia's infrastructure. Sherman's army:

  • Burned bridges
  • Blew up tunnels
  • Destroyed railroad tracks by pulling them off the ties, building bonfires out of the railroad ties, setting the tracks in the fires until they grew pliable, and wrapped them around telegraph poles into ''Sherman neckties.''

Military engagements were relatively small-scale. Virtually every day saw a small skirmish at some point along the march. The largest conflict was the Battle of Griswoldville on November 22, during which the Georgia militia lost 1,100 men, 600 were captured. The Union lost only 100 killed or wounded.

On November 23, 1864, units of Sherman's army entered Milledgeville, the Georgia state capital, causing the governor and legislature to flee. Over the next several days, skirmishes were fought at Ball's Ferry, Ball's Bluff, and Sandersonville,

Two larger battles between U.S. and Confederate cavalry units took place at the Battle of Buck Head Creek on November 28, 1864, and the Battle of Waynesboro on December 4, 1864.

Who Won Sherman's March to the Sea?

On December 10, 1864, Sherman's army reached the outskirts of Savannah, which was defended by 10,000 Confederate troops in prepared, heavily fortified defensive positions under the command of General William Hardee. Scattered skirmishing took place at several locations around Savannah. On December 17, Sherman sent a letter to General Hardee, which was similar to his correspondence with General Hood during the siege of Atlanta. Sherman's letter to Hardee stated:

  • Sherman had siege guns that could reach every location in Savannah.
  • Sherman's army controlled every means of entrance and exit into Savannah.
  • Sherman demanded the surrender of Savannah and all fortified positions.

Sherman then offered Hardee a choice.

The Election of 1864

Lincoln chose a Southerner to run with him in the election of 1864.
Presidential Candidates 1864

On September 2nd, Sherman did capture Atlanta. It was good news for President Abraham Lincoln, who was in a hotly contested bid for re-election. For more than three decades, no incumbent had won a second term. Plus, the public was tired of war and death, and Lincoln had many opponents. Besides the Democrats, who nominated former Union commander George McClellan, Radical Republicans formed a third party to challenge him, nominating John Frémont. In a move to attract more voters, Lincoln dumped his former vice president and selected Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat from Tennessee - the only Southerner to remain in the United States Senate - to be his running mate. However, when Sherman captured Atlanta, nothing else mattered. Public morale soared, Frémont dropped out of the race, and Lincoln won an electoral landslide in the election of 1864. (Of course, none of the Southern states participated.)

What came next was most aptly described by Sherman himself: 'War is Hell.'

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Video Transcript

Sherman Heads for Atlanta

'We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.' - William Tecumseh Sherman

Sherman reached Atlanta successfully by going around Confederate lines.
Sherman Heads to Atlanta Map

In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant planned a two-part offensive to capture Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and win the war. One part of that plan was for Grant to wear down Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army in a war of attrition, reducing his ability to keep fighting in the east. The second part was for General William Tecumseh Sherman to leave Chattanooga, Tennessee, and capture Atlanta. The two arms of the Union army began their campaigns almost simultaneously in early May 1864.

Soon after Sherman's Atlanta campaign began, Confederate General Joseph Johnston entrenched himself in Sherman's path. But Sherman, having learned the lessons of the eastern army, avoided deadly frontal confrontations. Instead, he moved around the Southern lines, forcing Johnston to continually retreat into another prepared line. This advance lasted for three months, incorporating seventeen engagements with two different Southern commanders. But by late July, he was within sight of Atlanta and dug in for a month-long siege, warning the residents of the city to evacuate. They sent him a letter, begging him to change his mind. This is part of his reply:

'Those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out… You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war… Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes in Atlanta.'

The Election of 1864

Lincoln chose a Southerner to run with him in the election of 1864.
Presidential Candidates 1864

On September 2nd, Sherman did capture Atlanta. It was good news for President Abraham Lincoln, who was in a hotly contested bid for re-election. For more than three decades, no incumbent had won a second term. Plus, the public was tired of war and death, and Lincoln had many opponents. Besides the Democrats, who nominated former Union commander George McClellan, Radical Republicans formed a third party to challenge him, nominating John Frémont. In a move to attract more voters, Lincoln dumped his former vice president and selected Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat from Tennessee - the only Southerner to remain in the United States Senate - to be his running mate. However, when Sherman captured Atlanta, nothing else mattered. Public morale soared, Frémont dropped out of the race, and Lincoln won an electoral landslide in the election of 1864. (Of course, none of the Southern states participated.)

What came next was most aptly described by Sherman himself: 'War is Hell.'

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Frequently Asked Questions

Where did Sherman's March to the Sea begin and end?

Sherman's army began in Atlanta on November 15, 1864 and ended in Savannah, Georgia on December 21, 1864. The March to the Sea lasted 37 days.

What was the purpose of Sherman's March to the Sea?

Sherman's March to the Sea had two purposes. The primary purpose was to demonstrate to the people of the Confederacy that their government could not protect them. Secondly, Savannah was an important cotton warehousing city, as well as an ammunition stockpile. The capture of these supplies constituted a militarily important objective.

What cities did Sherman's march through?

On its way through Georgia, Sherman's army went through several small towns but bypassed many of the larger cities in Georgia. One important city Sherman did occupy was Milledgeville, Georgia's capital during the Civil War.

What was Sherman's March to the Sea tactics?

Sherman's army marched along two main routes through Georgia, with foraging parties extended up to five miles on either side of the line of march to gather food and forage. Sherman's tactics were to commandeer the food and forage of Georgia's population to demonstrate to them that the Confederate government and military could not protect them.

Was Sherman's March to the Sea necessary?

When Sherman first proposed the March to the Sea to General Grant and President Lincoln, they were both opposed. Sherman told Grant and Lincoln that to win the war it was necessary to defeat both a hostile army and a hostile people. From the perspective of the United States, Sherman's march accomplished this objective. From the perspective of the civilians of Georgia who suffered it was unjust and unnecessary. In the light of history, it's ironic that Confederate President Jefferson Davis called upon the citizens of Georgia to burn their fields, poison their water and do whatever they could to deny provisions to Sherman's army. Georgians ignored Davis. It's an interesting question whether Davis' scorched earth policy would have been worse than Sherman's March to the Sea.

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