Sherman's March to the Sea: Summary, Facts & Timeline

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  • 0:01 Major General Sherman
  • 0:19 The War in 1864
  • 1:29 The Atlanta Campaign
  • 4:00 The March to the Sea
  • 7:14 The Carolinas Campaign
  • 7:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
During Sherman's 1864 March to the Sea, Major General William T. Sherman moved his army across the state of Georgia, destroying Confederate war resources and significantly damaging the Confederacy's ability to wage war.

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

To this day, the name William Tecumseh Sherman is greeted with an uneasy feeling in southern portions of the United States, especially in the state of Georgia. Why is it that this native Ohioan is so despised in the South?

The War in 1864

By 1864, the American Civil War was entering its fourth year. Hundreds of thousands of men on both sides had already died, and it did not appear as though an end was in sight. Yet in 1864, something was quite different: Union forces would all be on the same page. Ulysses S. Grant was named a Lieutenant General and given command of all Union forces. This meant that Sherman would take over Grant's former command of the Military Division of the Mississippi.

Grant and Sherman had been friends for several years, working closely together in the Western Theater. Each man had experienced failure in the years before the Civil War, and their success at Shiloh and Vicksburg in 1862 and 1863 cemented their partnership, making them an ideal fit for working together in 1864. Early that year, Grant and Sherman met to discuss strategy for the upcoming campaigns. They each agreed that simultaneously moving in at the East and West would severely hurt the Confederacy. Also, they agreed that damaging Confederate war resources on top of attacking the Confederate armies was the best way to bring the war to a quick end. Sherman would exemplify this in the upcoming year.

The Atlanta Campaign

While Sherman's March to the Sea is emblazoned in memory and myth as a key event in the war, before he could march to Savannah, Sherman first had to go through Atlanta. In May 1864, Sherman began his grand campaign for Atlanta. His goals were to operate against the Confederate Army of the Tennessee, led by General Joseph Johnston, and damage the Confederacy's ability to wage war. Atlanta's status as a booming town and a rail hub for the Confederacy made it a crucial target that Johnston's army had to defend.

For several weeks, Sherman and Johnston played an elaborate game of chess in Northern Georgia. Johnston would establish his army on formidable defensive ground, trying to fight a defensive battle. In response, Sherman would outflank Johnston, moving around the Confederate army in an attempt to push closer to Atlanta.

The few times that Sherman did attack Johnston head on, it was with disastrous results. On June 27, Sherman ordered a frontal assault against Johnston's lines along Kennesaw Mountain, just over 20 miles north of Atlanta. After several hours of fierce fighting, Sherman called off the attack, having lost roughly 3,000 men in 3 hours. Sherman learned his lesson at Kennesaw, though; it was better to outflank the enemy and attack his war resources than engage in costly charges against fortified works.

Sherman kept this lesson in mind for the rest of the campaign. He fought defensively, outflanked the Confederates, and focused on cutting their rail ties. On September 2, after defeating Confederates at the Battle of Jonesboro, south of Atlanta, Sherman's men finally began to enter the prized southern city.

A Bold Idea

Once Atlanta was taken, Confederate forces, now under the command of John Bell Hood, began moving north into Tennessee. Rather than pursue them and possibly face more costly attacks, Sherman decided the better option was to break away from his supply lines, forage off the land, and wreak havoc in Georgia. Sherman believed that the only way to end the war was to make the Southern civilians feel the consequences of rebellion; while it did not mean attacking civilians themselves, it did mean destroying the Confederacy's ability to feed its armies and transport men and material. Thus, the idea for the March to the Sea was born. Sherman proposed the idea to Grant who, while initially reluctant, approved his friend's plan of advance. Sherman would take 60,000 men, break away from the railroads that supplied his men, and march 300 miles to Savannah on the Georgia coast.

The March to the Sea

Sherman's famed March to the Sea began in November 15, 1864, when Federal forces began leaving Atlanta. To this day, many believe that Sherman did not bring any supplies with him on his famed march, simply living entirely off the land; however, that was not true. While he was cut off from his rail lines, Sherman did bring supply wagons with his men, though they were not enough to subsist off of for the entire campaign. Sherman authorized his men to forage liberally and live off the countryside to supplement the supplies they had brought with them. Union soldiers formed scavenging parties, taking crops, livestock, and other supplies from Georgia farms. In the eyes of Sherman, this was a consequence of war that the South deserved as punishment for secession.

While the Savannah Campaign was among the most famous of the war, it was quite unique in many ways. Most notably, there was very little combat action during Sherman's march. Confederate cavalry and Georgia militia did try to stop the Union advance, but the encounters between the two sides were largely small-scale skirmishes instead of fully-developed battles.

For the Confederates, there was little that could be done to stop the Union soldiers. Not only were there 60,000 Union troops, but they were divided into two wings of advance, moving roughly parallel to one another. This, in addition to the constant movement, meant that Confederate resistance had a difficult time concentrating on stopping Sherman's men.

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