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March to the Sea Commanders and National Front

the commanders

After capturing Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Union Major General William T. Sherman spent several weeks considering his army’s next move. Having already indicated a desire to march into the “salt water” and to disrupt the Confederacy’s ability to continue fighting, the possibilities included Savannah, Charleston, Andersonville, or Mobile. Sherman received the approval of Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant for a campaign to Savannah, from where his army would be in a position to support Grant’s army in Virginia.

When Confederate General John B. Hood’s army set out to fight in Tennessee, the defense of Georgia fell to Lieutenant General William J. Hardee. A seasoned veteran who, like Sherman, was a West Point graduate, Hardee was nicknamed “Old Reliable” for his steadfast leadership during the battles of Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign, and many others. Hardee assembled a ragtag force of 10,000 at Savannah and then prepared for a siege. When the city was nearly surrounded by Sherman’s 6-1 lead, Hardee ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge across the Savannah River, allowing his troops to escape to South Carolina.

Other important commanders during the March to the Sea included the respective cavalry leaders. Known as the “War Boy” in part for his 5’5″, 120-pound physique, Confederate Major General Joseph Wheeler was just 28 years old at the end of 1864. Wheeler’s 3,500 cavalry harassed Sherman’s columns, preventing the destruction of an even wider area.Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick commanded Sherman’s 5,000 cavalrymen, protecting the flanks of the main army.Federal cavalry led feints against Macon and Augusta, prompting the Confederates to They divided their forces, which were already vastly outnumbered.Wheeler’s and Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen clashed on several occasions, fighting for miles across the Georgia countryside.The cavalry traveled many miles from their main sources of supply, which often caused both commanders to prey on 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 off the army’s supply line from him, after burning down Atlanta. A raging fire consumed most of the businesses in the city, as well as many houses and churches. Sherman’s army “lived off the land” for the next 35 days. The result was a swath of devastation across central Georgia.

Every morning, the mounted gathering parties would stray several miles from the day’s planned march route. Often traveling in units of fifty, the smaller groups were frequently attacked by Confederate cavalry. Food and livestock were most commonly taken, leaving civilians destitute. Hardest hit were women and children, as well as slaves and the elderly, because most men of fighting age were in the Confederate army. Near Covington, Dolly Burge noted in her journal: “But what the hell do they run in! My yards are full. To my smokehouse, my dairy, pantry, kitchen, and cellar, like hungry wolves they come, breaking locks and everything that gets in their way… My eighteen fat bucks, my hens, chickens and fowl, my young pigs, are slaughtered in my yard and hunted as if they were rebels… this ended with the march of Sherman’s army through my house, leaving me thirty thousand dollars poorer than I was yesterday for in the morning, and a much stronger Rebel!

Some collectors, labeled “vagrants,” would steal whatever they could carry for personal gain. Although such acts violated Sherman’s orders, they were frequently overlooked. However, not all soldiers behaved as such, and many officers gave instructions to respect private property. Civilians who did nothing to hinder the activities of the army were often left with enough provisions to care for themselves. But anyone who resisted received the harshest treatment.

Many slaves welcomed the advancing Federals as liberators. Thousands followed Sherman’s columns, carrying supplies and blocking roads. The army generally treated slaves cruelly, urging most to return home, while employing a few capable men. But federal soldiers were given priority for food.

Sherman’s columns often followed the railways, burning sleepers and twisting the rails into unusable “ties”. Mills, warehouses, factories, bridges, cotton, some houses, and other civilian property were also burned. This left Georgia’s economy, already devastated by war, in shambles. Thousands of civilian refugees fled from the approaching federal giant. Some Macon and Augusta residents, expecting to be attacked, moved into the countryside only to find themselves directly in Sherman’s path.

After the fall of Savannah on December 21, 1864, although the city was protected from foraging, the dying Confederacy was deprived of its significant resources. Within weeks, welcome aid arrived from Boston and New York and was distributed to citizens in need. But this did nothing to alleviate the tremendous suffering throughout central Georgia, as the war continued until 1865.

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