Perhaps, the most legendary event in the American Civil War after Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg is Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman‘s March to the Sea. This is the colloquial name given to the more formal one of the Savannah Campaign. The five-week long march through the state of Georgia began on November 16, 1864 in Atlanta and ended on December 21st at Savannah on the Atlantic Ocean
In the course of the march, the Union Army of the Tennessee conducted a campaign of destruction against the military and civilian infrastructure of Georgia. Military historian David J. Eicher wrote that Sherman “defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South’s physical and psychological capacity to wage war.”
After the capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Sherman and the Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant both believed that the Civil War could only end if the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for warfare were decisively broken. Under the doctrine of total war, Sherman proposed a campaign of scorched earth on his advance to the coast.
Sherman’s goals were twofold. First, his troops were instructed to destroy or consume everything that could be of value to the Confederate war effort. That included crops, military supplies, railroads and livestock in their path.
His second strategic goal was to make a massive turning movement to arrive at Robert E. Lee’s rear, south of Petersburg. While Grant’s armies pinned down the Confederates at Petersburg, Sherman could close the back door. The advance to the coast and then up through the Carolinas would cut off the besieged Confederates from their base of supply and hasten the fall of Petersburg and Richmond.
Sherman was the commander of the Military Division of Mississippi, Grant’s former command. At the start of the campaign it consisted of the Departments of the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland, which embraced all of the Union armies stationed between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains.
In September 1864, Sherman divided his force in order to maintain control of the vast area under his command. Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood was threatening Sherman’s supply line from Chattanooga, and Sherman detached two armies under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas to deal with Hood in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign.
Sherman decided to advance to Savannah with a force of 62,000 men, It included 55,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 2,000 artillerymen manning 64 guns. In order to cover a wider area of advance but also to not congest the Georgia roads, Sherman divided his force into two wings.
The right wing was the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, and consisted of two corps. They were the XV Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Charles R. Woods, William B. Hazen, John E. Smith, and John M. Corse. The other unit was the XVII Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Frank Blair, Jr., with the divisions of Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower and Brig. Gens. Mortimer D. Leggett and Giles A. Smith.
The left wing was the Army of Georgia, commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, also with two corps. They were the XIV Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. William P. Carlin, James D. Morgan, and Absalom Baird. The other unit was the XX Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, with the divisions of Brig. Gens. Nathaniel J. Jackson, John W. Geary, and William T. Ward.
Rounding out Sherman’s force was a cavalry division commanded by Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick which operated in support of the two wings. Artillery assets were organic to each division.
Facing this array of military power was Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee‘s Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Hood had taken the majority of military assets to campaign in Tennessee. There were about 13,000 men remaining at Lovejoy’s Station, south of Atlanta. Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith‘s Georgia militia had about 3,050 soldiers, most of whom were boys and elderly men.
The Cavalry Corps of Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, reinforced by a brigade under Brig. Gen. William H. Jackson, had approximately 10,000 troopers. During the campaign, the Confederate War Department brought in additional men from Florida and the Carolinas, but they never were able to increase their effective force beyond 13,000.