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March to the Sea Commanders and The Home Front
After the capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Union Major General William T. Sherman spent several weeks considering his army’s next move. Even when he indicated a desire to march toward “salt water” and disrupt the Confederates’ ability to continue fighting, options included Savannah, Charleston, Andersonville, or Mobile. Sherman received approval from commanding general Ulysses S. Grant to march to Savannah, from where his army could support Grant’s Army in Virginia.
When Confederate General John B. Hood’s army left to fight in Tennessee, the defense of Georgia fell to Lieutenant General William J. Hardee. A seasoned veteran who, like Sherman, had graduated from West Point, Hardee was nicknamed “Old Reliable” for his steadfast leadership during the Battles of Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign, and many others. Hardee assembled a motley force of 10,000 men at Savannah and then settled into a siege. With the city nearly surrounded by Sherman’s 6-to-1 superiority, Hardee ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge across the Savannah River, allowing his troops to escape to South Carolina.
Other notable commanders during the March to the Sea included the respective cavalry leaders. Confederate Major General Joseph Wheeler, known as the “War Baby” in part because of his 5’5″ and 120-pound stature, was barely 28 years old in late 1864. Wheeler’s 3,500 cavalry harassed Sherman’s columns and prevented the destruction of an even wider area. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick commanded Sherman’s 5,000 cavalry to protect the flanks of the main army. The Federal cavalry led feints against Macon and Augusta, causing the Confederates to divide their already greatly outnumbered forces. Wheeler and Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen clashed within a few miles of running. The Georgia countryside The cavalry traveled many miles from their main sources of supply, often causing both commanders to forage among civilians.
On November 15, 1864, Major General William T. Sherman’s 62,000-strong army began its march to the sea. Sherman cut his army’s supply lines after torching Atlanta. The raging fire consumed most of the town’s businesses and many homes and churches. Sherman’s army “lived off the land” for the next 35 days. The result was the devastation of all of central Georgia.
Each morning the foraging parties moved several miles from the planned route of march for the day. Smaller groups, often traveling in units of fifty, were often attacked by Confederate cavalry. Food and livestock were most often taken, leaving civilians without resources. Women and children suffered the worst, plus slaves and old men, since most of the men of fighting age were away in the Confederate army. Near Covington, Dolly Burge wrote in her journal, “But they rush in like demons! My yards are full. They come like hungry wolves into my smokehouse, my dairy, my pantry, kitchen, and cellar, breaking the locks and anything in their way… My eighteen fat turkeys, my hens, chickens and the fowls, my young hogs, are shot in my yard, and hunted as if they were the rebels themselves… this ends the passing of Sherman’s army by my place, leaving me thirty thousand dollars poorer than I was yesterday morning. And a much stronger rebel! “
Some foundries, referred to as “robbers,” stole whatever they could carry for personal gain. Although such actions violated Sherman’s orders, they were often overlooked. However, not all soldiers behaved this way, and many officers issued instructions to respect private property. Civilians who did nothing to impede military activity were often left with enough supplies to fend for themselves. But anyone who resisted received the harshest treatment.
Many slaves welcomed the advancing Federals as liberators. Thousands of people followed Sherman’s columns, encumbering supplies and clogging the roads. The army generally treated slaves callously, urging most to return home, while employing some capable men. But federal soldiers got priority for food.
Sherman’s columns often followed the railroads, burning the sleepers and twisting the tracks into unusable “necks”. Mills, warehouses, factories, bridges, cotton, some houses and other civilian properties were also burned. This left the already war-torn Georgian 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 to be 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 vital resources. Within weeks, welcome aid arrived from Boston and New York and was distributed to needy citizens. However, this did nothing to alleviate the immense suffering throughout central Georgia as the war continued until 1865.
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