After Union Major General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, he briefly pursued General John B. Hood’s Confederate army through northwest Georgia. Sherman then turned his army south toward Georgia’s largest city…Savannah. His now legendary “March to the Sea” ripped the heart out of the Confederacy, demoralized civilians, destroyed railroads, and denied Confederate authorities considerable food and other badly needed supplies.
Sherman’s army totaled 62,000 of his best soldiers, including 5,000 cavalry and 65 pieces of artillery. He estimated to reach Savannah would require six weeks, yet Sherman ordered only enough food for 20 days, to be carried by 2,500 wagons. Sherman’s plan was a dangerous gamble, because his army was cut off from any communication or chance for re-supply. So his troops foraged “liberally,” living mostly off the food they took from civilians. The worst foragers were labeled “bummers,” often stealing or destroying property indiscriminately.
Leaving Atlanta on November 15 and 16, 1864, the army split into two “wings” of between 28,000 and 29,000 each, with cavalry guarding their flanks. Marching along generally parallel routes, the two wings were often separated by between 20 and 40 miles. Separation avoided congestion, thus the army advanced quickly, and was allowed a larger area from which to forage. Separation also resulted in a broader swath of devastation across the center of Georgia, measuring up to 60 miles wide, and 300 miles long. Thousands of slaves followed, which the army discouraged, knowing they could neither feed them nor guarantee their safety.
Sherman’s two wings confused the Confederates. Major General Oliver O. Howard’s “Right Wing” advanced south to threaten Macon. Meanwhile, Major General Henry W. Slocum’s “Left Wing” feigned toward Augusta. Confederates split their paltry forces between the two cities, but Sherman ignored both. He concentrated much of his army around Milledgeville, Georgia’s capital city, then swept on toward Millen and Savannah, besieging the latter on December 10. After ten days the 10,000-man Confederate garrison, under Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, evacuated the vital seaport. Sherman wired President Abraham Lincoln afterwards saying, “I beg to present to you the City of Savannah” as a Christmas present.
Cavalry clashed frequently along the edges of Sherman’s march routes, and two sizable infantry battles occurred. On November 22, 1864, Georgia militia, untrained boys and old men, were slaughtered attacking Federal lines at Griswoldville near Macon. And on December 13, Sherman’s veterans overran Fort McAllister along the Ogeechee River, enabling the U.S. Navy to re-supply his army.
Sherman accomplished all his goals for his March to the Sea in only five weeks, inflicting one billion dollars worth of damages. “I can make Georgia howl,” Sherman had sworn, and he did.