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Total War: The Atlanta Campaign and Sherman's March to the Sea

By Edited May 1, 2016 1 0
Total War: The Atlanta Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea
Credit: Opensource

When the Civil War of the United States entered its fourth year in 1864, both sides had very different goals. Few in the south thought President Abraham Lincoln would be reelected. The strategy of the Confederacy was to hold out until November, hope for a new President and negotiate a peace treaty.

The northern strategy revolved around scoring decisive victories to force an end to the conflict and to that end, he needed an aggressive commander. He found that when he appointed General Ulysses S. Grant to command the Union armies, who in turn appointed his closest friend Major General  William T. Sherman to command the Union armies in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His orders were to take Atlanta at all cost and bring the south to their knees by waging total war.

Sherman’s strategy was simple: Destroy the southern armies they encountered, destroy the supplies lines and destroy every part of the deep south that was even remotely involved in the war effort in order to end the conflict as soon as possible.   The idea was to not only make the soldiers suffer, but the civilians too. Sherman's march to the sea begin in northwest Georgia and move south toward Atlanta.

The Atlanta Campaign

Total War: The Atlanta Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea
Credit: Opensource

Sherman’s armies fought Confederate soldiers throughout the spring of 1964 capturing town after town in northwest Georgia on their way to Atlanta in one of many civil war battles. After briefly being held up at Kennesaw Mountain, about 30 miles northwest of the city, they resumed their advance and the siege of Atlanta began in May of 1964.

The goal was to capture the important transportation hub and cut off the major supply lines to the Confederate armies in Virginia via the railroads.

Although the southern armies fought Sherman in skirmishes all around the city, none proved decisive. A major impediment to the Union advance on Atlanta was the Chatahoochee river. While searching for a crossing, Sherman’s troops came across a mill in Roswell which employed around 400 women making Confederate uniforms.

In keeping with their total war methodology, the women were arrested for treason against the United States and sent to Indiana by train, along with their dependent children.

By the end of July, Atlanta was nearly encircled by Union forces.  Sherman barraged the city for a month with up to 5000 cannon blasts a day, indiscriminately firing into the heart of the city.

On September 1st, Union forces cut the last supply line via rail into the city at Jonesboro in southeast Atlanta. The city of Atlanta fell the next day as panicked residents and remaining Confederate forces fled or dropped their uniforms.

The fall of Atlanta all but assured President Lincoln would be reelected in November. Without the trains coming to supply the Confederate armies in Virginia, the war was lost, yet fighting continued for another 6 months.

On November 15, after Lincoln’s reelection, Sherman ordered his armies split in two with orders to advance to the sea destroying the southern war machine along the way.

But before he left Atlanta, he ordered it burned.

Sherman’s armies had no supplies along their way to Savannah, Georgia. They were ordered to live off the land, so they confiscated property, livestock and any food they could find from anyone they came across.

Total War: The Atlanta Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea
Credit: Opensource
Ken Burns: The Civil War (Commemorative Edition)
Amazon Price: $99.99 $53.95 Buy Now
(price as of May 1, 2016)

March to the Sea

Along the way, freed slaves would follow close behind Union armies. Sherman, intent on discouraging this, ordered a pontoon bridge removed at Ebeneezer creek on December 9th not far from Savannah. Undeterred, the former slaves attempted to cross the creek resulting in hundreds drowning.

Seeking to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again, Sherman met with some of the emancipated slaves whereby he temporarily granted each family confiscated land in the coastal regions of Georgia and a mule.

However, after the assassination of Lincoln, “40 Acres and a Mule” was not meant to be as President Andrew Johnson would overturn the order the following year.

Total War: The Atlanta Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea
Credit: Opensource


By the time Sherman reached the outskirts of Savannah, the southern commanders in the city knew all hope to save the city was lost. Having heard about the fate of Atlanta, Confederate Lt. General William Hardee ordered the evacuation of Savannah hoping to save the city from incessant shelling and destruction. Confederate forces retreated to South Carolina and Savannah, the state’s first city, was spared.

It was not the first city Sherman had spared along the way. Madison, Georgia, about an hour due east from Atlanta was also spared the torch after a former Congressmen from the area appealed to Sherman personally. To this day, Madison and Savannah have some of the oldest antebellum architecture in Georgia.

On April 9th, 1865, Confederate General Lee surrendered to General Grant in Appomattox, Virginia.


Total war was controversial in its day and remains so in hindsight. The idea to completely defeat your enemy both physically and mentally has its military merits, however, from a human perspective, it seems hard to justify. It is still hard to believe that we did this to each other.

By the time of the march, all hope in the south was virtually lost. No one on either side cared who started the civil war or what caused it, they just wanted it over.

However, if the goal is to end a conflict, I suppose a little shock and awe is required.  One could argue that brutality in war saves lives in the end by making life so uncomfortable for the survivors that they never want to do it again. Sherman’s march to the sea certainly ended the Civil War sooner than it would have had the southern supply lines not been cut.

But what is remarkable about this overall conflict is that more 623,026 Americans died in the Civil War and it was all Americans doing it to other Americans.

If you are interested in learning more about this brutal conflict, I highly recommend the Civil War documentary by Ken Burns.

Memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman (Penguin Classics)
Amazon Price: $22.00 $11.24 Buy Now
(price as of May 1, 2016)


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