150 Years Ago Today: The Burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea

1864 was a Presidential election year. The Democrats held their convention and nominated George McClellan, former Union Army commander, to run on a platform that “the war was unwinnable” and the Union should sue for peace with the Confederacy. Lincoln was not expected to win that election.

But things changed when Sherman’s forces, moving south from Chattanooga, Tennessee captured Atlanta on 2 September 1864. Ordered to hold Atlanta until after the election, Sherman made preparations for his March to the Sea. This included sending some troops to Tennessee, and destroying the rail-yards and railroads in and around Atlanta.

On 14 November 1864, the fires were set.

[Sherman’s army] began its march for the sea on the morning of the 14th, when the entire city of Atlanta—excepting its courthouse, churches, and dwellings—was committed to the flames.

The buildings in the heart of the city, covering 200 acres of ground, formed a great conflagration; and, while the fire was raging, the bands played, and the soldiers chanted the stirring air and words, ” John Brown’s soul goes marching on!”

From November 14th until a few days before Christmas of 1864, Sherman’s force – totaling 60,000 infantry with associated artillery, and 5500 cavalry – cut a swath of destruction across Georgia. Sherman, had made his intentions clear. “I intend to make Georgia howl.” And he did. He removed from the Confederacy the support of the people. They were no longer willing to join the fight.

All confidence in President Davis and the Confederate government had disappeared in Georgia, and a great portion of the people were satisfied that it was, as they expressed it, “the rich man’s war, and the poor man’s fight,” and would no longer lend themselves to the authorities at Richmond. The National army moved steadily forward. At Griswoldsville there was a sharp engagement (Nov. 22, 1864) with a portion of Hardee’s troops sent up from Savannah, and several brigades of militia. The Confederates were repulsed with a loss of 2,500 men. Howard could have taken Macon after this blow upon its defenders, but such was not a part of Sherman’s plan.

The journals and letters of Mary Prescott, contain a first-hand report of the results of that campaign. If you haven’t seen Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” I can highly recommend it, and specifically that episode that deals with Sherman’s march across Georgia.

Sherman’s forces destroyed everything in their path. Houses, and barns. They built fires and twisted steel rails so they could never be used for railroads again. They slaughtered livestock, and burned provisions. They left a path of destruction and famine in their wake, but they accomplished their mission. They made it impossible for the South to continue to wage war.

And the political platform of the Democrats notwithstanding, Lee surrendered his Army of Virginia to U.S. Grant in April of 1865.

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6 thoughts on “150 Years Ago Today: The Burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea

  1. Americans don’t know how to wage war. Not most of us. We hated history class – probably because of bad teachers and bad textbooks and today because of bad testing requirements.

    The Civil War wasn’t won by winning the hearts of minds of the South. It was won by pounding them into the dirt.

    World War II wasn’t won by winning the hearts and minds of Germany or Japan. It was won through the bombing of Berlin and Dresden. Do I need to mention Hiroshima?

    After we won those wars we tried to put the pieces back together. Not so well in the South at first, but not too bad in Germany and Japan. Though WE put the pieces back. Japan has (or at least had) a constitution written in American English. They didn’t really get to vote on it.

  2. But,otoh, there were many people of Georgia who never saw a blue uniform or heard the sound of enemy gun fire. Being self sufficient farmers, they did quite nicely for the duration.

      • Nope..just the fact that some people,living in the right location during the war, never saw the war. Where do nyou get “subsistence farming”? Interesting…

  3. > From November 14th until a few days before Christmas of 1864, Sherman’s
    > force … cut a swath of destruction across Georgia.

    On behalf of a government that claimed that Georgia was a US state, and its inhabitants to be US citizens.

    The United States government’s war on its own citizenry isn’t a new thing.

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