1864 was an election year. The Democrats were running George McClellan, one-time commander of the Union Army, on a platform stating the Civil War was unwinnable, and the North should sue for terms with the South.
Sherman – over the course of summer in 1864 and through autumn – was to prove just how wrong the Democrats were. Sherman’s March – HISTORY.com
Abraham Lincoln was behind in the polls, and was not expected to win reelection in 1864. But then Sherman captured Atlanta in September, and the mood in the North changed. (It changed in the South as well, but that is another story.)
General Sherman’s troops captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864. This was an important triumph, because Atlanta was a railroad hub and the industrial center of the Confederacy: It had munitions factories, foundries and warehouses that kept the Confederate army supplied with food, weapons and other goods
Not wanting to upset the new balance, Lincoln ordered Sherman to stay put until after the election, which Lincoln won. Shortly after the election, Sherman set fire to Atlanta and headed south, with the stated objective to “make Georgia howl.” (It was apparently Sherman’s position that the loss of Atlanta should have made it clear to the Confederacy that they could no longer hope to win the war. They didn’t see it that way, or were not ready to admit it at any rate.)
On November 15th, Sherman’s troops set fire to every government building in Atlanta (the fire would spread), and started toward Savannah.
Sherman’s troops marched south toward Savannah in two wings, about 30 miles apart. On November 22, 3,500 Confederate cavalry started a skirmish with the Union soldiers at Griswoldville, but that ended so badly–650 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded, compared to 62 Yankee casualties–that Southern troops initiated no more battles.
[The Union soldiers ] raided farms and plantations, stealing and slaughtering cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep and hogs and taking as much other food–especially bread and potatoes–as they could carry. (These groups of foraging soldiers were nicknamed “bummers,” and they burned whatever they could not carry.) The marauding Yankees needed the supplies, but they also wanted to teach Georgians a lesson: “it isn’t so sweet to secede,” one soldier wrote in a letter home, “as [they] thought it would be.”
They captured Savannah on the 21st of December, the city having been deserted by the 10,000 Confederate troops that had been stationed there. Sherman presented the city, its 25,000 bales of cotton, and assorted other goods, to President Lincoln, via telegraph, as an early Christmas Present.
As for the Total War that Sherman practiced, he was not the last. As for the hardships caused by the war, he saw what would happen before he set fire to Atlanta.
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling.
– William Tecumseh Sherman, in a Letter to Atlanta, September, 1864.