In the summer of 1864, during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), Union General William T. Sherman faced off against Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and John B. Hood in a series of battles in northern Georgia. Sherman’s goal was to destroy the Army of the Tennessee, capture Atlanta and cut off vital Confederate supply lines. While Sherman failed to destroy his enemy, he was able to force the surrender of Atlanta in September 1864, boosting Northern morale and greatly improving President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election bid. With Atlanta under Union control, Sherman embarked on his March to the Sea, which laid waste to the countryside and hastened the Confederacy’s defeat.
William T. Sherman and Atlanta Campaign: Background
William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-91) was an Ohio native who attended West Point and served in the U.S. Army before becoming a banker and then president of a military school in Louisiana. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sherman joined the Union Army and eventually commanded large numbers of troops, under General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85), at the battles of Shiloh (1862), Vicksburg (1863) and Chattanooga (1863). In the spring of 1864, Sherman became supreme commander of the armies in the West and was ordered by Grant to take the city of Atlanta, then a key military supply center and railroad hub for the Confederates.
1864 Atlanta Campaign
Sherman’s Atlanta campaign began in early May 1864, and in the first few months his troops engaged in several fierce battles with Confederate soldiers on the outskirts of the city, including the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, which the Union forces lost. However, on September 1, Confederate forces under John Hood (1831-79) pulled out of Atlanta and the city, a symbol of Confederate pride and strength, was surrendered the next day. Sherman’s men continued to defend it through mid-November.
Before he set off on his famous March to the Sea on November 15, Sherman ordered that Atlanta’s military resources, including munitions factories, clothing mills and railway yards, be burned. The fire got out of control and left Atlanta in ruins.
March to the Sea
After leaving Atlanta, Sherman and some 60,000 of his soldiers headed toward Savannah, Georgia. The purpose of this March to the Sea was to frighten Georgia’s civilian population into abandoning the Confederate cause. Sherman’s troops did not destroy any of the towns in their path, but they stole food and livestock and burned the houses and barns of people who tried to fight back.
Sherman’s troops arrived in Savannah on December 21, 1864. The city was undefended when they got there. (The 10,000 Confederates who were supposed to be guarding it had already fled.) Sherman presented the city of Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) as a Christmas gift.
Early in 1865, Sherman and his men left Savannah and pillaged and burned their way through the Carolinas. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when the Confederate commander in chief, Robert E. Lee (1807-70), surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Atlanta: After the Civil War
After the war, Sherman succeeded Grant as commander in chief of the U.S. Army, serving from 1869 to 1883. Sherman, who is credited with the phrase “war is hell,” died in 1891 at age 71, in New York City. The city of Atlanta swiftly recovered from the war and became the capital of Georgia in 1868, first on a temporary basis and then permanently by popular vote in 1877.