In September 1864, MG William Tecumseh Sherman defeated Confederate MG John Bell Hood and captured Atlanta. Hood and his army escaped but Atlanta was the industrial capital of the South. It was also a major railroad hub. With its loss, supplies from the Deep South for Lee in Virginia had to take a circuitous route up the Atlantic coast through the unoccupied portions of Georgia.
Robert E Lee wasn’t too worried about Sherman threatening his remaining supply lines though. Lee believed that he could advance no further with Hood’s intact army behind him. Hood threatened Sherman’s exposed railroads that extended all the way back to Kentucky.
So Sherman cut his own supply lines, and marched on Savannah.
Over September and October, Sherman culled his army of any soldier who could not make the grueling 250 mile march from Atlanta to Savannah by Christmas. Those who could not make the march were placed under the capable command of MG George Thomas “The Rock of Chickamauga” who would fall back to Nashville and defend against Hood. Sherman trimmed his army to its “fighting strength” – the original “hardcore”. The only camp followers he permitted were freed slaves they picked up on the route, and then he would feed only those who were of use to the army. For his Savannah campaign, Sherman expected his soldiers to march at least 15 miles a day with 55 lb packs. 20 days of supplies would be carried on their backs, and the rest would be foraged from the Georgia countryside until they could be supplied by the Union Navy blockading Savannah.
The foraging would not only feed his army, but it would also “make Georgia howl”. Sherman had spent most of his prewar military career in the South and he had a great affection for the Southern culture but he knew the only way to defeat them was to destroy their will and ability to carry on the fight. There were no Confederate formations between him and Savannah, and his men would have free rein to destroy the South’s physical and psychological ability to carry on the war. On 13 November 1864, Sherman expelled all citizens from Atlanta and then he put anything of military value to the torch. Factories, government buildings, warehouses, plantations, the only buildings he spared were Catholic churches because he didn’t want his Irish regiments to mutiny. The fires eventually spread to the rest of the city. Sherman didn’t care: elections have consequences. As his army marched out of the burning city, Sherman commented that he had “never heard ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ sung with more spirit and harmony”.
On the march, all foodstuffs were confiscated and any that could not be carried were destroyed. Unneeded livestock were shot. Anything deemed of military value was put to the torch, in particular plantations. Lee’s vital railroads were tore up, and the rails were heated and then bent around trees, in what his soldiers called “Sherman’s Neckties”. Food stores and farm implements, with the reason that they’ll be used to feed the Confederate armies were confiscated or destroyed. Georgia had to figure out how to feed its population over the winter. The troops were rough but disciplined, and shared their commander’s single minded purpose in ending the war. 155 years of research by revisionist Southern historians have failed to find a single instance of rape, massacre, or wanton pillage that wasn’t dealt with immediately and judiciously. Sherman made Georgia “howl”.
Sherman captured Savannah on 21 December and offered it to Lincoln as a Christmas present. His “March to the Sea” cut a 250 mile long and thirty mile wide swath of destruction across Georgia. He caused $100,000,000 worth of damage ($1.5 billion, with a “b”, today). He cut off Lee’s Army of Virginia and forced it to starve over the winter. Sherman eventually turned his march into South Carolina where he continued to punish the South for bringing about the war. The March to the Sea undeniably shortened the most devastating war to America in its history. Lee’s ragged and famished army surrendered to Grant the next April.