Major General William T. Sherman, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06583
Major General William T. Sherman began making final preparations for his advance through Georgia after he received approval from Lieutenant General U.S. Grant in early November. Sherman, working from his headquarters in Kingston, issued Special Field Orders No. 120; this plan dictated the composition of his forces during the march, and also specified instructions regarding the destruction of all things considered of military value. Splitting his 62,000 soldiers into two wings, Sherman named Major General Henry Slocum to command the left wing, or the Army of Georgia. Major General Oliver O. Howard would lead the right wing; this force carried the Army of the Tennessee banner during the campaign.
In offering instructions on the gathering of supplies during the campaign, Sherman noted, “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march.” This phrase provided enough latitude for the Federal soldiers to take liberties, especially when operating out of the direct view of their commanding officers.
Preparing to “…make the march, and make Georgia howl,” Sherman’s troops began destroying the rails of the Western and Atlantic Railroad and cutting the telegraph lines running along the tracks. Since he planned to break from his line of supply – the railroad – during the invasion, Sherman no longer needed to protect this vital lifeline for his army. Although the special order issued in Kingston granted only the army corps commanders the permission to order the destruction of certain structures, unchecked troops went beyond torching buildings possessing military value. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen set fire to the square in Marietta, leaving smoke and flames in their wake as they rode into Atlanta.
Major General Joe Wheeler, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-05988
On November 14, troops destroyed Atlanta’s railroad depot, along with several other buildings. As the lead elements began marching out of the city the following day, Sherman observed what they left in their wake. “Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering [sic] and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” General John Bell Hood, having taken the Army of Tennessee into her namesake state, left only the cavalry force of Major General Joe Wheeler to impede Sherman’s advance. Wheeler, with a force of 3,000 horsemen harassed the Federals at every opportunity. The only major infantry battle of the campaign took place on November 22 outside Griswoldville, when Brigadier General Pleasant Philips ordered his 2,400 men – mostly local militia troops – to charge the fortified position of Brigadier General Charles Walcutt’s Federals. Despite fielding superior numbers, the Southern troops met with defeat as they bravely charged the high ground. Many of Walcutt’s men wielded repeating rifles, and this firepower, coupled with artillery support, proved too much for Philips’s force.
Sherman kept Confederate officials guessing as to his intended target. President Jefferson Davis, along with others in Richmond, took action to send various officers to Georgia in an attempt to safeguard her valuable military assets. Macon, home to a Confederate armory, arsenal, and laboratory, seemed a sure target as the right wing approached. Except for a feint from Kilpatrick’s force, which resulted in skirmishing outside the city, the infantry force continued their southeastern trek.
Arriving in the state capital of Milledgeville on November 22, members of Slocum’s left wing conducted a mock session of the Georgia legislature in the capitol building, while others destroyed irreplaceable books and documents housed in the state library. Sherman’s wings continued their advance on Savannah, where Lieutenant General William Hardee had responsibility for safeguarding the city. When the Federals neared the outer defenses of Savannah on December 10, Sherman began making preparations to open a conduit to the U.S. Navy vessels awaiting nearby with food and other matériel. Only one obstacle stood in Sherman’s way – Fort McAllister.
Some 200 men under the command of Major George Anderson garrisoned the earthen fortification. To take the fort, Brigadier General William Hazen, with nine regiments in support, received the charge. Most of Fort McAllister’s artillery faced the seaward approach, and when Hazen’s men began their advance shortly after 4:00 p.m. on December 13, a few cannon, whose gunners fired from an exposed position offered resistance. Land mines buried along the various land approaches to the fort slowed the advancing Federals and produced several casualties. After 15 minutes of hard fighting, Sherman had his prize. Opening a supply line for his soldiers allowed him to focus his attention on the capture of Savannah. Hardee, along with General P.G.T. Beauregard – the officer in charge of the entire theater of operations – continued to seek advice from Richmond on holding Savannah. On December 17, President Davis dispatched Hardee with a final decision. “Close observation will…enable you to know when the enemy shall send from your front any considerable force, that you may then provide for the safety of your communications and make the dispositions needful for the preservation of your army.”
Heeding the instructions from Richmond, during the evening of December 20, Hardee began evacuating Savannah. His men crossed hastily constructed pontoon bridges of makeshift variety, and stepped onto South Carolina soil. Sherman entered the city on December 22 and sent his famous dispatch to President Abraham Lincoln. “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” After marching for almost 300 miles through the interior of Georgia, and creating a 60 mile-wide swath of destruction, Sherman and his troops would quarter in Savannah for one month before beginning their next campaign, which would take them through the Carolinas.
 U.S. Government, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 39 of pt.3 (Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1985), 713. Hereafter referred to as O.R.
 Ibid., 162.
 William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 544.
 O.R., 44, 964.
 Ibid., 783.
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.