Sherman's March to Total War

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In early May 1864, about 98,000 Union troops under the command of Gen. William T. Sherman opened the Atlanta campaign by seizing control of Tunnel Hill and the critical rail tunnel for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, located a few miles north of Dalton, Ga.

Sherman’s force was divided into three armies: the Army of the Tennessee under Gen. James B. McPherson; the army of the Ohio under Gen. John Schofield; and the main force, the Army of the Cumberland, led by Gen. George H. Thomas, whose heroics the previous year in northern Georgia earned for him the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.”

Sherman’s task, as outlined by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was to move against the Confederate Army in northern Georgia, “break it up, and get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” Sherman achieved this goal by repeatedly outflanking the Confederate army of about 60,000 men, led by Gen. Joseph Johnston in a protracted struggle extending more than 100 miles from the Tennessee border to just south of Atlanta, then a major transportation hub and arsenal for the Confederacy. The great Civil War historian Shelby Foote called this campaign a “red clay minuet,” after the color of the soil in northern Georgia caused by iron oxides.

Atlanta was the great prize in this struggle. Jefferson Davis warned that the fall of Atlanta would “open the way for the Federal Army to the Gulf on the one hand, and to Charleston on the other, and close up those rich granaries from which Lee’s armies are supplied. It would give [the Union] control of our network of railways and thus paralyze our efforts.”

The mountainous and craggy terrain favored the defenders. Allan Nevins in his magisterial The War for the Union wrote that the ground was “so rough and hilly, largely covered by thick woods and brush, and channeled by swift streams, that bodies of troops dared not venture far from the rails ...” This led to “brisk, fierce engagements,” explained Nevins, punctuated by a few major battles. Gen. Sherman called north Georgia “the terrible door of death.”

From May to early September 1864, the opposing armies skirmished, maneuvered, and battled over this ground, and when the fighting stopped, more than 31,000 Union and more than 35,000 Confederates were casualties. “War,” said Sherman, “is cruelty; you cannot refine it.”

Union forces that captured the rail tunnel at Tunnel Hill (which can still be visited today) soon thereafter ran into a several-mile in length obstacle known as Rocky Face Ridge (which can be seen today from Old Route 41) where rebel soldiers were dug-in to halt the Union advance. Sherman described it as “a perfect couteau, knife edge, a sharp ridge.” A newspaper correspondent expressed his conviction that “all the armies ever marshaled could not successfully storm the position” if occupied sufficiently by enemy troops. Foote called it a “steep, knife-edge bastion.” Union General Jacob D. Cox described it as “a continuous wall of quartz rock with precipitous faces.”

Civil War historian Webb Garrison noted in his book Atlanta and the War that “carnage prevailed at Rocky Face Ridge” as skirmishes turned into pitched battles. But Sherman was determined to avoid an all-out attack on entrenched positions. Instead, he had Thomas’ troops demonstrate in front of the ridge while other Union troops moved south in an effort to outflank Johnston’s army. Thus began the long minuet whereby the blue and orange lines on the map ran parallel to each other, occasionally clashing at places named Resaca, Allatoona Pass, Cassville, New Hope Church, Pickett’s Mill, Adairsville, and Dallas.

It was slow, frustrating, and indecisive fighting, but the Federal armies crept toward Atlanta.

In late June, Johnston’s army occupied Kennesaw Mountain, the 700-foot “Gibraltar” of north Georgia. On June 27, Sherman temporarily abandoned his flanking tactics and ordered his armies to attack the Confederates on the steep slope of Kennesaw Mountain (where traces of Confederate entrenchments can still be seen) and adjacent defensive positions with disastrous results. The attack began, Shelby Foote wrote, when 200 Union cannon “roared into action, pounding away at the rebel line on the mountainside and across the flats beyond.” After an hour of shelling, “the attackers emerged into brilliant sunlight, silhouetted against the bright green backdrop of trees, and the rebel headlogs seemed to burst spontaneously into flame ... all up and down ... the line.” The failed attack cost the Union army 3,000 casualties, while the rebels suffered about 1,000.

After that, the minuet continued as Sherman’s armies moved south forcing the rebel army to do likewise. Gen. Johnston, who had skillfully kept the army together and parried each Union thrust, was suddenly replaced in command by Gen. John B. Hood. Hood was a more aggressive and more reckless fighter than Johnston, but his tactics were not well suited to the situation faced by the Confederate army.

The next significant battle was fought on July 20 near Peachtree Creek, on the outskirts of Atlanta (the only remaining traces of that battle are visible at Tanyard Creek Park near the neighborhood of Collier Hills), where Union forces soundly defeated the rebel army. Two days later, Sherman began the bombardment of Atlanta in an effort, writes Webb Garrison, “to destroy as much of the town as possible.” “Let us destroy Atlanta,” Sherman said, “and make it a desolation.” “Keep the big guns going,” he continued, “and damage Atlanta all that is possible.”

The campaign ended after battles at Ezra Church, Utoy Creek, and Jonesboro, when Sherman’s troop cut the railroad that led into Atlanta from the south. On Sept. 2 Sherman entered Atlanta, then sent a telegram advising Washington that “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”

The news could not have come at a better time for President Lincoln. The capture of Atlanta, coupled with the success of the Overland Campaign in Virginia and the Union victories in the Shenandoah Valley, translated into electoral success for the president. There would be no compromise peace. As Lincoln stated in his Second Inaugural Address:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


Francis P. Sempa is the author of "Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War," and "Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War." He has written on historical topics, including the Civil War, for The Washington Times, The Diplomat, Orbis (the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute), the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and other publications.

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