American Civil War: 1864

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American Civil War: 1864
SoldiersAtPetersburg.jpg
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Date Begun April 12, 1861
Date Ended April 9, 1865
Casualties Total: 1,032,200
Killed: 203,000
Died from other: 417,000
Wounded: 412,200
United States (Union)
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President Abraham Lincoln
Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin
Secretary of State William Seward
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
Confederate States (Confederacy)
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President Jefferson Davis
Vice-President Alexander Stephans
Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin
Secretary of War James A. Seddon
Secretary of the Navy Stephan R. Mallory
Military Leaders
Union Confederate


From Bull Run to Chattanooga, the Union armies had fought their battles without benefit of either a grand strategy or a supreme field commander. Even after the great victories of 1863, the situation in 1864 reflected this lack of unity of command. During the final year of the war the people of the North grew restless; and as the election of 1864 approached, many of them advocated a policy of making peace with the Confederacy. Committed to the policy of destroying the armed power of the Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln sought a general who could pull together all the threads of an emerging strategy and then concentrate the Union armies and their supporting naval power against the secessionists.

For the social, political, economic and diplomatic history see American Civil War homefront


Contents

Unity of Command

Acting largely as his own General in Chief, although Major General Henry W. Halleck had been given that title after George B. McClellan’s removal in early 1862, Lincoln had watched the Confederates fight from one victory to another inside their cockpit of northern Virginia. In the Western Theater, Union armies, often operating independently of one another, had scored great victories at key terrain points. But their hold on the communications base at Nashville was always in jeopardy as long as the elusive armies of the Confederacy could escape to fight another day at another key point. The twin, uncoordinated victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, 900 miles apart, only pointed out the North’s need for an overall strategic plan and a general who could carry it out.

Having cleared the Mississippi River, Major General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to Halleck and the President in the late summer of 1863 about the opportunities now open to his army. Grant first called for the consolidation of the autonomous western departments and the coordination of their individual armies. After this great step, he proposed to isolate the area west of the line Chattanooga-Atlanta-Montgomery-Mobile. Within this region, Grant urged a "massive rear attack" that would take Union armies in the Gulf Department under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and Grant’s Army of the Tennessee to Mobile and up the Alabama River to Montgomery. The U.S. Navy would play a major role in this attack. Simultaneously, Major General William S. Rosecrans was to advance overland through Chattanooga to Atlanta. All military resources within this isolated area would be destroyed.

Lincoln vetoed Grant’s plan in part by deferring the Mobile-Montgomery phase. The President favored a demonstration by Banks up the Red River to Shreveport to show the American flag to the French occupying Mexico. Napoleon III had sent French soldiers to that country to install Maximilian, archduke of Austria, as emperor, taking advantage of the American preoccupation with the Civil War. This was a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine, but Lincoln could do little more than protest and demonstrate at the time. Banks’ Department of the Gulf was left out of the consolidation of the other western commands under Grant in October 1863.

Grant’s plan was further stymied after the Union defeat at Chickamauga and the subsequent need to break the siege at Chattanooga. After his own victory at Chattanooga in November, however, Grant wasted few hours in writing the President what he thought the next strategic moves should be. As a possible winter attack, Grant revived the touchy Mobile campaign while the Chattanooga victors were gathering strength for a spring offensive to Atlanta. Grant reasoned that Lee would vacate Virginia and shift strength toward Atlanta. For the Mobile-Montgomery plan, Grant asked for Banks’ resources in the Gulf Department. Lincoln again balked because the Texas seacoast would be abandoned. Grant’s rebuttal explained that Napoleon III would really be impressed with a large Army-Navy operation against Mobile Bay. The Red River campaign, Grant believed, would not provide as dramatic a demonstration. The President told Grant again that he had to heed the demands of Union diplomacy, but at the same time he encouraged Grant to enlarge his strategic proposals to include estimates for a grand Federal offensive for the coming spring of 1864.

Grant’s plan of January 1864 projected a four-pronged continental attack. In concert, the four armies were to move on Atlanta, on Mobile (after Banks took Shreveport), on General Robert E. Lee’s communications by a campaign across the middle of North Carolina on the axis New Bern–Neuse River–Goldsboro–Raleigh–Greensboro, and on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the hope of defeating it in an open battle. Lincoln opposed the North Carolina phase, fearing that Grant’s diversion of 60,000 effective bayonets from formations covering Washington was too dangerous. Lincoln knew that Lee’s eyes were always fixed on the vast amount of supplies in the depots around the Washington area.

Though Lincoln scuttled some of Grant’s professional schemes, he never lost his esteem for Grant’s enthusiasm and intelligence. For the first three years of the Civil War, Lincoln had a selection of generals who had failed to give the Confederacy the decisive blow it needed: McDowell, Pope, McClellan twice, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade. But in Grant, Lincoln found the fighting general he had been looking for. In February 1864 Congress revived Winfield Scott’s old rank of lieutenant general, and Grant was promoted on March 9, making him senior to all Union officers. Lincoln relieved Halleck as General in Chief and ordered Grant to Washington to assume Halleck’s post; Halleck remained as Lincoln’s military adviser under a new title: Chief of Staff, but his position was decidedly inferior to Grant’s. During March the President, the new General in Chief, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ironed out command arrangements that had plagued every President since the War of 1812. Lincoln and Stanton relinquished powerful command, staff, and communications tools to Grant. Stanton, greatly impressed with Grant’s public acclaim, cautioned his General Staff Bureau chiefs to heed Grant’s needs and timetables.

General in Chief Grant reported directly to the President and the Secretary of War, keeping them informed about the broad aspects of his strategic plans and telling them in advance of his armies’ needs. However, Grant removed himself from the politics of Washington and established his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac. Though he planned to go quickly to trouble spots, Grant elected to accompany the Army of the Potomac under Major General George G. Meade to assess Lee’s moves and their effects on the other columns of the Union Army. By rail or steamboat, Grant was never far from Lincoln, and in turn the President visited Grant frequently. To tie his far-flung commands together, Grant employed a vast telegraph system.

In a continental theater of war larger than Napoleon’s at its zenith, Grant’s job, administratively, eventually embraced four military divisions, totaling seventeen subcommands wherein 500,000 combat soldiers would be employed. At Washington, Halleck operated a war room, as he was better able to handle the intrigues of Washington, as Grant once said. Halleck eased his heavy administrative burden of studying the several Army commanders’ detailed field directives by preparing brief digests, thus saving Grant many hours of reading detailed reports. Halleck also kept Grant informed about supply levels at base depots and advance dumps in Nashville, St. Louis, City Point, Washington, Philadelphia, Louisville, and New York City. Under Stanton, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, the most informed logistician and supply manager of his day, dispatched men and munitions to Grant’s subcommands according to a strategic timetable. As the spring offensive progressed, Stanton, Halleck, and Meigs gave Grant a rear-area team that grasped the delicate balance between theater objectives and the logistical support required to achieve them.

Grant spent the month of April on the Rapidan front developing his final strategic plan for ending the war. In essence, he recapped all his views on the advantages to be gained from his victories in the Western Theater. He added some thoughts about moving several Federal armies, aided by naval power when necessary, toward a common center in a vast, concentrated effort. He planned to stop the Confederates from using their interior lines. He intended to maneuver Lee away from the Rapidan Wilderness and defeat the Army of Northern Virginia in open terrain by a decisive battle. Another Union force collected from the Atlantic seaport towns of the Deep South was to cut the James–Appomattox River line to sever Lee’s rail and road links with the other parts of the Confederacy. Simultaneously, Major General William T. Sherman’s group of armies would execute a wide wheeling movement through the South to complete the envelopment of the whole country east of the Mississippi. Banks was still scheduled to make the attack through Mobile. Sherman’s and Banks’ assaults were meant to fix the rebels on the periphery while Grant struck at the center, or, as Lincoln described the plan, "Those not skinning can hold a leg."

By mid-April 1864 Grant had issued specific orders to each commander of the four Federal armies that were to execute the grand strategy. In round numbers the Union armies were sending 300,000 combat troops against 150,000 Confederates defending the invasion paths. Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Major General Ambrose Burnside’s independent IX Corps, a combined force of 120,000 men, constituted the major attack column under Grant’s overall direction. The enemy had 63,000 troops facing Grant along the Rapidan. Two subsidiary thrusts were to support Meade’s efforts. Commanding a force of 33,000 men, Major General Benjamin F. Butler with his Army of the James was to skirt the south bank of the James, menace Richmond, take it if possible, and destroy the railroads below Petersburg. Acting as a right guard in the Shenandoah Valley, Major General Franz Sigel’s 23,000 Federals were to advance on Lee’s rail hub at Lynchburg, Virginia. With the northern Virginia triangle under attack, in the continental center of the line, Sherman’s 100,000 men were to march on Atlanta, annihilate General Joseph E. Johnston’s 65,000 soldiers, and devastate the resources of central Georgia. On the continental right of the line, Banks was to disengage as soon as possible along the Red River and with Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s blockading squadron in the Gulf of Mexico make a limited amphibious landing against Mobile. The day for advance would be announced early in May.

In rising from regimental command to General in Chief, Grant had learned much from experience; if he sometimes made mistakes, he rarely repeated them. Not a profound student of the literature of warfare, he had become by the eve of his grand campaign one of those rare leaders who combine the talents of the strategist, tactician, and logistician and who marry those talents to the principle of the offensive. His operations, especially those around Vicksburg, were models of the execution of the principles of war. He was calm in crisis; reversals and disappointments did not unhinge his cool judgment. He had what some have called "three o’clock in the morning" courage, keeping his composure even in those moments in the middle of the night when fears could often overpower lesser commanders. Grant also had mastered the dry-as-dust details of the logistical system and used common sense in deciding when to use the horse-drawn wagon, the railroad, or the steamboat in his strategic moves. Above all, Grant understood and applied the principle of modern war that the destruction of the enemy’s economic resources—his ability to sustain his forces—is as necessary as the annihilation of his armies.

Eastern Theater

Lee Cornered at Richmond

Grant's Overland Campaign against Lee

On the morning of May 4, 1864, Meade and Sherman moved out to execute Grant’s grand strategy. The combat strength of the Army of the Potomac, slimmed down from seven unwieldy corps, consisted of three infantry corps of 25,000 rifles each and a cavalry corps. Commanding the 12,000-man cavalry corps was Major General Philip H. Sheridan, an energetic leader whom Grant brought east on Halleck’s recommendation. Meade had dispersed his cavalry, using troopers as messengers, pickets, and train guards; but young Sheridan, after considerable argument, eventually succeeded in concentrating all of his sabers as a separate combat arm. Grant reorganized Burnside’s IX Corps of 20,000 infantrymen, held it as a strategic reserve for a time, and then assigned the IX Corps to Meade’s army. Lee’s army, now 70,000 strong, was also organized into a cavalry and three infantry corps.

Grant and Lee were at the height of their careers, and this was their first contest of wills. Having the initiative, Grant crossed the Rapidan and decided to go by Lee’s right, rather than his left. First, Grant wanted to rid himself of his reliance on the insecure Alexandria and Orange Railroads for supplies. Second, he wanted to end the Army of the Potomac’s dependence on a train of 4,000 wagons (the Army’s mobility was hobbled by having to care for 60,000 animals). Finally, Grant wanted to use the advantages of Virginia’s tidewater rivers and base his depots on the Chesapeake Bay. He was willing to accept the risk inherent in moving obliquely across Lee’s front in northern Virginia. He also hoped to find a weakness to his front that would allow him to slip around Lee’s flank and get between him and Richmond.

The Wilderness

With little room for maneuver, Grant was forced to advance through the Wilderness, where Hooker had come to grief the year before. As the army column halted near Chancellorsville to allow the wagon trains to pass the Rapidan, on May 5 Lee struck at Meade’s right flank. Grant and Meade swung their corps into line and hit back. The fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness, consisting of assault, defense, and counterattack, was close and desperate in tangled woods and thickets. Artillery could not be brought to bear. The dry woods caught fire, and some of the wounded died miserably in the flame and smoke. On May 6 Lee attacked again. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s I Corps, arriving late in battle but as always in perfect march order, drove the Federals back. Longstreet himself received a severe neck wound, inflicted in error by his own men, which took him out of action until October 1864. Lee, at a decisive moment in the battle, his fighting blood aroused to a white heat, moved forward personally and looked as if he wanted to lead an assault in person; but men of the Texas brigade with whom Lee was riding persuaded the Southern leader to go to the rear and direct the battle as their army commander. On May 7 neither side renewed the fight. The indecisive battle cost the Union nearly 17,000 casualties and the South some 10,000.

Now came the critical test of Grant’s execution of strategy. He had been worsted, though not really beaten, by Lee, a greater antagonist than General Braxton Bragg, General Albert Sidney Johnston, or Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. After an encounter with Lee, each of the former Army of the Potomac commanders, McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker, had retired north of the Rappahannock River and postponed any further clashes with that great tactician. But Grant was of a different breed. He calmly ordered his lead corps to move south toward Spotsylvania as rapidly as possible to get around Lee’s flank and interpose the Army of the Potomac between Lee and Richmond, hoping to achieve by mobility what he had not been able to do with battle.

Yellow Tavern

Lee detected Grant’s march and, using roads generally parallel to Grant’s, also raced toward the key road junction at Spotsylvania. Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry harassed and slowed Grant; Lee arrived first and quickly built strong earth-and-log trenches over commanding ground that covered the roads leading to Richmond. In this crossroads race, Sheridan’s cavalry would have been useful; but Meade had dissipated the cavalry corps’ strength by deploying two divisions of horse to guard his already well-protected trains. Sheridan and Meade argued once again over the use of cavalry, and the General in Chief backed Sheridan, allowing him to concentrate his cavalry arm. Grant gave Sheridan a free hand to stop Stuart’s raids. Leading his corps south on May 9 in a long ride toward Richmond, its objective a decisive charge against Stuart, Sheridan did the job. He fought a running series of engagements that culminated in a victory at Yellow Tavern, just six miles north of Richmond, on May 11; the gallant Stuart was mortally wounded. The South was already short of horses and mules, and Sheridan’s raid ended forever the offensive power of Lee’s mounted arm. Lee, in addition, had lost another irreplaceable commander.

Spotsylvania Court House

For four days beginning May 9 Meade struck in force at Lee’s positions around Spotsylvania Court House but was beaten back each time. Twice the Federals broke through the trenches and divided Lee’s army, but in each case the attackers became disorganized. Supporting infantry did not or could not close in, and Confederate counterattacks were delivered with such ferocity that the breakthroughs could be neither exploited nor held. On the morning of the eleventh, Grant wrote Halleck:"I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." He seemed as good as his word when the next day Grant launched an attack with twenty-four brigades under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, II Corps commander, against a narrow segment of the Confederate trench line. The attack, in an area known as the Bloody Angle or the Mule Shoe, broke the position wide open; and Union troops captured an entire Confederate division and two Confederate generals. Lee, however, recovered his equilibrium and reestablished his defensive line. On May 20, having decided the entrenchments were too strong to capture, Grant side-slipped south again, still trying to envelop Lee’s right flank. His persistence led one Confederate to say of Grant, "we have met a man this time, who either does not know when he is whipped or who cares not if he loses his whole Army."

With smaller numbers, Lee skillfully avoided Grant’s trap and refused to leave entrenched positions to be destroyed in open battle. Lee retired to the North Anna River and dug in. Grant did not attack the position directly but severed Confederate rail lines to the north and west of Lee before moving southeast again. Grant continued to move to his left in a daring and difficult tactical maneuver. Butler had meanwhile advanced up the peninsula toward Richmond, but General P.G.T. Beauregard outmaneuvered him in May and bottled up Butler’s men at Bermuda Hundred between the James and Appomattox Rivers. Eventually Butler and Banks, who did not take Mobile, were removed from command for their failure to carry out their assignments in the grand strategy.

Cold Harbor

Richmond-Petersburg area in the fall of 1864

Lee easily made his way into the Richmond defenses with his right flank on the Chickahominy and his center at Cold Harbor, the site of the Gaines’ Mill action in 1862. The front extended for eight miles. A number of attacks on June 1 and 2 ended in Union repulses. However, on June 3 Grant thought he detected a weakness in the Confederate position and assaulted Lee’s center at Cold Harbor. Though bravely executed, the attack was badly planned. The Confederates repulsed it with gory efficiency. In only a few short hours, Grant lost over 7,000 Union casualties; he later regretted that he had ever made the attempt. Cold Harbor climaxed a month of heavy fighting in which Grant’s forces had 55,000 casualties against 32,000 for Lee. However, Grant was able to make good his losses within days of the battle, whereas Lee had no way to replace his.

Petersburg

After Cold Harbor, Grant executed a brilliant maneuver in the face of the enemy. He assembled all his corps on the north bank of the deep, wide James by June 14 and, stealing a march on Lee, sent them rapidly across a 2,100-foot pontoon bridge to the south bank. Once across, Grant began a move on lightly defended Petersburg. However, the maneuver came to nothing due to General Beauregard’s stubborn defense of Confederate positions around Petersburg and General Butler’s failure to prosecute a prompt supporting attack. The frustrated attacks slowed Grant enough to allow Lee to rush back and secure this vital city. Establishing a new and modern base depot at nearby City Point, complete with a rail line linking the depot with the front lines, Grant on June 18 undertook siege operations at Petersburg below Richmond, an effort that continued into the next year.

After forty-four days of continuous maneuver and fighting, Grant had finally fixed Lee in a condition of position warfare. This was now a war of trenches and sieges, conducted ironically enough by two masters of mobile warfare. Such warfare favored the side with the greater numbers and best logistics: the Union. Mortars were used extensively, and heavy siege guns were brought up on railway cars. Grant still sought to get around Lee’s right and hold against Lee’s left to prevent him from shortening his line and achieving a higher degree of concentration. When Lee moved his lines to counter Grant, the two commanders were in effect maneuvering their fortifications to try and gain an advantage. However, Lee had earlier declared that he had to keep Grant from getting to the James River and fixing him in position. "If he gets there," he stated, "it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time." Grant was now on the James, and the siege was firmly in place.

Early's attempt at Washington

To help break the deadlock, Lee decided to ease the pressure with one of his perennial raids up the Shenandoah Valley toward Washington. In early July Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early’s corps advanced against Major General David Hunter, who had replaced Sigel. Hunter, upon receiving confused orders from Halleck, retired north down the valley. When he reached the Potomac, he turned west into the safety of the Appalachians and uncovered Washington. Early saw his chance and drove through Maryland. Delayed by a Union force on July 9 near Frederick, he reached the northern outskirts of Washington on July 11 and skirmished briskly in the vicinity of Fort Stevens. President Lincoln and Quartermaster General Meigs were interested spectators. At City Point, Grant had calmly received the news of Early’s raid. Using his interior waterway, he embarked the men of his VI Corps for the capital, where they landed on the eleventh. When Early realized he was engaging troops from the Army of the Potomac, he managed to escape the next day.

Grant decided that Early had eluded the Union’s superior forces because they had not been under a single commander. He abolished four separate departments and formed them into one that embraced Washington, western Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley. In August Sheridan was put in command with orders to follow Early to the death. Sheridan spent the remainder of the year in the valley, employing and coordinating his infantry, cavalry, and artillery in a manner that has won the admiration of military students ever since. He met and defeated Early at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill in September and shattered him at Cedar Creek in October. To stop further raids and prevent Lee from feeding his army on the crops of that fertile region, Sheridan devastated the Shenandoah Valley.

Western Theater

On March 17, 1864, Grant had met with Sherman at Nashville and told him his role in the grand strategy. Sherman, like Grant, held two commands. As Division of the Mississippi Commander, he was responsible for the operation and defense of a vast logistical system that reached from a communications zone at St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati to center on a large base depot at Nashville. Strategically, Nashville on the Cumberland River rivaled Washington, D.C., in importance. A ninety-mile military railroad, built and operated by Union troops, gave Nashville access to steamboats plying the Tennessee River. Connected with Louisville by rail, Nashville became one vast storehouse and corral. If the city were destroyed, the Federal forces would have to fall back to the Ohio River line. Wearing his other hat, Sherman was a field commander with three armies under his direction.

With the promise of the return of his two crack divisions from the Red River expedition by May 1864 and with a splendid administrative system working behind him, Sherman was ready to leave Chattanooga in the direction of Atlanta. His mission was to destroy Johnston’s armies and capture Atlanta, after Richmond the most important industrial center in the Confederacy. With 254 guns, Sherman matched his three small armies, and a separate cavalry command, a total force of more than 100,000 men, against Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and Polk’s Army of Mississippi, including Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, 65,000 men.

Sherman moves south

The City of Atlanta, Georgia, prior to the Civil War

Sherman moved out on May 4, 1864, the same day the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan. Johnston, realizing how seriously he was outnumbered, decided to go on the defensive, preserve his forces intact, hold Atlanta, and delay Sherman as long as possible. There was always the hope that the North would grow weary of the costly struggle and that some advocate of peaceful settlement might defeat President Lincoln in the election of 1864. From May 4 through mid-July the two forces maneuvered against each other. There were daily fights but few large-scale actions. As Sherman pushed south, Johnston would take up a strong position and force Sherman to halt, deploy, and reconnoiter. Sherman would then outflank Johnston, who in turn would retire to a new line and start the process all over again. On June 27 Sherman, unable to maneuver because the roads were muddy and seriously concerned by the unrest in his armies brought about by constant and apparently fruitless marching, decided to assault Johnston at Kenesaw Mountain. This attack against prepared positions, like the costly failure at Cold Harbor, was beaten back at the cost of 3,000 Union casualties. Sherman returned to maneuver and slowly but surely forced Johnston back to positions in front of Atlanta.

Johnston had done his part well. He had accomplished his missions and had so slowed Sherman that Sherman covered only 100 miles in seventy-four days. Johnston, his forces intact, was holding strong positions in front of Atlanta, his main base; but by this time President Jefferson Davis had grown impatient with Johnston and his tactics of cautious delay. In July he replaced him with Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, a much more impetuous commander.

Atlanta

On July 20, while Sherman was executing a wide turning movement around the northeast side of Atlanta, Hood left his fortifications and attacked at Peach Tree Creek. When Sherman beat him off, Hood pulled back into the city. While Sherman made ready to invest, Hood attacked again and failed again. Sherman then tried cavalry raids to cut the railroads, just as Johnston had during the advance from Chattanooga, but Sherman’s raids had as little success as Johnston’s. Sherman then began extending fortifications on August 31. Hood, who had dissipated his striking power in his assaults, gave up and retired to northwest Alabama. Sherman marched into Atlanta on the first two days of September, depriving the South of one of its key cities and railroad junctions. Sherman hoped that if Mobile could be taken, a shorter line for his supplies by way of Montgomery, Alabama, or still better by the lower Chattahoochee to Columbus, Georgia, would open. Tightening the noose still further, Admiral Farragut had entered Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, with four Monitors and fourteen other ships but had no troops to take Mobile itself. Nevertheless, the capture of the harbor left the South with only one major port: Wilmington, North Carolina.

The fall of Atlanta gave President Lincoln’s campaign for reelection in 1864 a tremendous boost. In addition, the psychological lift given the Union by Admiral Farragut’s personal heroism in the Battle of Mobile Bay greatly added to Lincoln’s prestige.

Atlanta was only a halfway point in Sherman’s vast wheel from the Western Theater toward the rear of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Abandoning the idea of catching up with Hood, Sherman by telegraph outlined his next strategic move to Lincoln and Grant in early September 1864. Sherman’s two proposals proved him an able strategist as well as a consummately bold and aggressive commander. To defend Nashville, he suggested that he send two corps, 30,000 men, back to Major General George H. Thomas. That commander would raise and train more men and be in position to hold Tennessee if Hood came north. To carry the offensive against the economic heart of the Confederacy, Sherman recommended that he himself take four corps of 62,000 men, cut his own communications, live off the country, and march to the seacoast through Georgia, devastating and laying waste all farms, railways, and storehouses in his path. Whether he arrived at Pensacola, Charleston, or Savannah, Sherman reasoned he could hold a port, make contact with the U.S. Navy, and be refitted by Stanton and Meigs. Meigs promised to do the logistical job; and Lincoln and Grant, though their reaction to the plan was less than enthusiastic, accepted it in a show of confidence in Sherman.

Union veteran L.C. McBride fought with Sherman in the siege of Atlanta and remembered his venture into the South as the event that made him a Republican. Ninety-two-year-old McBride, wounded fighting in southeast Tennessee after the fall of Atlanta, recalled the taunts he endured at the hands of Confederates while recuperating in a Murfreesboro, Tennessee hospital:

"There were four Rebels in there and they used to roast me something fierce. 'What did you'uns come down here to fit weuns for? I can hear them saying it yet. I had always been a Democrat but after that I turned Republican and have been so ever since. These Rebels are Democrats." [1]

March to the Sea

Sherman's March to the Sea

see Sherman's March through Georgia

Before marching out of Atlanta, Sherman’s engineers put the torch to selected buildings and destroyed all railroads in the vicinity. On November 12, moving away from the Nashville depots toward Savannah, the Division of the Mississippi troops broke telegraphic contact with Grant. They had twenty days’ emergency rations in their wagons but planned to replenish them by living off the country. Operating on a sixty-mile-wide front unimpeded by any Confederate force, Sherman’s army systematically burned or destroyed what it did not need. The march became something of a rowdy excursion, but the destruction of private homes and towns has perhaps been exaggerated by popular myth. Sherman concentrated on destroying Confederate warehouses, depots, railroad lines, and other elements that assisted the Confederate war effort. His thrust deep into the Confederacy also liberated thousands of slaves, many of whom followed the Army in its march to the sea. Sherman’s campaign, like Sheridan’s in the Shenandoah, anticipated the economic warfare and strategic aerial bombardments of the twentieth century.

E.W. Evans was a nine-year-old slave when Sherman's troops passed by the plantation where he was born. Evans, in his own dialect told to an interviewer many years later, remembered Sherman as the herald of his family's freedom:

"He [Sherman] come through Madison on his march to the sea and we chillun hung out on the front fence from early morning unil late in the evening, watching the soldiers go by. It took most of the day…The next week…Miss Emily called the five women that wuz on the place and tole them to stay 'round the house…She said they were free and could go wherever they wanted to." [2]

On December 10 Sherman, having broken the classic pattern by moving away from his logistical base, arrived in front of Savannah. Confederate forces evacuated the seaport on December 21, and Sherman offered it to the nation as a Christmas present. Awaiting him offshore was Meigs’ floating seatrain, which enabled him to execute the last phase of Grant’s strategy: a thrust north toward the line of the James River.

Thomas at Nashville

Sherman, as the Western Theater commander, did not learn of Nashville’s fate until he reached Savannah. He had planned Nashville’s defense well enough by sending his IV and XXII Corps under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield to screen Hood’s northward move from Florence, Alabama. Schofield was to allow Thomas some time to assemble 50,000 men and strengthen Nashville. The aggressive Hood with his 30,000 men had lost a golden opportunity to trap Schofield at Spring Hill, Tennessee, on November 29, 1864. Unopposed, the Union troops made a night march across Hood’s front to escape capture. Bitterly disappointed, Hood overtook Schofield the next day at Franklin.

At this point Hood could have upset Grant’s timetable. Booty at Nashville might carry Hood to the Ohio or allow him to concentrate with Lee before Richmond. But Franklin turned into one of the Confederacy’s most tragic battles. It commenced about 3:30 P.M. on November 30 and ended at dusk as Hood threw 18,000 of his veterans against a solidly entrenched force of Federals. Like Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Hood’s frontal assault gained nothing. He lost over 6,000 men, about 15 percent of his total Army, including thirteen general officers. At nightfall Schofield brought his troops in behind Thomas’ defenses at Nashville.

Hood was in a precarious position. He had been far weaker than Thomas to begin with; the Battle of Franklin had further depleted his army; and, even worse, his men had lost confidence in their commander. The Federals in Nashville were securely emplaced in a fortified city that they had been occupying for three years. Hood could do little more than encamp on high ground a few miles south of Nashville and wait. He could not storm the city; his force was too small to lay siege; to sidestep and go north was an open invitation to Thomas to attack his flank and rear; and to retreat meant disintegration of his army. He could only watch Thomas’ moves.

Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, belonged to the "last bootlace" school of soldiering; like McClellan before, he wanted every detail of supplies in place before beginning any offensive operation. In comparison with Grant and Sherman, he was slow; but he was also thorough. He had gathered and trained men and horses and was prepared to attack Hood on December 10, but an ice storm the day before made movement impossible. Grant and his superiors in Washington fretted at the delay, and had started west to remove Thomas. But similarities with McClellan ended at the organizational level, for Thomas knew how to carry a fight, and on December 15 he hit Hood like a sledgehammer in an attack that students of military doctrine have regarded as virtually faultless.

Thomas’ tactical plan was a masterly, coordinated attack. His heavily weighted main effort drove against Hood’s left flank while a secondary attack aimed simultaneously at Hood’s right. Thomas provided an adequate reserve and used cavalry to screen his flank and extend the envelopment of the enemy left. Hood, on the other hand, was overextended; and his thin line was concave to the enemy, denying him the advantage of interior lines. Hood’s reserve was inadequate, and his cavalry was absent on a minor mission.

The two-day battle proceeded according to Thomas’ plan as the Federals fixed Hood’s right while slashing savagely around the Confederate left flank. They broke Hood’s first line on December 15, forcing the Southerners to retire to a new line two miles to the rear. The Federals repeated their maneuver on the sixteenth, and by nightfall the three-sided battle had disintegrated into a rout of Hood’s army. Broken and defeated, it streamed southward, protected from hotly pursuing Union cavalry only by the intrepid rear-guard action of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s horsemen. The shattered Army of Tennessee reached Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 10, 1865, but no longer existed as an effective fighting force. Hood was relieved of command, and his scattered units were assigned to other areas of combat. The decisive battle of Nashville had eliminated one of the two great armies of the Confederacy from a shrinking chessboard.

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