In 1864 60,000 Yankee soldiers marched 650 miles through the heart of the South in less than 100 days. On the way they provided good strategic help to the Union by cutting the Rebel supply and rail lines. They burned a path from Atlanta to Savannah and terrorized the residents, plundered livestock and farmland and sent a message to the Confederacy. A message of defiance and authority and might makes right. It all started on March 9th, 1864 when Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman met at the Burnet House in Cincinnati and planned a massive invasion of the South that would end the war. The Union Army was almost a one million-man force, and the tide had turned in favor of the North.
There was an important and almost reverential friendship between Grant and Sherman. Both had their issues, and anonymous rumormongers fossicked through whatever vituperous backstabbing gossip they could find and made sure that opponents knew that Ulysses S. Grant drank to excess and that Sherman suffered debilitating paranoia. They respected each and supported and deferred to each other throughout their careers. Sherman was relieved of duty and sent to recover at a sanitarium. Powerful relatives reached out to Congressmen who were able to find a command for Sherman. Grant retold the stories of how Sherman rallied panicked Confederates at Manassas and how he had confidence in his abilities. Soon enough Grant made this aggressive combat commander his second in command.
The plan was for an all out attack on every front with pressure that would end when Lee surrendered. Grant would attack Richmond and pin down the Army of Northern Virginia in Virginia. The Mississippi was now in Union hands and therefore much of the supplies the South desperately needed would never get to them; and Southern units were undermanned and underfed and running out of food and ammunition. Starting in Chattanooga, Sherman planned something very bold. He would take his 60,000-man army right through Georgia and capture Savannah, the last major Atlantic seaport in Southern control. He would destroy rail lines; telegraph lines and sources of food for the Confederate Army.
The first series of battles saw Sherman outflank General Hood at Chattanooga. At the Battle of Jonesboro that followed days later in September, Sherman counter attacked and killed 1700 Confederates who ambushed his troops. Hood was sent back reeling. Sherman had surrounded and entered Atlanta. He ordered his men to burn granaries and factories. As one might guess, large groups of soldiers in the middle of the night went too far. And the anti slavery sentiment in the invading troops enraged them. At the end of the day only about a third of the city was taken down. From headquarters in homes and buildings taken from people, on September 5th, 1864, the officer staff of William Tecumseh Sherman watched in horrified fascination at the effulgent cityscape flickering in bright flames as if night had been turned to day. Sherman telegraphed Grant “Atlanta is in our hands and fairly won.”
Part of the terror campaign was simply to force Confederate soldiers to dessert thinking that their farms were being burned to the ground. Having never seen such a figure for this campaign alone I would never have guessed if this worked at all. As an interdiction campaign the march through Georgia worked. Atlanta was the central hub of five railroads, which was the reason why it was once called Terminus. The railroads were destroyed. Union soldiers dismantled rail ties and made hot smelting fires and piled ties on them until they were glowing. Then the ties were stretched around trees and poles and earned the moniker “Sherman’s’ Neckties”.
The force was accompanied by 25,000 pack animals. So the amount of food needed to support a force this size was 300 tons a day. The routes had to be chosen wisely since there was no wagon train carrying hard tack. That said, the 300 tons of supplies came from somewhere and that source was the property of Southerners. Union forces raided county registrars and used quite open source public records to see who had cattle, who had horses, and so forth. The army split into three lines and moved in an unpredictable skein through the state according to where the resources were held. Also they intended to keep the 20,000 or so Confederate forces in the area off guard and guessing and chasing them. A group of people this large became hard to manage. What began often as foraging deteriorated into plunder, and sometimes rape and theft and murder. The unfortunate result of liberating invasion forces is sometimes the emotionally unstable members of the invading force. So Southerners hid their valuables as best they could. The unfortunate moral black eye the Union Army carried with it might be best illustrated as a line of well armed disciplined men marching with silver tea sets hanging over their shoulders. The invading army left ruins and devastated lives behind them. Whatever you might think about what’s fair in love and war, this was no different than strategic bombing that less than a century later would kill millions of non-combatants. That said, this juggernaut invasion force delivered the Port of Savannah to the Union Army on the 21st of December 1864.