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Stereograph of General Sherman on horseback on the battlefield
General William T. Sherman on horseback on the Union line near Atlanta. George N. Bernard, 1864

Tracing General Sherman’s March to the Sea

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We thank Meagan Snow and the Worlds Revealed blog team for allowing us to repost this. We hope it provides you with ideas on how you can incorporate a variety of primary sources in one lesson.

In the summer of 1864, Union soldiers set out under the direction of General William Tecumseh Sherman on a months-long march through Georgia in an effort to break the ability of the Confederacy to wage war. The campaign took place between the major city of Atlanta, Georgia, and the strategic seaport of Savannah, Georgia.

Map showing full route of Sherman's march to the sea with illustrations and figures below
“Sherman’s march to the sea [May 15, 1864 – April 26, 1865]” by H.C. Robertson taken from “Robertson’s geographic-historical series illustrating the history of America and the United States,” 1898. Geography & Map Division.

The pre-cursor to Sherman’s march was the Atlanta campaign, which found Sherman’s forces up against Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Johnston was eventually replaced as the head of the Army of Tennessee by Lt. General John Bell Hood, who attacked Sherman’s troops at the expense of heavy Confederate losses. Atlanta fell to Union forces on September 2, 1864, setting the stage for a march to Savannah.

The campaign had multiple objectives as it launched from Atlanta. The first was to approach toward Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army from the rear with the hope of alleviating pressure on Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces in Virginia. The second was to destroy infrastructure. Sherman’s men would be traveling without traditional supply lines and would necessarily need to forage along the route in order to supply themselves as they marched. Most infamously, Sherman’s troops became the destroyers of Georgia’s railways. The stereograph card below shows Atlanta residents loading into railway cars, trying to leave the city before Sherman’s troops destroyed rail lines out of the city.

stereograph image showing residents loading into railway cars at the train depot in Atlanta
“Preparing for the ‘March to the Sea'” by George Barnard, 1864. Prints & Photographs Division.

From Atlanta, troops moved in a right and left wing. The right wing contained the 15th Army Corps and 17th Army Corps, both of which belonged to the Army of the Tennessee. On the left wing was the 14th Army Corps and 20th Army Corps of the Army of Georgia. Additionally, cavalry forces supported both the left and right wings. Each took distinct routes toward Savannah, as seen on the map below:

map showing multiple routes taken by Sherman's forces between Atlanta and Savannah, then Savannah through the Carolinas
“Map showing route of marches of the army of Genl. W. T. Sherman from Atlanta, Ga., to Goldsboro, N.C. : to accompany the report of operations from Savannah, Ga., to Goldsboro, N.C. Back to Search Results,” by Joseph R. Hawley and US Army Corps of Engineers, 1865.

The right and left wings attempted to confuse the Confederates as to their ultimate destination: Sherman wanted the Confederates guessing as to whether they were headed toward Savannah, Macon, or Augusta. Another map of the route taken by Sherman’s forces, this one drawn by Robert Knox Sneden, shows the route in relation to Andersonville prison:

Map showing lines indicating travel from Atlanta to Savannah
“Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea. Drawn from official map of Brig. Genl. O. M. Poe, Chief Engineer,” by Robert Knox Sneden, 1861-1865. Geography & Map Division.

This 1864 sketch by war correspondent Alfred R. Waud illustrates the destruction left behind in the wake of Union soldiers, who purposefully destroyed railroad tracks as they marched through Georgia:

black and white pencil sketch roughly showing men destroying railroad tracks
“Shermans march. Destroyed R.R. Tracks” by Alfred Rudolph Waud, 1864. Prints & Photographs Division.


In the stereograph below, a Union soldier is seen inspecting damaged railroad tracks destroyed by Sherman’s troops. As this stereograph demonstrates, the troops commonly pulled up wooden railroad ties and stacked them such that they could be burned. Then, iron rails were placed into the fire until they could be bent out of shape, making them fully unusable. Curved metal tracks are visible in the foreground of the stereograph card.

Stereograph card showing broken railroad tracks with treeline in background
“How Sherman’s boys fixed the railroad” by Taylor & Huntington, 1864. Prints & Photographs Division.

The destruction of infrastructure helped cripple Confederate supply lines, but often at a cost to local civilian populations, which included enslaved and formerly enslaved Americans. As an example of these local effects, according to Britannica, troops under General Sherman were ordered to destroy a bridge across Ebenezer Creek, a tributary of the Savannah River, after Union forces safely crossed. This action blocked formerly enslaved Black Americans who were fleeing Confederate forces by following behind Sherman’s troop columns from being able to cross safely, resulting in their deaths or capture by Confederate forces. This event has been called the Ebenezer Creek Massacre.

Shortly after, Sherman’s troops successfully reached Savannah, where Confederate troops had established defenses, preventing Sherman’s troops from being able to directly make contact with the Union Navy:

map showing detail of confederate defenses established in Savannah, Georgia in pink
“The Rebel defences [sic] of Savannah, Georgia, Nov. 1864,” by Robert Knox Sneden. Geography & Map Division.
Sherman’s right wing attacked Fort McAllister, which sat at the entrance to the Ogeechee River. Running across buried torpedos, Union forces were able to take the fort, allowing for Savannah to be surrounded. On December 21, Savannah formally surrendered to Union forces.

In Sherman’s address to his army, given in Washington, DC on May 30, 1865, he recounted the march:

A doubt still clouded our future, but we solved the problem, and destroyed Atlanta, struck boldly across the State of Georgia, severed all the main arteries of life to our enemy, and Christmas found us at Savannah. Waiting there only long enough to fill our wagons, we again began a march which for peril, labor, and results will compare with any ever made by an organized army.”

The campaign later became memorialized through the popular song “Marching Through Georgia” – an instrumental version of the song recorded in 1916 is available for listening through the National Jukebox. The song’s final verse went as follows:

So we made a thoroughfare
For Freedom and her train
Sixty miles in latitude
Three hundred to the main
Treason fled before us
For resistance was in vain
While we were marching through Georgia


Further Reading:

Comments (2)

  1. This was fascinating. And, the use of varied primary resources “placed we right there in the action.”
    Thank you.

  2. This was the pivotal campaign in demonstrating the unions resolve,the grande operation, to finally bring this terrible war to a close, and it was an action which defines us as a nation, and certainly an historical event worthy of note.

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