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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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