The American Civil War Overview
THE WESTERN THEATER: SHERMAN'S MARCH TO THE SEA AND CAMPAIGN OF THE CAROLINAS
On November 12, 1864, Sherman marched out of Atlanta toward the Atlantic coast. Tracing a line of march between Macon and Augusta, he carved a sixty-mile wide swath of destruction in the Confederacy's heartland. The only forces the Confederacy could bring to oppose him was Wheeler's cavalry and a motley collection of militia and over and under-aged reserves of perhaps 14,000 troops; certainly no match for the 62,000 Union veterans Sherman had kept with him upon leaving Atlanta.
His army marched in two large columns under the command of Howard and Slocum. Sherman reached Savannah on December 10. The Confederate garrison could not hope to prevent its capture, so evacuated the city with 10,000 troops via a pontoon bridge. Sherman presented Savannah to Lincoln as a "Christmas gift".
Sherman did not linger long at Savannah, and despite the miserable winter weather was soon on the march again. The Confederate forces in the region were fragmented at this time, with troop concentrations under Hardee and Beauregard, who could do little with the forces either had at hand, to slow Sherman down.
Columbia, South Carolina, captured on February 17, 1865, was dealt with particularly harshly by Sherman's men. Two-thirds of the city was burned down, although it was probably done at their own initiative rather than under any orders from Sherman. Many Federal troops held a special hatred for South Carolina because they felt the state was responsible for starting the war.
Finally, too late to really make any difference, Robert E. Lee was named General-in-Chief of the Confederacy's armed forces and Joe Johnston was given command of all remaining forces in North Carolina. Reinforcements from the tattered remnants of the Army of Tennessee would arrive via a patchwork railroad/overland route from Tupelo to join other commands under Beauregard, Bragg, and Hardee, but these were too few and too late.
Johnston looked for an opportunity to do some damage to Sherman's Federal steamroller and finally saw an opportunity on March 19, 1865. Slocum's and Howard's columns had become widely separated and Johnston concentrated his available troops (about 21,000 effectives) near Bentonville to try and crush Slocum's column before Howard could come to his support. Initially the Confederate attacks went well, but Slocum was able to bring up reinforcements to withstand the repeated assaults. Little fighting took place on March 20, but on the 21st Sherman's entire command was in position to launch a counterattack. Johnston skillfully beat back the Federal attacks and retreated that night toward Smithfield.
This Page last updated 11/13/01
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CHAPTER XXI, The Eastern Theater: Petersburg and Appomattox