The Fatal Blow

Finally, Lincoln had found his general. Ulysses S. Grant was not popular among his fellow officers but he proved an aggressive commander. In March 1864, Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general and made him commanding general of the United States army.

Grant realized that the key to defeating the Confederate army was to keep their troops occupied so that they couldn’t reinforce one another. He launched his Overland Campaign with the help of three major generals – William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan and George Thomas.

Sheridan and Grant pushed their way through the Shenandoah Valley, devastating the source of much of the Confederacy’s food supply. They pushed towards Richmond while Sherman and Thomas prepared for their infamous March to the Sea.

The city of Atlanta, Georgia, was a strategic point for the Confederacy. It had a productive arsenal and was the hub for four railroad lines that carried supplies to the principal Confederate armies. If Sherman and Thomas could take control of Atlanta and destroy the arsenal and the railroad lines, it would seriously cripple the Confederacy. Grant’s victory at Chattanooga following the Vicksburg Campaign provided a gateway for Sherman and Thomas to accomplish that goal.

On 7 May 1864, Sherman left Chattanooga with three armies at his back. The Army of the Cumberland was led by Major General George Thomas with 60,000 men. Lieutenant General John M. Schofield led the Army of Ohio with 14,000 men, while the 24,000 men of the Army of Tennessee were commanded by General James B. McPherson.

With just under 100,000 men at his back, Sherman set out across 120 miles of rugged country, easily defended by troops who had the advantage of familiarity with the terrain. With the help of Thomas’ staff who dealt with the logistics and engineering, Sherman adopted a ‘scorched earth policy’ that left a fifty-mile-wide path of destruction across the State of Georgia.

Sherman’s policy meant that nothing was left for Confederate troops to use as supplies or trade. It had another advantage for Sherman’s troops. Rather than being held back by a long train of supply wagons, Union soldiers were sent out to forage for whatever they could find in order to feed and clothe themselves. That policy resulted in Sherman being branded with a reputation for brutality and turning a blind eye to some of the worst atrocities committed during the war.

Accounts from women and men too old to fight tell of how their homes were suddenly swarmed by soldiers who took every scrap of food, clothing, bedding and medical supplies. Not all stopped there. Women and children watched helplessly as their homes were torn apart in search of any valuables, from silverware to jewellery. Anything of value was taken and everything else destroyed. Men too old or infirm to fight and slaves were tortured to reveal the hiding places of valuables. Homes and outbuildings were burnt to the ground, leaving people without so much as a roof over their heads.

Confederate lieutenant general Joseph E. Johnston and his 60,000 men found themselves repeatedly outflanked and outmanoeuvred and forced to retreat. He was finally replaced by General John Bell Hood who assaulted Sherman’s troop with furious attacks. But after two months, Hood’s men were exhausted and retreated. On 2 September 1864, Sherman and his army entered the city of Atlanta.

On 15 November 1864, Sherman’s troops set out again, this time on a march of 270 miles with 62,000 of his best troops, and 2,500 light wagons filled with only essentials such as ammunition. George Thomas was off in pursuit of Hood towards Tennessee.

They cut telegraph lines and ripped up railway tracks, severing all contact, not only for themselves, but for the enemy as well. Not only would Sherman be unable to call for reinforcements but the Confederate troops would be unable to communicate word of what was happening. As they travelled, Sherman’s men continued to tear up railway tracks and lay the rails over burning piles of wood. When the metal was malleable enough, the rail was twisted around trees and telegraph poles, rendering them useless. Georgians called the twisted rails ‘Sherman’s neckties’.

On 17 December 1864, Savannah’s mayor, R. D. Arnold, personally rode out to meet the Union forces in order to offer surrender in the hope of sparing the city from bombardment and Sherman’s threat to burn it to the ground. Sherman later sent President Lincoln the following telegram:

I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.

In the spring, Sherman turned his attention northwards, toward the Carolinas and the people he held most accountable for bringing the nation to war. His intent was to turn loose the full wrath of his troops on the states Sherman saw as the hotbed of secession. The army marched to Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital, and on to Goldsboro and Bentonville before finally ending his campaign in Raleigh, North Carolina. On 26 April 1865, he accepted the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston and his troops.

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