1864: The Collapse of the Confederacy


“I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

—Federal lieutenant general Ulysses S. Grant, 1864

Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia, evacuating towns as they went. While Union soldiers burned the city of Atlanta, the Hood’s Ordnance train, shown here, was destroyed by evacuating rebel forces.

A Leader With a Vision


General Grant and his staff officers, seated on benches dragged from a Virginia church, discussed strategy. Grant, left of center, was stooped to study a military map.

By spring 1864, Major General Ulysses S. Grant had overseen a Northern victory in the Western Theater and President Lincoln wanted the winning streak to continue, in the East and everywhere else.

To facilitate Grant’s success, Lincoln decided to hand him control of all Union troops. On March 10, he named Grant General-in-Chief of all Northern armies, a title that elevated him above other generals. The position, which had not been held since George Washington, had to be revived with congressional legislation.

Grant accepted the promotion on the condition that he must direct the war from the field, not from Washington; life in the capital did not suit his style.

His disdain for dress uniforms was well known to his staff: Instead, he usually wore a rumpled private’s uniform, its pockets stuffed with cigars, with his general’s stars affixed to his shoulders. Now he had three stars—the only man in the U.S. Army so ranked—and he would lead from where he pleased.

Grant promptly joined the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. He kept General Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, as the official head of the army, but took control of directing its operations.

Reaction to Grant’s leadership in the ranks was mixed: Some generals thought he would do no better against Robert E. Lee than any of his predecessors. A Northern private, seeing Grant ride by for the first time, thought differently. Studying the bearded, determined-looking officer as he passed, the private noted simply, “He looks as if he means it.”

General George Meade officially remained in command of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant—Meade’s superior—held overall command in the field.

General Ulysses S. Grant kept his headquarters in the field during the war. Often at his side was General John Rawlins, pictured here along with a lieutenant at Grant’s camp in Cold Harbor. Rawlins was Grant’s personal aide and close friend, who reportedly also helped Grant abstain from drinking too much during battle.

1864: A Test of Willsand Forces

Grant was outmaneuvered by Lee in Virginia, but he turned the tide with the capture of Atlanta and Savannah.

MARCH 10 Ulysses S. Grant promoted to rank of General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army to oversee operations on both fronts.

MAY 4–5 The first face-off between Grant and General Robert E. Lee, the Battle of the Wilderness, in Virginia, ended with bloody losses for both, but a victory for the South.

MAY 7 Grant ordered General William T. Sherman to take Atlanta and its critically important rail center.

MAY 8–19 Grant continued the Overland Campaign in Virginia at Spotsylvania Court House, but failed to outwit Lee in a costly but inconclusive battle.

JUNE 1–3 The Overland Campaign sputtered at the Battle of Cold Harbor, where the North lost 20,000 troops and the South 5,000.

JUNE 15 Fighting began at Petersburg, Virginia, where Confederate troops dug into trenches and outfought Union forces.

SEPTEMBER 1 Northern troops captured Atlanta in a major strategic and symbolic victory.

NOVEMBER 8 In a landslide, Abraham Lincoln reelected president.

NOVEMBER 16 Sherman launched his controversial March to the Sea, terrifying Southern citizens with slash-and-burn tactics.

NOVEMBER 30 Confederate forces suffered crippling blows to their ranks, losing six leaders in a day, at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee.

DECEMBER 21 Sherman’s March to the Sea ended in the capture of Savannah, Georgia, another strategic victory for the North.

Grant Versus Lee: The First Battle


Grant was the only three-star general in the U.S. Army.

Confederate general Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia, with 60,000 troops compared to Grant’s 118,000.

The Army of the Potomac was heralded as “the finest army on the planet” but had suffered from poor leadership.

In the spring of 1864, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant ordered a Federal advance on all fronts. He put the Western Theater under the command of General William T. Sherman, instructing him to drive the Confederate Army of Tennessee out of north Georgia and to advance on the vitally important Confederate rail center of Atlanta. Grant himself turned his attentions to Virginia in an initiative that would become known as the Overland Campaign. There, he set out to destroy General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond.

On May 4, Grant put the Army of the Potomac on the march, heading southward with 118,000 well-armed, well-equipped troops—roughly double Lee’s 60,000-man army. Lee, however, learned of the Union army movements, and readied his soldiers for the fight.

The most accomplished general of the Union army was about to square off against the most successful general of the Confederacy.

No Turning Back

Grant planned to move his troops quickly around the Confederate flank and advance on Richmond but was caught by surprise when Lee shifted his forces to meet the operation head-on.

On May 5, 1864, the two armies collided northwest of Fredericksburg at the Battle of the Wilderness, named for the dense undergrowth of the region. The ensuing combat was fierce, and both sides suffered heavy casualties. Hundreds of soldiers burned to death during battle when the underbrush caught fire, set ablaze by artillery. “The usually silent Wilderness,” recalled a Confederate officer, “had suddenly become alive with the angry flashing and heavy roar of the musketry, mingled with the yells of the combatants as they swayed to and fro in the gloomy thickets.”

When Lee’s army refused to back down after two unbroken days of fighting, Grant was forced to withdraw his men. He had lost 18,000 troops to Lee’s 7,000. Many Northern soldiers thought the battle a defeat—what one soldier called “another skedaddle”—and expected to retreat northward, as they had in the past. But they did not know their new commander: Grant was willing to inflict and incur losses on a scale unseen in the preceding two years. He would leverage his superior numbers.

Instead of retreating, Grant ordered the army to march southeast, in the hopes of turning Lee’s flank and battling again. Back in Washington, Lincoln was disappointed by Grant’s failure—but he was heartened to receive a report from Grant that stood in contrast with those of his predecessors: “Whatever happens,” Grant notified Lincoln, “there will be no turning back.”

General William T. Sherman, selected by Grant to take charge of Federal armies in the Western Theater, was ordered to advance on the Confederate rail center of Atlanta.

General Joseph E. Johnston and the Confederate Army of Tennessee stubbornly opposed Sherman’s advance through north Georgia.

To block the Federal advance on Atlanta, General Johnston’s Confederates erected defensive earthworks, but they did not stop Sherman’s army.

Major General Franz Sigel


On May 15, 1864, Northern troops under Major General Franz Sigel were turned back at the Battle of New Market in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley—thanks in no small way to cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. Ordered into the fighting as reinforcements, the cadets captured a Federal artillery battery and helped drive Sigel’s Federals from the valley. Nine men were killed and another 48 wounded, but their heroism would inspire future VMI cadets.

On May 4, 1864, General Grant led the Army of the Potomac across Virginia’s Rapidan River, launching his Overland Campaign against Richmond and General Robert E. Lee’s army.

The first confrontation between Grant and Lee occurred at the Battle of the Wilderness, fought northwest of Fredericksburg, in a region notorious for its dense thickets.

Underbrush caught fire during the Battle of the Wilderness and wounded soldiers on both sides were burned alive. Combat artist Alfred R. Waud created this eyewitness illustration of Northern troops rescuing their comrades from the killer blaze.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House


The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia was the second major strike in General Grant’s Overland Campaign.

Lee did not simply wait on Grant’s next move. Using his cavalry to slow the Federal advance, the Confederate strategist put his army on a rapid march from the Wilderness to a rural crossroads community named Spotsylvania Court House. His troops quickly built formidable earthworks along a long defensive line, and readied to meet the Northern army head-on.

The Bloody Angle

Beginning on the night of May 8, Grant pounded the Southerners in a series of brutal assaults. At a section of Lee’s line known as the Mule Shoe Salient, the fire was so ferocious that soldiers were “chopped into hash by the bullets,” a survivor would recall. So many bullets whittled away at a nearby oak tree that it toppled over.

At a position that would become infamous as “Bloody Angle,” the dead of both sides were stacked like cordwood. Below piles of corpses, “the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies [revealed] wounded men struggling to extricate themselves,” reported a horrified survivor.

Again, the Northern troops were unable to overcome their Confederate foes and when the Battle of Spotsylvania finally ended on May 19, Grant’s army had failed to break Lee’s line or defeat his army. He lost another 18,000 troops, compared to Lee’s 12,000. But Grant still would not give up. After a few days of rest, he redeployed his men—racing once more to flank Lee’s army and do battle. “I propose to fight it out on this line all summer,” he notified Lincoln.

Union soldiers from the 1st Massachusetts Artillery bury the dead following the final Federal attack on May 18.

These Southern soldiers were among the 20,000 troops killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Some of the bloodiest hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War occurred at the Battle of Spotsylvania at a sector of Lee’s line known as the Mule Shoe Salient. Amid a pounding rainstorm, Northern and Southern soldiers sometimes trampled their own wounded beneath the mud, captured in this painting.

An unexploded artillery shell was left embedded in a tree.

A dead Southern soldier with his Enfield rifle at his feet.

Witness to War: In the “Mule Shoe” at Spotsylvania


Northern grave-diggers buried the dead following the prolonged fighting at Spotsylvania Court House.

Nowhere was the horror of Civil War combat more evident than at the Battle of Spotsylvania. Private David E. Holt of the 16th Mississippi Infantry, a survivor of the fighting in the Mule Shoe Salient, later recorded a grim account excerpted here:

In one of the persistent charges of the enemy, the United States flag was held by a brave soldier on one side of our flag, and the state flag of New York was held by another gallant Yankee on the other side, the three waving together, but not for long. The men that held them were shot down, and the two flags of the enemy fell in the mud. Our flag bearer was shot down again and another man grabbed the flag and swung it aloft. . . .

We could hear the screams of the wounded over all that infernal noise. They were trampled by their oncoming comrades. Often the dead lay on the wounded. When there would be any kind of a lull in the fighting, as when the Yanks reformed their line, there floated over to use the faint, pitiful cries of the wounded, and often a painful please of “Oh, for God’s sake, take this dead man off of me!” . . .

It was still drizzling rain and a thin mist [hung] over everything. There lay the tree cut down by bullets and the bloody ditch and the many dead and wounded. One wounded man was cursing, another praying to the Blessed Virgin. Many were crying for water, some begging to have the dead taken off them. I don’t expect to go to hell, but if I do, I am sure that Hell can’t beat that terrible scene. . . .

Calvary Clash at Yellow Tavern

While Northern and Southern troops were engaged in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May of 1864, Federal cavalry under Major General Philip Sheridan embarked on a raid against Richmond’s defenses. The operation was of little importance—except for a cavalry clash at nearby Yellow Tavern. There, on May 11, 1864, the famed Southern cavalry commander, Major General J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded.

The Butchery of Cold Harbor


To prepare for an infantry assault at Cold Harbor, Federal artillery bombarded the Confederate line, as seen in this artwork. General Grant ordered one attack after another; in the words of an eyewitness, Northern soldiers “went down like rows of blocks.”

Northern burial details unearthed earlier graves even as they attempted to bury those recently killed.

The third face-off between Grant and Lee took place at Cold Harbor, Virginia, and ended much as the first two did: with a Confederate victory.

Grant planned to flank and overcome Lee’s army with an unprecedented show of force. In one assault, he unleashed more than 40,000 soldiers who advanced shoulder-to-shoulder in a six-mile-long line. Before making the charge, many of the Northern troops wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them on their uniforms, certain they would be killed and hoping their name tags would identify them for next-of-kin.

But the effort was doomed. By the time Grant got his men into place, Confederate troops had already erected near-impregnable fortifications and they turned back Grant’s repeated frontal attacks. In a last attempt to turn the tide, Grant ordered another charge—one that took the lives of 7,000 men in eight minutes. “It could not be called a battle,” a Northern survivor recounted later. “It was simply butchery. . . .”

In the trio of defeats of the Overland Campaign, Grant had lost a shocking 50,000 troops to Lee’s 32,000. But he had also gained an edge. With his seemingly endless reserves, Grant could replace his men, while Lee could not. Grant refused to retreat. “We have met a man, this time,” noted one of Lee’s officers, “who either does not know when he is whipped, or cares not if he loses his whole army.”

During the Overland Campaign, Grant transferred heavy artillery regiments from Washington, D.C. to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. At the Battle of Cold Harbor, they were used as infantry in frontal assaults against Lee’s entrenched troops.

An illustration of the fighting at Cold Harbor, when 7th New York Heavy Artillery temporarily captured a portion of the Confederate line. “We felt it was murder, not war . . . ,” recounted a New Yorker.

Stalemate at Petersburg


Grant’s Overland Campaign failed to defeat Lee’s army or capture Richmond, but it severely depleted Lee’s manpower. Confederate troops were forced to hunker down in a series of trenches.

In mid-June of 1864, General Grant began to reconsider his strategy. He had thrown his army against Lee’s defensive lines for more than a month and all he had to show for it was a stunning casualty toll. Worse, he had been unable to capture the strategically important city of Richmond.

Finally, he concluded that the key to seizing the Confederate capital was Petersburg, located twenty miles to the south. The city was home to a rail link that transported Lee’s army and most of the supplies that were shipped from the south to the soldiers in Richmond. Grant believed that if he could capture Petersburg, he could simultaneously advance on Richmond from the south while reducing Lee’s army with constant fighting.

On June 15, he launched an attack on what he thought would be a weak portion of Lee’s defensive line at Petersburg. The assault fumbled and failed, and by June 18, Lee had moved his headquarters from Richmond to Petersburg. The confrontation developed into a bloody, ten-month siege. In spite of thinning reinforcements, Lee was able to engineer a formidable defensive line of trenches and earthworks and his men repelled Grant’s onslaughts. Southern resistance was crumbling elsewhere, but in Virginia, to the dismay of the Northern public, Grant, was unable to immediately defeat Robert E. Lee.

By late 1864, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were burrowed into a vast network of defenses at Petersburg and were resisting Grant’s attempts to capture Richmond.

During the ten-month siege, soldiers lived and fought in the trenches and earthworks outside Petersburg.

The grizzly realities of trench warfare took their toll on Union and Confederate troops who clashed at Petersburg.

The Battle of the Crater

A Spectacular Explosion Becomes a Spectacular Northern Defeat

Early in the assault on Petersburg, Grant was frustrated by his failure to break Lee’s line and agreed to an odd but daring maneuver to reverse the tide. He deployed a regiment of former Pennsylvania coal miners to dig a 500-foot tunnel beneath the no-man’s land separating the two armies. Under the supervision of a lieutenant colonel who had been a mining engineer before the war, Northern troops excavated a cavern below a key section of the Confederate line. They then packed it with 320 barrels of gunpowder. Grant hoped the giant bomb would blow a huge opening in the Confederate defenses, enabling Northern troops to swarm through the hole left by the blast, overwhelm Lee’s army, and capture Petersburg and Richmond.

At 4:44 am on July 30, 1864, the so-called Petersburg Mine was detonated. It was a fearsome explosion. Smoke, dirt, debris, bodies, and body parts gushed upward in a gigantic upheaval that created a canyon-like crater, opened a wide break in Lee’s defensive line, and stunned the surviving defenders.

Unfortunately for Grant, the Federal troops rushed into the hollow, but were unable to scale the walls on the opposite side and found themselves trapped. When the Southerners recovered, they were able to fire at the Union soldiers from atop the crater’s rim. The Battle of the Crater, as it became known, proved to be a Northern disaster. Lee lost less than 1,500 troops, while Grant’s army suffered almost 4,000 casualties and accomplished nothing.

Northern troops poured into the Crater at Petersburg, after exploding a giant underground bomb, shown here in this illustration. The surprise attack, however, ended in a Northern defeat.

The Capture of Atlanta


General William T. Sherman and his staff officers surveyed the battlefield outside Atlanta in the fall of 1864. After months of maneuvering and savage fighting, Sherman’s army finally captured the Deep South’s premier rail and munitions center.

As General Grant battled Lee’s army in Virginia during the spring of 1864, Major General William T. Sherman and his army were in north Georgia. Their orders from Grant were to capture Atlanta and its critically important rail center, and to “get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can. . . .”

Sherman commanded three armies—the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland, and the Army of the Ohio—comprising more than 100,000 troops. The opposing Confederate Army of Tennessee, led by General Joseph E. Johnston, numbered about half that. Even so, Johnston, an experienced commander who had taken over from General Braxton Bragg, managed to batter and delay Sherman’s forces as they advanced through the mountainous terrain.

The show was not enough for Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who was fearful of losing Atlanta. He removed Johnston and replaced him with General John Bell Hood, a solemn, one-legged commander who rode into combat tied to his saddle.

After a series of bloody battles, Hood abandoned Atlanta on September 1, 1864. Three weeks later, he led his army northward into Tennessee, hoping to lure Union forces into following them out of the city. Sherman did not take the bait: He pursued Hood only briefly, then left him and his army to face Northern forces already in Tennessee.

Confederate general John Bell Hood was President Davis’s choice to replace Joseph Johnston, who kept Sherman at bay, but failed to save Atlanta.

A 12-pounder field artillery piece pointed over abandoned Confederate earthworks outside Atlanta. In September of 1864, Hood’s Confederates were forced to give up Atlanta, opening the Deep South to Federal invasion.

General Hood’s army headquarters in Atlanta were seized by Union troops and hung with the U.S. flag.

General John Bell Hood


A Kentucky native, John Bell Hood graduated West Point at 22. He served in the U.S. military until spring of 1861, when he resigned his post to become cavalry captain in the Confederacy.

He became one of the most quickly promoted military men of the Civil War, though his effectiveness seemed to decrease as he rose in position. Wounded in battle at Gettysburg and then Chickamauga, he later headed up offensives intended to halt General William T. Sherman’s advances on Atlanta, all of which failed with heavy casualties.

Hood surrendered to Northern forces in the spring of 1865 and lived out the rest of his days in New Orleans with his family.

Atlanta in Ruins

From Atlanta, Sherman triumphantly telegraphed Washington: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.” It was a severe blow to the Confederacy, shutting down the young nation’s central transportation hub and symbolically crushing a Southern stronghold. The Northern victory also bolstered public support for the war, which had begun to flag with endless fighting.

Sherman ordered a forced evacuation of the city, sending refugees away in droves by road and rail. On November 15, his troops set fire to Atlanta’s railroad facilities, industrial sites, and business district. The flames spread through the city, leaving it—in the words of one resident—nothing but a “dirty, dusty ruin.”

With “the heart of the Southern States,” as a New York Times reporter had called Atlanta, smoldering behind them, Sherman and his 60,000-man army marched out, en route to Savannah.

A major Southern transportation hub, the Atlanta railroad was destroyed by Sherman’s troops. The fire spread throughout the city.

Atlanta residents piled their luggage atop the last train from the city before fleeing for safety.

In the wake of Atlanta’s capture by Sherman’s army, the city streets were empty except for Federal supply wagons. In November of 1864, General Sherman ordered Atlanta’s civilian population forcibly evacuated—then much of the city was burned.

Before Sherman’s men set off on their controversial March to the Sea, they torched Atlanta’s sprawling railway station.

Horace Greely


In July of 1864, Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, traveled to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to meet with agents of the Confederate government. Greeley hoped that he could use his position as a newspaper editor to broker a peace treaty between the North and the South, but his attempts at peace negotiations achieved nothing.

The Surprising Presidential Election of 1864


1864 campaign posters for General George B. McClellan and the Democrats, top, and Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, bottom.

1864 campaign button for Abraham Lincoln

Democratic challenger McClellan

Both candidates on the 1864 vice presidential ticket, George Pendleton, top, and Andrew Johnson, bottom, were Democrats.

As the 1864 presidential contest approached, Abraham Lincoln feared he would not win reelection. Considered an exceptional leader and a superb commander in chief by some of the electorate, Lincoln had almost single-handedly kept the Northern war effort alive when newspaper editors, the general public, and even his own cabinet members had despaired of victory.

Others, however, viewed the former Illinois lawyer as a hayseed from the prairie unfit for the office. His move to imprison an estimated 20,000 Northerners without trial on disloyalty charges was controversial. His support for a military draft had ignited riots in Northern cities, and his Emancipation Proclamation had spurred droves of Northern soldiers to desert.

After General Grant’s highly anticipated 1864 spring offensive failed to end the war, Northern discontent again increased. One opposition newspaper even reviled Lincoln as “the Great Baboon.”

A Well Known Opponent

Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 presidential election was the popular Northern general George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln had dismissed for his military failures. Celebrated as “the Young Napoleon,” McClellan, 41, was bright, charismatic, and politically well-connected. He had the support of mainstream Democrats and the party’s peace faction, which wanted to negotiate a ceasefire with the Confederacy. In the summer of 1864, it looked like McClellan and the Democrats were poised to take the presidency.

Then, with the capture of Atlanta in September, public opinion began to shift. Increasing numbers of Northerners thought the war was winnable. Lincoln also made it convenient for Union soldiers to vote, a popular move which created potential new support. When the electoral college numbers were tallied, General McClellan carried only three states. Lincoln won with 212 votes to McClellan’s 12. It was a landslide: Lincoln would continue to lead the North and the war.

General George B. McClellan, here with his wife Nelly, was a popular Democrat and won 45 percent of the popular vote against Lincoln, but he lost in the electoral college.

An illustration showed Northern troops lining up to vote in the 1864 presidential election. Soldiers voted heavily for Lincoln.

The Battles of Franklin and Nashville


General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee suffered devastating casualties at the Battle of Franklin shown above in this painting by Howard Pyle.

After the presidential election, Southern general John Bell Hood hoped to lure Sherman and his army away from Atlanta by taking the Confederate Army of Tennessee through north Georgia and back into Tennessee. There, he found ample Federal troops ready to fight, and on November 30, 1864, launched the Battle of Franklin, a massive assault on the Federal Army of the Ohio.

Hood, who had no supporting artillery, ordered 18,000 troops to make a frontal assault over two miles of open fields. But the Northern breastworks proved impregnable and Hood’s army was shredded: He not only lost 32 Confederate battle flags, he suffered 6,200 casualties compared to 2,300 for the North, and sacrificed the lives of six Confederate generals, including Major General Patrick Cleburne, known as the “Stonewall of the West.”

Hood moved on, trying to take his army northward, but he could not bypass the Northern forces concentrated at Nashville. On December 15 and 16, Hood’s army was attacked by the Federal Army of the Cumberland. The Confederate Army of Tennessee was almost annihilated, losing another 6,000 troops. Hood and the survivors retreated southward.

The Battle of Franklin was a disaster for General John Bell Hood, who deployed 18,000 Southern troops to attack the Army of the Ohio under Major General John Schofield, above. The two-mile-long assault cost Hood more than 6,000 troops and six generals.

The Tennessee state capitol rose above Nashville, which had been occupied by Northern armies for nearly two years in 1864. The city was photographed by George Barnard, who was traveling with Sherman’s Army of the Cumberland.

Civil War Stats:

Six Southern Generals Killed in a Single Battle

Six Confederate generals were killed at the Battle of Franklin—more than in any other engagement of the Civil War. Six more were wounded, and another was captured. The six who were killed:

Major General Patrick Cleburne


An Irish immigrant who joined the Confederate cause, Cleburne was known for his battlefield strategy. His nickname was the “Stonewall of the West.”

Brigadier General John Adams


Rewarded for gallantry in the Mexican-American War in the U.S. Army, he joined Confederate forces in early 1861. His brigade led the march into Tennessee.

Brigadier General States Rights Gist


Named for his family’s politics, Gist was a lawyer in South Carolina. He was also a militia general before the war.

Brigadier General Hiram Granbury


Born in Mississippi, Granbury moved to Texas, where, when the state seceded, he raised a volunteer company of troops and marched to join the Confederate army in Kentucky.

Brigadier General Otho Strahl


Born in Ohio, Stahl eventually moved south. He was a lawyer in Tennessee before joining the Confederate army when the war started.

Brigadier General John Carter


A former lawyer and university instructor, Carter was mortally wounded during the battle on November 30 and died shortly after.

Brigadier General States Rights Gist

Brigadier General Otho Strahl

General William T. Sherman


In 1864, Major General William T. Sherman attacked the South’s war-making industries and its civilian infrastructure. His tactics likely hastened the end of the war, but also left countless civilians terrorized and homeless.

Sherman, seated at the center of a group of Northern officers, was praised as a military genius by some and as a “lunatic” by others. Despite his controversies, he rose from colonel to commander of all Federal forces in the war’s Western Theater.

Like his friend and commander General Grant, Major General William T. Sherman was an Ohio native and a West Pointer. He was a veteran of the Seminole War and, upon its conclusion, accepted a position heading a military academy in Louisiana. When the Civil War broke out, Sherman was offered but declined a Confederate command, and he returned to the U.S. Army.

The erratic, moody Sherman performed well in the First Battle of Bull Run, the first significant battle of the Civil War, and earned the rank of brigadier general. As the war wore on, he was given a command in the Western Theater, then began serving under Grant. Rumors circulated that Sherman was mentally unstable, but Grant continued to increase Sherman’s responsibilities, and he distinguished himself at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and the capture of Atlanta.

While some praised Sherman as a military genius, others condemned him as the “Nero of the 19th Century” for his brutally effective campaign of total war on the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign. As commanding general of the postwar U.S. Army, Sherman would again earn both praise and criticism for defeating the Plains Indians with the slash-and-burn tactics he had unleashed on the South.

Marching through Georgia


In late 1864, General William T. Sherman led an army of 62,000 troops from Atlanta to the coast in what became known as the March to the Sea. The brutal campaign, depicted here in a painting by Felix Octavius Carr Darley, undermined the Southern people’s will to resist.

The goal of his March to the Sea, General William T. Sherman proclaimed, was to “make Georgia howl”—and he did.

For almost one month and 285 miles, Sherman’s 62,000-man Army of the Ohio cut a destructive swath across Georgia. Along with military targets, such as 200 miles of railroad, Sherman’s troops sacked the state capital at Milledgeville, set fire to sawmills and gristmills, burned countless private homes and barns, and rounded up an estimated 12,000 head of livestock, killing whatever animals they could not eat.

“Saturday morning we looked out upon a scene of desolation and ruin,” a Georgia homemaker would later recall. “We could hardly believe it was our home. One week before it was one of the most beautiful places in the state. Now it was a vast wreck.”

As a war strategy, the March to the Sea was effective: It terrorized Southern civilians on the home front, spurred a wave of desertion in Lee’s army by soldiers determined to go home and protect their families, and proved that the Confederacy could not prevent harm to Southern homes, property, and people.

An illustration shows the devastation left behind by Sherman’s army as it moved through Georgia and later the Carolinas. The trail of chimneys from burned homes were dubbed “Sherman’s Sentinels” by soldiers and civilians alike.

In this Civil War newspaper illustration, Sherman’s “Bummers” looted a Southern plantation

Confederate Army of Manhattan

In November of 1864, following widespread destruction of civilian property in the South by Northern troops, a team of Confederate agents, called the Confederate Army of Manhattan, attempted to retaliate by burning New York City. The conspirators managed to set fires in 13 New York City hotels, on hay barges in New York harbor, and at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. All blazes were extinguished before they spread.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!