On November 12, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman ordered the destruction of the business district in Atlanta and the Union Army started their March to the Sea which ended just before Christmas in Savannah, Georgia. The march, also known as the Savannah Campaign, bolstered the Union Army and helped lead to the surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War five months later.
During the Civil War, Atlanta served as a hub for the Confederacy and a major transportation link for supplies and troops between the eastern seaboard and the west. After a five-month successful campaign from Tennessee through northwest Georgia, Union troops made their way to the doorstep of Atlanta in mid-July. Gen. John B. Hood decided to surrender the city and evacuate his Confederate troops on September 1, 1864. Before leaving, Hood ordered the depots destroyed to prevent them from falling into Union hands.
On September 2nd, Sherman captured the city, but with a tenuous supply line, he knew he couldn’t hold it for long. Sherman divided his army into two, sending half towards Nashville while some 60,000 remaining troops would join him on a march across Georgia.
Relying on a scorched-earth policy, Sherman ordered that all railroads, factories, and commercial buildings be destroyed before leaving the city. He wanted to obliterate anything that might be of use to the Confederate Army. Sherman also ordered civilians out of their homes and businesses and destroyed them if they contained anything that might aid the Confederates. Before it was over, 40% of the city (an estimated 3,000 buildings) lie in ruins. Much of the destruction was in the business district around Peachtree Street. Pvt. James H. Peterson from the 13th New Jersey Infantry recorded his observations in a pocket diary. “On Sunday November 15 we left Atlanta in going through the city we passed large buildings on fire…”
Sherman and his army, now cut off from any supply lines, headed towards the coast. They lived off the land, taking supplies from fields and farms as they beat a pathway of destruction towards Savannah. Along the way, they encountered pockets of Confederate resistance and destroyed railroad tracks and cut telegraph lines. Pvt. Peterson recorded that on November 26, “while we was skirmishing with the Rebels at Sandersville I was wounded in the leg by a ball.” Peterson ended up in a hospital outside of Savannah where on December 10th he wrote about the approaching Union Army, “The troops burnt the Charleston and Savanna Railroad we lay about 6 miles from Savannah in the Field Hospital we can hear the cannon the savanna River and the broadsides from the big guns very plain.”
On December 21st, after a march of 37 days and some 250 miles, Union troops entered Savannah. Just days before Christmas, Sherman sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred fifty guns and plenty of ammunition. Also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”
The destruction of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea demoralized the Confederacy and contributed to the end of the Civil War in April 1865. To learn more about the destruction of Atlanta and the March to the Sea, search our Civil War records collection on Fold3 today!