Sherman Reveals His Plans to March to the Sea

September 20, 1864 (Tuesday)

Since occupying Atlanta, General William Tecumseh Sherman had been busy with everything from prisoner exchanges to dealing with the Rebel cavalry playing upon his lines of supply. But on this date, he was able to write a lengthy letter to General Grant, summing up his feelings and thoughts of the late campaign, as well as the one to come. Sherman did not write concerning just his own army, but of the entire war in general.


In an earlier letter, Grant had told Sherman of his own plans for the Army of the Potomac around Petersburg. The army was, as Sherman put it, “steadily being reenforced by a good class of men.” He hoped soon to see Grant’s army grown to “a force that is numerically double that of your antagonist, so that with one part you can watch him [the enemy] and with the other you can push out boldly from your left flank, occupy the South Shore [Side] Railroad, compel him to attack you in position, or accept battle on your own terms.”

Reinforcements were good, but Sherman wished for more. “We ought to ask our country for the largest possible armies that can be raised,” he wrote, “as so important a thing as the ‘self-existence of a great nation’ should not be left to the fickle chances of war.”

Perhaps Sherman was consider what might happen if Lincoln lost the election. It had been clear to him for some time that the South simply couldn’t win the war on the battlefield. What they could do, however, was prolong the struggle until Lincoln was out of office. If George McClellan became President McClellan, all bets would be off and there would likely be peace with either two countries or one country and slavery.

Of the nearer future, Sherman brought up Wilmington, North Carolina. Grant had suggested sending troops from the Army of the Potomac to occupy the city and cut off its port. But Sherman saw the occupation as pointless. The only thing that really mattered about it was the harbor. “If [Admiral David] Farragut can get across the bar, and the move can be made quick, I suppose it will succeed.”

And if it did succeed, Sherman mused that the fleet might then move to Savannah, Georgia. If Grant could manage to capture Savannah, Sherman vowed that he “would not hesitate to cross the State of Georgia with 60,000 men, hauling some stores and depending on the country for the balance.”

Map showing all the places Sherman wanted to be.
Map showing all the places Sherman wanted to be.

This wouldn’t be as easy as the Federal Navy just capturing Savannah. “Where a million of people live my army won’t starve,” Sherman continued, “but as you know, in a country like Georgia, with few roads and innumerable streams, an inferior force could so delay an army and harass it that it would not be a formidable object.”

That, however, is where Grant and the Navy would come in. If Savannah was in Federal hands, “I could rapidly move to Milledgeville, where there is abundance of corn and meat, and would so threaten Macon and Augusta that he would give up Macon for Augusta; then I would move to interpose between Augusta and Savannah, and force him to give me Augusta, with the only powder mills and factories remaining the the South, or let us have the Savannah River.” Either Augusta or Macon would be, in Sherman’s mind, “worth a battle.”

He would “start east and make a circuit south and back [to Atlanta], doing vast damage to the State.” But this would do little good in the long run. He could also threaten to do just that, and thus “hold a rod over the Georgians who are not overloyal to the South.”

Though Sherman proposed speed, he allowed that the campaign could be put off till winter. But whatever was to be done, there had to be some sort of plan. “The more I study the game the more am I convinced that it would be wrong for me to penetrate much farther into Georgia without an objective beyond.”

To that end, Sherman thought it best that Grant’s army and the army based out of New Orleans (now under the helm of Edward Canby) “be reenforced to the maximum; that after you get Wilmington, you strike for Savannah and the [Savannah] River; that General Canby be instructed to hold the Mississippi River and send a force to get Columbus, Ga., either by the way of the Alabama or the Appalachicola, and that I keep Hood employed, and put my army in find order for a march on Augusta, Columbia, and Charleston, to be ready as soon as Wilmington is sealed as to commence, and the city of Savannah is in our [meaning Federal] possession.”

Sherman promised that if Grant fixed the date for when he would occupy Savannah, “I will insure our possession of Macon and a point on the [Savannah] river below Augusta.” He saw Georgia as most important to the Confederacy than even their capital. “The possession of the Savannah River is more than fatal to the possibility of a Southern independence; they may stand the fall of Richmond, but not of all Georgia.” This was some pretty bold thinking.

Sherman ended the letter to his old friend as if making plans to meet up over Christmas: “If you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think Uncle Abe will give us a twenty days’ leave of absence to see the young folks.” 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, series 1, Vol. 39, Part 2, p 411-413. []
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