"I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah;" Sherman's Army Reaches the Sea

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"I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah;" Sherman's Army Reaches the Sea

Engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie depicting Sherman's March
Image is available from Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: December 21, 1864

Our military history story is devoted to a seminal event of the American Civil War: the Union army commanded by Gen. William T. Sherman reaching its objective of the Atlantic Ocean at the port of Savannah, Georgia. This event concluded Sherman's "March to the Sea."


Although the Civil War was in its fourth year, there was hope that 1864 would be the beginning of the end. The Army of the Potomac was sitting within miles of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, VA in siege lines at nearby Petersburg, facing Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Nearly every major Rebel port was taken or blockaded, while the Mississippi River – the "Father of Waters" as Lincoln called it – was controlled by the Federal navy for its entire length. In mid-December, a Union army under Major General George Thomas destroyed a Confederate force outside Nashville, TN.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, c. May, 1865; Photgraph by Mathew Brady
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, c. May, 1865
Photgraph by Mathew Brady

Finally, a Federal army commanded by Sherman was clawing its way through the state of Georgia. Since the capture of Atlanta in September of 1864, Sherman's men did everything in their power to destroy the infrastructure of the "Peach State." Atlanta was the largest city of the state, and possessed a number of foundries for manufacturing arms, and also boasted a network of railroads. Georgia also became a food-producing state, with many cotton fields turning to growing badly needed food for the armies and the civilians.

For the next two months, the "damned Yankees" engaged in widespread looting, property destruction, and the like. In November, Sherman made a fateful decision; realizing the war was winding down, he put his army into motion toward the Atlantic coast of Georgia. He had two main objectives. The first was to wage "total war" against the state of Georgia; destroy railroads and any transportation, burn cotton and food-producing fields, and have his army live off the land by foraging to deny provisions to the Confederate armies. [When the Confederacy lost Atlanta, Georgia's governor withdrew all state militia units from the field and used them to harvest any available food for the people of the state. The militia was almost a non-factor against Sherman's army.]

The second objective for Sherman's force was a bit more long-term. Once the Union army reached the sea – specifically the port of Savannah – Sherman's force would turn north. It would then seek to rampage through South Carolina, the original hotbed of secession, and treat it in the same way as Georgia. Then, Sherman's army would advance north, with its finally goal a possible hook-up with the Army of the Potomac near Richmond.

Sherman's March to the Sea, from Atlanta to Savannah, November-December 1864
Sherman's March to the Sea, from Atlanta to Savannah, November-December 1864

The "March to the Sea"

Sherman's army left Atlanta on November 15.. He divided his army into two separate wings to confuse the Confederates as to their ultimate destination. To speed his army, Sherman's force operated without a supply line, which would have reached back to Chattanooga in Tennesee. He gave orders for his wings to: "forage liberally" off the land; to "appropriate freely and without limit" horses, mules, and wagons; and, to encourage able-bodied escaped slaves to come along – but he urged commanders to be aware of their supply situation, that Union soldiers got first crack at provisions.

Over the next four weeks, the 62,000 men of Sherman's command marched generally east and southeast toward the coast; they were opposed by about 13,000 Confederate regular infantry, about 3000 state militia, and about 10,000 cavalry. Several small battles were fought during this time, but the Rebels were unable to cause any disruption to the inexorable flow of the Yankees to the sea.

Siege of Savannah

On December 10, Sherman's army began to converge on Savannah. Much to their surprise, Confederate Gen. William J. Hardee had entrenched 10,000 soldiers around the city in good positions, and had flooded many of the rice fields surrounding the city. These Rebels also blocked the Federal soldiers from hooking up with a U.S. Navy flotilla carrying badly needed supplies – including heavy siege guns – for Sherman's army. After a cavalry reconnaisance, Sherman ordered an attack on Fort McAlister, which guarded the southwestern approach to Savannah. On December 13, the fortification was captured after a 15-minute fight.

After receiving his needed supplies and heavy guns, Sherman decided to invest the city. On December 17, he sent a message to Gen. Hardee in Savannah. The message informed Hardee that the Union army was prepared to bombard the city. He said he was open to receiving a plea for surrender, stating, "I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, or the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army…"

Hardee decided not to surrender but to escape. On December 20, he led his men across the Savannah River on a makeshift pontoon bridge. The next morning, Savannah Mayor Richard Dennis Arnold, with a delegation of aldermen and ladies of the city, rode out (until they were unhorsed by fleeing Confederate cavalrymen) to offer a proposition: The city would surrender and offer no resistance, in exchange for a Union promise to protect the city's citizens and their property. Sherman accept the offer. Arnold presented him with the key to the city, and Sherman's men occupied the city the same day.


Later that day, Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln, "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."

From Savannah, after a short delay for rest, Sherman marched north in the spring through the Carolinas, , intending to complete his turning movement and combine his armies with Grant's against Robert E. Lee. After a successful two-month campaign, Sherman accepted the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston and his forces in North Carolina on April 26, 1865.

Footnote #1: The March to the Sea was devastating to Georgia and the Confederacy. Sherman himself estimated that the campaign had inflicted $100 million (about $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars). The Union Army wrecked 300 miles of railroad and numerous bridges and miles of telegraph lines. It seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle. It confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, and destroyed uncounted cotton gins and mills.

Footnote #2: Military historians Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones cited the significant damage wrought to railroads and Southern logistics in the campaign and stated that "Sherman's raid succeeded in 'knocking the Confederate war effort to pieces'." Author David J. Eicher wrote that "Sherman had accomplished an amazing task. He had defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South's potential and psychology to wage war."

Footnote #3: Sherman's personal escort on the march was the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment, a unit composed entirely of Southerners who remained loyal to the Union.

Footnote #4: Between 1869 and 1883, Sherman served in the newly created post of Commanding General of the United States Army. He retired from the army in February, 1884. He lived most of the rest of his life in New York City. He was devoted to the theater and to amateur painting and was much in demand as a colorful speaker at dinners and banquets, in which he indulged a fondness for quoting Shakespear. He died on February 14, 1891.

Footnote #5: On August 11, 1880, he addressed a crowd of more than 10,000 at Columbus, OH: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."

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