The Burning of Atlanta…and Why “Sherman” Became an Epithet in the South

Today in History, November 12, 1864:

The burning of Atlanta.

Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his army had taken Atlanta in September, and subsequently ordered the citizenry to evacuate the city. That order set off a firestorm of complaints and criticism from Confederate military and civilian leaders. Sherman stuck to his guns…the South could expend the resources to care for and secure their populace. Sherman’s supply lines stretched from Nashville, TN and were constantly threatened by Confederate army raids, so he knew he could not hold Atlanta for long.

But then, he didn’t want to. He stayed in Atlanta long enough to rest and build up supplies. On today’s date in 1864 he ordered the industrial district and anything that might prove useful to the enemy burned. The fires spread and eventually as much as 40% of the city went up in flames.

Sherman sent Gen. Thomas back towards Nashville to tie up the Confederate Army of the Tennessee led by Gen. John Bell Hood.

He then took his army east across Georgia, laying waste to the countryside in the same fashion that he had destroyed the city of Atlanta. This horrified the South, and Sherman’s acts are still points of contention. However if you read Sherman’s thoughts on his decisions, he was merely trying to end the war more quickly by reverting back to ancient principles of war. From times when armies fed themselves and armed themselves by living off of the land they were currently in. Sherman and his army took what they needed and destroyed what was left in order to deny the enemy its use. This was also intended to bring the war to the doorstep of the Southern citizens in the hope that they would press for the termination of hostilities.

By Christmas he would be able to send a telegram 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.”

A Christmas Gift

Today in History, December 22: 1864 – “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”. General William Tecumseh Sherman wired this message to President Lincoln after his army siezed one of the few remaining port cities in the South.

The message was not merely well received. It ended a six week cliff hanger for the President and the people of the North. That was when Gen. Sherman had taken the daring move of leaving the conquered city of Atlanta, thus cutting his army off from it’s supply lines. The large army would be solely dependent upon the supplies it could obtain from the land. Everything that was not needed to feed or provision the Union Army in a huge swath between the two cities was destroyed to prevent it’s use by the South.

Sherman had several objectives: Take Savannah to prevent supplies reaching the Confederacy from overseas, join up with the Navy, and bring the horrors of war to the Southern populace in an effort to demoralize them and shorten the war.

Running Vicksburg….

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Today in History, April 16: 1863 – Navy. Littoral. Riverine. Inter-branch cooperation. Amphibious. Most of these terms are not recognized by most until World War II or Vietnam. But they became reality much earlier…in The Civil War. Union Generals Grant and Sherman had been trying to take Vicksburg, Mississippi for six months without success. Grant tried to move his troops past Vicksburg on the Louisiana side, but the swampy terrain made it slow going. So, thinking “outside the box”, he called upon the Navy…He and Navy Admiral David Dixon Porter designed to have Grant’s soldiers moved south past the batteries at Vicksburg via the Mississippi River, using numerous Ironclads, Riverboats, and barges. The idea was to sneak past the Confederate cannon..but the rebels spotted the passing ships and a battle ensued. One ship and two barges were lost, but the vast majority of Grant’s forces made it to their destination. They then lay siege to Vickburg, which they had now cut off from reinforcement or resupply. By July 4th, Vicksburg fell to Grant and Sherman’s forces. When we think of the US Navy, we think of Frigates, Ships of the Line, Battleships, or Aircraft Carriers, depending on the time in history, sailing the seas. But many of our Navy’s victories were won in shallow waters or on rivers. The Navy used “Littoral”, or shallow water ships, and “Riverine”, or river tactics in numerous conflicts. Vicksburg and other Mississippi Civil War battles displayed the use of Navy – Army cooperation.