In November 1864, Abraham Lincoln was reelected president of a country torn apart by war. Lincoln’s victory was due mostly to Gen. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 2. In a hard-fought campaign, Sherman’s army lost 31,000 men battling through north Georgia to Atlanta. Meanwhile in Virginia, although he had almost wrecked the Army of the Potomac in the process, Gen. Grant had pinned down Gen. Lee’s Confederate army in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond.
Confronted with an ever growing number of casualties, a war-numbed, grieving nation reelected Lincoln to bring the war to a successful close. Because the Confederates would not yield after the fall of Atlanta, Union forces would have to continue to wage war. The eleven Confederate states were about the same geographical size as the eighteen states remaining in the Union. Sherman’s army was now deep in hostile territory with lengthening lines of supply. What to do next was the question pondered by Lincoln’s generals.
Having lived in the South prior to the war, Sherman understood its people and economic structure. He believed the only way to defeat the Confederacy was to cripple the economy supporting its war effort. Sherman did not want to immobilize his forces by garrisoning Atlanta. He proposed to march his army across Georgia. He had to be persuasive with superiors because his plan challenged the accepted military doctrine of the time. An army could not survive in hostile country without lines of communication and supply. To attempt otherwise would bring disaster from starvation and attack by enemy forces.
In an effort to draw Sherman’s forces out of Georgia, the Confederate government decided to recapture Tennessee. Gen. Hood had shifted his army to northern Alabama in preparation for the invasion. In response to the widely publicized Confederate stratagem, Sherman sent part of his army back to Tennessee to confront Hood when he stormed into the state.
Gen, Sherman liked the Confederate plan, when Hood moved into Tennessee, there would be few Confederate troops in Georgia. With much of Atlanta in ruins, Sherman and his remaining 62,000 troops headed east on November 16. They moved in two sections on a 60 mile front to confuse the Confederates. Their objective was Savannah on the Atlantic coast over 250 miles away. As the departing army cut its communications, many in the North feared it was heading to its doom.
In reality, the army was in excellent shape. There were thousands in its ranks under the age of 18. The majority of lieutenants and captains were in their early twenties. The army’s six ranking officers averaged 31 years of age. They were cool and efficient in battle. Gen. Sherman had long ago cancelled all drills and reviews, formality had been reduced to a minimum. Gen. Sherman’s marching order began with the fateful words: “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march.” Along the route, everything capable of supporting the Confederate war effort was to be reduced to rubble.
After Sherman’s army disappeared as it plunged deeper into Georgia, marvelous news arrived from the general Sherman had sent to Tennessee. The forces commanded by Gen. George Thomas, a Virginian who had remained loyal to the Union, crushed Hood’s army at Nashville on December 15-16. It was a devastating defeat, the battered survivors retreating to Mississippi.
On December 22, Sherman’s army reached Savannah and linked up with the Union navy. His army had not been annihilated as so arrogantly predicted by Confederate authorities. It had sliced the Confederacy in two for a second time. It severely damaged the South’s war making capability by disrupting food supplies, demolishing vital transportation and manufacturing facilities. As a result, Confederate morale plunged, army desertions began to skyrocket. Sherman presented Savannah, with its heavy guns and large cotton stores, to Lincoln as a Christmas gift. For the first time since the war began in 1861, President Lincoln could be sure his military forces would eventually win the war.
Approximately 25% of the soldiers serving in the Union armies were foreign-born. The number of U.S. Colored Troops greatly expanded as the tempo of the war increased. As Union soldiers pushed into the Confederacy, they saw how slavery functioned. The toughening attitude of the soldiers was a factor in making emancipation one of the war’s objectives. In January 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives, which had been sitting on the bill sent from the Senate, passed the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. It was then sent to the states for ratification.