November 16, 1864: March to the Sea Begins


The last of the Union troops pulled out of Atlanta today one hundred and fifty years ago as the most successful military operation of the Civil War got underway.  Sherman was out to establish that a Union army could promenade through the hitherto untouched heart of the Confederacy and that there was absolutely nothing the Confederates could do about it.  The destruction wreaked by his army was important from a military standpoint, but the dagger against the morale of the Confederacy was the fact that he proceeded at a deliberate pace for 300 miles, with his army spread out over sixty miles, burning as they went, and the Confederate army might as well have not existed for all the impact it had on this huge Yankee military stroll.  Here is Sherman’s account in his memoirs of the beginning of the March:


About 7 a.m. of November 16th we rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles. We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city. Away off in the distance, on the McDonough road, was the rear of Howard’s column, the gun-barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south; and right before us the Fourteenth Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond. Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of “John Brown’s soul goes marching on;” the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.

Then we turned our horses’ heads to the east; Atlanta was soon lost behind the screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem like the memory of a dream; and I have never seen the place since. The day was extremely beautiful, clear sunlight, with bracing air, and an unusual feeling of exhilaration seemed to pervade all minds–a feeling of something to come, vague and undefined, still full of venture and intense interest. Even the common soldiers caught the inspiration, and many a group called out to me as I worked my way past them, “Uncle Billy, I guess Grant is waiting for us at Richmond!” Indeed, the general sentiment was that we were marching for Richmond, and that there we should end the war, but how and when they seemed to care not; nor did they measure the distance, or count the cost in life, or bother their brains about the great rivers to be crossed, and the food required for man and beast, that had to be gathered by the way. There was a “devil-may-care” feeling pervading officers and men, that made me feel the full load of responsibility, for success would be accepted as a matter of course, whereas, should we fail, this “march” would be adjudged the wild adventure of a crazy fool. I had no purpose to march direct for Richmond by way of Augusta and Charlotte, but always designed to reach the sea-coast first at Savannah or Port Royal, South Carolina, and even kept in mind the alternative of Pensacola.

The first night out we camped by the road-side near Lithonia. Stone Mountain, a mass of granite, was in plain view, cut out in clear outline against the blue sky; the whole horizon was lurid with the bonfires of rail-ties, and groups of men all night were carrying the heated rails to the nearest trees, and bending them around the trunks. Colonel Poe had provided tools for ripping up the rails and twisting them when hot; but the best and easiest way is the one I have described, of heating the middle of the iron-rails on bonfires made of the cross-ties, and then winding them around a telegraph-pole or the trunk of some convenient sapling. I attached much importance to this destruction of the railroad, gave it my own personal attention, and made reiterated orders to others on the subject.



  1. The last six months of the War of American Secession, as we call it, are strikingly similar to the climactic three months of the battle of France in 1944. The British and Canadians spent months, like the Army of the Potomac, ferociously pressing towards the capital – Paris, Richmond – achieving, on paper, little, for great expense, but keeping the best enemy units tied down and incapable of reacting to other events; while, far away, a maverick commander with a big if not always loveable personality – Sherman, Patton – managed to break free of the forces trying to trammel him,and started on a great free-wheeling march that led him first to a strategic harbour – Savannah, Brest – and then, by longest but fastest way, straight for the capital, till the enemy units there were caught between hammer and anvil and had to flee with enormous loss.

    As for using the term War of American Secession, it’s the only term that avoids offense. If you call it the Civil War, there will be the occasional southerner who will argue that the southern government was perfectly legitimate and that the war was between two sovereign states; and if you call it the war between the states – even worse. But there is no doubt that the south seceded, and that the war was about their secession.

    • We have quite a few names for that conflict Fabio. The truth is that it was several types of war. In the border states it was a civil war of literally brother against brother. In the big campaigns it was a conventional war between two states. In parts of the South it was a war of insurrection by Unionists against the Confederate state. It was often a guerrilla war, especially the further west one went. Indian wars, internecine and against whites, overlapped with the war. In the North the government dealt with the greatest domestic unrest in our history. Kansas and western Missouri were at war with each other prior to the war and that lasted beyond the war. Here are a few of the names for the greatest of American conflicts:

      The War for Constitutional Liberty
      The War for Southern Independence
      The Second American Revolution
      The War for States’ Rights
      Mr. Lincoln’s War
      The Southern Rebellion
      The War for Southern Rights
      The War of the Southern Planters
      The Second War for Independence
      The War to Suppress Yankee Arrogance
      The Brothers’ War
      The War of Secession
      The Great Rebellion
      The War for Nationality
      The War for Southern Nationality
      The War Against Slavery
      The Civil War Between the States
      The War of the Sixties
      The War Against Northern Aggression
      The Yankee Invasion
      The War for Separation
      The War for Abolition
      The War for the Union
      The Confederate War
      The War of the Southrons
      The War for Southern Freedom
      The War of the North and South
      The Lost Cause
      Mr. Davis’ War
      The official name of the conflict, which virtually no one uses, is The War of the Rebellion.

  2. My eyes caught the idea of Pensacola as an alternative. That is interesting. He understood he could get truly and completely cut off. Getting to the coast would give a means of retreat if necessary as the US Navy ruled the waters. The south just couldn’t respond in strength and mobility gave an always moving target. It was an impressive move.

    • Pretty much anywhere on the coast, as you point out Dennis, would be acceptable to Sherman due to Union naval dominance.

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