August 31st, 1864 – Sherman Marches on Atlanta

Today-In-History

When Abraham Lincoln called Ulysses S. Grant east in the spring of 1864 to take command of all the Union armies, Grant appointed General William T. Sherman (by then known to his soldiers as “Uncle Billy”) to succeed him as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which entailed command of Union troops in the Western Theater of the war. As Grant took overall command of the armies of the United States, Sherman wrote to him outlining his strategy to bring the war to an end concluding that “if you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think ol’ Uncle Abe will give us twenty days leave to see the young folks.” On August 31st, 1864 Sherman launched the assault on Atlanta.

grant-and-sherman

Ulysses S. Grant (left) and General William T. Sherman (right).

Sherman proceeded to invade the state of Georgia with three armies: the 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland under George Henry Thomas, the 25,000-strong Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson, and the 13,000-strong Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield. He fought a lengthy campaign of maneuver through mountainous terrain against Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston‘s Army of Tennessee, attempting a direct assault only at the disastrous Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. In July, the cautious Johnston was replaced by the more aggressive John Bell Hood, who played to Sherman’s strength by challenging him to direct battles on open ground. Meanwhile, in August, Sherman “learned that I had been commissioned a major-general in the regular army, which was unexpected, and not desired until successful in the capture of Atlanta.”

Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign concluded successfully on September 2nd, 1864, with the capture of the city, which Hood had been forced to abandon. This success made Sherman a household name and helped ensure Lincoln’s presidential re-election in November. In August, the Democratic Party had nominated as its candidate George B. McClellan, the popular former Union army commander, and it had seemed likely that Lincoln would lose to McClellan. Lincoln’s defeat could well have meant the victory of the Confederacy, as the Democratic Party platform called for peace negotiations based on the acknowledgment of the Confederacy’s independence. Thus the capture of Atlanta, coming when it did, may have been Sherman’s greatest contribution to the Union cause.

atlanta-burning

The burning of Atlanta.

After ordering almost all civilians to leave the city in September, Sherman gave instructions that all military and government buildings in Atlanta be burned, although many private homes and shops were burned as well. This was to set a precedent for future behavior by his armies.


 

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