Through the course of the Civil War, there were many battles and campaigns that led to the Union victory over the Confederacy. However, I believe that the 1864-65 campaign of Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman was what broke the backbone of the Confederacy, leading to their eventual surrender.
In the fall of 1864, Sherman set his sights on Atlanta and Savannah. At the time, Atlanta was the main source of supplies for Confederate forces throughout the south. It was the major railroad hub, was the home to foundries, ammunition factories and warehouses from which these supplies were shipped out to southern troops.
On September 2, 1864, Sherman captured Atlanta and shut off the major supply source for the Confederacy. Taking Atlanta also helped Sherman supply his own large 60,000 troop army. After resting and recuperating for 2 months, Sherman set out on his famous March to the Sea with Savannah as his destination. He divided his large army into two groups that traveled about 30 miles apart.
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On November 22, 1864, one of Sherman’s armies was attacked by Confederate cavalry at Griswoldville. The attack was a strategic mistake for the Confederates as they suffered 650 killed or wounded cavalrymen compared to only 62 Union killed or wounded. The cavalry quickly fled the battle and headed south.
As Sherman continued his march to Savannah, he destroyed everything in his path. They destroyed bridges and railroads, plundered farms and plantations, taking or slaughtering all of the livestock – chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs and cattle – and they took crops, grain, bread and everything else they could eat or carry. They burned down barns and building as they marched on.
Word of Sherman’s ruthlessness and his overwhelming defeat at Griswold spread quickly, resulting in most Confederate forces long his path to flee ahead of his arrival. For the most part, Sherman met little resistance on his march.
On December 21, 1864, Sherman arrived at Savannah to find that the 10,000 Confederate troops had already fled, leaving the city undefended. Sherman’s March to the Sea had been completed in about 3 weeks and it had a devastating effect on southern morale, with many believing that there was no way to win the war.
While in Savannah, Union General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant asked Sherman to bring his army north to Virginia and join him to help confront and defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Grant wanted Sherman to transport his army via ships, but Sherman decided he would continue his march through the Carolinas, wreaking the same devastation that he had done in Georgia.
On Christmas Eve, 1864, Sherman told Grant:
“I feel no doubt whatever as to our future plans. I have thought them over so long and well that they appear as clear as daylight. I left Augusta [Ga.] untouched on purpose, because the enemy will be in doubt as to my objective point . . . whether it be Augusta or Charleston [S.C.], and will naturally divide his forces . . .. [O]n the hypothesis of ignoring Charleston and taking Wilmington, I would then favor a movement direct on Raleigh. The game is then up with Lee.”
On December 27, 1864, Grant replied to Sherman, saying:
“Your confidence in being able to march up and join this army pleases me, and I believe it can be done. The effect of such a campaign will be to disorganize the South, and prevent the organization of new armies from their broken fragments … If time is given, the fragments may be collected together and many of the [Confederate] deserters reassembled. If we can, we should act to prevent this … [Y]ou may make your preparations to start on your northern expedition without delay. Break up the railroads in South and North Carolina, and join the armies operating against Richmond as soon as you can.”
As Sherman prepared to march north, a huge Union amphibious assault captured Wilmington, North Carolina on January 15, 1865. Wilmington was the last major port by which Lee could receive supplies. After Wilmington was secured, Union Major General John Schofield was ordered to join up with Sherman on his march northward.
Sherman used the same tactic of splitting up his army into two units who kept a 30-mile space between them as they entered into South Carolina. By mid to late February, Sherman had captured Columbia, South Carolina and left the city virtually ruined.
By now, much of the Confederate forces from Tennessee and Georgia had been scattered and in disarray. Lee ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to:
“Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida … Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.”
Johnston replied to Lee saying that he didn’t think it possible to stop Sherman, however, he obeyed his orders and rounded up as many Confederate troops as possible which amounted to a mere 17,000 soldiers tasked with stopping Sherman’s 60,000. Johnston headed north to cut off Sherman as ordered.
On this day, March 19,1865, Johnston attacked one of Sherman’s split army of 30,000 at Bentonville, North Carolina. It was a last ditch effort of the Confederacy to stop Sherman from advancing from advancing north and joining up with Grant’s forces.
The initial charge of Johnston’s troops surprised the Union soldiers and began to drive them back. Then the one wing of Sherman’s army quickly regrouped and launched a counter attack. The fighting continued until it was too dark to see the enemy.
On March 20, Johnston’s troops had established a defensive position from which they hoped to stave off the Union attacks. However, more of Sherman’s forces arrived to give him the overwhelming numbers.
On March 21, Johnston discovered that a Union contingency was trying to cut off his only route of escape, he ordered his troops to retreat back over the bridge. Sherman’s forces gave pursuit and on April 18, Johnston signed an armistice with Sherman and surrendered what was left of his Confederate army.
Confederate losses at the Battle of Bentonville consisted of 240 dead, 1,700 wounded and 1,500 missing. Union losses were not as heavy but heavy enough with 194 dead, 1,112 wounded and 221 missing.
Johnston’s stand at Bentonville was the largest single battle in North Carolina during the entire Civil War. It was also the last major effort to stop the advance of General William T. Sherman who successful cut a path of destruction from Tennessee through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina into Virginia. He literally cut out the backbone of the Confederacy and played one of the most important roles in the eventual defeat of the South.
Sources for the above includes: Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina; Bentonville Battlefield; Bentonville; Battle of Bentonville; The Battle of Bentonville; Bentonville; Bentonville, North Carolina; Scorched Earth: Sherman’s March to the Sea;