In the spring of 1864, while Grant relentlessly pursued Lee through Virginia, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman left Chattanooga, Tennessee with his sights set on Atlanta. His army of 100,000 was still high from its victories in southern Tennessee the previous winter. But immediately, they ran into resistance from Joseph Johnston and his smaller but expertly led forces. Knowing that he could not prevail in a head-to-head encounter, Johnston hit-and-ran, harassed and peppered Sherman’s army as it plowed through Georgia.
Johnston’s tactics were shaped by the military realities—but he also had a keen understanding of politics. He realized that Lincoln’s re-election was doubtful, and that barring some major Northern victory, the Democratic candidate, George McClellan, who favored negotiations with the South, might win. Johnston’s goal, therefore, was to avoid a disaster—stay in the field, slow Sherman’s march, and prevent the Union general and the American president from gaining a large victory.
But ironically, the general understood politics better than the politician. Confederate president Jefferson Davis wanted to see more dramatic military results, and therefore he replaced the judicious Johnston with the more hot-blooded John Bell Hood on 18 July.
Hood immediately attacked Sherman’s army—on 20 July at Peachtree Creek and on 22 July just outside Atlanta. The action was exactly what Davis wanted. But the cost was enormous—in these two actions alone Hood lost 13,000 men. Moreover, they barely delayed the inevitable. Sherman gained control over all of railroad lines funneling food and supplies to the beleaguered city; finally convincing even Hood that there was no hope. The Confederate general abandoned the city, boosting Northern morale and reassuring Lincoln’s re-election.
Sherman’s work, however, was far from finished. On 16 November, he set fire to Atlanta and set off on the second leg of his destructive Georgia journey. Instructing his 60,000 men to pack light and live off the land, he cut a 60 miles groove through the rebel state destroying everything in his path. Hood offered little resistance. He had come around to Johnston’s way of thinking. Instead of attacking the unstoppable Sherman, he concentrated on disrupting his communications and supplies lines back to Tennessee. It was really all that Hood could do. But it did not make much of a difference. Sherman’s army took all that it needed from the farms and factories it encountered as it marched. When it reached Savannah in December, Northern ships provided all that Sherman’s Georgia hosts could not.
In January, Sherman hit the road yet again. This time he headed due north, taking his unique brand of total war into the seedbed of secession, South Carolina. He captured the state capital Columbia on 17 February and burned it. Then he marched into North Carolina with plans of joining Grant in Virginia. His 90,000 troops would no doubt tip the scales in the long siege of Petersburg.
Recognizing that the combined Union armies would be fatal to the Confederate cause, Lee ordered Joe Johnston to make one last ditch attempt to slow Sherman’s advance. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was broken, but he managed to scrape together about 21,000 men for the effort. Yet even half Sherman’s army was enough to turn back Johnston’s comparatively small force. At Bentonville, on 19 March, Johnston attacked the eastern wing of Sherman’s army led by Major General Henry Slocum. And for a few hours, the smaller rebel force did fairly well. Slocum, believing that he was facing only a small regiment of cavalry, did not initially call for support. But soon enough he realized his error and overpowering numbers were delivered to the field.
Johnston withdrew his forces on the battle’s third day and Sherman allowed him to retreat in peace. He knew that the war was all but over. And in fact, a few hundred miles to the north, Petersburg was about to fall and with it the South’s final hopes.