Grade: Senior
Subject: History

#2914. Civil War: Atlanta & The March to the Sea

History, level: Senior
Posted Fri Aug 15 12:56:38 PDT 2003 by Jennifer Rosenberry (
Two Week Civil War Curriculum
Civil War Preservation Trust, Hagerstown, MD (USA)
Materials Required: varied
Activity Time: in class background information;home projects
Concepts Taught: Civil War; civilian life; military strategy

This is a specific lesson regarding Atlanta and the March to the Sea (Civil War). It supplements the Two-Week Civil War Curriculum that can be obtained at the link below or by e-mailing Jen Rosenberry. It is available online or by sending your e-mail address and mailing address.

The Atlanta Campaign

"This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing!"
William Tecumseh Sherman, December 1860

General William Tecumseh Sherman. The name brings mixed emotions even to this day. Many Northerners respect Sherman as a brilliant general with a realistic view of war. On the other hand, many Southerners think the general was harsh. "War is cruelty," Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. "You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against the terrible hardships of war." What did he mean?

Things to Remember:

By 1864, the war had been raging for three years and several forces were impacting the outcome of the war. First of all, Union president Abraham Lincoln was coming up for reelection. Many Northerners were becoming tired of the war. "Peace Democrats" would try to make a grab for the White House -- and their campaign was that a vote for Lincoln was a vote for four more years of war. Lincoln needed big war victories to stay in office!

Also, the Western Theater of the war had become very important. (According to the National Park Service, the Western Theater was primarily between the Mississippi River and the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.) The western theater was the scene of many bloody battles and skirmishes.

In July 1863, U.S. General Grant had captured Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg had been guarding passage on the Mississippi River. When it was captured, the Confederacy was cut in half from east to west and no longer had complete control of the Mississippi River.

In the Eastern Theater, Robert E. Lee was holding fast. But, in the west, most battles had gone against the Confederacy. It was the weak point, and U.S. Grant determined to exploit it.

In early 1864, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sherman to set out from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and attack General Joseph Johnston's Confederate Army of Tennessee. Sherman was also ordered to "get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources."

Several major railroad lines all met at Atlanta, among them the Western & Atlantic Railroad, the Georgia Railroad, and the Macon & Western Railroad. Atlanta was a step off point for traveling west, and it is located right in the heart of the South.

Atlanta also produced ammunition for the Confederate cause. (Sherman had noted that he and his men were tired of finding boxes of ammunition stamped "made in Atlanta.")

Sherman knew that while the South may have been lacking in materials and soldiers, it more than made up for that with its fighting spirit. To win the war, he needed to damage ALL of the South's war resources -- that meant anything that could have been used to support the war effort, even if its loss would have hurt civilians. That meant railroads, factories, farms. . . and even some private homes. In other words, Sherman planned to wage something called a "total war."

He believed that he was fighting for two reasons, "first to gain physical results and next to inspire respect on which to build up our nation's power." Sherman was depending on speed to get the job done, and his army would be like a tornado, destroying everything that his own army couldn't use first.

Don't forget: in the beginning, Americans didn't expect that civilians would get involved in the war. Almost everyone, North and South, thought the war would be over in a matter of weeks! They thought the war would be short and exciting. In fact, during the First Battle of Bull Run, the citizens of Washington D.C. brought their picnic baskets to a nearby hill to watch the show! Very few people in 1861 would have predicted burning cities, starving civilians, or four years of fighting. By 1864, the nation had seen all too much of this.

Remember: the first part of Sherman's orders was to destroy Johnston's army. He had more men and more supplies. He had even spent time in northern Georgia and knew the land well. He had powerful forces and good generals, including: George Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," James McPherson and John Schofield. Thomas was a fighter, but he was not known for his speed. On the other hand, McPherson and Schofield could make quick attacks.

Stop and Think: When is it useful to be a slow and steady fighter? When is it useful to be a fast fighter? Can you think of any sports that use both "slow and steady" players and "fast and sneaky" players?

Why is it dangerous to get too far from your supply lines? What are the advantages of traveling light? When are they worth the risks?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being the attacker? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being on the defensive?
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston figured that his best bet was to force Sherman to attack him. He planned to lure Sherman deeper and deeper into the South and further from his supplies. Then, Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest could attack from behind and cut Sherman's supply line. (Forrest was known as the "Wizard of the Saddle" because he was such a good cavalry officer.)

At the very least, if he couldn't defeat Sherman, he could at least keep Atlanta from being captured for a while. The longer the war dragged out, the more Northerners wanted to end the war even if it meant allowing the South to go its own way. Perhaps Johnston could cause Abraham Lincoln to lose his reelection. If Lincoln lost, perhaps a new president would be willing to ask for peace and end the war.

Stop and Think: Do you think a new president would have brought peace? If the war had ended this way in 1864, what do you think would have happened? Would we have two countries today?

In a nutshell, Sherman hoped to keep Johnston's army busy at the front with General Thomas. Then, McPherson and Schofield could try to flank Johnston (go around the army's side) or force Johnston out of his defensive positions so he would have to fight.

Sherman and Johnston fought a series of battles in the Atlanta Campaign. (A "campaign" is a series of battles fought for a specific goal.) Here is a map of the campaign. How many of the following battles can you find? Use the following web site to help you: (The Atlanta Campaign is about 2/3 down the page.) Or, use
Rocky Face Ridge
New Hope Church
Pickett's Mills
Pine Mountain
Gilgal Church
Noonday Creek
Kolb's Farm
Kennesaw Mountain
Ruff's Mill
Peachtree Creek
Ezra Church
Utoy Creek
Second Battle of Dalton
Lovejoy's Station
Stop and Think: Why do several of the above battlefields have several different names? Using the above links, which sites were Union victories? Confederate victories?
Stop and Think: Using the battle summaries page, which sites are in danger of being lost to development? Which sites have been saved?

After a series of battles, General Sherman discovered that Johnston had found a very strong position at Kennesaw Mountain (to the north of Atlanta). Johnston had managed to use ropes to pull all his artillery to the top of the mountain. Sherman, in turn, planned to capture the road at Kolb's Farm so his army, under General Joseph Hooker, could "flank" Johnston's army.

Johnston figured out what Sherman was doing and he sent General John B. Hood to defend the road. Instead of defending the position, Hood attacked. The date was June 22, 1864. Hooker hesitated, thinking that the Confederates were stronger than his army. Many men died for a needless attack, and nothing was gained.

As a result, the newspapers attacked both Sherman and Johnston.

Stop and Think: Why do you think Southern papers would have been unhappy with Johnston? Why would Northern papers be upset with Sherman?

Activity: Headlines

1.) Pretend that you are a Southern newspaper editor and you are very unhappy with General Johnston. Write a newspaper headline that attacks Johnston. Now, switch sides. Pretend you are a Northern newspaper editor and attack Sherman.

(Keep in mind that Civil War era headlines were often quite long, while today's newspaper headlines are generally very short. You may want to visit your library or go online to view Civil War era newspapers to get a feel for their language.)

2.) Now, pretend you are a Southern newspaper editor and you approve of Johnston's strategy. Praise him in an interesting headline. Then, switch sides and praise Sherman.

With all of the pressure from the White House and the press, it's hardly any wonder that on June 27 Sherman attacked at Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman lost a lot of men because he was attacking uphill through underbrush. Also, remember that Johnston had moved his artillery to the top of Kennesaw Mountain.

Stop and Think: Why would attacking uphill, through underbrush, be so difficult? For more information, see "Land Advantages" in the Civil War Preservation Trust Two-Week Curriculum. Or, view segments of the movie Gettysburg.

Johnston moved backward to Atlanta so he could pick up more reinforcements. So, Sherman had failed -- his goal was to shatter Johnston's army, but the army was getting stronger and stronger. Even so, Johnston was removed from command. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was fearful because the fight was now at Atlanta's back door. Who was Johnston's replacement? General John B. Hood!

Stop and Think: Johnston had ordered Hood to defend the road at Kolb's Farm; instead, he disobeyed orders and attacked. The result was a needless battle. So, do you think it is fair that Hood was placed in command of the army? Why or why not? Why do you think Davis chose him? How does Davis' choice reflect what other Southerners were thinking?

Hood's first battle was at Peachtree Creek. (Find this site on your map.) He had found a gap in Sherman's army. Sherman had been hoping to cut the four railway lines heading into Atlanta, because Atlanta itself was too strong. It was surrounded by earthworks and would have been deadly to attack. This was July 20, 1864. The Union managed to fend off the Confederates.

On the 22nd of July, the battle of Atlanta began when Hood tried to flank Union General McPherson. Sherman managed to cut two of the railroad lines, and McPherson's troops fended off Hood. But, unfortunately, McPherson died in the struggle. He had been one of Sherman's favorite soldiers. General O.O. Howard replaced McPherson.

Hood wasted little time. He attacked again on the 28th during the battle of Ezra Church. Again, Hood's forces lost. Or did they? Remember: Sherman's goal was to crush Johnston's (now Hood's) army. The Confederate army was still intact, and Nathan Bedford Forrest could still attack Sherman from the rear. Sherman found a chance to "disappear".

At last! Hood thought that Sherman was retreating. Wrong! Instead, Sherman slipped away and cut the last railroad line to Atlanta. Hood knew that his army was now in danger of being trapped, so he abandoned the city. Union soldiers marched into Atlanta on September 2, 1864.

Sherman ordered the civilians of Atlanta to evacuate, or, leave the city. The mayor of Atlanta pleaded with Sherman to change his mind. He refused, and said:

I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away. . .. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. And those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. . .I want peace and I believe it can only be reached through Union and war. . .But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against anger from every quarter. Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them in more quiet places proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta.

Stop and Think: What does he mean by the third sentence? Do you think he was right or wrong to say it?

Activity: Read Sherman's words, above, and rephrase them in your own words.

About half of the citizens of Atlanta did leave. The Union forces wrecked or burned everything useful to the Confederate military. Unfortunately, by November 16, 1864, almost everything in Atlanta was destroyed.

Activity: To learn what it was like to live in Atlanta during this time, read an excerpt from Carrie Berry's diary in the Civil War Preservation Trust Two-Week Curriculum. Or, you can visit the following web sites:
(W.P. Howard's letter to Joseph E. Brown, Governor of Georgia, Dec. 7th, 1864)
(Entire text of Carrie's diary)

One soldier noted "We are leaving Atlanta, Ga., all aflame. The air is filled with flying, burning cinders. Buildings covering two hundred acres are set in flames. I heard a soldier say: ' I believe Sherman has set the very river on fire.' The Rebel inhabitants are in agony. The soldiers are as hearty and jolly as men can be." (Confederate Veteran Vol. XXVIII, No. 11.)

Other than the cost to civilians, what were the results of the fall of Atlanta? The Southern army had lost a major supply line and a major munitions center (a place that makes ammunition). Many Southern civilians felt despair. A woman named Mary Chesnut who kept an extensive diary during the Civil War, wrote, "Although Sherman took Atlanta, he does not mean to stay there. . . Fire and the sword are for us here (in Charleston)." (You can read Mary Chesnut's diary at

Stop and Think: What does she mean by this comment? How far is Charleston from Atlanta?

The major victory at Atlanta boosted Northern morale and gave the Union hope of victory. This helped Lincoln to be reelected. This meant that there was little chance of the Union "giving up" and negotiating peace -- not without a Southern defeat first. It also meant that Sherman's army had pushed to the heart of the Confederacy -- Sherman was stronger than ever and he was in a perfect position to cause great destruction to war materials, homes, supplies, and lines of communication.

The March to the Sea

Once Sherman got to Atlanta, he changed his plans. His orders had been to defeat Johnston's, and then Hood's, army. But maybe it would be better to leave Hood's army alone. If he ignored the Confederates he could push the whole way to the sea, through the heart of the South. And, who would stop him? This would do three very important things:

1.) His men could live off the land and destroy everything that they couldn't use. Both civilians and armies would be short of food and supplies. This would lower the South's morale even more -- it would make soldiers and civilians think that their army and government were useless to protect them.

2.) Sherman's army could cut the Confederacy in two, from north to south. (And, remember that Grant's victory at Vicksburg in 1863 cut the Confederacy from east to west). This would damage communications, supplies, government -- and just about every aspect of running a government.

3.) If Sherman's army made it all the way to the sea, they could attack General Robert E. Lee from the south while Grant attacked Lee from the north. So, Lee would be fighting on two fronts (or sides). This was extremely important because Lee was defending the Confederate capital! Lee couldn't afford to be distracted from his fight there. In addition, the South was "running out of soldiers" -- the Union had more manpower and could replace the soldiers it lost. The Confederacy couldn't.

Stop and Think: Why would #1 be important as a battle tactic? Why would #2 be important? For #3, why is fighting on two sides so difficult?

Do you think that wars ought to be waged on civilians? Why or why not?

Grant approved Sherman's plan to march to the sea. Sherman then sent General Thomas (The Rock of Chickamauga) to Tennessee. Hood planned to work with Forrest to attack Thomas and get Sherman to send reinforcements (or, extra soldiers) to help him. This would pull men away from Sherman's army and weaken his strength.

On November 29th, Hood almost trapped Union General Schofield at Spring Hill, Tennessee. (See for more information about this site, which CWPT helped to preserve.) Schofield slipped away to Franklin, where almost 1/3 of Hood's men were killed or wounded in battle there. Schofield and Thomas joined each other at Nashville, and they defeated Hood's badly outnumbered army there on December 15-16, 1864. From this point on, Hood's army was almost useless.

Teachers: Visit for a discussion on the legality of Sherman's March to the Sea.

Meanwhile, Sherman was marching to the sea. His army (and cavalry under Judson Kilpatrick) destroyed houses, farms, and anything useful. Men called bummers lived off the land (also called foraging). Bummers were good at stripping the land of food -- and sometimes, stripping homes of valuables. His force of 50,000 men devastated the landscape.

Stop and think: Do you think this kind of destruction was "forgiven" after the war? Why or why not? Do you think the Union army was correct (or, justified) in its actions? With horses and wagons, what kind of damage could 50,000 men do just by walking?

Sherman told General Grant that "Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air and hanging like a pall over the ruined city. . .. We have consumed the corn and fodder in the region of country thirty miles on either side of a line from Atlanta to Savannah, as also the sweet potatoes, cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry, and have carried away more than ten thousand horses and mules, as well as a countless number of their slaves." (Confederate Veteran Vol. XXX, No. 4.) Everywhere the army went thousands of homeless civilians -- refugees -- fled in its wake. They lost everything except what they could carry. Thousands of slaves who had been freed by Sherman's army followed. He had freed the slaves because freeing them would hurt the Confederacy. The slaves were seen as "contraband" -- or, war material. If they were freed, who would plant the crops and do all the labor -- especially with so many young men away at war?

Activity: Go to and read A Woman's Wartime Journal: an Account of the Passage over Georgia's Plantation of Sherman's Army on the March to the Sea, as Recorded in the Diary of Dolly Sumner Lunt (Mrs. Thomas Burge): Dolly Lunt Burge, 1817-1891.

While many freed slaves saw Sherman as a type of hero and left their homes to follow the army, Sherman tended to see the former slaves as a nuisance. Giving them food, shelter and medical care was a drain on the army's resources. Remember: Sherman wanted to move quickly and live off the land. How could he do this with extra mouths to feed? One of Sherman's generals forced the former slaves to leave the army: after the soldiers crossed a bridge, he burned it before the refugees could cross. (Believe it or not, this general's name was Jefferson Davis.) Many slaves died trying to cross the river. Many were recaptured by their former masters.

Stop and Think: Who is the other famous Jefferson Davis?

Stop and Think: Do you think Sherman (and the rest of the Union army) had a responsibility to protect the slaves and other civilians? Why or why not? How do you think Sherman could have protected them?

Finally, on December 22, 1864, Sherman reached Savannah, Georgia. He sent a telegram to president Abraham Lincoln saying "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition; also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton."

The next city on Sherman's list was Columbia, South Carolina. "The whole army is burning with an insatiable [uncontrollable] desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina," Sherman wrote. "I almost tremble for her fate."

Stop and Think: Why were Sherman and his men so angry at South Carolina? What important event was related to that state?
Columbia surrendered on February 17, 1865. Almost immediately, half of the town was destroyed by fire. The Confederates blamed Sherman; Sherman blamed the Confederates and said that they did it to themselves when they tried to destroy the city's cotton.

And, the army marched on, still cutting a path of destruction. On February 18, the South Carolinians abandoned Fort Sumter.

Stop and Think: What important event happened at Fort Sumter? How were the events of February 18th significant to Union morale? To Confederate morale?

Sadly, Sherman was not the only Union general to use "total war" against the Confederacy. In the summer and fall of 1864, Grant ordered General Phil Sheridan to destroy Virginia's Shenandoah Valley "so that a crow flying across the valley would have to carry its own rations." And, Confederates would seek retribution in the North.

But that is another lesson.

Discussion Topics:

Why was Atlanta such an important target during the Civil War? Why would its loss be so devastating to the Confederacy?

How would you describe the Fall of Atlanta? How is this different from previous wars? How is it like present-day wars?

What are some of the political factors that influenced Grant and Sherman's battle choices? Does this still happen today?

What was the target of Sherman's March to the Sea? How is this different from the usual objectives?

How do you think the men in Sherman's army felt about Southern civilians? How do you think the civilians felt about Sherman's army? Do you think there was a difference in their attitudes before and after the campaign?

What would the long-term effects of this kind of campaign be (agriculture, economy, communications, transportation, civilians, culture)? How long do you think it took Southerners to rebuild physically? How long would the emotional and mental effects last?


Activity 1: Go to and listen to the music to "Marching Through Georgia". Carefully look at each verse -- what do the verses mean? Write your notes in the margin. What does the language (sometimes offensive) say about the beliefs of the Union soldiers? What is your reaction?

by Henry Clay Work, published 1865

Ring the good ol' bugle, boys, we'll sing another song,
Sing it with the spirit that will start the world along,
Sing it as we used to sing it fifty thousand strong
While we were marching through Georgia.

CHORUS: Hurrah, hurrah, we bring the jubilee!
Hurrah, hurrah, the flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
While we were marching through Georgia!

How the darkies shouted when they heard the joyful sound!
How the turkeys gobbled which our commissary found!
How the sweet potatoes even started from the ground
While we were marching through Georgia!--CHORUS

Yes, and there were Union men who wept with joyful tears
When they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years.
Hardly could they be restrained from breaking forth in cheers
While we were marching through Georgia!--CHORUS

"Sherman's dashing Yankee boys will never reach the coast!"
So the saucy rebels said, and 'twas a handsome boast,
Had they not forgot, alas, to reckon with the host
While we were marching through Georgia!--CHORUS

So we made a thoroughfare for freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, 300 to the main.
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain
While we were marching through Georgia!--CHORUS

Activity 2: Compare and Contrast

Think about what it was like to be a civilian living in Georgia during this time. Then think about the song Marching Through Georgia. How are the two stories different? How are they the same?

Activity 3: Imagine you're a slave on a farm outside Atlanta, Georgia. You've heard all about the Union army and you think that maybe by following the army you can get your freedom. Do you leave your home to follow the Union army, or do you stay where you are? Why? What reasons would you have for staying? For going?

Decide what you would do, and then explain your decision in a skit to be performed in front of the class.

Activity 4: Compare Sherman's army to Johnston/Hood's army. Make a diagram comparing their similarities and differences.

Activity 5: Political Cartoons

Draw a cartoon describing Sherman's March to the Sea.
For bonus points, draw two political cartoons: one showing the March to the Sea from the Confederate view, and one from the Union view.


Draw a political cartoon showing describing Jefferson Davis replacing General Joseph E. Johnston with General John B. Hood. Do you think this was a good idea or a bad idea?

Visit for good Civil War era political cartoons from the British viewpoint. You may even want to look at your own local newspaper for examples of political cartoons. Remember: the point of a political "cartoon" isn't always to be funny!

Activity 6: Change the words of a popular song to explain what happened during the Atlanta Campaign or the March to the Sea.

Activity 7: Pretend that you are a Southerner from Atlanta. Write a letter to your cousin in England explaining what is happening.

Activity 8: For advanced students
Research the term "blitzkrieg" and write a short paragraph explaining what it means. Then, draw a diagram comparing and contrasting the blitzkrieg and Sherman's March to the Sea.