On November 12, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and the Union Army started their March to the Sea which ended just before Christmas in Savannah, Georgia. The march, also known as the Savannah Campaign, encouraged the Union Army and helped lead to the surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War five months later.

As we have discussed in previous blogs, Atlanta served as a hub for the Confederacy and a major transportation link for supplies and troops between the eastern seaboard and the west. After Sherman’s forces captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Sherman spent several weeks preparing for his march to the coast. He rejected the Union plan to move through Alabama to Mobile, pointing out that Mobile Bay closed in August 1864, the Alabama port no longer held any military significance.

“General Sherman’s Grand March Through Central Georgia”. Harper’s Weekly

He decided to proceed southeast toward Savannah or Charleston. He carefully studied census records to determine which route could provide food for his men and forage for his animals. President Lincoln was doubtful and did not want Sherman to move into enemy territory before the election in November, Sherman persuaded his friend General Ulysses S. Grant that the campaign was possible in winter. Through Grant’s intervention Sherman finally gained permission, although he had to delay until after election day.

Sherman divided his approximately 60,000 troops into two roughly equal wings. The right wing was under Oliver O. Howard. The left wing was commanded by Henry W. Slocum. Sherman had about 2,500 supply wagons and 600 ambulances. Before the army left Atlanta, the general issued an order outlining the rules of the march, but soldiers often ignored the limitations on foraging. Sherman’s foragers quickly became known as “bummers” as they raided farms and plantations.

The early 19th century Casulon Plantation in Good Hope, Georgia was spared during the passing of Sherman’s armies only to be destroyed by fire in 2003.

The two wings advanced by separate routes, generally staying twenty miles to forty miles apart. They headed for the state capital at Milledgeville. Opposing Sherman’s advance was Confederate cavalry, about 8,000 strong, under Major General Joseph Wheeler. Although William J. Hardee had overall command in Georgia, with his headquarters at Savannah, neither he nor Governor Joseph E. Brown could do anything to stop Sherman’s advance.

In preparation for Sherman’s arrival, Governor Brown released 150 prisoners in return for serving in the Confederate army to help protect the capital. He also ordered 500 slaves from surrounding areas to help protect the capital too. In an attempt to save the Governor’s Mansion, Brown had the mansion stripped of all of its furnishings and possessions which were then loaded on to wagons and trains and sent south. Governor Brown and family left them mansion too and headed south before the arrival of Sherman’s men.

The Governors Mansion in Milledgeville, Ga

On November 23, the state capital peacefully surrendered, and Sherman occupied the vacant governor’s mansion and capitol building. Sherman noticing that the mansion was completely empty, slept on the floor of the family dining room for one night before leaving the next day to continue his march to Savannah.

The capitol building was a popular stop for many of the Union troops. Inside they found Confederate money which the soldiers took for purchases later on. Union troops held a mock Georgia legislative session in the legislative chambers of the capitol building. Needless to say, most of the troops participating in this mock session were drinking. It is rumored that the troops brought forth a bill to vote Georgia back into the Union it had seceded from in January of 1861.

The old State Capitol building was the scene of a mock gathering of the Georgia Legislature by Sherman’s troops in 1864.

Another story from the Union stay in Milledgeville is that after General Sherman had left the city, the troops decided to have even more fun. The tales say soldiers held a mock funeral for Governor Brown. Men carried a casket through the streets to the church that Brown attended. Upon arrival, the casket was set down in front and a lieutenant colonel gave a eulogy. Later the remaining troops left Milledgeville to continue their march to Savannah.

Milledgeville was essentially spared by Sherman and is today a bustling college town with a large concentration of historic homes and public buildings. Governor Brown returned to Milledgeville after Sherman and the Union troops had left and all the mansion’s furnishings and possessions were returned in January of 1865.

But those days of misery were not forgotten. Memories of poverty during the war and the psychological impact of the march, disorder and scavenging have been passed down from generation to generation in the antebellum city in middle Georgia. The old State Capitol building in Milledgeville is one of the oldest public buildings in America, dating to 1807, and is today the home of the Georgia Military Institute.