The greatest movement of the war was about to be inaugurated, under the most favorable auspices. Hood had pushed so far northward that effective pursuit of Sherman was impossible, while Lee could afford no relief to the endangered lines of communication. The forces in the field in Georgia were limited to the small command of Hardee, which consisted chiefly of State troops, wholly unused to service. General alarm prevailed in the interior when Sherman's purpose became known, and urgent demands were made upon the rebel authorities, by Governor Brown, for assistance. But all was in vain. The desperate effort of Hood to outflank and compel the retreat of his antagonist had proved to be a pit dug for himself and the cause he served. It was precisely what General Sherman desired, and it was reported, at the time the enemy moved to the rear, that he remarked, (p258) "I have never said, I had got Hood where I wanted him, but I will say so now, and I will give him rations if he will go to the Ohio." The result proved the great advantage secured to our arms by that hazardous attempt to force Sherman to retreat from Atlanta The temporary suspension of communications had not endangered our army, as supplies had accumulated at Atlanta sufficient to subsist the troops until the railroad could be repaired.
General Sherman resolved to make his presence felt in the heart of the enemy's territory, and began the work of destruction to public property before leaving Atlanta. Having removed the Government property to Chattanooga, and sent the sick to the rear, he boldly cut his own communications with his base of supply, and, like Cortez, commenced his forward movement through an enemy's country. The anxieties of the people in the loyal States were aroused for his safety, and the prevailing theme of conversation in social circles was the condition of Sherman and his army in the heart of the Southern Confederacy. For a period of forty days the only knowledge of progress was derived from the rebel press, which boasted of the plans laid for his destruction before he could reach the coast.
The right wing consisted of the Army of the Tennessee, under Major General Howard, and the (p259) left wing of the Army of Georgia under Major General Slocum. The former moved from Atlanta on the line of the Macon Railroad, while the latter diverged to the left, moving in the direction of Augusta, the several Corps and Divisions moving upon different roads, within supporting distance, thus sweeping over a belt of country nearly forty miles in width.
The Army of the Tennessee destroyed the public property at Marietta and the railroad thence to the Chattahoochee, the Fourteenth Corps destroying the road from Kingston to Marietta, and the Twentieth Corps completing the work of destruction from the river to Atlanta, and the depots, machine-shops, hotels, and the business portion of the town. The scene presented in the burning of Atlanta, as viewed from the summit of Stone Mountain, must have been fearful to contemplate. For miles in every direction the country was lighted up with the glare of the midnight carnival of flame. The place was rendered comparatively valueless as a centre of military operations, but the complete destruction of the several railroads leading to Chattanooga, Augusta, Montgomery, and Macon, and by the burning of the city.
The work of destruction from Kingston to Atlanta was completed on the 14th of November, and on the 15th the army moved upon its course. The right wing crossed the Chattahoochee on the (p260) 13th, and camped on the south of Atlanta, moving to Jonesboro on the 15th, a distance of twenty-one miles, and reaching McDonough, Henry County on the 16th. From this latter date the army moved through a region of country never before visited by hostile forces, and forage of all kinds was abundant, of which all availed themselves. A limited amount of subsistence was provided for such a campaign, and this was carefully husbanded during the early part of the period occupied in this memorable march, while passing through a fertile region. Subsequently, on reaching the pine region between the Oconee and the Ogeechee, the army relied wholly upon the supplies brought from Atlanta.
The stories related by the soldiers, who participated in this delightful stroll through the beautiful valleys and vast pine forests of Central and Eastern Georgia, are full of interest, and would constitute a volume of thrilling incidents. The people along the route, alarmed for the safety of their provisions, and the more valuable articles of household use or ornament, concealed them in the earth and in the woods. Almost invariably these hidden stores were discovered and appropriated by the soldiers. Money--not only the worthless Confederate notes--but gold and silver, watches, jewelry, costly apparel, and all sorts of trinkets, with immense (p261) stores of bacon were thus collected on that memorable march. The appearance of fresh earth, in the fields or the forest, was the signal for diligent search, which never failed to bring to light some buried treasure. In one instance a considerable amount of jewelry, with gold and silver coin, was found in a small box, hidden in a brush-heap near where the troops were encamped. all the luxuries of the planters were freely appropriated for use in camp, and no army ever fared better than that of General Sherman in this campaign. While all was uneasiness and anxiety in the public mind at the North, these men who had fought and chased the enemy, under Johnston and Hood, more than seven hundred miles, now found an unobstructed pathway open to them through the finest region of Georgia. They had no need of the generous donations which the friends at home would have gladly made them--as they made for the army in front of Petersburg---to enable them to celebrate the approaching holidays. To them the months of November and December were a succession of feasts on flesh and fruit, and all the dainties that heart could wish.
On the 18th of November the Fifteenth Corps reached Indian Springs, twenty-four miles from McDonough. Crossing the Ocmulgee on the 19th, the right wing moved to the South of Milledgeville on the 21st, while the left wing occupied that city. (p262) The cavalry of the enemy attacked the train on the 21st, but were soon repulsed, and the troops moved forward to the Central Georgia Railroad, eight miles east of Macon.
On the 22nd the First Division was employed in destroying the railroad, when the Second Brigade was attacked, at Griswoldville, by a superior force of infantry from Macon. The veterans of Walcott's Brigade maintained their well-earned reputation, pouring in a destructive fire upon the enemy. But the superiority of the assailants enabled them to extend their lines, covering the right flank, and the Twelfth Indiana was ordered up as a support. The Regiment moved forward to the scene of action on the double quick, and reached the ground in time to meet and check the advancing foe, who, finding the flank protected by re-inforcements, and meeting an obstinate resistance in the front, withdrew toward Macon, leaving his dead and wounded on the field. The troops engaged in this charge upon a small force of veterans was composed chiefly of State militia. Four hundred of their number were left upon the field, among whom were grey-haired men and beardless boys, who had been forced into the service of the exhausted Confederacy. Our loss was very slight in this engagement. The Regiment suffered no loss, though under fire from half past four till dark. (p263)
This engagement was the only one that marked the progress of the army from Atlanta to the rear of Savannah. The left wing occupied Milledgeville, unopposed, and after destroying the military stores abandoned the place. Governor Brown and the Legislature fled on the approach of the army, greatly chagrined at the humiliation of the Empire State of the South by the occupation of its Capital without the least resistance. The maledictions of the Governor upon the Confederate authorities were loud and prolonged, and on the withdrawal of Hardee from Savannah into South Carolina, he demanded and secured the return of the State troops, resolved that Georgia should not aid in the defense of those States that had not rallied to his aid in the hour of her peril. Ever after Governor Brown was a source of trouble to Jeff Davis and his advisers.
The army moved forward on the 23rd, fortifying on the right to resist attack, but no enemy made his appearance. On the 24th the Corps reached Irwinton, crossing the Oconee on the 26th, the Ohoopee on the 29th, and reaching the Ogeechee, December 2nd. On the 3rd the First Brigade crossed the river, destroying one mile of the Augusta and Savannah Railroad, below Millen--the other troops being similarly employed--and returned to camp on the opposite side of the river. (p264)
Millen was visited by the left wing, and sufficient evidence obtained of the terrible cruelties practiced upon our prisoners by the rebel authorities. The recital of deeds which would shame barbarians is too harrowing for repetition. Henceforth the names of Andersonville, Florence, Millen and Salisbury, will be linked in memory with those of Libby Prison and Belle Isle, as the monuments of cruelty reared by the most gigantic despotism the world ever witnessed. Thank God that the Union cause has never been marked by deeds of cruel oppression committed upon prisoners of war.
The march was resumed December 4th. Defenses were constructed of rails and logs each night, as a precautionary measure. Occasional skirmishes of our advance with the rebel cavalry indicated the presence of the enemy in our front, but not in sufficient force to impede the advance of the army. Hardee was reported in the vicinity, on the 7th, inducing vigilance in the movement of the forces. The right wing moved down the west side of the Ogeechee, while the left wing advanced between the river and the Savannah. After a march of seventy miles down the river a crossing was effected, December 10th.
The region lying between the Oconee and Ogeechee is a vast pine forest, presenting a desolate appearance, being almost uninhabited except along the smaller streams. At this season of the year it (p265) was a pleasant region for campaigning--the roads being in excellent condition--and the troops moved forward noiselessly and rapidly toward their destination. The excitement of foraging and the rich rewards of the field and garden were wanting here, and the troops returned to the plain fare of the army ration. The effect of this was manifest in the constantly diminishing supplies, which necessitated the reduction of the issues before reaching the rear of Savannah.
On the 11th and 12th of December considerable cannonading occurred in our front, as our advance approached the strong position of the enemy at Fort McAllister. No delay was allowed for the strengthening of the fort, and, on the 13th, the Second Division of the Fifteenth Corps was ordered to advance upon the enemy. The charge was brief and successful, resulting in the capture of the position and the garrison, with a loss of ninety-five, killed and wounded in the assault. This event secured communication with the fleet awaiting our arrival in Ossabaw Sound. The excitement and joy of General Sherman, on seeing the heroes of Hazen's Division in possession of the only obstacle to his ultimate success, knew no bounds. On no former occasion had he manifested so much anxiety as when watching the advance of the forces upon Fort McAllister. The supplies brought from Atlanta were exhausted, and no alternative was presented but to fight for communication with the (p266) fleet. As the stars and stripes were flung to the breeze from the ramparts where the Confederate flag had so long waved, he exclaimed, "Boys, the cracker line is open," and at once started to meet General Foster, who was awaiting the auspicious moment on his flag-ship below.
In a short time General Sherman was in consultation with General Foster, and supplies were at once ordered forward to the army. The accumulated mail of the last month was also waiting the opening of communications, and was soon after received by the rejoicing troops. In a single month an army of sixty thousand men had moved a distance of three hundred and fifty miles through an enemy's country, with but two slight engagements, and secured a permanent base for offensive operations against an important sea-port of the enemy.
The news of the glorious result filled the land with joy, and the prospect of success was more encouraging than ever before. The confederacy was severed at its vital point, by the thorough work of destruction along the several lines of railroad, rendering all communication with the Gulf States--for the supply of the rebel army under Lee--impossible for months to come. The certain prospect of occupying Savannah gave new vigor to hope, and the fame of Sherman had reached the climax. The military critics in Europe had pronounced impossible of accomplishment had been (p267) effected in a remarkably brief period, securing results whose value could scarcely be estimated, and with a loss of less than five hundred men in an army of sixty thousand. The internal weakness of the Confederacy had been strikingly demonstrated, and its ultimate fate none could longer doubt.
To add to the general joy the fate of Hood had been decided in Middle Tennessee, and his shattered army was flying before the victorious forces under Thomas. The late defiant army that had opposed our progress from Dalton to Atlanta--when forced to abandon that stronghold--had moved boldly and confidently to our rear, thus giving us speedy triumph, in the possession of Savannah and the control of the entire region of the Gulf States.
It now only remained to invest and reduce Savannah, for which purpose the army was at once disposed, after the opening of communications. Our lines were advanced, and brisk artillery firing and skirmishing continued for several days. The Regiment was on the picket line on the 14th and 17th, but no casualties occurred.
Hardee occupied Savannah with a force of about fifteen thousand men, mostly militia. The impossibility of holding his position against assault and the danger of losing his only remaining line of retreat, by our possession of the east bank of the (p268) Savannah River, induced him to evacuate the city on the night of December 20th. Had he delayed two days longer, his escape would have been impossible, and was only effected at all in consequence of the difficulty of operating on the offensive in the swampy region bordering upon the Savannah. The army occupied the city on the 21st, finding twenty-five thousand bales of cotton, which, with one hundred and fifty guns and the city itself, constituted General Sherman's "Christmas Gift," to President Lincoln, in behalf of the people of the United States.