Georgia in the Civil War

The Cause of the War

A slave trader on Whitehall St. in Atlanta, 1863. (~74 kb)

Slavery caused the war. 

Wars are complex events, and every soldier's rationale was his own, but the fundamental friction between the South and the rest of the nation was irrefutably the issue of African slavery. It was the desire of the South to keep humans enslaved for profit and the inability of the North to stomach the evil of slavery that led so many thousands to their deaths. The Declaration of Causes of Secession issued by the Georgia House and Senate (as well as similar documents issed by other seceding states) is unmistakable in its words: "we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery." Even the Confederate Constitution explicitly states, "the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress." 

One in nine Americans fought in the war, and one in four of those who fought were wounded or killed, most slowly and painfully by disease. It was America's defining moment, when the rural collection "These United States" transformed into the industrial powerhouse of "The United States."

The Blockade

Slicing the southern Confederacy into more easily defeatable pieces was an enduring, and ultimately successful, goal of the Union. To strangle and isolate the South, Lincoln ordered a blockade. To shut down the southern ports the Union Navy engaged to capture the forts that protected the southern ports, then to occupy the port cities themselves.

Without the heavy industry needed to build a modern ironclad navy, the Confederacy was helpless to resist. Despite a few attempts to resist at sea (like the long stalemate of the Monitor and the Virginia at Hampton Roads (in Virginia)), the southern navy was overwhelmed. Georgia's ports at Darien and Brunswick, virtually unprotected, were blockaded throughout the war.

But the Union navy was not able to completely blockade Georgia's coast; there are simply too many inlets, islands, hidden coves, and swamps among the golden isles to guard completely. Many blockade runners (including the fictional Rhett Butler of "Gone With the Wind") did brisk business shipping arms, perfumes, and other luxuries and necessities through the Union blockade.

Reenactors at Ft. Pulaski (~53 kb)

Georgia's greatest port, and one of the leading cities of the Confederacy, was Savannah. Set on a bluff along the Savannah river several miles inland from the Atlantic, the city was well protected by Fort Pulaski. It was named for the heroic Polish nobleman who had come to America and been killed in battle by the British in the first Battle of Savannah (during the American Revolutionary War) and built at mouth of the Savannah River across from Tybee Island. (The design and armaments of the fort were partially overseen by a young Robert E. Lee shortly after his graduation from West Point.) The 25 million bricks of the fort were considered invulnerable. 

In April 1862, though, the Union landed a company of artillery southeast of Fort Pulaski out of the range of the Confederate guns. But the distance was within the range of the North's new, rifled guns. After a night of Union bombardment that the Confederates could not return, the north scarp of the fort was destroyed and incoming shells were landing close to the magazine, where a direct hit would cause a cataclysmic explosion. At 2 pm on April 11, Col. Charles Olmstead surrendered. The first battle in Georgia had ended with a Union victory, and Savannah fell under the blockade.

Map of the Georgia Coast, showing Fort Pulaski and Fort McAllister (~88 kb)

While the Union had the resources to capture and blockade ports all along the southern coast, enough soldiers to actually capture the port cities were not easy to transport by sea. While other port cities were assaulted and captured (New Orleans, Lousiana, the largest city of the Confederacy, surrendered only a few weeks after Fort Pulaski, on May 1, 1862), Savannah was mostly left in peace. Makeshift forts to protect the city were improvised along the river, and occasionally harassed by Union attacks. In March 1863, 3 Union ironclads exchanged shots with Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River for 8 hours, without effect. As the ironclads sailed away, Georgians celebrated their first victory of the war and newspapers declared that Georgia was safe from Union aggression. They were wrong.

Breaking the South

Severing the South's transportation was the second part of Lincoln's strategy. Union forces worked to capture the Confederacy's great highways: the Mississippi river and the railroads.

The same week the Union took Fort Pulaski, General Ulysses S. Grant won a costly but decisive victory at Shiloh, Tennessee on the Tennessee River, the bloodiest battle of the war so far (over 23,000 casualties from only 100,000 soldiers), chasing the Confederacy out of western Tennessee. Over the course of the next year, Union campaigns fought southward from Memphis, Tenessee (captured June 6, 1862) and northward from New Orleans. Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last southern city on river, surrendered after a three-month siege on July 4, 1863. The Trans-Mississippi states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas were permanently cut off from the rest of the Confederacy.

At the same time, other Union forces moved eastward to capture Nashville, Tennessee (which was surrendered without a fight) and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Along with Atlanta, Chattanooga was a vital rail connection for the South. The loss of the cities would cut the South in half again, severing the Atlantic states from those to the west. The capitol of the confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, was defended by General Robert E. Lee and his powerful Army of Northern Virginia. If the Union could capture the rail hubs of Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Macon, the lifeline of supplies and food that kept General Lee in the field would be cut. The Union would win the war.

Grant sent Union General Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland to take the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In a brilliant move, Rosecrans sent his artillery and one division to the Northeast, fooling Confederate General Braxton Bragg that an attack would come from that direction. Starting on August 21, 1863 the Union forces shelled the city while Rosecrans moved his forces into position southwest of the city. When Bragg discovered that he had been fooled on September 8, he abandoned the city and retreated into Georgia.Trying to catch the rebels, Rosecrans pursued into Georgia. 

After a quick skirmish at Davis' Cross Roads, the first Civil War land battle in the state, the armies met south of Chattanooga along the Chickamauga River on September 18. It was a bloody stalemate for three days until Rosecrans was told, incorrectly, that a gap had opened in his lines. While trying to close the gap that wasn't there, a real gap was created and Southern soldiers overwhelmed the Northern line. Since Rosecrans was forced to retreat back to Chattanooga. Chickamauga was considered a Southern victory, but Bragg suffered more casualties than Rosecrans. It was the last important battle of the War won by the Confederacy in Georgia. 

Chickamauga National Battlefield Park

Still, Rosecrans was trapped in Chattanooga, surrounded by Confederate armies around the city on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. From Memphis, General William T. Sherman marched east with four divisions and, after several small skirmishes, arrived at Chattanooga in mid-November. In the Third (and last) Battle of Chattanooga, Sherman's troops decisively took control of the city on November 25 and relieved Rosecrans. Again, Union troops pursued the retreating Confederates, and again they were stopped, this time at the skirmish of Ringgold Gap. But now, the Union now held the Gateway to the Lower South uncontested.

While Union forces built Chattanooga into a base for further operations, Sherman went to Vicksburg to direct a thrust eastwards, towards Meridian, Mississippi and into central Alabama. While fighting raged there, Union General George Thomas, left in command at Chattanooga, led part of the Army of the Cumberland into Georgia, where it met Confederate General Joseph Johnston at Crow Valley, outside Dalton on February 22, 1864. After an inconclusive skirmish, the Union retreated back to Chattanooga. The raid was a successful training exercise, and it left the Union troops ready for the campaign to come.

By now, any chance of the South winning the war was effectively over. General Lee had destroyed the soul of his army at Gettysburg. It was the last time the South would be able to seriously threaten the North. The Union had conquered Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. But most of the South remained rebellious, and a presidential election loomed. In the aftermath of the Emancipation Declaration, many northerners were unwilling to shed more blood for the sake of black freedom.

Marching Through Georgia

Lincoln, who had begun the war in the name of democracy and freedom, refused to consider delaying or canceling the election scheduled for November, 1864. To win the election, it had to be clear that the North was winning the war. In the spring, four coordinated attacks were launched to crush the confederacy. In Virginia, Benjamin Butler was to lead the Army of the James west from Norfolk while Franz Sigel would advance southward into the Shenandoah Valley. General Grant would lead the huge Army of the Potomac, over 110,000 troops, against Lee in an advance on Richmond. And General Sherman would march through Georgia.

On May 8, 1864, General Sherman left Chattanooga with the 98,000 men of the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee, and the Army of the Ohio on a campaign that wrecked Georgia, re-elected Abraham Lincoln, and decided the outcome of the war.

Map of the Atlanta Campaign (~290 kb)

Johnston first tried to block Sherman where he had won three months before: Rocky Face Ridge, at the entrance to Crow Valley on May 8. While Johnston was well entrenched and well prepared, he was simply too outnumbered. While part of Sherman's army attacked at Rocky Face Ridge, the rest circled with General James McPherson to the south towards Resaca. Surrounded, Johnston has no choice but to retreat to Resaca, which he did on May 11.

The battle resumed at Resaca on May 13. Again, Sherman attacked Johnston head-on, while a force was sent to circle behind the Confederate position. Once again, on May 15, Johnston was forced to retreat or be surrounded. It happened again at Adairsville on May 17.

One captured southern soldier cursed that, "Sherman'll never go the hell; he will flank the devil and make heaven in spite of the guards." But Sherman fought his campaign perfectly; he had surveyed Georgia years before as a young lieutenant. Plenty of supplies were on hand, and Union engineers were able to repair bridges, tunnels, and railroads almost as quickly as they were captured. But he had yet to truly engage the Southern army.

Johnston, while outnumbered and outgunned, was one of the South's best generals. While the bulk of his army entrenched at Allatoona Pass, he guessed that Sherman would send a column around to the west, towards Dallas. Johnston led forces to meet and maul the Union column at New Hope Church on May 25 and 26. Sherman sent more forces to the battle, where they were repulsed by the Confederates at the Battle of Pickett's Mill on May 27. But now Sherman knew where to find Johnston's forces. The Confederates took heavy casualties at Dallas on May 28, while the rest of the Union army moved into Allatoona Pass. Once again, Johnston had to retreat.

This time, Johnston dug in around Marietta. After several skirmishes, including an unsuccessful Southern attack at Kolb's Farm on June 22, Sherman assaulted Johnston at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27. The attack failed, and the Union took heavy casualties. Sherman returned to his usual tactics, and the nearly surrounded Johnston was forced to retreat to Atlanta on July 4. 

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

While Sherman advanced, Atlanta had been turned into a fort. Powerful wooden palisades surrounded the city, with cannon and overlapping fields of fire. Within such a secure base, Johnston was immune to attack. Sherman knew he would have to spread his forces thinly around the city to again force a retreat.

At the same time, in Virginia, Lee was palisaded into a similar fortress in Petersburg. The war had turned into a stalemate. Only a miracle would break the sieges.

The miracle came with an action of astounding stupidity. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, removed Joe Johnston and promoted a young, ambitious, and foolish replacement. General John Bell Hood was called "Old Woodenhead" by his own troops. Within 48 hours of his appointment, he led an attack on the Union positions at Peachtree Creek on July 20. When repulsed with heavy casualties, Hood retreated to his inner line and attacked again.

Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston

Confederate General John Bell Hood

Desperately, Hood sent cavalry under "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler to attack the Union supply line, but they were repulsed at Dalton on August 15. Union cavalry attempted the same trick, but were defeated by Confederates at Lovejoy's Station on August 20.

But throughout August, Sherman was able to surround the city, and, after skirmishes at Utoy Creek and Jonesborough, Atlanta was surrounded and Hood evacuated the city on September 1. The battle for Georgia was over, but the war was not.

The Atlanta Depot, destoyed.

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Confederate palisades defending Atlanta.

The Aftermath

The victory won Lincoln's election in a landslide - every Union state but Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey. Sherman decided, with Grant and Lincoln's blessings, to end the war by crushing the south. "We can make war so terrible," he said, "and make them so sick of war that generations pass away before they again appeal to it."

Rather than fight a long retreat, Hood chose (as always) to take his army on the attack. The Army of the Tennessee abandoned Georgia, pushing to the northwest in a desperate attempt to distract Sherman. After breaking through Union lines at Allatoona Gap, Hood led his army to total destruction in Tennessee at Franklin and Nashville.

There were no other large forces left to oppose Sherman's march. Sending his cavalry to the northeast drew the few remaining Confederate forces to defend the vital ammunition works at Augusta. Inconclusive battles were fought at Griswoldsville, and Buck Head Creek, but Union cavalry caught and destroyed Wheeler's Confederate cavalry at Waynesborough. Meanwhile Sherman's army marched to Savannah in two huge columns, leaving devastation in their wake. Railroads, plantations, and towns were burned; slaves were freed and invited to march with the army. After taking Fort McAllister from the rear, the Union accepted the surrender of the city of Savannah on December 22.

Union Army engineers removing an 8-inch cannon captured at Ft. McAllister (~66 kb)

For a devastated Georgia, the war was over. Sherman's armies successfully cut the south apart; the remaining southern armies in Virginia and the Carolinas were no longer able to draw supplies from the vital farmlands and factories of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. With southern armies crushed in the West and the South, only General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia remained to fight the Union. But without supplies, Lee was doomed.

Within a few months, Grant forced Lee out of Petersburg and Richmond, finally accepting surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Sherman marched north from Savannah to ravage South Carolina, and hunted down the last Southern resistance in the mountains of North Carolina, accepting Johnston's surrender on April 26, 1865.

In the last action of the War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled southward with the Confederate treasury, hoping to establish government-in-exile in Mexico. In Washington, Georgia, the Confederate cabinet met for its last session. But Davis was caught by Union cavalry at Irwinville, in central Georgia. With Davis' capture, the War was over. The south, and the cause of slavery, had lost.

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This page was created by Darin Briskman on June 21, 1996 and last updated on January 20, 2000. If you have any comments or questions (or you find any errors), please e-mail me at