Sherman’s Plan for his March to the Sea: Special Field Orders Numbers 119 and 120

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman

After capturing and occupying Atlanta in early September 1864, Major General William T. Sherman continued to have problems with General John Bell Hood’s Confederates. The Rebel general’s army harassed the Federal supply lines from Chattanooga, forcing Sherman to commit resources to the pursuit of Hood’s army. Realizing that it was costly, inefficient, and probably unsustainable to try to maintain the supply lines, Sherman decided to take a different approach. He proposed cutting his lines of communication and marching overland across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah, taking some supplies in wagon trains but foraging for food for his men and horses from farms and plantations along the way. He would also destroy anything in his path that the Confederates could use in the war effort:

In the Field, Allatoona October 9, 1864–7.30. p.m..
(Received 11 a.m. 10th.)

Lieutenant-General GRANT,
City Point, Va.:

It will be a physical impossibility to protect the roads, now that Hood, Forrest, and Wheeler, and the whole batch of devils, are turned loose without home or habitation. I think Hood’s movements indicate a diversion to the end of the Selma and Talladega Railroad at Blue Mountain, about sixty miles southwest of Rome, from which he will threaten Kingston, Bridgeport, and Decatur, Ala. I propose we break up the railroad from Chattanooga, and strike out with wagons for Milledgeville, Millen, and Savannah. Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources. By attempting to hold the roads we will lose 1,000 men monthly, and will gain no result. I can make the march, and make Georgia howl. We have over 8,000 cattle: and 3,000,000 of bread, but no corn; but we can forage in the interior of the State.

Major-General, Commanding

General Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln, and the rest of the Union high command were skeptical at first, but eventually gave Sherman the go ahead. Since Atlanta would not be garrisoned, and he could not take them with his army on the march, Sherman ordered all non combatants, the sick, and wounded sent north to Tennessee and elsewhere. General George Thomas, based in Nashville, was in charge of U.S. forces in Tennessee in case Hood moved his army north.

Sherman completed preparations for the march in mid November. While it was obvious to the soldiers in the army that they would soon begin a new campaign, there had been no word on exactly what the objective of that campaign would be, or where they would be going. On November 8th, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 119, which confirmed that a campaign would soon begin, but did not disclose the nature of it, only that it was something big.


In the Field, Kingston, Ga., November 8, 1864.

I. The general commanding deems it proper at this time to inform the officers and men of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Twentieth Corps that he has organized them into an army for a special purpose, well known to the War Department and to General Grant. It is sufficient for you to know that it involves a departure from our present base, and a long and difficult march to a new one. All the chances of war have been considered and provided for, as far as human sagacity can. All he asks of you is to maintain that discipline, patience, and courage which have characterized you in the past, and he hopes, through you, to strike a blow at our enemy that will have a material effect in producing what we all so much desire–his complete overthrow. Of all things the most important is that the men, during marches and in camp, keep their places and not scatter about as stragglers or foragers, to be picked up by a hostile people in detail. It is also of the utmost importance that our wagons should not be loaded with anything but provisions and ammunition. All surplus servants, non-combatants, and refugees should now go to the rear, and none should be encouraged to encumber us on the march. At some future time we will be enabled to provide for the poor whites and blacks who seek to escape the bondage under which they are now suffering. With these few simple cautions in your minds, he hopes to lead you to achievements equal in importance to those of the past.

By order of Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman:

On November 9th, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 120, which spelled out details of the campaign, but not a specific destination.


In the Field, Kingston, Ga.,
November 9, 1864.

I. For the purpose of military operations this army is divided into two wings, viz, the Right Wing, Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard commanding, the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps; the Left Wing, Maj. Gen. H. W. Slocum commanding, the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps.

II. The habitual order of march will be, wherever practicable, by four roads, as near parallel as possible and converging at points hereafter to be indicated in orders. The cavalry, Brigadier-General Kilpatrick commanding, will receive special orders from the commander-in-chief.

III. There will be no general train of supplies, but each corps will have its ammunition train and provision train distributed habitually as follows: Behind each regiment should follow one wagon and one ambulance; behind each brigade should follow a due proportion of ammunition wagons, provision wagons, and ambulances. In case of danger each army corps commander should change this order of march by having his advance and rear brigade unincumbered by wheels. The separate columns will start habitually at 7 a.m., and make about fifteen miles per day, unless otherwise fixed in orders.

IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten days’ provisions for the command and three days’ forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass, but during a halt or a camp they may be permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock in sight of their camp. To regular foraging parties must be intrusted the gathering of provisions and forage at any distance from the road traveled.

Sherman’s men destroying railroad tracks in Atlanta

V. To army corps commanders alone is intrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.

VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or brigades. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.

VII. Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to see to them who bear arms.

VIII. The organization at once of a good pioneer battalion for each army corps, composed if possible of negroes, should be attended to. This battalion should follow the advance guard, should repair roads, and double them if possible, so that the columns will not be delayed after reaching bad places. Also, army commanders should study the habit of giving the artillery and wagons the road, and marching their troops on one side, and also instruct their troops to assist wagons at steep hills or bad crossings of streams.

IX. Capt. O. M. Poe, chief engineer, will assign to each wing of the army a pontoon train, fully equipped and organized, and the commanders thereof will see to its being properly protected at all times.

By order of Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman:


On November 12th, Sherman cut telegraph lines and broke up the railroad tracks, cutting communications with points to the north. The task of destroying anything of military value in Atlanta commenced and continued for the next few days. On November 15th, the movement out of Atlanta began with the right wing marching southeast to Jonesboro. The March to the Sea ended on December 21st with the capture of Savannah.


Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson

Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman by William T. Sherman

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXIX, Part 3

Sherman’s Advance From Atlanta By Oliver O. Howard. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4. Edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea by Noah Andre Trudeau

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