150 years ago: Civil War in Georgia this week

On May 5, 1864 — months of preparation behind him — Federal Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman moved his three armies and 100,000 men into Georgia; 150 years ago, the Northern invasion of Georgia and the Civil War campaign to capture Atlanta was underway.

Sherman embarked on the assignment given to him by his superior, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. While Grant’s forces in the East marched against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Sherman’s Military Division of the Mississippi — consisting of three Federal armies, the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee — was ordered to advance against the Confederate force in Georgia.

At stake was nothing less than the fate of the United States. Without a dramatic Union victory in the summer of 1864, war-weary Northerners that fall might well reject Abraham Lincoln’s bid for re-election and elect a Democratic peace candidate president. Lincoln himself expected as much, and feared the war would end on Southern terms.

Grant’s charge to Sherman: “To move against Johnston’s army, to break it up and 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.” The Johnston mentioned in Sherman’s orders was Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, a force of between 50,000 and 60,000 soldiers.

In coming months, on the first Saturday’s Opinion page in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — and with weekly updates and a calendar of Civil War commemorative events online at http://www.ajc.com/s/opinion/ and http://www.myajc.com/s/battleofatlanta/ (premium site) — we’ll follow the Federal thrust into Georgia and the Confederate effort to prevent it from reaching Atlanta.

The Atlanta campaign begins in the mountains of North Georgia and ends after a siege and a series of bloody battles in and around the city. Before year’s end, Sherman will set out on a bold, audacious march across open country toward Savannah — the March to the Sea.

Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net

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