Following the capture and occupation of Atlanta, Ga., in September and October 1864, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman proposed and received approval to march part of his army all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
In mid-November, after detaching 36,000 men under the command of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas to pursue the defeated Confederate army under Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood to the west and north, Sherman led 62,000 troops eastward through Georgia toward the coast.
With no serious opposition during this 250-mile trek over the next four weeks, the Union forces arrived in the vicinity of Savannah, having been out of contact with Union military and civilian officials during the entire time. After the outnumbered Confederate defenders under Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee decided to evacuate the town rather than contest the impending onslaught from Sherman, a federal division occupied Savannah and the operation that became known as the “March to the Sea” had ended.
On Dec. 22, flushed with success, Sherman sent a dispatch via Fort Monroe, Va., to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington that arrived on Dec. 25. The timely message read: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
As recorded in “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” Volume 8, by editor Roy P. Basler, Lincoln — who had had considerable qualms about Sherman’s unprecedented venture prior to his departure from Atlanta — was relieved that disaster had not overtaken that initiative. With satisfaction, the president responded to his audacious general the day after Christmas:
“When you were about leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious [Lincoln’s emphasis], if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that “nothing risked, nothing gained” I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce. And, taking the work of Gen. Thomas into the count [after his victory over Hood at Nashville, Tenn.], as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success.
“Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages; but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole — Hood’s army — it brings those who sat in darkness, to see a great light. But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant and yourself to decide. Please make my grateful acknowledgments to our whole army, officers and men.”
Resting his troops and enjoying the atmosphere of Old Savannah, having accepted the offer from an Englishman by the name of Charles Green for the use of his spacious and fashionable home as his headquarters, Sherman responded to the president on Jan. 6, 1865. He wrote:
“I am gratified at the receipt of your letter of Dec. 26, at the hand of General [John] Logan. Especially to observe that you appreciate the division I made of my army, and that each part was duly proportioned to its work. The motto, ‘Nothing ventured Nothing won’ which you refer to is most appropriate, and should I venture too much and happen to lose I shall bespeak your charitable influence. I am ready for the Great Next as soon as I can complete certain preliminaries, and learn of Genl Grant his and your preference of intermediate ‘objectives.’”
President Lincoln’s Christmas gift this December 1864 was only outdone by the culmination of the War Between the States the following April through June, when the four-year-long conflict ended. In actuality, this was Lincoln’s last Christmas on earth; and, for him, it was indeed joyful.
When visiting Savannah, stop by 14 West Macon Street, on the northwest corner of Madison Square in Savannah, where what is now known as the Green-Meldrim House is located. What was once Sherman’s headquarters is open to the public — call (912) 232-1251 for information.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point