Corse was still full of fight, reporting back to Kenesaw that though "short a cheek bone and an ear" he was "able to whip all hell yet." Sherman thanked the brave defenders in his general orders of the seventh for "the handsome defense made at Allatoona" and pointed the moral that "garrisons must hold their posts to the last minute, sure that the time gained is valuable and necessary to their comrades at the front."
The situation at the beginning of November was most peculiar. With the whole Gulf coast blockaded and the three great ports in Union hands, with the Mississippi a Union stream from source to sea, and with Sherman firmly set in the northwest flank of Georgia, Hood made the last grand sortie from the beleaguered South. It was a desperate adventure to go north against the Federal troops in Tennessee, with Kentucky and the line of the Ohio as his ultimate objective, when Lincoln had been returned to power, when Grant was surely wearing down Lee in Virginia, and when Sherman's preponderance of force was not only assured in Georgia but in Tennessee as well. Moreover, Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," had been sent back to counter Hood from Grant's and Sherman's old headquarters at Nashville on the Cumberland. And Thomas was soon to have the usual double numbers; for all the Western depots sent him their trained recruits, till, by the end of November, his total was over seventy thousand. Hood's forty thousand could not be increased or even stopped from dwindling. Yet he pushed on, with the consent of Beauregard, who now held the general command of all the troops opposed to Sherman.
The next moves were even more peculiar than the first. For while Hood hoped to close the breach in Georgia by drawing Sherman back, and Sherman expected that when he went on to widen the breach he would draw Hood back, what really happened was that each advanced on his own new line in opposite directions, Hood north through Tennessee, Sherman southeast through Georgia. So firm was the grip of the Union on all the navigable waters that Hood could only cross the Tennessee somewhere along the shoals. He chose a place near Florence, Alabama, got safely over and encamped. There, for the moment, we shall leave him and follow Sherman to the sea.
The region of the Gulf and lower Mississippi being now under the assured predominance of Union forces, Grant, with equal wisdom and decision, entirely approved of Sherman's plan to cut loose from his western base, make a devastating march through the heart of fertile Georgia, and join the eastern forces of the North at Savannah, where Fort Pulaski was in Union hands and the Union navy was, as usual, overwhelmingly strong.
Sherman's March to the Sea at once acquired a popular renown which it has never lost. This, however, was chiefly because it happened to catch the public eye while nothing else was on the stage. For its many admirable features were those about which most people know little and care less: well-combined grand strategy, perfection in headquarter orders and the incidental staff work, excellent march discipline, wonderful coordination between the different arms of the Service and with all auxiliary branches--especially the commissariat and transport, and, to clinch everything, a thoroughness of execution which distinguished each unit concerned. As a feat of arms this famous march is hardly worth mentioning. There were no battles and no such masterly maneuvers as those of the much harder march to Atlanta. Nor was the operational problem to be mentioned in the same breath with that of the subsequent march through the Carolinas. Sherman himself says: "Were I to express my measure of the relative importance of the march to the sea, and of that from Savannah northward, I would place the former at one, and the latter at ten--or the maximum."
The Government was very doubtful and counseled reconsideration. But Grant and Sherman, knowing the factors so very much better, were sure the problem could easily be solved. Sherman left Atlanta on the fifteenth of November and laid siege to Savannah on the tenth of December. He utterly destroyed the military value of Atlanta and everything else on the way that could be used by the armies in the field. Of course, to do this he had to reduce civilian supplies to the point at which no surplus remained for transport to the front; and civilians naturally suffered. But his object was to destroy the Georgian base of supplies without inflicting more than incidental hardship on civilians. And this object he attained. He cut a swath of devastation sixty miles wide all the way to Savannah. Every rail was rooted up, made red-hot, and twisted into scrap. Every road and bridge was destroyed. Every kind of surplus supplies an army could possibly need was burnt or consumed. Civilians were left with enough to keep body and soul together, but nothing to send away, even if the means of transportation had been left.
Sherman's sixty thousand men were all as fit as his own tall sinewy form, which was the very embodiment of expert energy. Every weakling had been left behind. Consequently the whole veteran force simply romped through this Georgian raid. The main body mostly followed the rails, which gangs of soldiers would pile on bonfires of sleepers. The mounted men swept up everything about the flanks. But nothing escaped the "bummers," who foraged for their units every day, starting out empty-handed on foot and returning heavily laden on horses or mules or in some kind of vehicle. If Atlanta had been a volcano in eruption, and the molten lava had flowed to Savannah in a stream sixty miles wide and five times as long, the destruction could hardly have been worse, except, of course, that civilians were left enough to keep them alive, and that, with a few inevitable exceptions, they were not ill treated.
The fighting hardly disturbed the daily routine. Sherman was never in danger; though wiseacre Washington, supposing that he ought to be, used to pester Lincoln, who always replied: "Grant says the men are safe with Sherman, and that if they can't get out where they want to, they can crawl back by the hole they went in at." This seemed to allay anxiety; though the truth was that Sherman's real safety lay in going ahead to the Union sea, not in retracing his steps over the devastated line of his advance.