Confederate forces opposing Sherman’s March, November 1864

Earlier I broke down the organization of Major-General William T. Sherman’s force used on the March to the Sea, at least down to the division level.  While interesting, in regard to the varied experiences (eastern and western theaters) of the leaders, the Federal order of battle is rather easy to track.  It was unified under one red-haired guy with a pair of stars.

The same cannot be said of the Confederate forces.  Some historians have under-rated these forces to the point the Confederate opposition is scarcely mentioned in the narrative.  Almost as if these troops assigned to stop Sherman’s advance didn’t exist.  The Confederates in Georgia, maybe at best 20,000 to 25,000 men at best, were certainly at a numerical disadvantage to Sherman’s command (about 62,000 men total).  It was still a significant force if used properly.  A spirited defense could have delayed the Federals.  And for Sherman’s plan to work, his 62,000 could not stop to fight a pitch battle.

The problem was the Confederate forces didn’t have the single leader exercising positive control over the forces.  The one who could have – General P.G.T. Beauregard – did not exercise the baton of command as he should.  Part of the reason was the disjointed organization of forces.  Perhaps it would be best to compare it to a three-layer cake that had fallen.  And to appreciate that fallen cake, consider stage over which this campaign took place – the area between the Chattahoochee and the Savannah Rivers, better known as Georgia:


With the state map in mind, we have the first layer of that cake in view – the geographic department commands.  The line running on the left marking Georgia’s western border was technically the division of two departments.  Lieutenant General William Hardee, with headquarters off the map in Charleston, had the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  Covering that vast area were 12,500 or so troops.  But, as I’ve documented at length, the focus of Hardee’s command was the defense of Charleston.  Only 3,000 or so effective troops, under Major General Lafayette McLaws in Savannah, were allocated for Georgia’s defense.

On the west side of the Chattahoochee was Lieutenant-General Richard Taylor’s Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana.  Taylor had 15,000 effectives to cover his equally vast area of responsibility.  And while Hardee had Charleston, Taylor had Mobile to cover (just a side note, there is a remarkable parallel between operations outside both cities).  Furthermore, General John B. Hood pulled upon Taylor’s command for the invasion of Tennessee.

And with mention of Hood, we see the second layer of the cake – a field army operating as an equal to the departments.  With Hood on the Tennessee River, the 30,000 or so from the Army of Tennessee were not in position to deal with Sherman.  We might talk “coulda … shoulda” but as things worked out, those pieces were played on a different chess board.

However, part of Hood’s army remained in Georgia.  Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps, with around 10,000 troopers, were assigned the job of screening in front of Sherman’s force.  Wheeler had three divisions under Brigadier-Generals William Allen, William Humes, and Alfred Iverson.  Lots of cavalry, but no infantry and no artillery to speak of.

Wheeler’s force stood as a screen in front of various garrisons defending what remained of Georgia’s industrial centers – Columbus, Macon, Athens, Augusta, to name a few.  While some were Confederate troops, none were front line units.  Most of the forces counted in the defense were the Georgia Militia, Georgia State troops, and Home Guard, constituting the third layer of this cake and yet another split in the organization. Major General Howell Cobb commanded the militia.  Major General Gustavus W. Smith commanded a division of the state troops.  One might think a former commander of the forces defending Richmond (what was it, a day or two?) might be a good choice for close coordination with the Confederate Army officers.  However, the rift between Governor Joseph Brown and authorities in Richmond is well documented.  And of those three different classifications within the “Georgia troops” not all were equal.  The State troops, known as the “State Line” were organized forces that were kept away from Confederate control – generally long serving men of conscription age.  The militia was mostly those untouched by conscription, younger and older.  The Home Guard were mostly forces drawn from the except factory workers.  On the ground, this translated to limitations for the Confederate Army field commanders.

If these command arrangements left something to be desired, the Confederates did possess one advantage over the Federals when the campaign started.  Though the railroad center of Atlanta was gone, railroads connected much of the central and southern portions of Georgia.  It was possible to reposition and mass troops to meet any threat Sherman mounted. And those railroads could bring in reinforcements from outside the state, if need be (and did later in the campaign from as far away as North Carolina).  But in order to maximize that advantage, the Confederates needed good intelligence delivered to a responsible commander who was willing to make a bold stand.

But was there a single responsible commander?  Beauregard, Hood, Hardee, Wheeler, Cobb, Smith, and Brown all had some piece of that responsibility.  With respect to the defense of central Georgia, several men had that charge.  But neither could lay claim to an entire slice of that responsibility.