As 1865 began, the Confederacy’s hopes were flickering out everywhere like candles in a whirlwind. The disaster at Nashville had ended any chance of serious counterstrokes in the west. In the east, Lee, still dangerous, clung to his Petersburg lines, but he was powerless to effect a real change in the situation. In January the Federals slammed the door shut on Wilmington, North. Carolina, the South’s last port open to the outside world. To the south, the embattled Rebels could offer only token resistance to any move Sherman cared to make from his base at Savannah on the Georgia coast. On February 6 Lee assumed the post of commander-in-chief of all Southern forces—at a time when there was precious little left to command—and he brought Joseph E. Johnston out of retirement to head the forces being collected to face Sherman. Johnston, however, was fully aware that the task of stopping the Union general was hopeless.
On February 1 Sherman opened his last campaign, driving northward toward the Carolinas. His 60,000 troops formed an irresistible tide. Nothing could stop them, not torrential rains nor malarial swamps nor cresting rivers nor armed Confederates. The men might grumble at the hard going—one Yankee private, splashing through a vast flooded lowland, remarked, “I guess Uncle Billy’s struck this river endways”—but their morale was high; they knew they were on the road to final victory.
Sherman’s veterans nursed a particular hatred for South Carolina, whose firebrands had led the way out of the Union, and they reacted with a vengeance when they crossed the border. The Union troops laid waste to everything they encountered, burning and destroying with or without orders. One officer described the army’s path of destruction as a desert waste. Hardest hit was the capital, Columbia. Two-thirds of the city was burned to the ground on February 17. Whether the fire was set deliberately, and by whom, remained a subject of angry debate (Sherman, strongly denied responsibility); yet whoever started it, few of the Federal troops expressed regret. The same day that Columbia burned, Confederate troops evacuated Charleston, where secession was first voted and where the Civil War began nearly four years before.
The devastation receded as the Union army entered North Carolina. Vengeance had been done, and by now it was clear to the soldiers that further destruction of civilian property was not going to shorten the war, which in any case was bound to end soon. In mid-March, at Averasboro and Benton-ville, Johnston twice tried to halt the Federal advance, but was driven off. Sherman did not pursue him, but instead encamped at Goldsborough. His army had marched 425 miles from Savannah and, he felt, there would soon be little need to march farther.