This is Noah Andre Trudeau’s book about Sherman’s March through Georgia to Savannah. As with most of his books, Trudeau brings to us an engaging narrative that includes as many soldier remembrances as he can find, making it as close to the soldiers’ story of the March as we are likely to get this far removed from the event. Sherman divided his force into a left wing and a right wing, and Trudeau organizes each section into a subsection that talks about each wing in order to make it easier for the reader to follow what he’s talking about. Each section starts with a map showing the surrounding area and the route Sherman’s men took through that area. Four major themes emerge from the narrative: destruction by Wheeler’s men, straggling, destruction by Union troops, and the actions of enslaved people along the way.
While many people normally think about destruction caused by Union soldiers during this march, confederate soldiers were responsible for a great deal of destruction as well. In speaking of events around the town of Madison, Georgia, Trudeau writes, “At least Madison’s residents did not have to deal with Wheeler’s men, a privilege denied those farther south. Writing to Jefferson Davis about a month after the events took place, a Griffin resident named P. A. Lawson explained, ‘When General Sherman left Atlanta Wheeler’s cavalry commenced their retreat before him, and but a handful of Sherman’s men ran W[heeler’s] whole command down to Griffin, and while S[herman’s] army was marching through Fayette, Clayton, Henry, and Butts [counties], Wheeler’s cavalry was burning up all the corn and fodder, driving off all the stock of the farmers for ten miles on each side of the railroad, all of from ten to twenty-five miles to the right and rear of Sherman’s forces. Worse than all, the stock of mules and horses which General Wheeler’s forces carried off, nine out of ten they have appropriated to their own use.’ ” [pp. 112-113] At the town of Jackson, Georgia, “The first Federals to enter the town found the courthouse already smoldering, courtesy of Wheeler’s departing cavalry.” [p. 115]
With that many men on the move, it was impossible to stop soldiers from straggling. Officers did what they could. “Overnight orders for the Right Wing tonight [November 17, 1864] displayed a serious concern regarding straggling. Surgeons were instructed to take position in the rear of their respective regiments and allow ‘no one to fall behind except such as are unable to march.’ ‘The practice of marching regiments stretched out to two or three times their natural length is so unsoldierlike and unnecessary that all commanding officers who take any pride in their regiments will … take measures to prevent it,’ read another directive. Finally, officers and men were reminded ‘that we are not warring upon women and children.’ ” [p. 117] Straggling was dangerous to the stragglers, also. “Frank Blair warned that ‘the flanks of the army will be infested to a greater or less extent with bands of guerrillas, whose principal object will be to pick up stragglers.’ His remedy was to institute the ‘most rigid measures’ to keep men in ranks.” [p. 70] Sherman himself issued an order that read in part, “Of all things, the most important is, that the men, during marches and in camp, keep their places and do not scatter about as stragglers or foragers, to be picked up by a hostile people in detail. It is also of the utmost importance that our wagons should not be loaded with any thing but provisions and ammunition. All surplus servants, non-combatants, and refugees, should now go to the rear, and none should be encouraged to encumber us on the march. At some future time we will be able to provide for the poor whites and blacks who seek to escape the bondage under which they are now suffering.” [p. 71]
The authorized destruction was primarily against buildings and facilities that could be used to support the rebellion. Other types of destruction were allowed in retaliation for bushwhacking. The unauthorized destruction was done by stragglers or when it was easy for soldiers to get away from their officers. Trudeau gives an example at the village of Decatur, Georgia. “The stop-and-go slogging pace meant idleness for portions of the Twentieth Corps column, which in turn meant time for mischief. ‘As our advances was slow and the night very damp, several deserted houses along our route were burned,’ wrote an Illinois soldier. The officer commanding the 33rd Indiana noted that after his unit passed through Decatur at dusk, ‘many of the buildings were wrapped in flames.’ The Illinoisan, who put the number at ‘several,’ opined that the incendiarism ended when ‘guards were stationed through the town.’ Further down the road, some unoccupied outbuildings of a small farm fell victim to vandals. Recalled a Connecticut soldier, ‘I remember one very pretty girl weeping with her family over the ruins of their stable, expressing a wish ‘that you’uns were millions of miles away.’ ‘ ” [p. 82] Occupied homes were left untouched. Cotton presses and storehouses were among the authorized targets. ” ‘Our course may be marked by the track of smoke we leave behind,’ wrote a Massachusetts officer, confirming the signal officer’s observations. ‘We passed several cotton presses & store houses all in flames. … Every unoccupied house is burnt & as most of the people have left there are few left untouched.’ ” [p. 110] Some destruction was done in vengeance. At Monticello, Georgia, “After somebody mentioned that captured Union prisoners had been held in the town’s jail it wasn’t long before ‘it was reduced to ashes.’ ” [p. 148]
Enslaved people in the army’s path took advantage in many cases. For example, “It was payback time for a number of slaves in the area, who made sure that the Yankee officers heard all about the bloodhounds that tracked anyone trying to escape, including Union prisoners. Said one Illinois soldier: ‘Advance ordered to kill all bloodhounds and other valuable dogs in the country.’ ” [p. 107] Enslaved people also took even more direct action against slavery. “Almost from the start of the march, escaping slaves had been attracted by the passing Union columns. Today [November 17, 1864] marked the first day that their presence in large numbers was becoming apparent. ‘The [n-word]s flock around us and want to go with us,’ a New York soldier observed. Sometimes the first encounter was a one-on-one. After getting directions from a slave, a Wisconsin regiment marched only a short distance when the black caught up with it. ‘Massa,’ he said, ‘I’se gwine ‘long with uns.’ His expression made it clear that the topic was not open for discussion. A Connecticut man came face-to-face with one of the dirty little secrets of the slave system. While his regiment was halted near a plantation, the soldier ‘got into conversation with a very pretty girl, thinking she was the daughter of a planter, from the fact she seemed so well educated. I made some inquiries about her parents when to my great surprise she told me that she was a ‘[n-word],’ and both the slave and the daughter of the planter who was a minister.’ At Conyers, some of Sherman’s staff, including Major Hitchcock, spent time with a local Mrs. Scott, a widow. She readily admitted to telling her slaves that the Yankees in Atlanta had ‘shot, burned and drowned negroes, old and young, drove men into houses and burned them, etc.,’ reported Hitchcock.” [pp. 117-118] Also, ” ‘Negroes all want to follow us[,] but our limited supplies prevents our taking many,’ wrote a diarist in the 34th Illinois. A comrade in the 105th Ohio related that he ‘saw several darkey women and men who wished to come. I advised the women not to come, they were anxious to come and said that they were abused by their masters shamefully.’ Slaves who crowded up to the ranks of the 21st Wisconsin seemed genuinely surprised that the fearsome Yankees did not sport any horns. ‘Some of the boys told them that, in order not to scare them we had taken them off and put them in the wagons,’ quipped a member of the regiment.” [p. 135] The enslaved people also used the Union soldiers to strike against the slavers. ” ‘Negroes by the hundred are coming into our line and we are keeping them with us[,] using them to get forage for us and we find them not bad fellows to have along,’ reported an Indiana man. Major James A. Connolly, who had earlier browbeaten a plantation owner into surrendering a captured U.S. flag, had to chuckle this afternoon. Most of the citizens in the area, he noticed, had tried to hide their livestock and valuables in swampy places. They had used their slaves to help them; however, ‘the negroes told the soldiers of these hiding places and most of these hidden valuables find their way into our camp to-night.’ ” [pp. 146-147] Even enslaved people whom their slavers believed were “well treated” desired freedom, thus surprising their slavers. “A black older couple had joined the procession accompanying the Left Wing columns. An Illinois soldier had witnessed the couple’s decision to leave: the two stood outside their owner’s home, ready to go, with all their personal belongings in the small bundles that they carried. Their owner tried to convince them to stay, even getting them to admit that he had never mistreated them, and reminding the elder male that they had grown up together as children. All this was true, but with tears in their eyes, the two were determined to leave. ‘We must go,’ the black man said, ‘freedom is as sweet to us as it is to you.’ Added the soldier: ‘And go with us they did.’ ” [p. 155]
African-Americans trying to gain their freedom faced danger along the way, though. “Some African-Americans attempting to connect with Sherman’s columns were intercepted by Rebel cavalry, eager to inflict object lessons. One such incident, overstated for effect, is found in the diary of an 8th Texas cavalryman, whose November 22 entry reads: ‘To-day we followed on [after the Federal columns] and only whipped about 1,000 negroes, who were on their way to the enemy.’ ” [p. 185] In making a stop at Howell Cobb’s plantation, “Hurricane,” Sherman spoke with an enslaved man at that plantation. “After motioning the man to a chair, the General asked why he was so nervous. The black replied that they had been fooled once before by Confederates pretending to be Yankees in order to identify slaves of dubious loyalty, most of whom were subsequently punished.” [p. 187]
This book is very well done, but it’s lacking in historical analysis. We get the participants’ views of the events, but there isn’t much to tell us what it all means, how it fits into the context of the war, or its significance. Nevertheless, I can recommend this book for those who want to study Sherman’s March to the Sea and understand what happened. It’s a pleasure to read and gives us good detail on what happened.