When Sherman Marched North From the Sea

This short book by Jacqueline Glass Campbell is packed with information.  She starts by giving us a glimpse of some of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s thinking: “Conventional wisdom tells us that in wartime men are both the protectors and the threat.  The army regulates the exercise of violence against an enemy and exacts kudos and support from the protected.  Logically then, if noncombatants find their guarantees of protection gone, they will withdraw their support and help end the war.  When Sherman led his army through the Confederate heartland, he recognized this relationship of battlefront and home front.  Although fighting had occurred on home ground before, he deliberately targeted the Southern home front.  His hardened veterans, who had seen the worst war had to offer, were now engaged in a campaign designed to simultaneously destroy the military resources and the morale of the Southern people.  By Christmas 1864 Sherman’s troops had swept through Georgia, cutting a path that penetrated the very heart of the Confederacy.” [p. 5]

In discussing Sherman’s operations in Georgia, she says, “Georgia had, in fact, received far more of a psychological blow than material damage at the hands of Sherman.  In the capital of Milledgeville, for example, only two plantation residences and two private city homes were destroyed.  Soldiers did, however, ridicule Southerners by holding a mock session of the legislature in the abandoned statehouse and destroying books and papers.  In the absence of any government officials, who had all fled before Sherman’s forces, a young girl of the town felt her ‘cheeks glow with shame.’  Just as Northern soldiers were prone to trivialize their transgressions, Southerners tended to exaggerate them.  Recent scholarship suggests that the amount of destruction of private property in Georgia fell far short of what was popularly believed.  Furthermore, in the countryside inhabitants also had to contend with Confederate cavalry under the command of Major General Joseph Wheeler.  A resident of Griffin complained to Confederate president Jefferson Davis that Wheeler’s cavalry were ‘burning up all the corn and fodder’ and carrying off ‘mules and horses.’  Unless some speedy action was taken, he warned, citizens who had been loyal to the Confederacy ‘will not care one cent which army is victorious in Georgia.’  In a letter to the Countryman, a Georgia woman confirmed that the people were suffering from both the ‘depredations’ of Yankees and the ‘shameful’ behavior of Wheeler’s men.  ‘While the enemy were burning and destroying property on one side … they [Wheeler’s men] were stealing horses and mules on the other.’ ” [p. 10]

Prominent in the story of Sherman’s marches were the acts of the foragers and stragglers known as “bummers.”  Many of them took the opportunity, against orders, to rob the southerners with whom they came into contact.  “Union soldiers commonly helped themselves to the goods of blacks and whites alike. … The nature of encounters between slaves and the Union army depended on both the character of master-slave relations and the racial attitudes of Northern soldiers.  Though many Georgia slaves did seize the opportunity to claim their freedom, others remained behind.  Their reasons varied, including loyalty to benign owners, a desire to protect their own property, or distrust of Yankee troops.  Black distrust of Union soldiers was not unwarranted.  Never had Mary Jones heard ‘expressions of hatred & contempt’ for blacks as severe as she heard from the mouths of Yankees.  One soldier told her that he wished he could ‘blow their [the slaves’] brains out.’  Another, less vindictive than his brother-in-arms, said that he did not approve of a war for abolitionism.  Yet Mrs. Jones, like so many of her race and class, displayed concern for blacks in her own racist terms.  She envisioned only ‘extermination’ for black people as a result of emancipation.  ‘Facts prove that [only] in a state of Slavery such as exists in the Southern states, have the negro race increased and thriven most.’  Once free of the ‘interference of Northern abolitionism,’ Southerners would be able to make the necessary reforms to ensure the continuation of a ‘benevolent’ slavery.  Such feelings were common in antebellum Georgia.  In fact, Mary Jones’s words echoed a sermon preached in Savannah just two months earlier, in which Reverend Stephen Elliot had described the war as a ‘conflict involving the future of a race.’  Even if subjugated the white race would continue to exist, but ‘the black race perishes with its freedom.’ ” [pp. 16-17]

At the end of a short stay in Savannah, Sherman began his march north, planning to link with Grant, Meade, and the Army of the Potomac around Richmond and Petersburg.  “The general’s strategy was based on both sound preparations and an understanding of the nature of Southern society.  The years he had been stationed in various parts of the South during the 1840s now proved ‘providential.’  ‘Every bit of knowledge thus acquired is returned ten fold,’ he told his family.  Moreover, the maps and his statistics at his disposal ensured that ‘no military expedition was ever based on sounder or surer data.’  Union maps drawn up for the invasion served both practical and psychological purposes.  Civilians found the Northern army’s knowledge of the landscape disconcerting.  One Confederate woman commented on how well Union soldiers knew the area–‘every house, or well, or mark of any kind.’  Another woman in South Carolina reported seeing Sherman holding a ‘complete diagram of all the farms, roads, and rivers in the Orangeburg county.’  These maps were a source of pride to Union soldiers, who frequently sent copies to their families as souvenirs.” [p. 34]

Along the march, the enslaved people the soldiers met found varying attitudes toward them.  “Black families who had longed for freedom soon realized that few Union soldiers harbored true abolitionist sympathies.  The majority of Sherman’s men regarded the slave population as a tool with which to strike at the economic foundation of Southern society, thus ignoring the humanity of individual African Americans.” [p. 45]

White southerners also found varying experiences with the soldiers.  “Whereas Mrs. W. K. Bachman described a night of terror in which ‘women in the last stages of consumption, some with infants two weeks old, [took] refuge in the damp, chill woods and [were] taunted by their enemies,’ her personal experience proved very different.  So grateful was she to her guard that she presented him with a silver cup when he departed.  ‘I never thought I could feel toward an enemy as I did toward him,’ she told her daughter.  Mrs. Bachman commended the actions of Private Davis to the Confederate military, and the reply brought a gasp of astonishment to her lips.  ‘The man you mentioned as having protected your house … was an enlisted man of the … Fifteenth Army Corps,’ it read.  ‘I can only say that so far as this man was concerned that had he been captured by our men … and had the badge of the Fifteenth Army Corps located him, he would have been shot and left lying in the woods as were so many of his comrades.’  And so the kind Private Davis came from the dreaded Fifteenth Corps, whose very name made the people of Columbia tremble.  What makes this even more remarkable is that the guards who assisted Lily Logan and the Pringle Smith family were also from the Fifteenth Corps, as was the soldier who wept over the fate of the residents of Columbia.  Although these predominantly Western soldiers had assumed a specter of evil in the minds of white Southerners, their behavior frequently belied their infamy.  William Simms stated that the guards who most often betrayed their trust were ‘chiefly Eastern men.’  The troops from the Western states ‘were frequently faithful and respectful; and, perhaps it would be safe to assert that many of the houses which escaped the sack and fire, owed their safety to the presence of … some of these men.’  On the other hand, when Simms compared the treatment of African Americans at the hands of men from the East and the West, that respect shifted.  The Westerners seemed to despise blacks, whom they ‘used as drudges … and rewarded with kicks, cuffs and curses, frequently without provocation.’  Easterners’ relationship with blacks appeared to be of a totally different nature.” [pp. 64-65]

As was seen in Georgia, Sherman’s men weren’t the only soldiers with which white southerners had to contend in the Carolinas.  “Sherman’s men were only the most recent group to rob civilians of their provisions.  North Carolinians had been complaining for some time about bands of ‘Confederate raiders,’ who ‘laid waist [sic] the countryside.’  Confederate officials, both political and military, also voiced concerns regarding ‘depredations or outrages’ that were being ‘committed indiscriminately’ by men who were worse than any ‘plague’ inflicted on the Egyptians.  A Confederate officer sent from Virginia to round up deserters in the Piedmont area reported that in North Carolina he was able to ‘supply the men with more and better provisions.’  Lee’s army had become increasingly dependent on supplies from its Southern neighbor, especially at the end of 1864, when Union raids through Virginia ravaged its landscape.  Now the newly reinstated General Joseph Johnston learned that food supplies stored in depots across North Carolina were earmarked for the Army of Northern Virginia, and he would have to feed his own troops ‘by collecting subsistence through the country.’ ” [pp. 78-79]

Sherman’s march through the Carolinas may have had a direct effect on Lee’s army.  At least Lee thought so.  “General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, also expressed concern over the number of desertions among North Carolina troops.  Lee’s belief that many desertions were ‘occasioned to a considerable extent by letters written to the soldiers by their friends at home’ has been used as evidence of the waning loyalty of the Tar Heel State.  Extant correspondence between battlefront and home front, however, consists mainly of letters written by soldiers to their families, and from these it is difficult to ascertain that requests from increasingly disaffected civilians motivated desertions.  Furthermore, recent scholarship has challenged the view that North Carolina led the Confederate states in the number of desertions, arguing that these figures were based on erroneous War Department records.” [pp. 79-80]  There were definitely deserters, though, and confederate authorities were highly aggressive in going after them–and their families.  “The female kin of deserters were frequently the targets of reprisals by the home guard and state militia, suffering greater extremes of violence at the hands of Southern men than they experienced under Sherman and his hardened veterans.  Confederate authorities were well aware that deserters required the support of their families to ensure their survival.  Assistant Secretary of War Campbell recognized that these men were ‘everywhere shielded by their families.’  A late-nineteenth-century commentator maintained that the burden of the deserter’s wife was even greater than that of a soldier’s wife.  Not only did she share the anxiety that her husband might be captured or killed, but she had the added responsibility of smuggling food to him and keeping his presence a secret.  The writer claimed that these women ‘proved quite as true and sacrificing as their more refined sisters who sent their husbands, sons, and brothers to the field instead of the woods.’  That this observer characterized these women as less ‘refined’ was a concept shared by those units who sought out deserters, and their wrath was most often directed at women of the poorer classes.  It was their class as well as their gender that made these women targets.  The poorer classes of North Carolina were traditionally viewed by elites as a potential threat to the social order.  Gender provided no protection to the wives and mothers of deserters when Confederate authorities sought to flush out renegades.  Governor Vance received disturbing reports of women tortured by state militia.  Soldiers had slapped one woman, tied her thumbs together behind her back, and suspended her from a tree limb so her toes barely touched the ground.  Over fifty women in each of Chatham, Randolph, and Davidson Counties had been ‘dragged from their homes and put under close guard.’  Five of these women were in a state of ‘advanced pregnancy.’  In one of the most severe incidents, women were whipped and hanged until near death.  A young mother was dragged outside in the snow and tied to a tree while her baby was left exposed in the doorway of her home.  There, she was told, the infant would remain until she decided to cooperate.  Thus women often suffered violence at the hands of both deserters and Confederate authorities.” [pp. 81-82]

This is really a good book, but shouldn’t be considered to be a comprehensive history.  Serious students of the war need to read this book, but it should be a starting point for further research.

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