In November 1864, just days after the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. William T. Sherman vowed to “make Georgia howl.” The hero of Shiloh and his 65,000 Federal troops destroyed the great city of Atlanta, captured Savannah, and cut a wide swath of destruction through Georgia and the Carolinas on their way to Virginia. A scorched-earth campaign that continues to haunt the Southern imagination, Sherman’s “March to the Sea” and ensuing drive north was a crucial turning point in the War between the States.
Weaving together hundreds of eyewitness accounts, bestselling author Burke Davis tells the story of this infamous episode from the perspective of the Union soldiers and the Confederate men and women who stood in their path. Eloquent, heartrending, and vastly informative, Sherman’s March brilliantly examines one of the most polarizing figures in American military history and offers priceless insights into the enduring legacy of the Civil War.
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By Burke Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Burke Davis
All rights reserved.
"He believes in hard war"
From a window of a brick house on the hill a bearded face peered across the burning heart of Atlanta. It was a face incredibly wrinkled and furrowed, dominated by a ruddy scimitar of a nose and a broad mouth that writhed about the stump of a cigar as the tall man spoke to those in the room behind him.
General William T. Sherman glanced restlessly about, squinting toward a setting sun now obscured by smoke, to the courthouse and Masonic hall, still undamaged, into an inferno of blazing railroad shops, depots and factories, and along streets patrolled by Federal sentries who were under Sherman's orders to save churches and private homes.
Scorching heat pulsed against the columned mansion where Sherman made his headquarters, and in the growing darkness the glare lighted the countryside so brightly that soldiers in camps a mile from the city could read their letters from home. Exploding shells burst in the ruins of captured Confederate arsenals, shaking the house and rattling shrapnel against its walls.
It was November 15, 1864. Sherman's troops, some 62,000 strong, had already begun to evacuate the burning city. By the next morning they would be off on a thousand-mile foray through the heart of the reeling Confederacy that would leave a path of destruction eighty miles wide, pillage three state capitals, and bring an end to the war that had racked the nation for three years.
The general rubbed the thinning thatch of his hair upward with both hands, tugged at his blouse buttons, drummed the window sill with his fingers, seized the cigar, snapped furiously at its ashes and replaced it, puffing in a fury, shooting smoke from his mouth like pistol fire, as if it were the last cigar in the world. His soldiers had often seen him in such a state, picking nervously at himself with fluttering fingers. One of them said, "I never saw him but I thought of Lazarus."
The city that he had so recently captured seemed to Sherman a symbol of Confederate resistance. "Atlanta," he said abruptly. "I've been fighting Atlanta all this time. It's done more to keep up the war than any — well, Richmond, perhaps. All the guns and wagons we've captured along the way — all marked 'Atlanta.'" He was determined that the city would no longer serve as a major Confederate supply center. He had captured Atlanta on September 2, after one of the war's most brilliant campaigns, and six weeks later was now to leave it behind, ungarrisoned, to lead his troops on a march that was to bring him military immortality.
Sherman turned into the room, gesturing to his officers with his cigar-stump baton. "They've done so much to destroy us, we've got to destroy Atlanta — at least, enough to stop any more of that."
No one, not even the most devoted of his staff, could imagine that Sherman was on the threshold of fame tonight. He strode to the dining table and sank into a mahogany chair as awkwardly as if he were straddling a cracker box, his customary seat in the field. Sherman was a slight, almost frail figure of deceptively wiry strength.
He wore no badge of rank. His weather-stained blouse looked as if he had slept in it for three years of war; he wore a dirty dickey with wilted points, a faded gray flannel shirt, muddy brown trousers older than the memory of his most veteran staff officer, low-cut shoes rather than boots, and but one spur — the only general of either army who affected shoes and a single spur.
Sherman's headquarters would have done justice to a bandit chief. It traveled in a single wagon, including baggage for all clerks, aides and orderlies. "I think it's as low down as we can get," he said. He scorned elaborate equipment hauled along by comfort-seeking officers as "a farce — nothing but poverty will cure it." There had been only three aides, though two others had come recently, one of them Major Henry Hitchcock, a young Republican lawyer from St. Louis who was assigned to handle a correspondence that had begun to overwhelm the general: "Just tell 'em something sweet, Hitchcock — you know, honey and molasses."
Hitchcock had been completely won over by Sherman at their first meeting. Despite the general's eccentricities, the young lawyer found him "straight-forward, simple, kind-hearted, nay, warmhearted ... scrupulously just and careful of the rights of others." Above all, Hitchcock was impressed with Sherman's competence: "You may be sure of one thing — what he says he can do, he can."
Tonight the general's meal was as simple as those of his interminable marches — hardtack, sweet potatoes, bacon and coffee. Sherman gnawed at a flinty piece of hardtack and began his familiar lecture on its virtues, halted to greet a dispatch-bearer, ripped open a message and barked out a reply. He talked of the enemy, of Southern women, of U. S. Grant and President Lincoln, heedlessly gulping his food, then returning to the smoldering cigar, still talking and laughing, giving orders, dictating telegrams, "bright and chipper," one of his generals noted. He cut short others who spoke and went on with his hurried comments, refusing to be interrupted. "I'm too red-haired to be patient," he had said. A war correspondent described him as he was at this moment: "He walked, talked or laughed all over. He perspired thought at every pore ... pleasant and affable ... engaging ... with a mood that shifted like a barometer in a tropic sea."
The meal was ended by a regimental band from Massachusetts blaring beneath the windows in a serenade to the general, the brasses pealing incongruously above the explosions and roaring flames. Sherman listened briefly, lost interest and turned back to dispatch-bearers and officers who had come for orders. After a few lively military tunes the band played the "Miserere" from Il Trovatore, whose melancholy beauty, Henry Hitchcock thought, would forever remind him of this November night of roaring flames when Atlanta was destroyed and the army began its march to the sea.
Drunken Federal soldiers had been setting fires in the stricken city for several days, in defiance of Sherman's orders, but the official work of destruction had begun only when two Michigan regiments knocked down the massive stone roundhouse with improvised battering rams, placed powder charges under large buildings, and piled mountains of worn-out wagons, tents and bedding in the railroad depot, ready for the torch.
Sherman had ordered the city's destruction postponed until this night of November 15. A foundry, an oil refinery and a freight warehouse were burned first; the blazing depot square spread a storm of fire. The Atlanta Hotel, Washington Hall, dry-goods stores, theaters, the fire stations and jail, slave markets, went up in flames. A mine exploded in a stone warehouse. Old pine timbers burned with astonishing brilliance and flung brands in all directions. The sun shone blood red through a thickening cloud. The air for miles about was "oppressive and intolerable."
By night the burning city was "the grandest and most awful scene," with fires towering hundreds of feet into the sky. Hitchcock watched in fascination: "First bursts of smoke, dense, black volumes, then tongues of flame, then huge waves of fire roll up into the sky: Presently the skeletons of great warehouses stand out in relief against ... sheets of roaring, blazing, furious flames ... as one fire sinks, another rises ... lurid, angry, dreadful to look upon."
The fires died down before midnight and the glare began to fade. Hitchcock saw that the courthouse and Masonic hall still stood. No private homes within view of headquarters had been burned — but tomorrow, he thought, when the guards are gone, all would go up in smoke. Already bands of drunken Federal soldiers raced through the streets on foot and horseback, smashing plate-glass windows, bearing huge loads of uniforms from army warehouses and selling them on street corners for any price they could get. Sherman's troops gathered before large buildings and "shouted and danced and sang while pillar and roof and dome sank into one common ruin." A bitter stench filled the night — odors of pine, tar, gunpowder, oil, charred meat and cloth, leather, carpets, feather beds, hot metal, burned privies, hospital sheds, hotels, drugstores, and from the streets themselves the sickening smell of dead horses and mules.
Some of Sherman's soldiers watched the sea of flames in dismay. Harvey Reid, a twenty-three-year-old Wisconsin schoolteacher in the XX Corps, wrote indignantly: "This destruction of private property in Atlanta was entirely unnecessary and therefore a disgraceful piece of business ... the cruelties practiced on this campaign toward citizens have been enough to blast a more sacred cause than ours. We hardly deserve success." And Major James Austin Connolly, who rode near the head of an Illinois regiment, blamed Sherman himself for the needless destruction of the city: "He is somewhere nearby now, looking on at all this, and saying not one word to prevent it."
Major Connolly would have been surprised to learn that Sherman spent most of this night with his engineers in the streets trying to help save threatened houses. The general worked while his wagons, guns and troops were moving eastward from the city.
By dawn some two hundred acres of Atlanta lay in ashes. The only survivors were four hundred houses and a few larger buildings, most of them churches. Father Thomas O'Reilly of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, who had assembled a guard of Federal soldiers, saved his church and parsonage and nearby houses — as well as the city hall and St. Philip's Episcopal, Trinity Methodist, Second Baptist and Central Presbyterian churches.
Atlanta Medical College was saved by another resolute Confederate, Dr. Peter Paul Noel D'Alvigny, a French army veteran who hoodwinked the enemy. When his last patients were evacuated, Federal soldiers spread straw on the floors of the buildings, ready for the torch. D'Alvigny bribed hospital attendants to pose as patients, and protested to a Federal officer that he must have time to move his wounded.
"You have no patients. The place is empty, and it burns tonight with the rest of them. Those are my orders."
The doctor led him to an upper room where his hospital attendants lay groaning in a distressing display of helplessness. "All right," the bewildered officer said. "I'll give you until sunrise to get 'em out of here."
The last of the army was moving out by dawn, and the medical college survived, overlooked in the haste of departure.
In the last hours Federal soldiers looted the city in company with Confederate deserters and a few civilians who hurried in to pillage. The bluecoats robbed warehouses of uniforms, tobacco and whiskey, put on Confederate gray, stuffed their pockets with foot-long plugs of tobacco and drank the whiskey.
The XIV Corps, last to leave the city, began to move at sunrise, marching past a vacant lot where civilians crouched among piles of household goods they had snatched from the flames. Chaplain John Hight of the 58th Indiana carried a memory of women wringing their hands in agony, some of them praying aloud. "How far these people are deserving of pity, it is hard to tell."
Sherman left Atlanta at seven in the morning of November 16, riding his favorite mount, Sam, a blaze-faced little horse whose "horribly fast" walk was the dismay of his staff. The general was erect and vigorous in the saddle, like a gamecock, some of his men thought. His face was drawn with fatigue and half-concealed by a broad-brimmed hat jammed down over his ears, a formless black hat worn without braid or tassels. The sunlight revealed streaks of gray in the cinnamon beard. Sherman's cigar rolled constantly across his mouth, even as he talked with staff officers and his bodyguard of Alabama cavalry, waving and gesturing with his slender, feminine hands. His nose twitched as if the general were snuffling out the trail ahead, a relic of his long bouts with asthma; he had burned niter papers in his room for years, until the Southern climate had cured him. The general was watchful as he rode among his troops, missing nothing as he passed:
Illinois artillerymen breaking camp, furiously discarding surplus equipment, squabbling over hatchets, stewpans and coffeepots to be taken, each officer reduced to a gripsack and blanket and canvas tent "about the size of a large towel"; a Minnesota regiment stuffing the stringy flesh of freshly killed beeves into knapsacks, bellowing in protest, "Blue jerk! Thirteen dollars a month and blue jerk!"; quartermasters snatching stores from flames that had freshly sprung up, flinging boots, coats and trousers onto the passing column; the 86th Illinois infantry, its men calling in unison as they marched, "Split peas! Split peas!" — victims of a commissary officer who had no other rations left to him, men who knew they must cook the peas three hours tonight.
Whiskey had been issued and many had drawn double rations. Hosea Rood of Wisconsin saw these men begin as if they would reach the sea by nightfall: "They stepped high and long; they sang and made merry, and could not for the life of them see why the glorious march had not begun a long time before."
Every private seemed to know the army's destination, though Sherman's orders had told them little of what was to come: "It is sufficient for you to know that it involves a departure from our present base, and a long and difficult march ..." They would carry few supplies, live off the country and "forage liberally." Soldiers were forbidden to enter houses along the route — though they might take food they saw in the open, crops and livestock and all else — and should plunder hostile rich Southerners rather than the poor. Able-bodied Negroes could be taken along, but not so many as to burden the columns. Enemy country was to be devastated only where the army met resistance by Confederate guerrillas.
The general had reassured the army that its passage through enemy country could be made safely: "All the chances of war have been considered and provided for, as far as human sagacity can. All he [Sherman] asks of you is to maintain that discipline, patience, and courage which have characterized you in the past; and he hopes, through you, to strike a blow at the enemy that will have a material effect in producing what we all so much desire, his complete overthrow ..."
Recruits who cheered the general on the first day's march were quieted by veterans who had followed him for years: "He don't like it." But today, for some reason, Sherman seemed to welcome the cries of his troops. He waved and grinned when others called, "Guess Grant's waitin' for us at Richmond, Uncle Billy!" He passed within ten feet of a drunken soldier who scowled up at him, cursing the general with a steady vehemence. Sherman rode on as if he had heard nothing.
The general was an enigma to most of his troops. One soldier declared him "the most American-looking man I ever saw," but an Indiana officer who studied him closely said, "There are no outward signs of greatness. He appears to be a very ordinary man." War correspondents wrote: "All his features express determination, particularly the mouth ... a very remarkable man such as could not be grown out of America — the concentrated quintessence of Yankeedom ... He believes in hard war." And: "His eyes had a half-wild expression, probably the result of excessive smoking ... He looks rather like an anxious man of business than an ideal soldier." A more thoughtful reporter from Cincinnati who had followed Sherman for hundreds of miles on his Southern invasion wrote: "Above all the men I have met, that strange face of his is the hardest to read. It is a sealed book even to his friends."
The general's pursuit of modesty was almost an obsession. He had recently replied to a prospective biographer, "Desire no notoriety. Have endeavored to escape the itching of fame." To a woman who requested a lock of his hair he replied that his hair was "too short to plait and too thin to spare from its natural office." Still, he was not without vanity. He suppressed an unflattering photograph that revealed too many of his wrinkles.
Excerpted from Sherman's March by Burke Davis. Copyright © 1980 Burke Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- 1. “He believes in hard war”
- 2. “I can make Georgia howl!”
- 3. “I’ll have to harden my heart”
- 4. “The most gigantic pleasure expedition”
- 5. “We never wanted to fight”
- 6. “Our degradation was bitter”
- 7. “I don’t war on women and children”
- 8. “Even the sun seemed to hide its face”
- 9. “An inhuman barbarous proceeding”
- 10. “I’ve got Savannah!”
- 11. “A Christmas gift”
- 12. “An almost criminal dislike of the Negro”
- 13. “No such army since the days of Julius Caesar”
- 14. “We’ll destroy no private property”
- 15. “The day of Jubilo has come”
- 16. “For the first time I am ashamed”
- 17. “Death to all foragers”
- 18. “Rebels have no rights”
- 19. “Kilpatrick’s shirt-tail skedaddle”
- 20. “I can whip Joe Johnston”
- 21. “He shall have no rest”
- 22. “They don’t drive worth a damn”
- 23. “Splendid legs! Splendid legs!”
- 24. “Who’s doing this surrendering, anyhow?”
- 25. “Sherman has fatally blundered”
- 26. “Washington is as corrupt as hell”
- 27. “They march like the lords of the world”
- About the Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A very good book on a subject I had heard much of in childhood but had never seen assembled into a manuscript. Sherman's March is well worth the money and time to spend and to contemplate the retributions and the consequences of war that are never rightly considered until they are thrust upon ones front yard, so to speak!
Creative non-fiction. And you have to wonder about some of the sources - they seem pretty anecdotal, of the flavor of the virtuous Confederate women barring the door to the villainous Yankee invaders. How accurate can those accounts be?