Home » FATEFUL LIGHTNING: Am. Civil War » Text » VII. LET THE THING BE PRESSED » 4) Uncle Billy’s Whirlwind: Sherman’s March

4) Uncle Billy’s Whirlwind: Sherman’s March

When I go through South Carolina, it will be one of the most horrible things in the history of the world. The devil himself couldn’t restrain my men in that state.
–William T. Sherman


Just eight days after Lincoln was sustained at the polls, William Tecumseh Sherman set out from Atlanta with 62,000 wiry veterans headed for Savannah and the sea. It was an undertaking entirely of Sherman’s own conception and rather against the better judgment of both Lincoln and Grant. After prying Hood loose from Atlanta in the fighting at Jonesboro, Sherman found that Hood was as troublesome outside the city as in. In fact, Sherman now found himself in the same fix he had put John Hood in. To keep Atlanta he must keep the railroad that supplied it. With 40,000 men in north Georgia plus Forrest’s troopers in Tennessee, Hood kept steady pressure on Sherman’s line to Chattanooga. Sherman had his hands full that October fighting over the same ground he had struggled for that summer. Although he eventually secured that line and drove Hood into Alabama, chasing Confederates over three states did not strike Sherman as a winning proposition. “It will be a physical impossibility to protect the roads,” Sherman argued to Grant, “now that Hood, Forrest, and Wheeler, and the whole batch of devils, are turned loose, without home or habitation.” A static defense of what he had gained in the Atlanta campaign was to Sherman’s mind no gain at all. Instead, he proposed to turn his back on Hood and march east across Georgia. “I could cut a swath to the sea, divide the Confederacy in two, and come up on the rear of Lee,” Sherman told a skeptical Grant. Atlanta he would evacuate, destroy, and abandon. George Thomas and his 60,000 Cumberland men would keep Hood from doing much harm in Tennessee. He himself would go “smashing things to the sea.”

Grant had argued all along that the Army of Tennessee was Sherman’s proper object. Sherman thought otherwise. As he told an outraged mayor of Atlanta: “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” What Sheridan had done in the Shenandoah Valley–destroying its capacity to sustain war–Sherman would do in the heart of the South. “If we can march a well-appointed army right through [the South], it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which [Jefferson] Davis cannot resist… I can make the march, and make Georgia howl!” His army would live off the land and destroy what it could not carry. Grant was at last persuaded and Lincoln assented. Sherman ordered the civilian population out of Atlanta and burned roughly a third of the city. Then on November 16 his army in two heavy columns turned their backs on the smoldering ruins and started for the sea. Lincoln was not entirely sure his two most trusted generals were right this time. Asked by a visitor about the fate of Sherman’s army, he wryly remarked, “I know the hole he went in at, but I can’t tell you what hole he’ll come out of.” Jefferson Davis professed certainty about Sherman’s fate: “I see no chance for Sherman to escape from a defeat or a disgraceful retreat. The fate that befell the army of the French Empire in its retreat from Moscow will be re-enacted.” Once Joe Wheeler’s Georgia Cossacks sent Sherman reeling, Davis believed, Hood would march into Tennessee and on to the banks of the Ohio River. When Grant read this bit of prophecy, he tartly asked, “Who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat?” As for Sherman, he didn’t much care where Hood went, so long as he stayed out of his way. If he was willing to go to the Ohio River, Sherman ventured, he’d be willing to give him rations.

As it was, Savannah and the sea were not quite three hundred miles east, and all that stood in Sherman’s way were Wheeler’s 3,500 troopers and a few thousand Georgia militia–mainly young boys and old men. His 62,000 men of all arms were only too glad to note Hood’s absence. “This is probably the greatest pleasure excursion ever planned,” one Federal thought, “and promises to be much richer yet.” A wagon train twenty-five miles long carrying cartridges and crackers followed the marching columns, but Yankees ate precious few crackers on this march. Sherman’s orders were to forage liberally on the countryside but to commit no plunder of private dwellings. The first part of those orders was executed with the last degree of thoroughness; the second blithely ignored by officers and men alike. One Georgia woman remembered the visitation of Sherman’s Yankees: “Like demons they rushed in!… To my Smoke House, my dairy, pantry, kitchen and cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way. The thousand pounds of meat in my smoke house is gone… my flour, my meat, my lard, butter, eggs, pickles… wine, jars and jugs are all gone. My 18 fat turkeys, my hens, chickens, and fowl, my young pigs are shot down in the yard… as if they were rebels themselves.” No army was better fed on the march than Sherman’s.

All that stood in the Yankee path that had any remotely conceivable military value was put to the torch. Although these Westerners were hard marchers when they needed to be, they moved now at a leisurely pace, some dozen miles of deliberate destruction a day. An incident at Milledgeville, the state capital, actually increased their rapacity. There, as soldiers were enjoying their Thanksgiving feed, appeared a handful of Union escapees from Andersonville prison–filthy, half-naked, walking skeletons. Seeing this wretchedness in the midst of Georgia’s agricultural plenty drove Uncle Billy’s boys to new levels of vengeful energy. As one of the wreckers put it, they “destroyed all [they] could not eat, stole their niggers, burned their cotton & gins, spilled their sorghum, burned & twisted their R. Roads, and raised Hell generally.” Their grim commander estimated his men did $100 million worth of damage. Some of that was food and forage for his army, but he supposed that 80 percent of it was mere destruction. Sherman was, as he promised, cutting a swath across Georgia–sixty miles wide–and the Confederate States of America were powerless to resist. By the middle of December his legions were in the neighborhood of Savannah. On December 21, after the briefest tussle at Fort McAllister, the city was his, abandoned by its 10,000-man garrison as a lost cause. The next day he sent this wry message to Lincoln: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.” Although Lincoln was already contemplating a lenient peace with the South, he wanted hard war remorselessly pursued until peace was at hand. In Grant and Sherman he had at last found hard-war men. “Grant has the bear by the hind leg,” said Lincoln with grim satisfaction, “while Sherman takes off its hide.”

By March of 1865, it would be hard to exaggerate just how deep were the waters closing over the Confederacy, no matter how they were fathomed. The price of gold in the North dropped steadily while it rose to $5,000 an ounce in the South. A Confederate dollar was worth two cents. A barrel of flour in Richmond–if it could be had–went for $450. The Union armies now numbered a million men despite 300,000 deaths from combat and disease. At the same time, an influx of immigrants was swelling the Northern population. In the South the war had already killed a quarter of the male population of military age, and her armies were now pressing boys and old men into the ranks–though not nearly as fast as combat and desertion diminished them. Federal warships in a navy that scarcely existed in ’61 now numbered nearly 700 and had closed every major Southern port but Wilmington, North Carolina (and Wilmington had not long to live). While Sherman’s men were tying rails into knots around Southern pines, iron and coal production in the North was greater than it had been in the nation’s history. While thousands upon thousands of farm boys had put down the scythe and picked up a musket in the North, ’62 and ’63 saw record crops of wheat. While Sherman and Sheridan despoiled the agricultural riches of Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley, Northerners not only fed the folks at home and the fighting men at the front but actually exported an immense tonnage of all manner of foodstuffs. American wheat, corn, beef, and pork fed the hungry in Western Europe; Southerners made do and went without. Josiah Gorgas, the ordnance genius who had armed the South against the longest of odds, asked a desperate question in January of 1865: “Where is this to end? No money in the Treasury–no food to feed Gen. Lee’s army–no troops to oppose Gen. Sherman… Is the cause really hopeless?” Virtually all that remained of the Confederate States of America were Alabama and the Carolinas. Below the Mason-Dixon line, the winter of ’65 was uncommonly cold and exceedingly dark.

The Confederacy’s last important point of entry was Wilmington, North Carolina, held open to blockade-runners by the ponderous strength of Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. On a foundation of logs, Rebel engineers had raised walls of earth and sand thirty feet high and twenty-five feet thick, rather like the old palmetto-log forts of the Revolution. With nearly fifty big guns, it continued to defy Federal warships. In December Grant had sent bumbling and bug-eyed Ben Butler with a combined navy and army command to close the South’s last door to the world. After a series of delays that had contributed generously to Grant’s ill-humor at the time, Butler was ready at last to strike Fort Fisher on December 24. The plan was to run an old steamer with 200-odd tons of gunpowder under the stronghold’s walls and blow it up. Then David Porter’s gunboats would blast away at its batteries while 6,500 infantrymen went ashore and swarmed it. The explosion produced a great deal of noise but no damage; the naval barrage produced more noise but little damage; the infantrymen–at least some of them–went ashore and were almost immediately recalled when Butler decided the place was too strong to be taken. Thus ended Butler’s effort against Fort Fisher and with it Butler’s military career. No longer valuable for his political muscle after the November elections, Butler was at long last expendable. On January 8 Grant relieved him of command. Just a week later youthful and capable Alfred Terry was back at Fort Fisher, this time with 8,000 men and Porter’s gunboats. While the fleet threw some 800 tons of shot and shell into the fort, 4,500 infantrymen struck its north face and 2,000 marines its seaward face. This time it was enough. In bloody fighting that cost a thousand casualties, they seized the place and its 2,000-man garrison. Wilmington, twenty miles up the Cape Fear River, was cut off from the sea, and the Confederacy cut off from the world. Not long after, Wilmington likewise fell, taking with it the better part of the North Carolina coast.

Next in harm’s way was the interior of the Carolinas. The man who intended the harm was William Tecumseh Sherman, the unkempt, rusty-bearded Attila who had already smashed his way across Georgia and was now safely settled in Savannah with his army. Embittered Georgians in the path of Sherman’s destruction had posed Uncle Billy’s boys this corrosive question: “Why don’t you go over to South Carolina and serve them this way? They started it.” South Carolina had in truth been first to declare herself a republic. In Charleston the secession ordinance had been drafted four Decembers ago and fire-eating Edmund Ruffin had yanked the lanyard on the first fateful gun on an April morning. Sherman’s Westerners and Georgia’s suffering citizens had this much in common: both held South Carolina responsible for the scourge of war. Sherman now persuaded Grant that the way to peace was for him to start his 60,000 men north from Savannah, burning and wrecking his way across the Carolinas and coming up at last in Lee’s rear at Petersburg. The destruction wrought along the way would reduce Lee’s gaunt, half-ration stalwarts to skeletons, and when he fetched up south of Petersburg, he was sure, no Rebel valor could resist the inevitable end.

This much was sound strategic thinking. But in Sherman’s design was something that had nothing to do with purely military considerations–as if there were any purely military considerations in the business of two popular democracies at war. One man’s revolution is another man’s treason. South Carolina, having chosen the experiment of war, was going to pay the fearful price of the experiment. Sherman for his part thought so, and as much to the point, virtually all of his 60,000 veterans thought likewise. “Here is where treason began,” one bluecoat concluded for his comrades, “and here, by God, is where it shall end.” On the first day of February in 1865, Sherman started north from Savannah. He aimed now for Goldsboro, North Carolina. Goldsboro was a full 425 miles from Savannah, forty miles farther than his army had tramped virtually unopposed from Atlanta to the Atlantic coast. At Goldsboro Sherman expected to make contact again with Federal trains moving westward from captured Wilmington. But in the march to the sea Sherman’s men had hiked decent roads at harvest time in good campaigning weather. In their path now would lie Joe Johnston once more with his infantry, Joe Wheeler’s horsemen, and nine black, sluggish, swollen rivers, not to mention creeks and marshes beyond number.

For his part, Old Joe Johnston was ready to believe that low-country South Carolina in the midst of the wettest winter in a generation would be obstacle enough in itself. His engineers “reported that it was absolutely impossible to march across the lower portions of the State in winter.” But the main body of Sherman’s men were the same who had ditched and dredged and marched and fought their way into Vicksburg back in ’63 and then marched and fought and dug their way across the rugged hills of north Georgia and into Atlanta in ’64. Resilient and resourceful, they were both willing and able to go where their Uncle Billy led them. If the march to the sea had been, as one Yankee put it, a “pleasure excursion,” this haul was to be toilsome to the last degree. North they tramped through the chilling muck, bridging rivers and creeks and corduroying roads at the rate of a good ten miles a day. Fifty miles north of Savannah, Sherman struck the meandering arms of the Salkehatchie River. Here certainly, Southerners believed, Sherman would stall. But on he went, bridging his way across its channels. His men swung their axes and hauled logs, pausing only to observe wryly that “Uncle Billy seems to have struck this river end-ways.” Even Old Joe had to admire his antagonist’s relentless advance. When he learned that Sherman was moving through the Salk swamps corduroying their roads at a dozen miles a day, he concluded “that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.” A Rebel private taken prisoner along the way was rather more grudging in his admiration. “If your army goes to hell,” he told a Yankee, “it will corduroy the road.” And if that army was relentless, it was also remorseless. Their destruction through Georgia had been deliberate enough and more, but the hard hand that fell on South Carolina was without mercy. In Georgia for the most part private dwellings had been spared; in South Carolina virtually any structure within reach of the torch went up in flame. An Indiana boy remembered that when the sun did shine, which was but rarely, it was obscured by the smoke of South Carolina’s devastation. Another Westerner, an Illinois soldier, testified to a new breed of war, not against armies but against the very society that had brought them into being. “The rich were put into the cabins of the Negroes,” he wrote. “Their cattle and corn were used for rations, their fences for corduroy and campfires, and their barns and cotton gins for bonfires. It seemed to be decreed that South Carolina, having sown the wind, should reap the whirlwind.” The whirlwind was at hand and a terrible harvest it was. Sherman was cutting a narrower swath through South Carolina than he had across Georgia, but it was fearfully closer to the bone.

How close to the bone would be soon demonstrated in the fate of the state’s capital itself. With one wing of his army feinting toward Charleston to the east and the other toward Augusta in the west, the main body came up and took possession of Columbia on February 17. That night, in a howling gale, a full third of the city went up in flames. Sherman, then and after, denied that he ever ordered the city burned, and that much is certain. He believed that the fire had its origin in burning bales of cotton left behind in the hasty evacuation of Rebel cavalry, and at least some of the destruction must have begun here. But also left behind were stores of whiskey, and soon citizens and soldiers alike were thoroughly drunk. General Henry Slocum blamed the city’s destruction on the incendiary mix of whiskey and vengeance: “A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night, particularly when for a series of years you have urged him to come so that you might have an opportunity of performing a surgical operation on him.” In any case, there were plenty of villains in the burning of Columbia: Sherman’s vengeful soldiers, escaped Yankees from a nearby prison camp, slaves liberated by Sherman’s march, heedless Confederates who had left both burning cotton and whiskey in the streets. There were even some heroes–bluecoats, Sherman among them, who struggled through the night to fight the fire. But in the end Columbia burned, and there were few in Sherman’s army who regretted it. By their lights, the ashes of Columbia were the sign of divine retribution. Sherman himself certainly thought so. Years later, testifying in an official inquiry into the fire, Sherman declared that Confederate cavalrymen started the blaze with those bales of cotton. But, he added forcefully, “God Almighty sent the wind!” Independence or extermination was the choice Jefferson Davis had presented the Southern people. In the winter of ’65 extermination was tramping the roads of South Carolina in blue coats and muddy brogans.

As the Columbia fire burnt itself out the next morning, news came of additional loss (though not with Columbia’s attendant destruction). With 60,000 Yankees now loose in its rear, there was nothing for the Charleston garrison to do but evacuate the city and hike north to join the force Joe Johnston would soon be cobbling together. Charleston, where Congressman Pryor of Virginia had urged Southerners to strike a blow in that far-off spring, was back in the Union and the stars and stripes flew over the pile of wrecked masonry that was Fort Sumter. Four days after the fall of Charleston, Robert E. Lee called on Joe Johnston to take command of all the troops in the Carolinas. (Lee himself had been recently elevated to the post of general-in-chief, as if the magic of his famous name could somehow work a miracle for the South’s tottering fortunes.) It was the second time Johnston had been called upon to drive Sherman from the South, and he had less than ever to do the driving with. With fewer than 20,000 men–Savannah’s garrison under William Hardee and pieces of Hood’s wrecked and dispirited army mainly–Johnston had no illusions about what he might accomplish against Sherman (unlike Hood and his fevered dream of marching to the Ohio River). To the new general-in-chief, he wrote grimly about his chances: “I can do no more than annoy him.” Worse yet, as soon as Sherman reached Goldsboro, he would be joined by Schofield and 30,000 victorious Westerners from Thomas’ command.

In the first week of March Sherman’s devastating legions crossed into North Carolina, leaving behind them a corridor of loss and grief and sodden ashes. They were not done with their destructive work, but it would be executed now under a new policy. Having despoiled what Sherman regarded, no less than his soldiers, as the nesting place of treason, Sherman ordered his army to “deal as moderately and fairly by North Carolinians as possible,” believing as they did that her sister state had dragged North Carolina unwillingly into rebellion. (The Potomac II Corps men who had beaten back North Carolina’s sons on the third day at Gettysburg might have ventured a contrary opinion.) Though stragglers burned uncounted acres of the piney woods, by and large North Carolina was spared the holocaust to the south. The fate of Fayetteville, for example, stands in strong contrast to Columbia’s. An arsenal and its auxiliary machine shops were destroyed, but the city was not. For Joe Johnston and his little band charged with the responsibility of somehow stopping these swinging blue columns, time was running out and fast. Johnston could strike now before Sherman reached reinforcement and resupply at Goldsboro or not at all. Having struggled so long, Old Joe proposed to have one more pull at Sherman. At Averysboro, some thirty miles south of the capital at Raleigh, Johnston sent two divisions in against four of Sherman’s, hoping at least to check his advance. On March 16 Johnston’s ragged grey divisions did that much and more. The bitterly contested fight revealed the fact that a good dozen miles separated the wings of Sherman’s advance. If Old Joe had a chance at all–and in truth he did not–it was to fall with his whole force on either wing of Sherman’s army.

He chose the left wing now nearing Bentonville. There, two miles south of the town, on March 19 Johnston struck. With the blue column strung out on the road to Goldsboro to the east, Johnston staggered the Federal advance in front and struck its flank hard from the north. In a series of attacks begun about mid-day and continuing to sunset, Johnston’s men drove the Federals rearward from the road. But the Federals, some of whom admitted that they showed that day “some of the best running ever,” dug in to make a fight of it, and Slocum, in command here, kept his head and got reinforcements up in a hurry. Each successive attack had less steam and met greater resistance. It was Johnston’s first offensive effort since Seven Pines at the gates of Richmond, and his last. After dark, he withdrew his army back north of the road and dug in himself. Between the fighting at Averysboro and Bentonville, Johnston counted some 3,000 casualties, roughly a thousand more than Sherman. But, more than that, his army–if it could still be called so–was altogether used up. In regiments that had marched off to war more than a thousand strong in ’61, now only 50 or 60 men answered the long roll. While Johnston held on to get his wounded away, a movement much belabored by lack of transport, Sherman came up with the rest of the army that night and the next day. By the 20th of March, Sherman with 60,000 men to Johnston’s 17,000 was in position to do what he had designed the summer before when McPherson had emerged from Snake Creek Gap on Johnston’s flank.

At that time he was sure he had Old Joe dead, but McPherson had hesitated and the Army of Tennessee had slipped away. Now, however, he had Johnston finally and truly dead to rights–as dead as McPherson himself. And now Sherman hesitated. On the morning of March 21 one of his division commanders, a combative and impulsive Vermonter by the name of Joseph Mower, drove altogether on his own hook at the Confederate left and broke it. He was pushing toward the bridge over the Neuse River, Johnston’s route to safety, when he was himself struck front and flank by a counter-attack. In all likelihood, a concerted push by the whole of Sherman’s force would have finished Johnston for good. But the order Sherman sent was to recall Mower, not to destroy Joe Johnston. The end was at hand, Sherman was certain. He would let Old Joe get over the river to Smithfield and safety. As soon as Johnston withdrew, he himself would cross the river and take his footsore, weary men to Goldsboro to refit and resupply–and of course to join Schofield’s 30,000 already on the march. Together they would turn north once more and fetch up in Lee’s rear at Petersburg. War is cruelty, not to be refined, Sherman had pronounced, but with the end so near, he would allow himself this modest refinement. After dark on March 21–it was spring now–Joe Johnston slipped away once more.

On March 22, the day that Johnston’s beaten men were trudging away from Bentonville headed toward Raleigh, more cruelty was on horseback in Alabama. James Wilson, who had fought with such crisp and aggressive skill at Franklin and Nashville, was crossing the Tennessee River headed for Selma, the site of the Confederacy’s last munitions industry aside from Richmond. With him were nearly 13,000 troopers armed with seven-shot Spencers and the confidence that not even that devil Forrest, out-manned, out-gunned, and out-horsed, could check them now. At about the same time an infantry force drawn from the Army of the Gulf and Thomas’ Army of the Tennessee under E. R. S. Canby would strike for Mobile. (Though the bay itself was already in Union hands, the city had continued to hold.) The Confederacy was, as Sherman had insisted the summer before, a hollow shell. By April 2 Wilson had wrecked his way into Selma, and no more powder and ball would come from that place again. Ten days later he was in triumph in Montgomery, the original capital of the Confederate States of America. The same day, Mobile surrendered to Canby and the inevitable. The deep waters that Mary Chesnut had heard rolling over the South were roaring now.

The full extent of Southern desperation that winter was nowhere more evident than in the really extraordinary debate unfolding in the Confederate government. The proposition now, with white Southern manpower all but exhausted, was to arm the slaves. Not so long before, Pat Cleburne had proposed that very measure and was treated with arctic silence as if he had uttered an obscenity in church. When Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation after Antietam, Jefferson Davis had pronounced it “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” But now, with Grant at the gates and Sherman on the march, even Davis was reduced, as he said, “to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us.” The Federal government, not without misgivings, had put the black man in a blue suit. While it was true that the army still preferred to use him as a laborer rather than a combat soldier, where he had been given an opportunity to fight, he had fought capably. Now the Confederate Congress would have to decide whether and under what conditions it would likewise raise black troops. It faced the bizarre paradox of freeing slaves in order to preserve slavery. It was not a popular measure, and at least some saw its implications with clarity. Georgia’s Howell Cobb said simply, “The day you make soldiers of [black men] is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Robert E. Lee, who knew better than any the army’s critical need for manpower, wrote to Congress himself urging passage of a bill that would arm slaves in exchange for their eventual emancipation. Perhaps only the status of Lee could move Southerners to swallow so bitter a pill. The country will not deny anything Lee asks for, a Richmond paper ventured, though much vexed that Lee felt compelled to ask for this particular something. In the end the Congress carried a measure that would raise black troops–though stipulating with a strange air of unreality that the law would not change “the relation which the said slaves shall bear to their owners.” Davis, who had insisted on the measure’s dire necessity, signed it into law, but all that ever came of the Confederate dream of two hundred thousand armed black men was a little bit of ceremonial drill by a handful of black troops in Richmond’s Capitol Square. The curious looked on with contempt, and little boys threw stones. The black card that might have taken the trick of foreign recognition when Southern fortunes were high won nothing now. More to the point, slavery was already dead, killed by the hard hand of war that had liberated a million slaves thus far. As Sherman put it grittily back in Georgia, Southerners could no more get their slaves back than their dead grandfathers. In Washington on the last day of January a reluctant House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution by just two votes and prepared to send it to the states for ratification. Whether the black man was going to be a citizen was not yet clear, but when peace came he was not going to be a slave.