After Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September of 1864, the remainder of the autumn brought about the supreme test for Grant and Sherman’s personal and military relationship. Four months before, Sherman had received Grant’s approval for his bold campaign that had moved through Georgia for a hundred miles and resulted in his taking Atlanta. Now, in a letter that Horace Porter carried back to Grant, he sent word that he wanted to march on to the southeast from Atlanta, cut through Georgia for 225 more miles, and capture the great coastal port of Savannah.
Sherman initially presented his plan in a confident, high-hearted way. In his letter of September 20 carried by Porter, he closed a long description of his proposed campaign with these words. “I admire your dogged perseverance and pluck more than ever. If you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think Uncle Abe will give us a twenty days’ leave to see the young folks.”
Despite the recent superb performance of Sherman and his army, Grant was doubtful that this would be the best use of Sherman’s forces, and Lincoln and Stanton were even more skeptical about the idea. As Grant and Sherman discussed the strategic situation in the South in a series of letters and telegrams in late September, Grant first proposed that Sherman move south to Mobile and crush the remaining Confederate strength on the Gulf Coast. Sherman soon persuaded him that, as a campaign in itself, the march to Savannah would be feasible, but Grant was worried about what Sherman would be leaving in his rear when he did that. If Sherman headed for the Atlantic Ocean, he would be marching away from John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, which would then be opposed only by the Union forces under General George Thomas. Grant feared that Hood, who had been beaten by Sherman, would in his turn be able to defeat Thomas. If that happened, no matter how much progress Sherman was making as he went in the opposite direction southeast of Atlanta, Hood could march his army north into areas that had for some time been under Union control. Hood could move up through Tennessee and Kentucky, and might even reach Cincinnati on the Ohio River. Leaving Hood’s army intact was a terrible risk, and one that need not be taken. With this frightening prospect in mind, Grant told Sherman that he could strike out for Savannah, but only after destroying Hood’s forces.
Relying on Grant’s willingness to hear something more about all this, Sherman argued that Thomas was equal to any threat from Hood, and then he went beyond advocating the purely military aspects of his proposed march to the coast. This, he told Grant, was the chance to break the South’s will, its thus far remarkable fighting spirit. If he could march from Atlanta right to the sea, this demonstrated ability to move through the heart of the South on a path of the Union Army’s choosing would show everyone, North and South, that night was descending upon the Confederacy. Sherman wanted to convince every adult white Southerner that continuing to fight for the cause of secession would result in personal catastrophe and ruin. “Even without a battle,” Sherman now wrote Grant of the dramatic march he wanted to undertake, “the result operating on the minds of sensible men would produce fruits more than compensating for the expense, trouble, and risk.” In another letter to Grant, he unveiled his concept of waging war upon everything in his path, the countryside itself, in a harsher fashion than he had been able to do on the way to Atlanta, when he had to face Johnston’s troops at every turn. Speaking of Georgia, he said that “the utter destruction of its roads, houses and people will cripple their military resources.” He wanted to move ahead and keep going, letting his men and horses live off the land through which they passed, without worrying about what might happen if he had to guard supply lines to his rear: “By attempting to hold the roads, we will lose a thousand men monthly and gain no result.” He added this chilling reassurance to Grant: “I can make the march and make Georgia howl.”
In his headquarters at City Point, Grant considered all of this, balancing his confidence in Sherman against his responsibility to avoid a disaster that could change the entire course of the war. Fighting Lee in Virginia was supremely hard, taxing the Union’s strength and resolve to its utmost. If Hood should get loose, bring his forces north on the inland side of the Appalachian Mountains, and open a new front well to the west of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, no one could foretell the calamities that might visit upon the Union.
Halfheartedly at first, Grant began to make a great act of faith in his friend Sherman. He started in early October by writing him, “If there is any way of [your] getting at Hood’s army, I would prefer that, but I must trust to your own judgement.” A few days later, he added, “On reflection, I think better of your proposition.” Sherman realized that he still did not have the kind of support from Grant that he needed. He knew that only Grant could convince Lincoln and Stanton to agree with this hazardous strategy—on October 13, Stanton wired Grant that Lincoln was worried that “a misstep now by General Sherman might be fatal to his army”—and he sensed that Grant was still not ready to approve his plan. On November 1, with Hood already moving up toward Chattanooga to confront the Union army under George Thomas, Grant worriedly wrote Sherman, “Do you not think it would be advisable now that Hood has gone so far north, to entirely settle him before starting on your proposed campaign? With Hood’s army destroyed, you can go where you please with impunity.”
Sherman responded to this on the same day with two telegrams. In the first, he assured Grant that Thomas would be able to stop Hood before he could do any significant damage. In the second, he told Grant that “if I turn back, the whole effect of my campaign will be lost … I am clearly of [the] opinion that the best results will follow my contemplated movement through Georgia.”
Grant was reluctantly persuaded. Within hours, he gave his approval: “I do not really see that you can withdraw from where you arc to follow Hood, without giving up all that we have gained in territory. I say, then, go on as you propose.”
The two friends had disagreed and set forth their positions. Grant, Sherman’s superior and a man capable of saying no to anything, had decided that Sherman had made his case and agreed to let him go forward, even though Lincoln and Stanton remained doubtful about the movement. Grant knew that the stakes were huge but acted in accordance with his conviction that if a thing was worth doing, it was worth doing wholeheartedly. Five days after giving his approval, when Sherman had his forces ready to head out of Atlanta toward Savannah, Grant wrote him, “Great good fortune attend you. I believe you will be eminently successful, and, at worst, can only make a march less fruitful of results than hoped for.”
Sherman’s preparations for leaving Atlanta indicated that this march would be unlike anything seen before. He cut his own telegraph lines to the North, as well as the railroad links. For a month, no one, not Grant, not Halleck, not Stanton, was going to be able to find him. Sherman was moving out with sixty-two thousand men, to advance in four huge columns, on a front sixty miles wide; the Confederates in the path of this advance, most of them in understrength cavalry units, were not going to know just where this behemoth was going, let alone be able to stop it. This army was taking a twenty-day supply of food, including three thousand beef cattle they herded along, but as Sherman’s columns cut their wide swath through Georgia, they would have no supply lines behind them; in language that profoundly understated the harsh reality to come, Sherman’s orders were that “the army will forage liberally on the country during the march.”
The night before the Union troops marched out of Atlanta, much of which had earlier been laid waste by the withdrawing Confederates, Sherman ordered the commercial and manufacturing sections of the city to be burned. When he rode from the city at seven o‘clock on the morning of November 16, he looked back and saw the results of his orders: “Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air, and hanging like a pall over the city.” As for his army, he remembered “the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south” and the troops with their “gun-barrels glistening in the sun … marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace … Some band had, by accident, struck up the anthem of ‘John Brown’s soul goes marching on’; the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!’ done with more spirit.”
In a diary entry, a sergeant from Iowa captured the esprit de corps of Sherman’s men, many of whom had been fighting for more than two years under the man most of them now called “Uncle Billy”: “Started this morning early for the Southern coast, somewhere, and we don’t care, as long as Sherman is leading us.” Other men were less confident. Captain Orlando Poe of Sherman’s staff, an engineer officer who was teaching the troops how to tear up Confederate rail lines, looked at this army as it headed into thousands of square miles of the enemy heartland, hoping to reach the coast, and wrote his wife that “this may be the last letter that you ever get from me.” As for Sherman’s own frame of mind, he felt that he and Grant were working in complementary fashion, toward a common end. He was in command of the largest force acting as light infantry the world had seen, an enormous flying column with which he intended to destroy both the enemy’s rear area and its will to fight, while Grant, 450 miles to the northeast, continued to bleed Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to death in a form of trench warfare at Petersburg. (Lincoln put it this way: “Grant has the bear by the hind leg while Sherman takes off its hide.”) Adding to the pressure being put on Confederate military resources in Grant’s overall Northern theater of operations, Grant’s cavalry chief Philip Sheridan had defeated Confederate general Jubal Early’s outnumbered forces in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
For thirty-one days, no one in Washington knew just where Sherman and his army were or how they were faring. When Sherman’s brother Senator John Sherman saw Lincoln one day, he asked if there had been any communications from his brother in Georgia. The recently re-elected president answered, “Oh, no, we have heard nothing from him. We know what hole he went in, but we don’t know what hole he will come out of.”
If Grant was angry about this lack of information, there is no record of it. When Lincoln told Grant that he was concerned about what might be happening to Sherman and his army, Grant answered that he was confident that Sherman would reappear “on Salt Water some place.” Grant’s biggest worry was the one he had discussed with Sherman weeks before; as he had expected, Hood was marching his Confederate columns north into Tennessee, and it remained to be seen whether George Thomas could stop him from going on up through Kentucky to Cincinnati. At first, it seemed that Grant had been all too right and should have insisted that Sherman “settle” Hood’s forces before heading from Atlanta to the coast. For many weeks, Thomas repeatedly delayed executing Grant’s orders to attack Hood promptly, citing such reasons as bad weather, which finally brought him a pointed response in a telegram from Grant sent on December 11: “If you delay attack longer the mortifying spectacle will be witnessed of a Rebel army moving for the Ohio River and you will be forced to act, accepting such weather as you find. Let there be no further delay.” Four days later, Thomas attacked Hood’s twenty-three thousand men at Nashville with his own force of forty-nine thousand in a two-day battle, and, as Sherman had predicted, decisively defeated Hood’s army and removed the threat to Tennessee and Kentucky.
On his march, Sherman set the astonishing initial goal of moving his sixty-two thousand men fifteen miles a day and kept to that for a week. No ordinary men could have done this. A soldier from Illinois wrote that his comrades “had been in the service from the beginning and what they did not know about campaigning was not worth inquiring into. Each soldier was practically a picked man. Such was the ratio of casualties that he may be said to be the sole survivor of four men who had set out from Cairo [Illinois] in 1861; all but he having succumbed to disease or death.” Sherman’s aide Major Henry Hitchcock expanded on this theme of confident pride: “It is a magnificent army of veterans, brimful of spirit and deviltry, literally ‘spoiling for a fight,’ neither knowing nor caring where they are going, blindly devoted to … the ‘old man[,]’ in splendid condition, weeded of all sick, etc., and every man fully understanding that there is no return, no safety but in fighting through.”
The “old man” watched over his army like a nervous mother hen, moving around to check his different units at night and “prowling around a camp fire in red flannel drawers and a worn dressing gown.” He was also seen, like his men, swimming naked in a river to get himself clean, and on the march he sometimes hiked along beside the enlisted men, talking with them as equals. A major new to Sherman’s command described him:
General Sherman is the most American looking man I ever saw, tall and lank, not very erect, with hair like thatch, which he rubs up with his hands, a rusty beard trimmed close, a wrinkled face, sharp prominent red nose, small bright eyes, coarse red hands; a black felt hat slouched over his eyes … field officer[’]s coat with high collar and no shoulder stripes, muddy trousers and one spur. He carries his hands in his pockets, is very awkward in his gait and motions, talks continually and with rapidity.
As the army advanced, the men acting as foragers quickly established themselves as an odd elite. Each morning some thirty or forty men from each brigade set out, often on captured horses or mules and frequently using captured carts, some men moving ahead of their massive column and others moving along the flanks. Known as “bummers,” their job was to pass through the countryside, taking anything useful that they found on farms or plantations—corn for men and horses, vegetables, livestock—and bring it to the roads on which the main forces were passing, where the regular supply wagons would take charge of what they had stripped from the land. Their skills at finding useful things impressed the blacks on the farms and plantations: one just-freed slave said, “Yankee soldiers have noses like hounds. Massa hid his horses way out dar in de swamp. Some soldiers come along. All at once dey held up dere noses and sniffed and sniffed, and stopped still and sniffed, and turned into de swamp and held up dere noses and sniffed, and … went right straight to where de horses was tied in de swamp.”
A number of foragers frequently acted for their own profit, sometimes harshly, doing things such as choking an aged plantation owner until he told the soldiers where the family’s silver dinner service was concealed. In addition to their foraging, the bummers acted as scouts, directing larger units forward to attack Confederate patrols they had spotted. Occasionally they were able to team up among themselves and rout small parties of enemy horsemen. Both the bummers and the marching rank and file picked up various animals as pets and brought them along: in addition to dogs and cats, there were lambs, raccoons, and hundreds of gamecocks, the last pitted against one another in nightly cockfights.
Other men, including freed slaves who were being paid for their labor, pried lengths of rails loose from railroad ties, heated them in the middle until they were orange in color and soft enough to be twisted, and left them wrapped around trees; these became known as “Sherman Neckties.” Occasionally these workers bent the rails into the letters “U” and “S” and placed the “U S” on a hillside for the Southern populace to contemplate. They also became so skilled at rebuilding destroyed bridges and clearing enemy obstructions on the roads that when it became necessary to open closed tunnels, they did it so swiftly that the Confederates began to say that the Yankees had brought their own spare tunnels with them. As for the impression Sherman’s advancing columns made on the slaves who became free as they passed, one of them joyously shouted, “Dar’s millions of ’em—millions! Is dere anybody left up north?”
The original orders were to restrict the foraging to supplies needed by the army and to avoid entering Southern homes, but a student of the campaign observed that “the distinction between forage and pillage is easily obscured.” In addition to the bummers, rank-and-file soldiers began entering the houses of Southern civilians and stealing whatever objects struck their fancy. In one town, a Union officer saw “soldiers emerging from doorways and backyards, bearing quilts, plates, poultry, and pigs.” This kind of looting led to confrontations with enraged Southern women, most of whom equaled and often surpassed the most ardent Confederate soldiers in their detestation of the Northerners coming into their neighborhoods. Few among the Union soldiers, to whom one long red road through Georgia looked like another, comprehended the sense of emotional violation, existing quite apart from the issues of secession and slavery, felt by Southerners who saw only an invasion of their land. A man from Iowa was met by a Georgia woman on the porch of her house, and she launched into him: “My husband is a captain in the Confederate army and I’m proud of it. You can rob us, you can take everything we have. I can live on pine straw the rest of my days. You can kill us, but you can’t conquer us.”
Some of these encounters, including situations in which Union soldiers were not engaged in theft, turned into interesting debates. A major from Illinois found an old woman, the mistress of a plantation, lecturing him that the Northern policy of freeing the slaves would lead to what she called “Amalgamation”—racially mixed children. “The old lady forced it on me,” he recalled, “and as there were three or four very light colored mulatto children running around the house, they furnished me an admirable weapon—She didn’t explain to my entire satisfaction how her slaves came to be so much whiter than African Slaves are usually supposed to be.” When Southern women stared disdainfully at them, one of Sherman’s soldiers wrote, “The boys would stir up the female Rebels, just to hear them talk, like the boys at the menagerie stir up the lions just to hear them roar.”
Other Union soldiers had more amiable experiences. Brief as some of these meetings with Southern girls were, they made an impression. On the same day, a captain from Ohio met a Miss Glenn, who he noted in his diary was “well dressed polite and agreeable … pretty foot and ankle, beautiful complexion,” and later encountered two sisters, “one talkative, rebellious but sensible in every other way, both good looking and one finely developed bust, luscious.”
It was in Milledgeville, then the capital of Georgia, that things became uglier. Reaching there on the ninth day of their march, the troops saw for the first time some Union soldiers who had escaped from the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Starved and sick, with what a colonel from Indiana described as a “wild-animal stare” as they spoke, these living skeletons told tales of their mistreatment that quickly spread through Sherman’s ranks. When a Southern woman walked up to a federal soldier on the street in Milledgeville and spat on him, he and his comrades did not touch her but burnt down her house. At the same time, the men became aware of an order from Jefferson Davis to all Confederate officers in Georgia, exhorting them to make “every effort” to obstruct the Union advance, these measures to include “planting sub-terra shells [land mines].” (Sherman’s response to this was, when his men suspected land mines had been laid in front of them, to have Confederate prisoners take the risks of digging them up.) On a lighter note, a group of troops spontaneously conducted a mock session in the state’s legislative chamber in Milledgeville, voting Georgia out of the Confederacy and back into the Union, and named a committee to punish Jefferson Davis, if he were captured, by kicking him repeatedly from behind.
The army that left Milledgeville was required to move only ten, instead of fifteen, miles a day. One reason for this was the intensification of the manner in which the countryside was being laid waste. Foragers who had begun by rounding up chickens and pigs now decided that wrecking farm equipment and burning barns was in keeping with the idea of destroying the South’s ability to raise food. Although many houses were left standing, the next step went from torching a farmer’s barn to setting fire to his house, and a lot of bummers took the added time to do that. The headquarters companies of Sherman’s major units had brought with them flares that could be shot aloft at night, so that each of the four columns would know where the others were. This was no longer necessary: the location of each advancing corps could be seen by the flames along its route.
There were exceedingly few cases of rape, murder, or beating of civilians, but the original standards of behavior for the march largely vanished. Sherman later wrote: “I know that in the beginning, I too had the old West Point notion that pillage was a capital crime, and punished it by shooting.” In that view, confiscating crops and all kinds of food, as well as animals and equipment, was acceptable as long as it was for the good of the army as a whole, but a man was severely punished for stealing for his own profit. As the campaign progressed, this distinction vanished, and Sherman said that he and his officers “ceased to quarrel with our own men about such minor things, leaving minor depredations to be charged up to the rebels who had forced us into the war, and deserved all they got and more.”
The troops became particularly aggressive when they came to the handsome houses of those who were both slaveholders and the owners of objects they might steal. The mistress of a plantation described the scene as Union cavalrymen entered her house and plundered it. “It is impossible to imagine the horrible uproar and stampede through the house, all of them yelling, cursing, quarreling, and running from one room to another in wild confusion. Such was their blasphemous language, their horrible countenances and appearance … their mouths filled with curses and bitterness and lies.”
The thousands of freed blacks, most of them determined to stay right with the Union troops they hailed as their liberators, added liveliness and confusion to the daily scenes of the march. The black men walked beside the troops, happy to carry their muskets. At night they cooked spicy dishes and danced around the campfires. Many black girls gave themselves freely to the young troops, and one man noted that “I have seen officers themselves very attentive to the wants of pretty octoroon girls, and provide them with horses to ride.”
It was not all levity and licentiousness. An officer from Indiana wrote his wife:
It was very touching to see the vast number of colored women following us with babies in their arms, and little ones … clinging to their tattered skirts. One poor creature, while nobody was looking, hid two boys, five years old, in a wagon, intending, I suppose, that they should see the land of freedom if she couldn’t. Babies tumbled from the back of mules to which they had been told to cling, and were drowned in the swamps, while mothers stood by the roadside crying for their lost children and doubting whether to continue with the advancing army.
Ironically, Sherman, who was being hailed by the freed blacks as their savior, still saw them as greatly inferior beings and remained opposed to enlisting black men as soldiers. At the moment, he was out of communication with anyone in the North, but he would soon write to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, “The negro should be a free race, but not put on any equality with the Whites,” and to an old friend in St. Louis he said in a letter, “A nigger as such is a most excellent fellow, but he is not fit to marry, to associate, or vote with me, or mine.” Sherman was far more interested in military victory than in ending slavery, and he worried about how he could continue to feed the increasing masses of freed slaves who insisted on accompanying his troops on their way to the sea. Nonetheless, he had moments of revulsion at things he saw. Coming to a plantation near Milledgeville owned by the Confederate general Howell Cobb, who had been President Buchanan’s secretary of the treasury before the war, Sherman inspected the wretched slave quarters and was struck by the pitiful condition of the slaves who greeted him as their hero. He ordered his men to “spare nothing,” and the destruction began.
Amid all this, Confederate bullets were still killing a number of Union soldiers as they moved through the countryside. Because this army had no rear bases with hospitals, the wounded had to be carried along day after day in wagons, with no hope of receiving full medical attention until the march ended. Some Union troops were captured in surprise Confederate forays. Two days after leaving Milledgeville, a major in an Illinois regiment wrote in his diary of the determined, punitive frame of mind that “has settled down over the army in its bivouac tonight. We have gone so far now in our triumphant march that we will not balk. It is a question of life and death for us, and the considerations of mercy and humanity must bow before the inexorable demands of self preservation.”
For those in Sherman’s army who thought about justifying it all, some were shocked when they saw that the backs of some freed slaves were a mass of scars from whippings, but for many the most comforting idea was that relatively bloodless violence, right then, could save much more bloodshed on both sides later. A soldier from Wisconsin said in a letter to his parents, “Anything and Everything, if it will help us and weaken them, is my motto,” but another enlisted man probably got closest to the soldiers’ deepest feelings when he wrote: “The prevailing feeling among the men was a desire to finish the job; they wanted to get back home.”
On December 10, Sherman neared Savannah. He had moved sixty-two thousand men through 225 miles of enemy territory in twenty-four days. His troops could smell but not see the ocean, because Savannah’s defender, General William J. Hardee, had flooded the rice fields along the coast, leaving just five causeways running into the city. Sherman decided not to attack Savannah along these exposed perilous approaches but to begin a siege and see if the enemy garrison of some eighteen thousand men would surrender.
Since no one in the North knew just where Sherman and his army were, he could not yet make contact with the federal ships that he was sure were offshore. His men would soon need more to eat, and for the moment they could not get any of the supplies of all kinds that he had been promised would be aboard those vessels.
Fort McAllister, a lightly garrisoned post on the south bank of the Ogeechee River, below the city, protected the city’s access to the Atlantic, and its twenty-three cannon denied any invading fleet the opportunity to come close enough to bombard it. Although keeping to his decision not to launch a major attack at Savannah itself, within three days Sherman had one of his divisions ready to storm this fort. Just before sunset on December 13, with his selected division about to make its attack, Sherman was watching from the roof of a rice mill beside the river. A Union steamship came into view down the river and used its signal flags to ask Sherman’s staff, “Is Fort McAllister taken?” Sherman signaled in response, “Not yet, but it will be in a minute.” Fifteen minutes later, after a tactically perfect assault that cost eleven men killed and eighty wounded, the fort surrendered.
Even after this loss of one of the keys to the city’s defenses, Hardee did not give up. Sherman, having brought sixty-two thousand men all the way from Atlanta with a total of only seven hundred killed, wounded, and missing, wanted to spare his men’s lives if he could and decided for the moment not to make further attacks but continue the siege in hopes of seeing a white flag run up over Savannah. (Either because his troops could not get there, or because he hoped Hardee would avoid a battle by withdrawing his troops from the city, Sherman left open a route of retreat to the north along one of the causeways that ran through the flooded rice fields.)
Now, with easy access to the many ships that had been waiting for him offshore, Sherman was able to get food and supplies for his army, and from an inland direction he also received the first communications from the North that he had seen in a month. He learned that his son Charles, born on June 11, had died on December 4, making this the second child that he and Ellen had lost in fourteen months. Sherman appears not to have written Ellen immediately, and when he did, his words about this infant he had never seen sounded distant, stoical:
The last letter I got from you … made me fear for our baby, but I had hoped that the little fellow would weather the ailment, but it seems that he too, is lost to us, and gone to join Willy. I cannot say that I grieve for him as I did for Willy, for he was but a mere ideal, whereas Willy was incorporated with us … But amid the Scenes of death and desolation through which I daily pass I cannot but become callous to death[.] It is so common, so familiar that it no longer impresses me as of old—You on the contrary surrounded alone by life & youth cannot take things so philosophically but are stayed by the Religious faith of a better and higher life elsewhere[.] I should like to have seen the baby of which all spoke so well, but I seem doomed to pass my life away so even my children will be strangers.
At the same time, Sherman received a disquieting letter from Grant in Virginia, who, once again in the spirit of “keep the ball moving,” wanted him to waste no more time in massively besieging or attacking Savannah, which was now effectively cut off from aiding the Confederate cause. Just throw a screen of men around the city and build up a base anywhere near there on the coast, Grant told him, and as soon as we get enough transport ships down to you, embark your army and “come here by water with all dispatch.” He explained that he wanted to bring Sherman’s army straight to Virginia because “I have concluded that the most important operation toward closing the rebellion will be to close out Lee and his army.”
This was not what Sherman wanted, but he began turning captured Fort McAllister into the base that Grant told him to create. Reminiscent of the way that Grant, commanding smaller forces along the Mississippi earlier in the war, had taken advantage of every opportunity that was not specifically prohibited, Sherman decided to try to seize the city before the transports arrived to take his men up the coast to Virginia. With the escape corridor still open north of the city, Sherman began closing in on Savannah.
Everything fell into place for him. On December 21, Hardee used the causeway that Sherman’s men had not closed, hurried his defenders out of the city, and fled north across the Savannah River into South Carolina, leaving behind one of the Confederacy’s largest concentrations of heavy artillery. Sherman marched into Savannah, in the heart of the South; as had been the case with Atlanta, where Hood evacuated the city, there was no significant capture of enemy troops, but he had successfully completed his epic March to the Sea. The next day he sent a telegram to Abraham Lincoln that said in its entirety: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
Sherman became the Union’s man of the hour. The joyous news thrilled the North: strangers on the street stopped each other to cry out, “He’s made it! Sherman’s at Savannah!” In a headline, the Chicago Tribune called him “Our Military Santa Claus.” Praise engulfed him. Lincoln wrote:
My Dear General Sherman:
Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift—the capture of Savannah. When you were about to leave Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful … Now the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours, for I believe none of us went further than to acquiesce …
But what next? I suppose it will be safe if I leave it to you and General Grant to decide.
Grant, adding his praise in a letter to Sherman marked “Confidential,” said, “I congratulate you, and the brave officers and men under your command, on the successful termination of your most brilliant campaign … the like of which is not read of in past history.” He included the somewhat questionable statement that “I never had a doubt of the result,” and closed with, “I subscribe myself, more than ever, if possible, Your Friend, U. S. Grant.” Writing to his father, Grant underscored his enthusiasm by saying, “Sherman has now demonstrated his great Capacity as a Soldier by his unequalled campaign through Georgia.”
The news of Sherman’s March to the Sea and its climax resonated in Europe. The Edinburgh Review described it as being among “the highest achievements which the annals of modern warfare record,” and the London Times, comparing him with the duke of Marlborough, said of his campaign, “military history has recorded no stronger marvel.” For many in the South, the inability of Confederate forces to stop a march right through its heart signaled the end of any chance of turning the tide. Even the bravest men quailed at the thought of an enemy army marching upon their homes and families: a Confederate officer wrote that his worries about his family made his “soul to sink in anguish” and his hopes “perish.” Southern women remained bitterly opposed to the Northern invasion and hated the often rude and sometimes brutal and thieving incursions into their homes. Many still expressed their hopes for a Confederate victory—when the Northern columns occupied Savannah, Mrs. William Henry Stiles wrote her son William, a Confederate soldier serving in Virginia, “After seeing what we have, we know how formidable Sherman’s army is … Still with General Lee at our head, and with the blessing of the Almighty, we shall not be made slaves to these wretches.” But some women who had not done so before began to see that the men they had sent off to war could not save the way of life dear to them all. Allie Travis, of Covington, Georgia, thirty-two miles east of Atlanta, was described by a correspondent traveling with Sherman’s army as “very pretty and intelligent.” She wrote of the day the Union troops marched through on their way to Savannah, “The street in front of our house was a moving mass of ‘blue coats’—infantry, artillery, and cavalry—from 9 o’clock in the morning to a late hour at night.” She reflected, “Who can describe our feelings on that morning! All human aid was gone. Prayers for personal safety went up to Heaven from the depths of [a] woman’s agonized heart.”
For the moment, Sherman’s aggressive side seemed to be at rest. From Savannah, on January 2, 1865, he wrote Ellen, “I feel a just pride in the Confidence of my army, and the singular friendship of Genl. Grant, who is almost childlike in his love for me.” Sherman had instituted a comparatively courteous and orderly military occupation of Savannah reminiscent of his policies when he served as military governor of Memphis earlier in the war. Writing Ellen again on January 5, he referred to families he had met during his tours of duty in the Deep South as a young officer more than twenty years before: “There are some very elegant people here, whom I knew in Better days and who do not seem ashamed to call on the Vandal Chief. They regard us just as the Romans did the Goths and the parallel is not unjust. Many of my stalwart men with red beards and huge frames look like Giants.”
As for how Sherman actually felt about his epic March to the Sea, he also wrote this to Ellen: “I can hardly realize it for really it was easy, but like one who has walked a narrow plank I look back and wonder if I really did it.” He added, “People here talk as though the war was coming to a close, but I know better.”
At this point Sherman was confronted with an unusual result of his famous march, involving an incident at which he had not been present. On December 9, twelve days before Sherman entered Savannah, the commander of his Fourteenth Corps had some of his troops crossing Ebeneezer Creek near the city on a pontoon bridge. This officer was Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis (not related to the Confederate president). Davis had a well-known capacity for anger and violence: on September 29, 1862, after his superior officer General William Nelson had criticized him, Davis provoked an argument with Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House in Louisville and had returned with a pistol and mortally wounded him. There were those who thought he should be tried for murder, but he was restored to duty through the intercession of his friend and political patron Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana and went on to distinguish himself at Chickamauga and other actions. On the day Davis was crossing Ebeneezer Creek, with Confederate cavalry general Joseph Wheeler’s men closing in on the rear of his column, a crowd of black refugees was following just behind the Union troops. As soon as the last of Davis’s soldiers crossed the pontoon bridge, he ordered it to be taken down: stranded on the far side, the freed slaves were terrified that the advancing Confederates would kill them for casting their lot with the Northern troops they regarded as being their liberators. They began leaping into the water in an effort to escape by crossing the creek. Most could not swim: despite the efforts many Union soldiers made to save them, an undetermined but significant number of black men, women, and children drowned.
At the time, it had been only one incident in a massive campaign, and Sherman had supported Davis’s removal of the pontoon bridge as an act to save his troops from an attack by enemy forces that were right on their heels. In the North, while Sherman remained an immensely popular hero, some in Congress saw the drowning tragedy as demonstrating a cruel indifference to the blacks’ fate and as being indicative of Sherman’s sometimes expressed views on their racial inferiority. On January 9, Secretary of War Stanton arrived at Savannah aboard the ship Nevada; he had been in poor health and this trip was in part supposed to give one of the hardest-working men in the government something of a rest in a warm climate, but he had a number of important matters he wished to discuss with Sherman, and the drowning was uppermost. When Sherman again defended Davis’s decision to dismantle the pontoon bridge, Stanton asked Sherman to organize a meeting with representatives of Savannah’s black population. Sherman invited twenty men, most of them ministers, to meet with Stanton and was offended when Stanton asked him to leave the room when he finished the questions about the tragedy and turned to soliciting the black leaders’ impressions of Sherman.
Sherman need not have worried about the black leaders’ view of him. The notes made by Assistant Adjutant General Edward D. Townsend, who had accompanied Stanton from Washington, included, “His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and gentleman. We have confidence in General Sherman, and think what concerns us could not be in better hands.” After that, developing the document in conference with Stanton, Sherman promulgated his Special Orders No. 15, in which parts of Georgia and South Carolina’s Sea Islands were reserved exclusively for black land ownership. Reversing his views at least publicly on having black soldiers in the Union Army, Sherman offered them, as an incentive for enlisting, a guarantee that they would receive their share of the Sea Island lands after the war.
Seemingly satisfied on that issue, although in fact Sherman would do little to implement his order, Stanton discussed the overall conduct of the war with Sherman, pointing out among other things the desirability of bringing the war to an end quickly because the federal government was nearly bankrupt. He also made the argument, with which Grant had already agreed, that bringing more black troops into the army and using them for garrison duty would free experienced white regiments to participate in the offensives to end the war.
These meetings between the tall, rangy, gesturing Sherman with his short red beard, and the stocky five-foot-eight intense fifty-year-old Stanton with his long graying beard and small steel-rimmed spectacles brought together two men with complicated personalities. Stanton, who had suffered from asthma his entire life, had endured personal suffering that exceeded even Sherman’s loss of his beloved son Willy. At the age of twenty-seven, when Stanton was a rising lawyer, his year-old daughter Lucy died; three years later, when his wife, Mary, suddenly died of a “bilious fever,” in his grief he came close to insanity, leaving his room night after night carrying a lamp as he searched the house, crying out, “Where is Mary?” Stanton had always been fond of and proud of his younger brother Darwin, whom out of the profits from his hardworking law practice he had helped send to Harvard to study medicine, and whom he was also able to assist in being elected to the Virginia legislature; in 1846, two years after his wife died, Dr. Darwin Stanton committed suicide by cutting his throat. It was not clear whether Stanton came upon the scene himself, but an account of the death written by a doctor said, “The blood spouted up to the ceiling,” and Stanton ran into the woods in the night, with his law partner and other friends searching for him until they found him and were able to lead him home. From that time on, Stanton had become outwardly colder and more hardworking and efficient. He went on to remarry and became an important lawyer and politician, serving as President James Buchanan’s attorney general and then returning to his private practice of law in Washington until Lincoln asked him to serve as his secretary of war.
Of these two leading figures of the Union war effort now meeting in Savannah, Stanton had the more difficult wartime role to play. As a soldier, Sherman’s objective, like Grant’s, was to defeat the enemy. Serving as Lincoln’s highly effective secretary of war, Stanton also clearly had victory as his objective, but he found himself in the midst of the frequent tension between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans. Stanton had great quiet admiration and sympathy for Lincoln, who had to put down the Confederate rebellion and yet wished to impose a gentler peace than the one the Radicals wanted. In addition to that, as president, Lincoln was leader of his Republican Party, which had very nearly foundered during the election year just past. Trying to be president of all the people, not just Republicans and Democrats but all Americans—whites, blacks, the people not only of the North but also of the South when its seceded status ended—Lincoln was engaged in the greatest balancing act in American history. Stanton saw and understood all that, and had indeed thrown much of his great energy and administrative skill into being an important initiator and coordinator of many aspects of Lincoln’s 1864 presidential campaign. As a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, he was fulfilling his duty to carry out the commander in chief’s policies, but as the politically astute creature he was, Stanton had also kept on good terms with the leading Radicals. (A measure of Stanton’s adroitness was that, when Lincoln had named him secretary of war, every faction in Congress felt that he was the man to further their agendas.)
So it was that the two men conferring in Savannah had at least some identical interests. They wanted to end the war quickly; Stanton, who was a friend of Sherman’s father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, was talking with the general who seemed destined to play a large role in bringing that about, and Sherman knew that Stanton was ready to throw all the available military resources into the effort. After four days in Savannah, Stanton returned to Washington.
In fact, both Sherman and Stanton remained wary of each other. Before Stanton arrived, Halleck had warned Sherman that Lincoln himself was being urged to punish Sherman not only for the Ebeneezer Creek incident but also for his views on slavery, and even on his way back to Washington Stanton had a wire sent to Grant asking to meet “so as to communicate other matters that cannot safely be written”—presumably Sherman’s political volatility, both as to racial remarks and his ambivalence toward white Southerners, in which he mixed his fire-and-sword policy with fond memories of his prewar experiences in the South, and his evident willingness to extend softer peace terms than those the Radicals relentlessly sought. As for Sherman, he mistakenly felt that he had brought Stanton close to his view that yes, the slaves should be freed, but that they were of an inferior race that, even though they were now in the Union ranks, would never make as good soldiers as white men could. On January 15, two days after Stanton left, Sherman wrote Ellen, “Mr. Stanton has been here and is cured of that Negro nonsense.”
What Sherman may not have fully grasped, despite the political knowledge available to him both through Halleck and his brother the senator, was that Stanton had been sympathetic to the abolitionist cause from a time long before the war and had a deep distrust of West Pointers—a feeling shared by many of the Radicals, who felt that the officers of the Regular Army formed a clique with little interest in the values of a democracy and comprised a group that could seize and hold despotic power. There was also the health-draining pressure that Stanton was feeling from the demands of his position: in addition to his constant responsibilities as one of the key figures in the prosecution of the war, by the end of Lincoln’s presidential campaign, Stanton had come down with a combination of chills and fever that had kept him in bed for three weeks, during which he ran his part of the war from his house. High-strung and driven as always, Stanton was more of an enigma than many of his governmental associates knew. While staying on good terms with the Radicals, he had a great unspoken affection for Lincoln, who would soon memorably proclaim in his Second Inaugural Address his policy of acting “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” and later say of the prostrate South, “Let ’em up easy.”
At this point, with the war yet to be won, Lincoln was still formulating his thoughts as to the terms on which the seceded states were to be readmitted to the Union and the way the freed slaves were to be given their civil rights. Stanton saw in Lincoln the indispensable leader who was guiding the nation through the maelstrom. Like Sherman, Stanton had a great desire for order, an impulse almost constantly thwarted by the realities of the war and wartime politics, and Stanton was ready to see a political dissident as an outright traitor. Just where all this was taking Stanton’s tendency to mistrust Sherman would become dramatically apparent within a few months. When that happened, under circumstances that at the moment seemed unimaginable, Grant would extricate Sherman from the crisis he created for himself.