Sherman’s widely praised capture of Savannah still left unanswered Lincoln’s question, “But what next?” Grant and Sherman differed on this and, as was the case before Sherman set out from Atlanta for Savannah, each man held reasonable views and put them before the other. Grant, still locked in daily heavy combat with Lee at Petersburg that was costing many Northern lives, continued to feel that if he could have ships land Sherman’s splendid army near him on the Virginia coast, between them they could swiftly “close out Lee and his army.” That would mean the fall of Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital. The Confederate forces under Beauregard in North Carolina would still be in existence, but Beauregard, hugely outnumbered at that point, might well surrender, and the war could be over then and there.
Sherman saw it differently. Trusting in himself and his men—he wrote Grant, “I don’t like to boast, but I believe this army has a confidence in itself that makes it almost invincible”—Sherman wanted to turn his army north and make another march, up through the Carolinas, continuing to disembowel the South and destroy its will and capacity to make war. This northward march—it was 270 miles in a straight line between Savannah and North Carolina’s capital of Raleigh, but the real distance to be covered through swamps and on terrible roads was more than 400—would keep Beauregard, soon to be replaced by Joseph E. Johnston, from moving up to Virginia to reinforce Lee. Sherman’s plan was to defeat the enemy in the Carolinas wherever they were, then move on and attack Lee’s rear while Grant smashed at his front, and bring the war to an end that way.
Although Grant and Sherman laid out their differing points of view on Sherman’s next move in a quick series of telegrams and letters, this time a logistical reality decided the matter. Grant found that there were not enough ships available to bring Sherman’s army up to the Virginia coast quickly enough to justify his strategy. On December 27, he approved Sherman’s plan for his inland march.
Ulysses S. Grant was still Sherman’s superior, but both of them knew that Sherman’s brilliant slashes through the South, taking important cities and costing few casualties, were making him greatly popular throughout the North, while Grant remained the general under whose direction the Army of the Potomac was losing many thousands of men every month. On the last day of 1864, with his army unable to start its northward march until widespread flooding in the Carolina coastal lowlands subsided, Sherman wrote a most tactful letter to Grant. Without referring to the change in the public’s perception of the two of them, he said, “I am fully aware of your friendly feelings towards me, and you may always depend on me as your steadfast supporter. Your wish is Law & Gospel to me and such is the feeling that pervades my army.” At the same time, possibly having this letter from Sherman in mind, Grant wrote Julia, “How few there are who when rising to popular favor would stop to say a word in defence of the only one between himself and the highest in command. I am happy to say that I appreciated him from the first feeling him to be what he is proven to the world he is.” During December, Grant had helped to start the Sherman Testimonial Fund of Ohio, which was collecting contributions from businessmen to give to Sherman, who had saved little money and had no house, to help him buy a house for his family when his life became more settled. In sending his own contribution of five hundred dollars, Grant wrote the committee, “I can not say a word too highly in praise of General Sherman’s services from the beginning of the rebellion to the present day … Suffice it to say that the World[’]s history gives us record … of but few equals. I am truly glad for the movement you have set afoot and of the opportunity of adding my mite in testemonial [sic] of so good and great a man.”
The bond between Grant and Sherman was soon to be brought under pressure again. Around the time Sherman commenced his march into South Carolina at the beginning of February 1865, rumors started to circulate that Sherman was going to be promoted to lieutenant general, making him equal in rank to Grant. It would then be possible for Sherman to be named general in chief, replacing Grant as the Union’s top military leader. A bill for Sherman’s promotion was introduced in Congress; as soon as he heard of it, Sherman wrote to his brother the senator, stating that he wanted the effort stopped: “I will accept no commission that would tend to create a rivalry with Grant. I want him to hold what he has earned and got. I have all the rank I want.” He also wrote Grant about his feelings on the matter, telling him, “I would rather have you in command than anyone else [and] I should emphatically decline any commission calculated to bring us into rivalry.” Grant replied to Sherman, “I have received your very kind letter in which you say that you would decline, or are opposed to, promotion. No one would be more pleased at your advancement than I, and if you should be placed in my position and I put subordinate it would not change our personal relations in the least. I would make the same efforts to support you that you have ever done to support me, and would do all in my power to make our cause win.”
That cause was nearer to being won than either Grant or Sherman realized. At the beginning of March, by which time Sherman was well on his way up through the Carolinas, Grant received a letter from Robert E. Lee. It developed that, during a meeting in Virginia under a flag of truce to exchange political prisoners, Union general Edward Ord had found himself talking with Grant’s old friend and West Point classmate, Julia’s cousin Confederate general James Longstreet. Ord and Longstreet were also good friends from the prewar army and, with the business of exchanging the prisoners completed, they began to discuss the possibilities for holding peace talks. After Ord told Longstreet that a first step might be for Lee and Grant to meet, Longstreet took the suggestion to Lee, who wrote Grant about what he termed “the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties.” Lee added, “Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate.” Grant immediately forwarded this to Stanton, who sent back this equally prompt reply:
The President directs me to say that he wishes you to have no conference with General Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army … He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands.
Nothing came of the matter, but the fact that Lee made this overture demonstrated the deterioration of the Confederacy and its morale. Many men were deserting from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but Grant, still locked in combat with Lee at Petersburg, remained wary of his remarkable opponent. He knew that Lee could do to him what he had done to Lee at Cold Harbor: move out overnight, and in this case head south to link up with Joseph E. Johnston. Of these days in March of 1865, Grant wrote that “I was afraid, every morning, that I would wake from my sleep to hear that Lee had gone, and that nothing was left but his picket line. I knew he could move much more lightly and more rapidly than I, and that, if he got the start, he would leave me behind so that we would have to fight the same army again further south—and the war might be prolonged another year.”
As for what was going on “further south,” after treating the residents of Savannah gently, Sherman and his army had entered South Carolina in an increasingly vindictive frame of mind toward the state they felt had begun the war and started causing the deaths of their comrades. Just as they were leaving Georgia, Sherman told one of his division commanders, Henry W. Slocum, “Don’t forget that when you cross the Savannah River you are in South Carolina … The more of it you destroy the better it will be.” Speaking of South Carolina, he wrote Halleck in Washington that “I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that is in store for her.” (Halleck had written Sherman, “Should you capture Charleston, I hope that by some accident the place may be destroyed,” and when as the campaign began, Sherman’s cavalry leader Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick asked him, “How shall I let you know where I am?” Sherman replied, “Oh, just burn a barn or something. Make smoke like the Indians do.”)
Once again, there was skepticism about the outcome of a march that flouted the conventional military belief that an advancing army must have lines of supply and communication extending behind it to bases in the rear. The British Army and Nary Gazette said, “If Sherman has really left his army in the air and started off without a base from Georgia to South Carolina, he has done either one of the most brilliant or one of the most foolish things ever done by a military leader.” In any event, Sherman and his army were on their way. Putting down logs to make roads through huge swamp areas that the Confederates had considered impassable, they occasionally engaged in short battles that caused their enemies to fall back before them.
Looting and burning more than they had in Georgia, Sherman’s columns moved through South Carolina along different routes. Near Barnwell, Mrs. Alfred Proctor Aldrich, mistress of a plantation named The Oaks and a woman who had a husband and two sons in the Confederate Army, braced herself for the arrival of Sherman’s men.
The first of the soldiers who rushed into the house seemed only intent upon procuring food, and … ate like hungry wolves.
So soon, however, as they were satisfied, their tramp through the house began. By this time they were pouring in at every door, and without asking to have bureaus and wardrobes opened, broke with their bayonets every lock, tearing out the contents, in hunting for gold, silver, and jewels, all of which had been sent off weeks before. Finding nothing to satisfy their cupidity so far, they began turning over mattresses, tearing open feather-beds, and scattering the contents in the wildest confusion.
After the troops found and drank some bottles of whiskey, “work of destruction began in earnest. Tables were knocked over, lamps with their contents thrown over carpets and mattings, furniture of all sorts broken, a guitar and violin smashed.” For ten days, as different units of Sherman’s army passed through, camping on her plantation at night, Mrs. Aldrich tried to save her house. Occasionally, Union officers and enlisted men came to her aid, the officers ordering off groups of marauding troops. One night an enlisted man from Ohio named McCloskey appointed himself as a sentry; leaning his rifle against the door, he said to Mrs. Aldrich and one of her young female relatives who had her terrified children with her, “Ladies, it makes my heart sick to see this. I never approved of fighting your people, and would not volunteer for the war, but lately I have been drafted into a new regiment. I have no family of my own, but my mother and sisters are as little in favor of this trip as I am. I can’t bear to see women and children ill used.”
Different efforts were made by individuals or small groups to start putting the house to the torch, but timely interventions by other Union soldiers combined with Mrs. Aldrich’s own steadfast courage to save her house. At times she simply faced down some of the intruders, and at one point she shamed Union General David Hunter, whose tent was pitched on her lawn, into ordering some men to extinguish a fire that had just been set in her corn house. Eventually the corn house was burnt to the ground, as were the plantation’s stables, and the books from the library were carried off. The house survived, but this was the scene that now surrounded it: “My beautiful avenue of oaks had been ruthlessly cut down or killed by camp fires near the gates. The park fence was burned up, the large entrance gate cut down, and the undergrowth scorched as black as midnight.”
After Sherman’s troops moved on, it was a few days before Mrs. Aldrich went into little nearby Barnwell. “I do not remember the day our town was burned, or the division that accomplished it, but I do remember the spectacle presented the first time I beheld its ruins. All the public buildings were destroyed. The fine brick Courthouse, with most of the stores, laid level with the ground, and many private residences, with only the chimneys standing like grim sentinels; the Masonic Hall in ashes.”
Barnwell had been a small place. Soon Sherman’s army would arrive at a bigger one. On February 17, the largest of Sherman’s columns, led by him, came to Columbia, South Carolina’s capital. As he entered the city, accompanied by its mayor, who had ridden out to meet Sherman and assure him that he would encounter no opposition, he came upon an already chaotic scene. The retreating Confederates had burnt down the railroad station and a warehouse, which still had some flames among the ruins. The Southern soldiers had done some looting as they left, and broken furniture and scattered household objects littered the sidewalks and streets. Many bales of cotton had been ripped open, so that their contents would scatter and become useless. There was a high wind, and wisps of cotton were flying about in a way that reminded Sherman of a “Northern snow-storm.” A number of these fragments were catching fire from the smoldering buildings. Soon the streets filled with black people tumultuously greeting the troops, and in a short while many of Sherman’s soldiers had been given liquor or had stolen it, and became increasingly drunk.
That night, as the winds continued, Sherman saw that “the whole air was full of sparks and flying masses of cotton, shingles, etc. some of which were carried by the wind for four or five blocks, and started new fires.” He ordered an entire division of his troops to start fighting the spreading blaze, but while they did this, many blacks and drunken Union soldiers wantonly started other fires. (At least one Union officer said that even many of the sober and disciplined troops, ordered to fight the fire, ceased to do so whenever the officers’ backs were turned. When a particularly disciplined brigade was ordered to round up the drunk and disorderly soldiers on the streets, one of the unit’s officers said that they “very frequently had to use force, and many men would not be arrested, and were shot. Forty of our men were killed this way, many were wounded, and several dead drunk men were burned to death.”) Only at four in the morning, when the wind stopped, could the fire be brought under control. By then, a third of the city was in ashes.
The burning of Columbia became the subject of endless argument and investigation. It entered the Southern psyche as a deliberate, organized effort to burn an entire city to the ground, after its military defenders had left and it had surrendered and was clearly offering no resistance. Many of its residents had certainly seen Sherman’s soldiers setting fires. General William B. Hazen, whose division furnished the brigade that began shooting their drunken fellow Union soldiers who resisted arrest, took the position that “no one ordered it, and no one could have saved it.” Sherman’s attitude seems to have fallen somewhere between callous indifference and vengeance: he later said defiantly, “If I had made up my mind to burn Columbia, I would have burnt it with no more feeling than I would a common prairie dog village, but I did not do it.” Two weeks after the conflagration, a colonel who had not been there heard Sherman say in an informal conversation, “Columbia!—pretty much all burned, and burned good!”
By the time Sherman marched one of his principal columns toward the outskirts of Goldsboro, North Carolina, in the state’s interior, forty-five miles southeast of Raleigh, his men thought that their “Uncle Billy” was nearly superhuman. He felt the same way about them: as he had watched the 104th Illinois stride into Fayetteville after marching through fifteen miles of thick mud in five hours, he said, “It’s the damndest marching I ever saw,” and he noted that fewer men in his army were sick on the march than when they were in relatively permanent camps. As he moved up through North Carolina, Sherman’s confidence grew: in a report that he sent to Grant on March 22 concerning everything his army had done the previous day, he referred to three of his generals: “Our combinations were such that Schofield entered Goldsboro, from New Bern, Terry got Cox’s brigade with pontoons laid and a bridge across [Mill Creek] and Entrenched, and we whipped Joe Johnston on the same day.”
“Whipped” suggests a greater victory than what took place. At the Battle of Bentonville to which Sherman referred, his troops inflicted more casualties than they sustained, but he failed to press home an initially successful attack on Johnston’s left flank, and when Johnston, who had replaced Beauregard, counterattacked and then extricated his forces from the battlefield with his usual defensive skill, Sherman did not pursue him.
Here was a major difference from Grant’s behavior. After every battle, Grant did everything to “keep the ball moving.” Indeed, for Grant, that further effort to pursue, to exploit whatever had been gained, was seemingly a reflex action, a part of the battle itself. Perhaps, despite Sherman’s admiration for Grant, Sherman had been influenced more than he knew by the French military thinker Jomini, whose preference for winning by maneuver rather than frontal attack Halleck emulated. Sherman often said that he wanted to minimize his casualties, and he did, but at Bentonville he missed the opportunity to deal Johnston a blow that might have shortened the war and in the process spared both sides suffering yet to be endured.
Nonetheless, Sherman was proving himself a master of maneuver. Moving on after Bentonville, the men with Sherman felt themselves to be part of an irresistible northward march. As they came in sight of the houses of Goldsboro on the afternoon of March 22, they saw, in what seemed a remarkable piece of military choreography, a heartening sight: “A locomotive train came thundering along from the Sea 96 miles distant loaded with shoes, & pants, & clothing as well as food.”
The following day, when they all entered Goldsboro, they found Brigadier General John Schofield waiting for them with his Twenty-third Corps. (At Atlanta, when Sherman wanted to know what to expect from his new opponent John Bell Hood, it was Hood’s West Point classmate Schofield who told him that Hood would attack within forty-eight hours—an estimate that Hood undercut when he attacked the next day.) Here at Goldsboro, within twenty-four hours, eighty thousand men of Sherman’s army, an army that had been moving through North Carolina along several routes, some that included swamps, were reassembled in one gigantic encampment. All of them had marched 330 miles or more since leaving Savannah on their different missions, some of them covering the distance in as little as twenty-one days.
Sherman’s entire army had become men whose marches rivaled those of the Roman legions. From the time they had left Meridian, Mississippi, after the Vicksburg campaign, his forces had traveled more than two thousand miles. Coming into Goldsboro, more than half the men had worn out their shoes and were walking on calloused bare feet, and the uniforms of most of the soldiers who proudly swung past Sherman had rotted into rags. When a Union general who was beside him said of the passing troops, “Look at those poor fellows with bare legs,” Sherman, whose own uniform was in little better condition, shot back with, “Splendid legs! Splendid legs! I’d give both of mine for any one of ’em.”
As the army paused briefly at Goldsboro to rest, even some Southerners were ready to give Sherman credit for the unconventional strategy that had brought his army so far. At this point, after nearly four years of war, The Richmond Whig said, “Sherman is simply a great raider. His course is that of a bird in the air. He is conducting a novel military experiment and is testing the problem whether or not a great country can be conquered by raids.”
Despite Sherman’s failure to pursue after Bentonville, in a recent letter to Grant he had appropriated Grant’s own phrase, “keep the ball moving,” and was thinking hard about his role in what he had no doubt was the impending end of the war. He wanted to be in at the kill, not only defeating Johnston but also sharing in the defeat of Lee. (His soldiers shared the same feeling: a sergeant from Iowa wrote home that “it is the talk of the Boys now that our next moove [sic] will be in the direction of Richmond, but the boys say it is hard to tell which way Crazy Bill will go for he goes wherever he wants and the rebs can[’]t help themselves.”)
Sherman had no way of knowing that Grant, also certain that the end was near, had come to think that it would be better for the postwar political situation if his Eastern forces defeated their old adversary Lee by themselves. Even though he was a man of the West himself, Grant felt that if Sherman’s men completed their remarkable series of campaigns by coming up from North Carolina into Virginia to take a large part in defeating Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, “It might lead to disagreeable bickering between members of Congress of the East and those of the West” as to which area of the nation deserved credit for winning the war. (Grant was to say that when he spoke of his concern about this to Lincoln, the president considered it valid but told Grant that he “had never thought of it before, because his anxiety was so great that he did not care where the aid came from so [long as] the work was done.”)
With the subject of the war’s final strategic moves on his mind, Sherman wrote Grant on March 23 that “if I get the troops all well placed, and the supplies working well, I might run up to see you for a day or two, before diving into the bowels of the Country again.” The following day he added in another letter that “I think I see pretty clearly how in one more move we can checkmate Lee, forcing him to unite Johnston with him in the defense of Richmond, or by leaving Richmond to abandon the cause. I feel certain that if he leaves Richmond[,] Virginia leaves the Confederacy.”
There is no record of Grant’s response to Sherman’s “I might run up to see you for a day or too,” but on March 25, when his engineering troops finished repairing the torn-up rail line from Goldsboro to New Bern, Sherman left his army under the command of General Schofield and started for Morehead City, a port on the North Carolina coast nearly a hundred miles away. According to a reporter from The New York Herald, when Sherman stopped overnight at New Bern, sixty miles southeast of Goldsboro, some of his off-duty soldiers saw him walking down the street and enthusiastically “rushed around him as if they were going to tear him to pieces and all the while calling for a speech.” Sherman said only this to them: “I’m going up to see Grant and have it all chalked out for me and then come back and pitch in. I only want to see him for five minutes and won’t be gone but two or three days.” At Morehead City the following day, Sherman embarked on the swift steamer Russia, a captured Confederate blockade-runner. Writing Ellen from the ship as it moved north, he told her, “There is no doubt we have got the Rebels in a tight place and must not let them have time enough to make new plans … I will now concoct with Grant another plan.” In closing he said, “The ship is pitching a good bit, we are just off Hatteras, and I cannot write more.”
Heading north at sea, moving toward his friend and military superior, Sherman was coming to an almost symmetrically placed point in the plans that he and Grant had made in that hotel room in Cincinnati a year before. They had not seen each other since, but in the meantime they had indeed lived Grant’s dictum, which Sherman expressed as, “He was to go for Lee, and I was to go for Joe Johnston.” They had done that. The remaining question was still the one Lincoln had asked after the capture of Savannah: “But what next?”