George Eggleston.

The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2

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Many years later, at the Authors Club in New York, in the presence of the writer of these volumes, some one mentioned this operation to General Sherman, speaking of it as "The March to the Sea." Thereupon General Sherman turned to the writer and said – as nearly as a good memory can report —

Just see how poets glorify things! That march was nothing more than a change of base, – an operation perfectly familiar to every educated soldier. But a poet got hold of it, nicknamed it "Sherman's March to the Sea," and gave it a totally new significance to the popular mind. Let me explain. At Atlanta I was in the midst of the enemy's country. My nearest base of supplies was Chattanooga – a hundred miles away. That place was itself liable to siege, and it lay the width of two states away from my real and ultimate source of supplies on the Ohio. The enemy might cut it off at any time and even if he failed to do that, I could not defend the hundred miles of single track railroad that connected it with Atlanta. At Atlanta my army was in the air. Its communications were likely to be cut at any moment. Obviously, I must either retire northward from that place, or I must move southward in search of a new base of supplies. As there was no force south of me capable of resisting my advance in that direction, I decided to march toward the south, thus securing a new base for my self within easy sea communication with sources of supply at the north, and at the same time cutting the Confederacy in two again and, more important still, demonstrating the nearly complete collapse of the Confederate power of resistance. So I decided to make the march and change my base. That is all there was of it. But the poet got hold of it – and so instead of a "military change of base," it has become the "March to the Sea."77
  This report of General Sherman's words was written out while memory was fresh, submitted to General Sherman and approved by him as correct. – Author.


Sherman's first plan with respect to Atlanta had been to make a great military fortress of the place. To that end, as we already know, he had issued his decree of depopulation. Now that he had decided to abandon the town he destroyed it by fire.

His plan of march through Georgia was to move in four columns upon parallel roads, throwing out foragers in every direction to seize upon every ounce of food supplies that still remained in the country, to burn all mills, to capture all live stock, to seize upon all grain and to strip the region bare even of poultry and vegetables. It was to cut a swath of utter desolation through Georgia – a swath sixty miles wide and nearly three hundred miles long – in every square mile of which he should "make a solitude and call it peace."

The desolating march began on the fifteenth of November, Atlanta being left in ashes and smoldering ruins.

Under Sherman's marching orders, houses were not to be entered by the soldiers – but those orders were freely disregarded. Only corps commanders were privileged to burn mills, cotton gins and the like; but there were matches in every pocket and they were used with little if any respect for orders which nobody regarded seriously as commands intended to be obeyed. The orders included a provision that wherever the inhabitants should "manifest local hostility, army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility."

Under such orders the progress of the army was marked at every step by devastation and desolation. General Sherman always contended that he did not intend it to be so, but to a victorious and practically unopposed army, moving through an enemy's country, such orders as those that General Sherman issued could not be expected to result in anything less than the utmost possible destruction. In express terms, his orders authorized the cavalry and artillery to "appropriate freely and without limit," the "horses, mules, wagons, etc., belonging to the inhabitants," and soldiers were authorized to "gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables and to drive in stock in sight of their camp." It was suggested in the orders that "in all foraging the parties engaged will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance." But as to what constituted such "reasonable portion" of the property of non-combatants thus to be plundered of their substance, every foraging party was left to be sole judge. No instructions were given for the enforcement of this saving clause of the orders by any authority and in fact it was never enforced.

Sherman's army, moving in four columns over a track sixty miles wide, simply seized upon everything that it found, destroying what it could not use, and there followed it a corps of utterly irresponsible camp followers – plain, simple thieves and robbers – who completed the devastation by taking or wantonly destroying whatever the foraging parties had overlooked or spared.

The hideousness of war was never better illustrated than in Sherman's march to the sea. Its wantonness was never more conspicuously shown forth, than in a military operation which had absolutely nothing of glory in it, inasmuch as it involved no battle, no possible risk of encounter with any force, and no enterprise more daring than raids upon barnyards and turnip patches. An army of more than sixty-two thousand men and sixty-five guns, perfectly equipped and utterly unopposed by any force that could even pretend to give battle to it, moved over a space of nearly three hundred miles, making war only upon non-combatants and leaving a blackened path of desolation behind. It fought no battles – for the reason that there was no army anywhere to fight. It engaged in no strategy – for the reason that there was no enemy to maneuver against. It encountered no more risk than does a picnic excursion in time of profound peace. Yet at every foot of its progress it wrought such havoc among a helpless people as even grim-visaged war might well blush to own.

It was entirely proper that General Sherman should march his army to the sea by way of changing its base and demonstrating the incapacity of the Confederate country for further resistance. It was entirely proper that on such a march he should draw upon the country for the means of subsisting his army. But all this might have been done by a man of Sherman's commanding ability, armed with such resources as he had under his hand without inflicting anything of hardship upon the helpless people whose homes he rendered desolate and from whose mouths he snatched away the little that was left to them of food.

After an exceedingly slow march of nearly thirty days, Sherman's army in perfect condition reached the defenses of Savannah on the thirteenth of December. Easily sweeping over Fort McAllister Sherman established communication with the blockading fleet and the "March to the Sea" was finished. On the morning of the twenty-first his troops marched into Savannah, which the Confederates had evacuated.

Hood's Campaign

In the meanwhile Hood had moved northward from in front of Atlanta. His hope had been to draw Sherman in pursuit and induce him to leave the Confederate city. When Sherman shunned the bait and stayed in Atlanta arranging for his march to the sea, Hood set out to assail Thomas at Chattanooga.

It was an absurdly impracticable campaign, which could not possibly result in anything of advantage to the Confederates except the incidental slaughter of a good many thousands of Federal soldiers with no consequent improvement of Confederate prospects.

Hood had with him about 40,000 men, or nearly that. They were as good men as any in the South, and their organization and discipline were perfect. But they were led upon a wild-goose chase by an incapable commander whose leadership gave them opportunities of heroism, indeed, but doomed them on the other hand to hopeless enterprise and wholly profitless slaughter.

Hood first met his enemy under Schofield, at Duck river, forty miles or so south of Nashville. He quickly and easily flanked the position and compelled Schofield to retreat to Franklin, eighteen miles south of Nashville. There, during the afternoon of November thirtieth, Hood delivered a tremendous assault. He carried the front line easily and rushed onward to assail the second. Again he succeeded in a struggle that extended itself far into the night.

At midnight Schofield was driven from his works and retreated to Nashville. Thither Hood followed him with that impetuosity that characterized the indiscretion of the new Confederate commander.

Then followed a long pause – Hood could not in any wise tempt Thomas into field battle and Thomas was too strongly entrenched for even Hood, with all his daring indiscretion, to attack him in his works.

It was not until the fifteenth of December that Thomas struck. When he did so it was with tremendous force and determination. He crushed Hood's entrenched left flank and forced him back to a new line of entrenchments in the rear.

On the next day Thomas renewed the attack with his entire army, and succeeded in completely destroying Hood's resisting power and driving his force into broken and disastrous retreat. Thus ended Hood's ill-judged but audacious campaign.

In the meanwhile Sherman had reached Savannah and his plan of campaign was completely successful at both its ends. The Confederacy was again split in two, and there remained in the gulf states no Confederate army capable of offering anything like effective resistance to any operations that Federal armies might have undertaken. Had he been so minded Thomas might have launched a column against Mobile or Wilmington or Charleston with the practical certainty that it would nowhere encounter an opposition which it need seriously consider.

All that now remained of Confederate strength lay in Lee's little army around Petersburg and Richmond, and in such fragments of armies as General Joseph E. Johnston was presently to gather together with the retreating garrison of Savannah and what remained of Hood's army as a nucleus.

The time was drawing near when Grant was to deliver his final blow and at last make an end of the war.

Preparations for the Decisive Blow

The situation of the Confederates was now desperate in the extreme. During January an expedition ordered by Grant captured Fort Fisher, at the mouth of Cape Fear river, and made itself master of Wilmington, North Carolina. New Orleans had long ago fallen, Mobile had been completely closed by Farragut's Bay fight and Sherman had secured possession of Savannah. Charleston was the only Southern port still in possession of the Confederates, and Sherman was already threatening that from the rear in such fashion as to render it useless as an avenue of supplies.

The county west of the Mississippi was completely cut off. Georgia had been desolated and all the railroads that might otherwise have carried supplies from Alabama and Mississippi to Lee's army were destroyed. Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana were in possession of Federal troops. Sheridan had reduced the Valley of Virginia to the condition of a desert, while Grant's forces at Petersburg held the Weldon railroad and were rapidly pushing their works toward the South Side railroad which connected Petersburg with Lynchburg. They were also threatening the Richmond and Danville railroad – Lee's last line of communication southward.

In the meanwhile Sherman was preparing to move northward from Savannah, opposed only by Johnston's army of fragments, and to form a junction with Grant.

Obviously the end was drawing near. Obviously it was the duty of the Confederate Government to make the best terms it could for the ending of the war. It still had Lee's army, and that army was even yet a force to be reckoned with by its adversary. It could still offer to the enemy a choice between the granting of favorable terms of peace on the one hand and the endurance of such further slaughter as Lee's army could inflict on the other. The Confederacy still had in its hands a fighting capacity that might serve as legal tender in the purchase of peace conditions. It was perfectly well known that Mr. Lincoln and indeed the whole North were eager to end the war upon any reasonable terms that might secure the restoration of the Union without a further effusion of blood or a further expenditure of the nation's substance.

It was absolutely certain now that the Confederacy could never win its independence. It was absolutely certain that every day's further fighting must reduce that resisting capacity upon which alone the Southern people could rely as a means of securing terms other than those of unconditional surrender.

In view of these obvious conditions an effort was made in February, 1865, to bring about a peace. A Confederate Commission, with Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, at its head, met Mr. Lincoln and others on board ship in Hampton Roads to discuss the question of ending the war. Mr. Lincoln and his advisers were eager to stop the conflict without further bloodshed. They demanded only the restoration of the Union and the abolition of slavery in accordance with the terms of the emancipation proclamation. All else they were willing to concede. They were ready to admit all the seceding states to the Union again upon equal terms; to grant universal amnesty; to recognize all the state governments; to set free all military prisoners; to give up all property held in capture; and to negotiate for money compensation in every case in which hardship should appear to have been inflicted upon individuals.

In brief Mr. Lincoln's supreme desire to end the war in a complete restoration of Union, and to re?stablish fellowship and good will among the states was so dominant that the South might at that time have made any terms it pleased, short of a dissolution of the Union, or the re?stablishment of slavery.

Mr. Jefferson Davis decreed otherwise. Perfectly knowing that the Confederate capacity of resistance was nearing its end, and perfectly knowing that the restoration of the Union was with Mr. Lincoln a sine qua non of all negotiations, he deliberately and emphatically instructed the Confederate Commissioners not even to discuss that proposal. He thus practically forbade all negotiations for peace. With the Confederacy manifestly conquered Mr. Davis insisted that its commissioners should adopt the attitude of conquerors, dictating terms of peace to a vanquished enemy.

The result was foredoomed, of course. Speaking of the affair years afterwards Mr. Stephens pithily said:

"Mr. Davis carefully spiked all our guns and then ordered us to the front."

It was about this time that Lee visited Mr. Davis and explained the situation to him. He set forth the fact that Grant, with his enormously superior force, could indefinitely extend his lines to the left, thus compelling the Confederate commander to stretch out his own lines to nothingness; that Grant could, and surely would, concentrate an overwhelming force at some point and there irresistibly break through the Confederate lines of defenses; and that when this should be done, successful retreat would be impossible to the Confederate army.

There is good historical ground for the belief that General Lee at that time proposed an alternative course of action. He asked Mr. Davis to give him the negroes of the South as soldiers; to permit him to put them into the defensive works, and thus set his veterans free to make a last desperately determined invasion of the North; or, if the negroes were denied to him, that he should be permitted to abandon the defense of Richmond and Petersburg, while retreat was yet possible, retire to the line of the Roanoke river, form a junction with such other forces as the Confederacy still had at command and make a final stand in the far interior against Grant.

It is credibly reported that Mr. Davis resolutely refused to permit General Lee to carry out either of these alternative plans; that he refused to permit the enlistment of negroes and at the same time forbade General Lee to withdraw his army from the defense of Richmond and Petersburg.

There was left to the great Confederate commander only the duty of returning to his headquarters, resisting while resistance was possible, and accepting the inevitable end whenever the advance of spring and the consequent hardening of the roads should open the way for Grant to bring that end about by a decisive movement.

The time was not yet ripe for the delivery of the final blow. Mud still stood in the way; but while awaiting his opportunity Grant continued those operations in other quarters which effectually prevented Lee's reinforcement and contributed in important ways to the accomplishment of his ultimate purpose. He kept Canby pounding at Mobile. He drew from Thomas in Tennessee strong reinforcements for the Army of the Potomac. In February he directed Sheridan to move up the Valley of Virginia in irresistible force, brush the remnant of Early's army out of existence, destroy the locks of the James river and Kanawha canal, cut the railroad communications and then sweep like a hurricane eastward to join the main army before Petersburg and Richmond. At the same time he ordered a column to move from Chattanooga eastward toward Lynchburg, destroying the railroad as it marched and thus additionally hemming Lee in and crippling him.

In the meanwhile his own pounding on Lee's lines was ceaseless. The object of this was to occupy all of Lee's attention and prevent him from detaching troops for operations in any direction.

Grant's lines now extended from a point north of Richmond, eastward, southward and westward to positions south and west of Petersburg, and at every opportunity he was pushing his left wing farther around Lee's flank, with the double purpose of still further weakening the Confederates by attenuation and rendering impossible the successful retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia when the time should come to concentrate an overwhelming Federal force against some point in it and break through.

To meet this strategy General Lee undertook a bold operation on the twenty-fourth of March which was brilliantly, but in the end unsuccessfully, executed by General Gordon. His plan was by an attack upon the Federal left wing to compel Grant for a time to contract his lines on the left and thus to secure to the Confederates a way out of the net in which they had been enmeshed. The attack was made in the night, a fact which would have rendered it perilous in the extreme had the troops that made it been other than war-worn veterans. At the point selected for assault the Federal and Confederate lines lay within one hundred yards of each other, and both were strongly fortified. By an adroit movement the Confederates captured the whole body of Federal pickets and sent them as prisoners to the rear, thus reducing the distance between themselves and the earthworks to be assaulted to less than fifty yards. Then with a rush they hurled themselves upon the Federal works and carried them. For a time it seemed likely that they would crumple up the whole of Grant's left wing and compel the contraction of his lines by several miles. But General Parke, who commanded the Federal forces in that quarter, made hurried dispositions to check the Confederate assault, and after some hours of hard fighting, in which the Confederates lost 4,000 men and the Federals 2,000, the Federal lines were re?stablished.

All this occurred just before Grant's final and decisive blow was delivered. Earlier in the war this conflict would have been everywhere heralded as a great battle. In the spring of 1865 – so used had the country become to such things – it was a scarcely noticed incident in the siege operations about Petersburg.

The End

While all this was going on around Petersburg, Sherman, under Grant's instructions, was carrying out the other part of the lieutenant general's program. After securing possession of Savannah he pushed troops forward to Pocotaligo, a point on the Charleston and Savannah railroad about midway between the two cities. From that position he could move with equal ease against Charleston, Augusta, or Columbia and the cities and towns north of Columbia.

General Joseph E. Johnston had been grudgingly recalled to the command of such Confederate forces as could be assembled in that quarter for the purpose of offering resistance to that advance northwardly which Sherman obviously intended. But for a time Johnston could not know or safely conjecture by which of the three lines of march that were equally open to him, Sherman would elect to move. Consequently for a time Johnston was compelled to scatter his meager forces widely, holding them in such readiness as he could for concentration when his enemy's purposes should be disclosed.

On the first of February Sherman began his march. Carefully spreading reports that Charleston on the one hand or Augusta on the other was his destination, he moved swiftly upon Columbia, the capital city of South Carolina.

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