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The Story of Soldiers and Civilians during Sherman's Campaign
By Lee Kennett
1995 HarperCollins

Reviewed by Dave Walter
(This book is available in the Chester County Library System)

When Atlanta fell on Sept. 2, 1864 to Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, it did much to guarantee the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, which in turn guaranteed there would be no armistice or end to the War short of the Confederate States returning to the Union.

Sherman's campaign, launched from the Chattanooga area on May 1, to coincide with Meade's "Overland Campaign" against Richmond, saw three Union armies (Armies of the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Cumberland) push back Gen. Johnston's (and then Gen. Hood's) rebel Army of Tennessee. Over the rugged North Georgia landscape, the armies maneuvered and fought until Sherman had practically surrounded Atlanta.

On November 15, Sherman launched his "March to the Sea," splitting his forces by leaving Gen. George Thomas to deal with Gen. Hood, and heading for Savannah on the Atlantic. In slightly more than 30 days, Sherman's troops cut a swath through northern Georgia, the destruction of war-making potential and private property so great that Sherman's name will live in infamy, among those of a Rebel persuasion, for centuries.

Mr. Kennett's book tells this broad tale from the perspective of the soldiers who carried it out and the citizens who bore the brunt of it. Straight off, he tells the reader: "To the soldiers who fought it, the campaign was no game. To those whose homes and lands lay in the path of the armies, it was a catastrophe akin to a natural disaster. To almost all, the war was a vivid, aberrant period in their lives that would mark them for the rest of their days. The present work attempts to capture a collective experience of this kind, that of soldiers and civilians caught up in one of the Civil War's most celebrated campaigns. There are no battle diagrams and little treatment of strategy and tactics. The reader will rarely be at the general's elbow, but will spend considerable time with captains and privates and civilians with obscure names and destinies. Why? Because at their level we come closest to the war's quintessence - wrenching human experience whose components are suffering and destitution, despair and death; but also humanity and generosity, courage and endurance."

By the time one finishes this book, the conclusion that "war is hell" is inescapable. However, the Sherman campaign is no where near as horrific as the average American thinks it was: the losers have mythologized Georgia's "howling" and tarnished Sherman's name (though he probably didn't care about that.) A handful of rapes and murders of civilians has been magnified until one would think that was the sole purpose of the campaign. In the main, the destruction consisted of taking foodstuffs and animals, burning mills, and vandalizing property. It is certainly clear the youthful soldiers of Sherman's command took delight in vandalism, burning things for the sake of seeing the flames, and tormenting unreconstructed rebs. However, many committed acts of kindness and few actually injured those civilians they ran across. Many of more vicious bummers and straggler gangs were paid back in kind: more than a hundred were murdered by vigilantes and guerilla bands. In the main, Sherman's march was far more civilized than had Georgia been visited by the Cossacks. Far, far fewer died than would have had they heeded Governor Brown's call to resist Sherman to the last drop of blood.

Mr. Kennett did an admirable job culling incidents from the diaries and letters of hundreds of ordinary soldiers and civilians. What emerges is an interesting look at a campaign that, along with the Siege of Petersburg, brought the Confederacy to its knees. Some tidbits that I found interesting were:

  • As Sherman advanced from Tennessee, more and more soldiers had to be detailed to guard his supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Clever Confederate guerillas took wood from the fuel supply sheds, hollowed them out and filled the logs with gunpowder. When the unsuspecting fireman would feed them into his engine's firebox, they would explode and damage the engine. All this exasperated Sherman to the extent he told his brother that all the people in north Georgia should be removed and the population of Iowa and Wisconsin moved in! This may have been at least semi-serious: he did order his provosts to round up those suspected of guerrilla warfare and ship them off to Madagascar or some other distant place.
  • Cavalry, on both sides, was the best way to reaching the enemy's railroad lines, but the least effective in destroying them. After a cavalry raid, tracks could be restored in days. It took infantry corps to do real damage to embankments and bridges. Even so, the U.S. Military Railroad managed to put the Western & Atlantic into service within three weeks of Hood's men tearing out 35 miles of it in Oct. 1864.
  • Georgia women kept their men "fighting with double purpose" by informing them of the "outrages" they suffered at the hands of the Yankees. One young miss told her sweetheart of an incident that would make his blood "boil:" a Yankee officer asked her what the stars on her collar meant and she told them her sweetheart, a reb Lieutenant, had given them to her. The Yankee let her keep them, but just the inquiry was an apparent insult and mistreatment in her eyes.
  • Yankee provisioning squads had little trouble finding hidden livestock, food or valuables on the wealthier properties. The white owners would use their slaves to dig the holes or secret the cows in the woods. The Yanks would simply ask the "loyal" slaves where the goods were and, usually, would be told straight off. Thousands fled their masters and joined the March.
  • There is ample evidence that the men of Georgia took to the woods when the Yanks arrived in the neighborhood, leaving their wives and daughters to confront the bummers. Curious behavior indeed, if the men are worried about "outrages;" however, there is plenty of evidence that the word quickly spread that Union soldiers actually behaved more decently if there wasn't a man - particulary a man of military age or an old coot brandishing his shotgun - around when they came knocking.

The legend of Sherman's march through Georgia comes to us embellished with Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind" epic horrors. This book should help convince that, bad as they were, the Yankee marauders never lived up to the collective "memories" of Georgians then, or now.