1864 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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“Sherman cannot keep up his long line of communication,” said Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, as the Union general sat in Atlanta forming his strategy. “The fate that befell the army of the French Empire in its retreat from Moscow will be reenacted,” Davis told a hopeful audience in Macon, Georgia. “Our cavalry and our people will harass and destroy his army as did the Cossacks that of Napoleon, and the Yankee general, like him, will escape with only a bodyguard.” Davis was unaware that Gen. William T. Sherman had already decided to abandon his supply line and embark upon a carnival of destruction across half of the state of Georgia. On November 16 Sherman’s army left the smoldering city of Atlanta to the fifty or so families that still remained.

The Union commander Ulysses S. Grant pointed out a further flaw in the Confederate leader’s prediction: “Mr. Davis has not made it quite plain who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat.” Indeed, a late Indian summer in Georgia provided an unexpected bounty for Sherman’s sixty-two thousand troops. “Thanksgiving Day was very generally observed in the army,” remembered one Union officer, “the troops scorning chickens in the plentitude of turkeys. . . . So far as the gratification of the stomach goes, the troops were pursuing a continuous Thanksgiving.”

Advancing along a fifty-mile front through some of the wealthiest counties in Georgia, Sherman’s troops destroyed or consumed everything with a potential military value. “Until we can repopulate Georgia,” said the general at the outset of the march, “it is useless to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and people will cripple their military resources. . . . I can make the march, and make Georgia howl.” With nominal resistance from the few tiny Confederate units remaining in Georgia, Sherman suffered only twenty-two hundred casualties between Atlanta and Savannah, while utterly destroying a great deal of the South’s military potential. Confederate hopes that he would yet find his Waterloo were fading quickly by the time Sherman entered Savannah on December 22 and began to train his sights on South Carolina.

New York’s Winter Garden Theater featured on November 25 the only performance of all three Booth brothers. In a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar , Edwin Booth played Brutus, and his brothers Junius Brutus and John Wilkes Booth played Cassius and Marc Antony. The performance raised money for a statue to Shakespeare in celebration of the three hundreth anniversary of his birth.

John Wilkes Booth’s later notoriety as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln has eclipsed his contemporary prominence as one of America’s most promising young actors. His peers in the theater believed that he could have become as accomplished a tragedian as his older brother Edwin. Sir Charles Wyndham, a British actor who had worked with John Wilkes Booth, described him as “a genius and a most unfortunate one. His dramatic powers were of the best. . . . His Hamlet was insane, and his interpretation was fiery, convincing, and artistic.” The actress Clara Morris remembered Booth as “that bud of splendid promise blasted to the core, before its full triumphant blooming.”

Edwin Booth, a strong supporter of the Union cause during the war, was horrified by his brother’s crime. He went into retirement in the months following Lincoln’s death but remained so popular that within a year he was able to resume his career as the country’s foremost Shakespearean actor.