This Hallowed Ground

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Two months had passed since the capture of Atlanta. A part of this time had been spent in resting and refitting the army. Several weeks more had been consumed in a fruitless chase of John B. Hood, who still commanded 40,000 good men and who circled off to the northwest, molesting Sherman’s supply line and hoping to draw the invaders off in retreat. Sherman had tried to catch and destroy this Confederate army, but he had not had much luck, and in mid-October he gave up the pursuit entirely and made his plans for the next campaign. Back to Tennessee went Thomas and Schofield, with something fewer than half of the men who had occupied Atlanta. They would see to it that Hood’s Confederates did nothing to upset the military balance; with the rest of his men Sherman would drive for the seacoast.

Grant’s consent was won, at last. Thomas moved his Cumberlands back to Tennessee—the men tended to be a little sullen, feeling that they would have to do any fighting that remained while the men with Sherman would have all of the fun—and the Army of the Tennessee went to work to ruin Atlanta before beginning the march to the coast.

Atlanta was pretty tattered already. The repeated bombardments during the siege had destroyed many houses, and when Sherman occupied the place about half of its normal population of 13,000 had fled. Sherman ordered the rest of the civilians out of town, and managed to deport some 1,600 of them; to Halleck he wrote that “if the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.” During the long Federal occupancy of the town the deserted buildings got rough treatment from the soldiers, who never had any qualms about destroying dwellings that were not currently inhabited. And finally, when it was time to leave, Sherman ordered complete destruction of all factories, railroad installations, and other buildings which might be of any use to the Confederacy.

Smoke filled the sky like a gigantic ominous signal as Sherman’s army pulled clear of the city and started for the sea. The army was moving in four columns, widely spread out-15th and 17th Corps, under General O. O. Howard, on the right, and 14th and 20th, under General Henry W. Slocum, on the left. Orders were that there should be an average pace of fifteen miles a day. Transportation was cut to a minimum and there was no supply line. The army would feed itself with what it found in Georgia along the way.

And so began the strangest, most fateful campaign of the entire war, like nothing that happened before or afterward. These Federals were not moving out to find and destroy an armed enemy; the only foe that could give them a fight, Hood’s army, was hundreds of miles off to the rear, and everybody knew it. They were not being asked to hurry; fifteen miles a day was much less than these long-legged marchers could easily make, and everybody knew that too. Their mission was to wreck an economy and to destroy a faith—the economy that supported the thin fading fabric of the Confederacy, the faith that believed the Confederacy to be an enduring creation and trusted in its power to protect and avenge. As they moved down the red roads of Georgia, cutting a swath sixty miles wide from flank to flank, they were the conscious agents of this destruction; men who trampled out the terrible vintage of the grapes of wrath, led by an implacable general who was more and more coming to see a monstrous but logical destiny in his mission.

Every morning each brigade would send out a detail of foragers—from twenty to fifty men, led by an officer and followed by a wagon to bring back what was seized—and this detail, whose members knew the route the army was following, was not expected to return to camp until evening. The foragers were ordered to stay out of inhabited dwellings and to seize no more food than was actually needed, but they were under the loosest sort of control and in any case they were joined, followed, and aided by a steadily growing riffraff of armed stragglers, who were known contemptuously as “bummers” and who knew very little restraint of any kind. Between the regular foraging parties and the lawless bummers, plantations that lay in this army’s path were bound to have a very rough time.

As the Army of the Tennessee moved, the great march to the sea began to resemble nothing so much as one gigantic middle western Halloween saturnalia, a whole month deep and 250 miles long. Typical was one veteran’s comment: “Our men are clear discouraged with foraging; they can’t carry half the hogs and potatoes they find right along the road.” In spite of the strict orders that no man not assigned to one of the regular foraging parties should leave the ranks to take any civilian property, it was admitted that “there is scarcely a one that does not forage from morning to night if he gets a chance,” and the army reveled in elaborate menus—“we live on sweet potatoes, turnips, flour, meal, beef, pork, mutton, chickens, and anything else found on the plantations.”