This Hallowed Ground

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Eight days after it had left Atlanta the army reached Milledgeville, then the capital of Georgia, and one man recorded that “the army had lived high on the products of Georgia and were growing fatter and stronger every day.” Perhaps unnecessarily, he added that “they had come to look on the trip as a grand picnic, and were not getting tired but more anxious to prolong it if anything.” Plantations were looted outright, men who had set out to take no more than hams and chickens began carrying away heirlooms, silver, watches—anything that struck their fancy. Here and there, Southern patriots felled trees to obstruct roads, or burned bridges; there was never enough of this to delay the army seriously, but there was just enough to provoke reprisals, and barns and houses went up in smoke as a result. A general remarked that “as the habit of measuring right by might goes on, pillage becomes wanton.”

Day after day, crowds of fugitive slaves fell in on the roads to follow the army. Sherman did his utmost to keep these fugitives from following, but there was no way to keep them from trailing after the soldiers if they chose, and many of them did choose. What became of most of them, no one ever knew.

It was believed that some of the fugitives met death by starvation, yet those who were able to stay with the troops usually got enough to eat. Foragers brought in vast wagonloads of material that was abandoned to rot. Usually, the surplus was given to the Negroes.

So much food was taken, indeed, that the soldiers themselves were almost appalled when they stopped to think about it. In one regiment, the men made a rough rule-of-thumb estimate of the requisitions that had been made and concluded that the army must have accounted for 100,000 hogs, 20,000 head of cattle, 15,000 horses and mules, 500,000 bushels of corn, and 100,000 bushels of sweet potatoes. Sherman himself later estimated that his army had caused one hundred million dollars’ worth of damage in Georgia. Of this, he believed, perhaps twenty million dollars represented material that the army actually used; the rest was “simple waste and destruction.”

The effect of all this was prodigious. The fact that any army of 60,000 men could march straight through the Southern heartland, moving leisurely and taking all the time it needed to destroy the land’s resources, without meeting enough resistance to cause even a day’s delay, was an unmistakable portent of the approaching end. No one could remain in much doubt about how the war was going to result when this could be done. Furthermore, the march was both revealing and contributing to the Confederacy’s inability to use the resources that remained to it. Around Richmond, Lee’s army was underfed, short of animals, perceptibly losing strength from simple lack of food and forage; yet here in Georgia there was a prodigious wealth of the things it needed, and it could not get them—primarily because the land’s transportation and distribution system was all but in a state of total collapse, but also because this invading army was smashing straight through the source of supply. The morale of Confederate soldiers in Virginia and in Tennessee sank lower and lower as letters from home told how this army was wrecking everything and putting wives and children in danger of starvation.

Sherman came out where he had intended to, at Savannah, on December 10. Sherman led his army around to the right, striking for the Ogeechee River and Ossabaw Sound, where he could get in touch with the navy, receive supplies, and regain contact with Grant and with Washington. The Union soldiers found Savannah unlike any town they had ever been in before. They entered the place on December 21, marching formally for a change, with bands playing and flags flying, Sherman himself taking a salute as they marched past. Savannah had a tropical air; the yards were filled with blooming flowers; palm trees and orange trees were to be seen; the houses looked old and inviting; and war seemed not to have touched the city. The men looked about them, reflecting that they had finished one of the great marches of history, and they suddenly went on their good behavior; Savannah was spared the devastation and pillage so many other places in Georgia had endured.

Sherman sent off a whimsical wire to Abraham Lincoln, offering him the city of Savannah, with much war equipment and 25,000 bales of priceless cotton, as a Christmas gift. To Grant and Halleck he wrote urging that as soon as his army had caught its breath it should be allowed to march straight north across the Carolina country. To Halleck he wrote: “I think our campaign of the last month, as well as every step I take from this point northward, is as much a direct attack upon Lee’s army as though we were operating within the sound of his artillery.”

Everything was working. Lee’s lines at Petersburg still held, but now his rear was unsafe. Sherman’s army was nearer to Richmond now than it was to Vicksburg, and there was no conceivable way to keep it from coming up. As the year came to an end, the Confederacy had just under four months to live.

It is possible that the Confederate General Hood made a very serious error in judgment.

When Sherman stopped chasing him in the middle of October and took his men back to Atlanta to prepare to march to the sea, Hood concluded that his own cue was to invade Tennessee from northern Alabama. Hood let Sherman go, pulled his army together below the southernmost loop of the Tennessee River, and at last—late in November, heavy rains and a scarcity of supplies having imposed delay—he took off, crossing the river and moving up toward Nashville.