This Hallowed Ground

PrintPrintEmailEmail

This was not the picnic hike that had prevailed in Georgia. To go north across the lowlands, Sherman had to cross a flat swampy country crossed by many rivers, most of which were in flood. Joe Johnston, that canny little soldier who was at last being restored to command (now that there was nothing much for a Confederate to command) believed that no army could cross this land in winter with any success. From afar Johnston watched Sherman’s progress, unbelieving; and when he saw Sherman’s army bridging rivers, building roads across swamps and wading through flooded backwaters, making just as much time as it had made on the dry roads of Georgia, he wrote that “I made up my mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.”

Johnston was right, in a way. This was not, actually, an army: it was just a collection of western pioneers on the march—men with axes, who could cut down a forest and corduroy a road without breaking step, men who would flounder for miles through flood waters armpit deep, making nothing of it except for casual high-private remarks to the effect that “Uncle Billy seems to have struck this river end-ways.” They plowed across the bottom lands as if they were on parade; they built bridges, cut roads, marched in icecold water as if they were on dry ground, casually burned towns and looted plantations and set fire to pine forests just for the fun of seeing the big trees burn—and came up north, mile after endless mile, laughing and frolicking and making a devastation to mark their passage. An Indiana soldier remarked that the men set fire to so much that “some days the sun was almost entirely obscured by the smoke of the consuming buildings, cotton gins, etc.”

Mile by mile, the army moved north. Every evening the mounted foragers would come in to camp, trailed by hundreds of wagons, buggies, and carriages which they had seized at different plantations and had loaded with foodstuffs; in the morning, when the army moved on, these would be set on fire and abandoned, symbols of the offhand hatred which the rank and file nourished for the state where secession had been born. Going through the town of McPhersonville, Ohio soldiers realized that every house in the place was burning, reflected that “this state was largely responsible for the rebellion,” and thoughtfully noted: “Our line of march throughout this state was marked by smoke in the day and the glare of fire by night.” All along this line of march, few buildings escaped the flames; one soldier commented drily that “where a family remains at home they save their house but lose their stock and eatables.”

All across the state, the army collected much more in the way of food and forage than it could possibly use. When it broke camp in the morning, officers would order the surplus to be piled up so that it could be brought along later by wagon; doubting that any of it would ever be seen again, the skeptical privates would stuff all they could carry in their haversacks. It was generally understood that the piles of surplus were simply abandoned, purposely, so that the Negroes and poor whites could have something to eat.

A “most unnoticed, Charleston fell. Sherman’s men did not go near it. They simply marched across all of its lines of communications, knifing them so that the storied city dropped into Yankee hands like a ripe peach falling from a tree; the Confederate defenders left the place, and the army-and-navy people who had tried so long to break a way in entered unopposed. Meanwhile, Sherman’s army came tramping up to Columbia, capital of the state.

Columbia got the full fury of the storm. Confederate cavalry held the place, made just enough resistance to force the Federals to prepare for a regular assault, and then left. Union troops marched in. Here and there, little fires started. A great wind came up, the fires spread—and presently most of Columbia was on fire, in a senseless, meaningless conflagration that brought the final measure of ruin and despair to the Palmetto state which had led the South out of the Union.

Concerning the origin of this fire there is still great argument. Sherman held that retreating Confederate cavalry had set fire to baled cotton and that this had caused the great fire; Confederates retorted furiously that Union troops had started the flames and that Columbia was burned wantonly, for sport, by soldiers who had thrown off all restraint. An Illinois soldier denied that Unionists had caused the fire, but he wrote that the soldiers “smiled and felt glad in their hearts” to see the city burning, and another man from the same state confessed that his whole division was drunk and added: “I think the city should be burned out, but would like to see it done decently.” Wisconsin soldiers went whooping and yelling past blazing buildings, shouting: “This is the nest where the first secession egg was hatched—let her burn!” An lowan felt that most of the trouble came because the soldiers looted stores and saloons and got drunk, and wrote sorrowfully that “the splendid discipline so rigidly maintained throughout the rank and file of the army, which had preserved the city and protected the people of Savannah … was viciously and recklessly destroyed at Columbia.”