My brother sent me this book, and he knew I would be interested in the content. It describes the march across Georgia after Atlanta fell to Sherman’s army. I should mention there is family interest before I book. Elijah Tilton was married to one of a Brooke sister who was an aunt of our grandmother. Elijah was a member of the 92nd Illinois mounted infantry and part of Sherman’s army when it was advancing on Atlanta. Two of his sons, George William and Cornelius (or Commodore) and two other Tiltons, Orrin and Alfonso, were also part of the unit. The unit was assigned to the reckless and not very admirable General Kilpatrick on May 7, 1864 (according to Elijah Tilton’s diary for that year), and “Lil Kil” is a central figure of the book. I don’t recall any of the incidents mentioning Kilpatrick that were complimentary. Elijah never mentions weapons except for hearing cannons fire, but his unit was one of those issued the Spencer rifles, which are mentioned in the book.
Elijah died of dysentery on October 6, 1864 (more soldiers died of disease than from combat) but his sons and the other relatives were there for the fall of Atlanta. We lose the family connection with the book when the surviving Tiltons were assigned to the forces heading for Tennessee when General Sherman prepares to begin his march across Georgia. They were therefore part of the army commanded by George H Thomas that defeated John Bell Hood at Nashville December 15-18, 1864. It was undoubtedly chance that sent those ancestors into Tennnessee instead of into Georgia and eventually South Carolina. However, that might make the book easier to accept by our son and his family who live in Fort Mill, South Carolina and his in-laws who live in Columbia. Sherman quite unpopular in South Carolina.
I’ll begin my review after that lengthy introduction. The book by Stanley Weintraub provides details of Sherman’s army marching across Georgia to Savannah in late 1864. The destination was a secret when the march began, but it wasn’t a particularly well-kept secret. The plan was to make “Georgia howl,” by destroying anything that could support the Confederate war effort. Railroads were ripped up and the rails twisted around trees in “Sherman’s bowties.” Most of the livestock was taken along with the stores of food necessary to feed 60,000 marching soldiers. Baled cotton and mills were burned along with homes of those who dared to show open allegiance to the Confederacy or their revulsion toward the Union. One woman who unwisely spit at a soldier had her home burned. One woman told a captain “Our men will fight you as long as they live and then these boys (her sons) will fight you when they grow up.” A man was quoted as saying war wouldn’t end until all the men and women were killed, and “…it won’t be ended then, for we’ll come back as ghosts to haunt you.”
There were many accusations that Sherman’s “bummers” were harsh to the citizens they encountered. There is no doubt there was significant thievery, because the route of march became littered with all manner of abandoned loot. There were accusations of rape and murder, although the author believes there were more accusations than actual outrages. Sherman’s men came across emaciated men dressed in rags from the Andersonville prison, and that undoubtedly gave some of them reason to behave in anger. The army came across an abandoned prisoner of war site at Millen that had no shelters and no water. There were burrows where the prisoners had lived and a large burial ground. One officer wrote that what he saw gave him a “…renewed feeling of hardness toward the Confederacy.”
Sherman and his troops marched 300 miles in twenty-four days. Most of the casualties were in a single a battle at Fort McCallister, There were more than two hundred listed as missing and presumed dead. Most of those were “bummers” who did the foraging.
Sherman would write about the accusations issued against his men that they had been, “A little loose in foraging, they did some things they ought not to have done, yet on the whole they have supplied the wants of the army with as little violence as could be expected…” An order was issued ordering that anyone pillaging or burning a home without being ordered to do so would be shot, but none of the soldiers were charged with those crimes.
One controversial event was that Sherman ordered prisoners of war to move in front of the column with shovels searching for “torpedos” (mines) after one exploded and tore the right foot off an officer.
With a few exceptions the army did not meet much organized resistance. They seldom came across a farm, plantation, or town that hadn’t been deserted by men. They were greeted as liberators by blacks, and thousands of the freed slaves joined in the march. Sherman was said to not think highly of blacks, and tried on several occasions to convince the followers to go back. The author observes that they required rations and slowed the movement of the army. One sad event was that the army pulled the pontoon bridge from a river they had crossed, which stranded the thousands of blacks. Some tried to swim the river despite the fact they couldn’t swim. Some union soldiers tried to push logs to them for rescue, and many were disturbed by what happened. Most of the blacks were left to be recaptured by Confederate soldiers and a very uncertain fate.
There were also acts of kindness. Two girls estimated to be three and five were found in an abandoned home dressed in burlap bags with holes cut for their heads and arms. They were fed, bathed, clothed, and taken along by the army. They eventually found their way to homes in the North after being transported there by soldiers who had been released from duty after their enlistments had ended. Women often welcomed officers into their homes, because they had undoubtedly heard the stories about what had happened to others earlier in the march.
Sherman’s army did begin to run low on provisions as they approached Savannah, and there was concern that the only path to the city was on narrow causeways through the swamps. However, the confederates decided not to defend the city and pulled out during the night over a makeshift bridge. The action is said to have kept Savannah “…relatively safe from the destruction wreaked upon other cities visited by Sherman’s marchers through Georgia.” Sherman telegraphed, “To His Excellency President Lincoln, Washington, D.C.: I beg to present you as a Christmas-gift the city of Savannah…”