Chasing Smallwood — Marching Through Georgia

[A book with four interlocking themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and
  • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.27. Marching Through Georgia

[Wednesday, February 8, 2006]

(10 p.m.) Joseph, do you have more in mind?

We could talk a bit about the railroads and how that’s what won the war for the Union. Or we could talk about marching through Georgia.

Well, which do you suppose I’d be more interested in? Besides, I know how the railroads won the war – they made it possible for the northern industrial power to express itself to overcome the huge geography that had to be held and conquered. Let’s talk about Georgia.

Now bear in mind, I wasn’t in on the long maneuvering that led to Sherman capturing Atlanta finally in September. Where I was I’ll tell you later, but for now let’s just say that Gettysburg put me out of action for quite a while. That is going to be hard to sort out for you because of conflicting timelines – the ones when you did help fix my back and the ones when you didn’t. Remember this morning I said there was some kind of information could come through only at certain times? This is one of ‘em, and this ain’t yet the time – though it’s getting closer! It ain’t that it’s a secret we want to keep, it’s that you have got to be able to understand it, to swallow and digest it, and by our judgment you can’t yet do it. Now sometimes it’s just as well to put something across knowing that later you will get it, but sometimes no, because the errors in transmission will overwhelm the message, and this is one of those.

So – take it as given. I joined up with Sherman’s boys after a long medical leave, though it wasn’t that simple. In those days boys joined a regiment for an enlistment time and when the time was up the whole unit might go out of existence, and the men with time remaining would be transferred to another unit. The Johnnies didn’t use the same system, and it did have its disadvantages. Better in a lot of ways to keep feeding new boys into existing units, to keep that unit at strength. But anyway, that ain’t the way we did it, and I got down to Atlanta just between the time Sherman marched his boys in and the time he set us off for the sea.

And by the way, “the sea” is as much as any of us knew about where we was headed. You can look at a map in your day, knowing what you know, and say “Savannah, sure, where else?” but Uncle Billy might have taken us anywhere. It was late summer – fall technically, but might as well have been summer to us except the crops were all ripe instead of half-grown – and we didn’t have to worry about winter like Napoleon in Russia or even in Spain, and we weren’t worried about an army because there wasn’t one anywhere near that could do us any harm, and don’t think they didn’t know it.

Uncle Billy had learned from Grant’s experience in Mississippi the year before, when Grant cut loose from his supply train and lived off the land. He saw that it worked, and freed the army considerable from the everlasting nuisance of the cavalry raiders, and so he figured to do the same thing. Well, that was all right with Grant – he and Sherman always relied on each other’s good sense – and Lincoln wasn’t about to interfere with a general who would fight, especially a general who had just won his re-election for him [by his timely capture of Altanta]. So off we went.

Well, you know the story of the march, but that don’t mean that everything you know about it is true.

What is true is, we went where we wanted to go, did what we wanted to do, took whatever supplies would feed enemy soldiers, ripped out as much railroad tracks as ever we could, burned a fortune in cotton, stole several fortunes in food on and off the hoof, and we walked into Savannah at the end of it as easy as kiss your hand, as they say.

What ain’t true is that we burned every plantation house we came to – and if you or anybody would research how many antebellum mansions still exist along that stretch it ought to surprise you some. Yes, some did get burned. Our boys had tempers, and things happened that got retaliated for. But mostly, not. Nor did we outrage the women – and it was mostly women we encountered, trying to keep things going with their menfolk off at the war somewhere. Yes, probably there was a little of it – there never was a body of men yet that didn’t get out of hand here and there, but mostly no. You may think the army wouldn’t care, but you’d be wrong. A man could get shot, official, for that.

We sure stole everything we could take, and destroyed anything movable that was left, and we didn’t so much steal their “niggers” – it wasn’t as harsh a term in our day, you know – as let them tag along with us, which they did in embarrassing numbers, they being afraid that if they didn’t stay with the army they’d go back to being slaves somehow. They were the cause of a hell of a lot of logistical problems for us, but on the other hand what a source of intelligence on buried treasures, and preferred paths, and all the things servants know, and locals!

This one march was one of its kind. Fighting yes, but not battles, more like annoyance skirmishing. There wasn’t an army could have stood against us, like I said. And Uncle Billy set out his army of “bummers” to be our commissary, you know. That meant they were fanning out in all directions – except behind us! Because there was sure-God nothing there to steal! – and they’d be gone all day and they would come back with their wagons chock full of whatever we found in the area – this means they’d be gone from army discipline day after day for two months. Don’t you think that was popular!

And, being soldiers, they’d do their damnedest to find liquor or anything remotely like it, and somehow most of that didn’t quite make it back to the main body, even though it was all corn liquor, mostly, and not exactly aged in the keg. “Aged in the ear,” we used to say fondly.

People don’t generally think of it, but it is a mark of what a truly fine soldier Sherman was that under these conditions his army didn’t degenerate into a mob. Can you imagine what Ben Butler’s troops would have done? It don’t bear thinking of.

It was an easy time to be a soldier, the easiest time of the war, probably, and in a way – I suppose we ought to have been ashamed of the thought – in a way it was sweeter because the Army of the Potomac was spending the long grim deadly year of 1864 fighting every day, locked bulldog-style onto Bobby Lee and choking him to death. Western boys never had a lot of time for the Army of the Potomac, and they didn’t waste much sympathy on ‘em. I heard many a man say we’d have to march ourselves clear up to Virginia to end the war, because them eastern boys just wasn’t up to it. But I’d fought with them boys and I knew there wasn’t anything ever wrong with ‘em except they started as city boys, a lot of ‘em, and so had to learn everything first – and, mainly, their officers. But they had Grant now, and I reckoned he’d ginger up the officer corps. I didn’t think we’d necessarily have to come up the coast to finish things. But still it was sweet to be raiding sweet potatoes instead of Forts Hell and Damnation, I admit it. And maybe I figured I’d earned a little picnic. Anybody fought at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg both had seen about enough hell to do him, unless he was a born dam fool and no hope for him.

So, we had our little march and picnic, and did we eat, and have our bonfires – melting rails on piles of ties, you know – and lift every useful thing in sight. The people were sort of resigned to it, even at the same time they hated us, and hated us doing it. Some of ‘em did advise us to save something for South Carolina, and didn’t I approve the sentiment!

The net result of that march isn’t understood as well as it might be, because the war was over four months after we hit Savannah. Three, really, and a little. But suppose it hadn’t been over. We didn’t have any crystal ball telling us how it was going to work out. Lee had held up Grant all year. Grant said he intended to fight on the line “if it takes all summer” – but it took all summer and all fall and all winter and the rebs still held Richmond, they still held Petersburg, they still had supplies coming in from the south.

Now, not that their situation wasn’t desperate, it was, and if they’d had the sense God gave a sparrow they’d have made terms while they still had something to bargain with – but if the famous “statesmen of the lost cause” had had any brains they wouldn’t have taken to the field with ten million people against twenty, and outnumbered in everything that counted except slaves and cotton.

But suppose they’d been able to hold on in Virginia. Look at the difference in the rest of the country if Sherman had or hadn’t made that march.

Atlanta was a rail junction. That was its importance, and it was gone either way. But if Sherman had stayed there, all of Georgia and southern Alabama could still have been sending supplies north. Sherman’s army in Atlanta was well and good – but as far as affecting the war in the east, it might as well have been in Mexico.

But Sherman’s army at the coast, supplied by the navy! That was the end, and anybody who knew war knew it. There was no beating him and there was nothing at all to be accomplished except – at most – delaying action, which is what Joe Johnston eventually was forced to attempt, against all hope.

And if Sherman was going to the sea, could he use up his army detailing 300 miles of supply train, or 300 miles of protecting railroads? We’d all had plenty of that in Kentucky, let alone Tennessee. We weren’t anxious for more of it. Let some Morgan or Forrest do anything in our rear with a 60-mile strip of Georgia reduced to nothing!

That is the military reason for the march, and for the destruction and for the wholesale looting of anything we could use. People in my day knew it, too. It was only histories written in later years that put all their sympathies with what they saw as underdogs and never spent any time asking why we might do all that. It’s true, Sherman said he would make Georgia howl, and he’d put all thought of war out of their head for generations but what he did made military sense, or he wouldn’t have done it. And the fact is, it had to have shortened the war. There ain’t the documented decisions and all, but if the rebs in the Richmond White House and so-called congress didn’t understand what it meant that we could go just anywhere and do just anything, the full width of Georgia, which is not a small state by eastern standards – well, they had less brains than I think they had, which ain’t very likely.

Tired, unless you have a little more and are almost done.

No, it’s a good enough place to stop. We can always do more whenever you want to.

One thought on “Chasing Smallwood — Marching Through Georgia

  1. I grew up with my mother (my father was a Yankee) still fighting the Civil War, and Sherman was the enemy incarnate. I enjoyed reading Smallwood’s account of Sherman’s march as tactical and necessary. I could sure see Smallwood’s stories as a movie!

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