After completing the dismantling of Atlanta, Sherman embarked on his famous March to the Sea. But at the outset, he recognized one potential fly in his soup and he knew just how to deal with it.
I rode on to a place designated for camp, at the crossing of the Ulcofauhachee River,
about four miles to the east of the town. Here we made our bivouac, and I walked
up to a plantation house close by, where were assembled many Negroes, among
them an old, gray-haired man, of as fine a head as I ever saw. I asked him if he
understood about the war and its progress. He said he did; that he had been looking
for the "angel of the Lord" ever since he was knee-high, and, though we professed
to be fighting for the Union, he suppsed that slavery was the cause, and our success
was to be his freedom. I asked him if all the Negro slaves comprehended this fact
and he said they surely did. I then explained to him that we wanted the slaves to
remain where they were, and not load us down with useless mouths, which would
eat up the food needed for our fighting men; that our success was their assured
freedom; that we could receive a few of their young, hearty men as pioneers; but
that, if they followed us in swarms of old and young, feeble and helpless, it would
simply load us down and cripple us in our great task. I believe that old man spread
this message to the slaves, which was carried from mouth to mouth, to the very
end of our journey, and that it in part saved us from the great danger we incurred
of swelling our numbers so that famine would having attended our progress.[ii]
This passage from Sherman’s memoirs (written ten years after the war) tells us several things about the man. One, he is completely at ease with African-Americans. He may think black men make inferior soldiers, but he doesn’t mind
chewing the fat with them, especially when they praise his efforts on their behalf, inadvertent as they may be. Two, he has a
keen eye for quickly identifying leaders. This trait will serve him well in Savannah. Three, on this occasion at least, he is kidding
himself. As Sherman well knew, by the time he completed his march to the sea, thousands of suddenly emancipated blacks
had packed up everything they owned (very little) and decided to follow their Moses to the promised land.
For the most part, the Union soldiers did not seem to mind the extra baggage, and often with good reason. “A great many of our privates are getting Negro servants for themselves; the Negro walks along beside the soldier, with his knapsack and cooking utensils strapped upon his back, thus relieving the soldier of his load, and helping him along. What soldier wouldn’t be an abolitionist under such circumstances?”[iii]
But not everyone was so pleased with the black entourage.
“Useless Negroes are being accumulated to an extent which
would be suicide to a column which must be constantly stripped
for battle and prepared for the utmost celerity of movement.We
cannot expect that the present unobstructed march will continue
much longer. Our wagons are too much overladen to allow of
their being filled with Negro women, children or their baggage
and every additional mouth consumes food, which it requires
risk to obtain. No Negroes, therefore, or their baggage, will be
allowed in wagons and none but servants of mounted officers on
horses or mules.”[iv]
Thus ordered Brevet Major General Jefferson C. Davis (not to be confused with
the President of Confederacy even though they may have held similar views
on race relations) to his men in the 14th Army Corps, a division of Sherman's
65,000 troops, on November 24, 1864. Two weeks later, he issued another,
verbal order as his troops camped out on a creek 25 miles north of Savannah.
*During their march to the sea, Sherman’s soldiers had continual skirmishes with Confederate troops under the command of Major Joseph Wheeler.
ii. William T. Sherman. (1875). pp. 180-181. Memoirs of W. T. Sherman, Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875.
1ii. James A. Connolly. (1987). p. 313. Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland. Bloomington & Indiana: Indiana University Press. (Original work published 1928)
1v. Robert Nicholson Scott, Henry Martyn Lazelle, George Breckenridge Davis, Leslie J. Perry, Joseph William Kirkley, Fred Crayton Ainsworth and John Sheldon Moodey. (1893). P. 502. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Part II—Correspondence, Etc. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893.
v. Regiment, Illinois Infantry. D. (2013). pp. 198-9. Ninety-Second Illinois Volunteers. London: Forgotten Books. (Original work published 1875)
"Before daylight, the ninth of December, the Fourteenth Army Corps. commanded by General Jeff. C. Davis, crossed Ebenezer Creek
and, by the order of General Davis, a guard was stationed at the bridge that would not permit a Negro man, woman or child to cross. They never dreamed they were to be debarred the privilege of crossing.
nor did they now it until the pioneers were tearing away the bridge after the last white soldier had crossed.
Left, cruelly left, to the bitter mercies of the infuriated enemy following us!*
And then such a wild panic as seized them; such bitter, heartrending cries of despair; such pitiful beseeching entreaties to ermitted to cross, I never before witnessed or listened to. They ran wildly up and down the stream.
Many plunged in and struggled through, and many sank beneath the dark waters to rise no more."[v]