Sherman vs. Stanton (Part II)
While many of the Union soldiers who witnessed the drownings were outraged by what they saw—expressing themselves in letters, memoirs and even speeches years later, only one man took action immediately against Davis.
“I wrote out a rough draft of a letter to-day relative to Genl. Davis’ treatment of the negroes at Ebenezer Creek. I want the matter to get before the military committee of the Senate,” Major James Connolly, a 21-year old officer with the 123rd Illinois Artillery, wrote in his diary on December 18th.[vi] Two weeks later his account of the Ebenezer Creek tragedy found its way into the New York Tribune and may also have been sent to Secretary of War Stanton.
After taking care of some administrative business, such as assigning the prized captured cotton to the Treasury Department, Stanton confronted Sherman about Davis, accusing him of being “hostile to the Negro.” Sherman recalled in his memoirs, “I assured him that General Davis was an excellent soldier and I did not believe he had any hostility to the Negro.”[vii]
Stanton then pulled out what he assumed was the ace up his sleeve. “He then showed me a newspaper account of General Davis taking up his pontoon-bridge across Ebenezer Creek, leaving sleeping negro men, women, and children on the other side to be slaughtered by Wheeler’s cavalry.* I had heard such a rumor, and advised Mr. Stanton, before becoming prejudiced, to allow me to send for General Davis, which he did, and General Davis explained the matter to his entire satisfaction.”[viii]
This could have been the end of our story. One wonders why Stanton didn’t demand to see some of the eyewitnesses who were on the ground at Ebenezer Creek during the incident. I believe something happened to the man, possibly during the interview of Davis, that dramatically diverted his narrow train of thought to a much broader one. Perhaps he recalled Jesus saying, “let the dead bury the dead.” Possibly he understood that those thousands of liberated African-Americans following Sherman were literally searching for something. Certainly he realized no one representing the government had ever asked blacks what they wanted. Perhaps it was time to find out.
*While there is no doubt that hundreds of the freedmen drowned in Ebenezer Creek, there is no concrete evidence that Wheeler’s troops slaughtered the thousands who remained on the far shore. Wheeler himself reported that he returned them (“nearly 2000”) to their owners. (Charles Colcock Jones, The Siege of Savannah in December, 1864, and the Confederate Operations in Georgia and the Third Military District of South Carolina during General Sherman’s March from Atlanta to the Sea (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1874), 76.
vi. Connolly. p. 367. Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland.
vii. Sherman. p. 244. Memoirs of W. T. Sherman, Vol. 2.
This was Stanton's excuse to pay Sherman a visit in Savannah, which the general had entered on December 22 to cries of deliverance within the local black community. (Stanton arrived in Savannah by revenue cutter on January 10, 1865.) Although Sherman was not directly implicated in the drownings, Stanton apparently thought his negative attitude toward employing African-Americans as soldiers may have had something to do with Davis' indifference to or even hostility toward the welfare of the freedmen.