On November 15 1864, Sherman began marching south, dividing his army into two wings. On November 22, a large (4,500) group of Confederate soldiers under General Pleasant J. Phillips met part (1,500) of the right wing of Sherman’s troops, commanded by General Charles C. Walcutt. The Battle of Griswaldville ended so badly for the South–94 Union casualties and losses versus 1,123 Confederate–that Confederate troops initiated no more major conflicts. Instead, they tried to anticipate Sherman’s line of march, working ahead of the Union forces and wreaking their own brand of havoc in front of Sherman’s men. In an attempt to slow the Union juggernaut, bridges were burned and wrecked, trees were felled across roads, and barns with provisions and fodder were burned before Sherman had a chance to use them.
Not that the Union was innocent of inflicting harm. Far from it! Union soldiers
unsparingly raided farms and plantations, stealing foodstuffs and personal possessions, slaughtering cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, and hogs. Stores of molasses and sorghum, beehives, and untold numbers of sweet potatoes were “foraged liberally” by both officially authorized foragers and those men who simply felt that the early bird should get his share of the worm. One Iowa soldier in the Seventeenth Corps wrote home, “I think a katydid, following our rear, would starve.”
There are stories of wanton, unnecessary destruction on the part of Union soldiers, but they fall far short of war crimes, unless pianos are considered victims of war. An Ohio infantryman wrote his family about such a musical instrument being removed from one Louisville, Georgia, family home. “One fellow played on the piano while his comrades danced a jig on top of the instrument and then he drove an axe through it.”
Serious and discomforting as these sorts of anecdotes are, they do not meet the criteria for being war crimes. However, reports made to General Sherman by cavalry commander General Judson Kilpatrick were more alarming. A letter from an Ohio cavalryman states that, “On the first of December, three men belonging to the regiment were murdered.” Another letter from a soldier in the 79th Pennsylvania reported that, “Rebels captured our Brigade Q(uarter) M(aster) and three men, shooting them all, some of them with their throats cut from ear to ear.” General Kilpatrick had put several such reports in his official correspondence with Sherman, who monitored the situation, but did not respond to the cavalry chieftain until Thursday, December 1, 1864.
Kilpatrick had been informing Sherman of even more instances of the murder and mutilation of his men after they had been taken prisoner. Sherman considered this to be, perhaps, anecdotal evidence, but he could not ignore the increasing number of incidents being reported. Sherman wanted to be certain that, before he issued any sort of retaliatory order, Kilpatrick had communicated his concerns to Confederate cavalry commander General Joseph Wheeler. Once Kilpatrick had alerted Wheeler, should he obtain substantial proof that Rebel soldiers were committing any excesses, Kilpatrick would receive official approval to retaliate. Sherman’s command, in such a circumstance, was: “You may hang and mutilate man for man without regard to rank.”
This communication puts Sherman clearly on the edge of the modern definition of war crimes, but in context, it does not cross that line. Sherman’s due diligence concerning waiting and monitoring the situation, the insistence on the notification of Wheeler about his concerns, and finally his clearly-voiced response–“man for man”–do not indicate approval of wholesale slaughter of an enemy combatant based on rumor or innuendo.
Prior to arriving in Savannah (Sherman’s actual destination was kept secret until the last possible moment), Sherman ordered an investigation of conditions at Millen, where Camp Lawton had been built. Camp Lawton was supposed to replace Andersonville Prison, but the approach of Sherman’s Left Wing had forced its evacuation. What Federal soldiers found inside the compound that had once housed Union prisoners of war both sickened and angered the men who saw it. David Anderson, of the 19th Michigan wrote: “We found the bodies of several of our men lying unburied in this loathsome den; consigning them to the parent earth, our bugles sounded, and falling in line, solemnly and sadly we moved away.” Upon hearing of the conditions in which prisoners had tried to exist, some failing, Sherman was angered. His verbal instructions to General Frank Blair, commander of the Seventeenth Corps, “was to make the destruction (of Millen) ‘tenfold more devilish’ than he ever dreamed of, as this is one of the places they have been starving our prisoners.” However, the letters and notes of Sherman’s aide, Major Henry Hitchcock, printed as Marching With Sherman: Passages from the Letters and Campaign Diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Major and Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers-November 1864-May, 1865, clearly indicate that nothing more was done at Millen than was done at any other town; the government buildings were burned, the arsenal was fired, supplies were looted, and a hotel (not normally a legitimate target, but perhaps an accidental one) was burned.
By mid-December, Fort McAllister had been taken by the Federals and there was only Savannah left with which to deal. Forage had been poor for several weeks, as the Confederates removed everything they felt would aid Sherman, and torched what could not be carried. A siege is never anything other than painful, but on December 21, 1864, Savannah surrendered. General Sherman presented the capture of the city to President Lincoln as a “Christmas present.” In less than four months, the American Civil War would be over. However, there was unfinished war crimes business to be dealt with, for there were at least two men who had performed such unforgivably atrocious acts that it was nationally recognized that some sort of action must be taken against them.
The least known of these two men is Samuel “Champ” Ferguson, a Confederate guerrillawho operated outside any laws. He admitted to killing over 100 people, mostly civilians, whom he deemed sympathetic to the Union. He was also suspected of killing several wounded cavalrymen from the 5th U. S. Colored Cavalry. He was tried for fifty-three murders, and convicted. He was hung on October 20, 1865, in Nashville.
The better known case is that of Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Andersonville Prison. Court records accuse him of, “willfully and traitorously . . . combining, confederating, and conspiring . . . to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States . . .in violation of the laws and customs of war.” To read the transcript of Wirz’s trial is a sickening endeavor for most, but the transcript makes clear that, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were “laws and customs” that could not be breached, even in a war. Wirz was convicted and hung on November 10, 1865.
No one has yet proved that the overall intent of Sherman’s March to the Sea was to do anything other than end the war. If it took creating a warlike atmosphere deep in the Confederacy to make the South understand that they could not win a war of attrition, then the powers in Washington agreed–ending the war was paramount. Sherman’s work in Georgia was destructive and sometimes brutal, but it did what it was planned to do–end the war. If war was hell, then “total” war was total hell.
Major Hitchcock, who began the March with a lack of confidence in Sherman’s tactics and in Sherman himself, sums up his complete turnaround to becoming a supporter of his general:
This Union and its Government must be sustained at any and every cost. To sustain it, we must war upon and destroy the rebel forces–must cut off their supplies, destroy their communications . . . and produce among the people of Georgia a thorough conviction of the personal misery which attends war, and the utter helplessness and inability of their ‘rulers’ to protect them . . . If that terror and grief and even want shall help to paralyze their husbands and fathers who are fighting us . . . it is mercy in the end.