Despite his Brother Sen. John Sherman’s assurance that Sec. of War Edwin Stanton was “your fast friend, and was when you had fewer,” Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was unsettled by Stanton’s unannounced visit to Savannah in January, 1865. With his army recuperating from its three-hundred mile adventure marching to the sea, Sherman was busy resupplying his army and planning for a campaign into the Carolinas. The surprise appearance of the Sec. of War not only promised to interfere with these preparations, but also to portend trouble.
In his Memoirs, written many years after the fact, Sherman recalled Stanton’s visit. “He talked to me a great deal about the negroes,” Sherman wrote, “He inquired particularly about Gen. Jeff C. Davis, who, he said, was a Democrat, and hostile to the negro.” Stanton had heard about the incident involving Gen. Davis, commander of the Fourteenth Corps, and the many African-Americans following the army at Ebenezer Creek. As the army was approaching Savannah, Davis, who regarded the freedmen as a burden, saw an opportunity to lighten the army’s burden. When his men had crossed Ebenezer Creek, he ordered the pontoon bridge cut and pulled back before the freedmen could cross, effectively leaving them stranded on the far side as Davis and his men moved on. As Sherman remembered it, Stanton “showed me a newspaper account of General Davis taking up his pontoon bridge…leaving sleeping negro men, women, and children, on the other side, to be slaughtered by Wheeler’s cavalry” (Sherman 724).
Sherman suggested an interview with Gen. Davis as a way to clear the matter up. Stanton agreed. Subsequently at the interview Gen Davis “explained the matter to [Stanton’s] entire satisfaction,” according to Sherman’s recollection. In his Memoir, Sherman noted that “General Jeff. C. Davis was strictly a soldier, and doubtless hated to have his wagons and columns encumbered by these poor negroes, for whom we all felt sympathy, but sympathy of a different sort from that of Mr. Stanton, which was not of pure humanity, but of politics” (Sherman 725-725). Written many years after the war, the scorn reflected in these words not only reflects Sherman’s distain of bureaucrats in general, but a powerful disregard for Stanton borne out of a later controversy over the terms of surrender Sherman initially offered Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston in April 1865.
Stanton continued his visit with a meeting with African-American ministers from the Savannah area. During part of this interview, Sherman was asked to leave the room so Stanton could get an unvarnished answer to what these folks thought of the general. Although the answers given Stanton were a glowing tribute to Sherman, as he later discovered, there is no doubt that Sherman was furious over the matter. “It certainly was a strange fact,” Sherman wrote in his Memoirs, “that the great War Secretary should have catechized negroes concerning the character of a general who had commanded a hundred thousand men in battle, had captured cities, conducted sixty-five thousand men successfully across four hundred miles of hostile territory, and had just brought tens of thousands of freedmen to a place of security” (Sherman 727).
While Stanton’s visit to Savannah seemed to store up trouble for the future, it also brought about Sherman’s famous Special Field Orders No. 15. Before he went north again, Stanton wanted some assurance that the freedmen that had followed Sherman’s army would be provided for. The plan they worked out would later be characterized as providing “Forty Acres and a Mule.” Confiscated lands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, the Sea Isles, would be parceled out to freedmen who could then cultivate the land without the interference of any whites – who were, in fact, prohibited from visiting the Isles. “It was a revolutionary document,” according to Sherman biographer John F. Marszalek, “and it is ironic that someone with Sherman’s antiblack attitudes should have issued it” (Marszalek 314). Of course, though the orders where Sherman’s, the sentiment was not.
Doubtless Sherman was relieved when Stanton departed Savannah on Jan. 15th on his way North. Though he and Stanton got on well socially, Sherman had learned to be a bit wary of the Sec. of War. More than anything else, what the general wanted was to “get into the pine-woods again, free from the importunities of rebel women asking for protection, and of the civilians from the North who were coming to Savannah for cotton and all sorts of profit” (Sherman 733). He was ready to take his army into South Carolina.
Burke Davis. Sherman’s March. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
John F. Marszalek. Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
William T. Sherman. Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman. New York: The Library of America, 1990.