The Art of Hiding Personal Effects, Part Two: Valuables

'Sherman's bummers foraging through South Carolina,' image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
‘Sherman’s bummers foraging through South Carolina,’ image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The physical trauma Sherman and his troops forced upon the Southern countryside riddles letters and diaries, and the psychological trauma is still evident in the resentment passed down between generations. The chaos of unorganized Union foraging parties followed a pattern as Federal troops marched through the South. Allowed to forage under Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 120, some soldiers took “advantage of the license given to them” and in addition to foraging for food, they pillaged for every day household items.[i] Section two in this three part series highlights the lengths soldiers went to in order to find items of value, as well as some of the imagination employed in hiding personal effects during Sherman’s March to the Sea, as well as throughout his Carolina Campaigns.

As soon as word spread that soldiers were marching through an area, families searched for suitable places to hide their personal effects. The tales of Union soldiers ripping houses apart looking for valuables spread throughout the South. Nicknamed ‘Sherman’s bummers,’ these soldiers weren’t kind to property, and they looted, destroyed, and killed unnecessarily. In some instances, they would hang “men up on a slack rope and [poke] them with bayonets to make them tell where their valuables were hid.”[ii] In many houses, soldiers searched every room from top to bottom, ripping “open mattresses and pillows, scattering feathers and cotton everywhere, and [taking] whatever they fancied.”[iii] No room was safe from the pilfering soldiers, taking items for which they had no use, sometimes sending them as trophies to friends and family in the North.[iv] In addition to the main house, foragers ransacked the outbuildings and the slave cabins, too. Dolly Sumner Lunt commented in her diary that her cabins were “rifled of every valuable, the soldiers swearing that their Sunday clothes were the white people’s, and that they never had money to get such things as they had.”[v] Instances such as these provided the incentive for Southerners to take extra care when hiding their personal belongings.

The places that families came up with required imagination, since many pillagers were thorough in their search. Some women entrusted boxes of silver to slaves for safe keeping, while others hid items in hollow trees near their home, or somewhere deep in the woods. [vi] Some sewed jewels into their clothing, like Sarah Morgan Dawson and her sister did, in preparation to evacuate as Union soldiers foraged close to their home.[vii] Not all hiding places worked. One misfortune involved a friend of Alice Campbell’s, who “had a hen setting, and she took her watch and other valued jewels and hid them in the nest, under the hen-they did not remain long concealed, for [the soldiers] soon found them and enjoyed the joke.”[viii]

Eliza Francis Andrews explains in detail the actions she and her family took as Union soldiers camped on the outskirts of town in southwest Georgia:

We had just finished eating and got into our wrappers when two rebel horsemen came galloping up the avenue with news that a large body of Yankee cavalry was advancing down the Greensborough road, plundering the country as they passed. We hastily threw on our clothes and were busy concealing valuables for father, when the tramping of horses and shouting of the men reached our ears. Then they began to pass by our street gate, with two of their detestable old flags flaunting in the breeze. I ran for Garnett’s field-glass and watched them through it. Nearly all of them had bags of plunder tied to their saddles, and many rode horses which were afterwards recognized as belonging to different planters in the county. I saw one rascal with a ruffled pillowcase full of stolen goods, tied to his saddle, and some of them had women’s drawers tied up at the bottom ends, filled with plunder and slung astride their horses….They are camped for the night on the outskirts of the town, and everybody expects to be robbed before morning. Father loaded his two guns, and after the servants had been dismissed, we hid the silver in the hollow by the chimney up in the big garret, and father says it shall not be brought out again till the country becomes more settled.[ix]

Placing items on the inside of chimneys, as well as burying items were two of the more common ways to hide valuables, including diaries. Unfortunately for Southern home owners, Union foragers realized Southerners buried their valuables, and they began a systematic approach to searching the surrounding landscape. Sally Hawthorne of Fayetteville, North Carolina, witnessed soldiers completing one of these systematic searches: “The orchard, just back of the lawn, was swarming with men with their bayonets fixed, prodding the ground inch by inch. I never saw anything like the slow, methodical way they went at it, but evidently they found nothing, for they next took the vegetable garden…but with no more success than in the orchard.” Another woman wrote of soldiers finding some buried tableware: “The Yankees found Mrs. Glass’s china and glassware…,[they] broke it all up, and then sent her word that she would set no more fine tables.”[x]

In some instances, the pillagers could be tricked. When Union soldiers arrived at Anne Sabb’s house in South Carolina, she hid her real silver and strategically placed her silver plated items in the open, but accidently forgot to hide a gold card case. An astute friend audibly whispered “Let them have that gilt thing and slip away and hide the silver,” to which the pillagers dropped the gold card case in the friend’s hands and proceeded to take the entirety of the silver plated cutlery.[xi] In another instance, the quick thinking of a slave protected both of his and several female house servants’ blankets from being stolen. When a soldier ran out of the house with the blankets, the slave immediately begged the soldiers “not to mix them with his as all the house girls had some catching disease.”[xii] The soldier dropped the blankets and continued on his way.

While some instances cited above are comical, and involve an episode of triumph over the intruders, this was very rarely the case. Families were often left destitute and starving, and some were forced to flee. While Sherman’s main goal had been peace, the psychological trauma inflicted over Southern families toward the end of the war instilled resentment and hatred toward Sherman and the Union. Check back next week for the last installment in this series!


[i] S.F. Fleharty, Our Regiment: 102d Illinois Infantry Volunteers, (Chicago: Brewster & Hanscom Printers, 1865), 118.

[ii] Eliza Frances Andrews, The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 1864-1865, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908), 259.

[iii] Hattie Brunson Richardson, interview by Chlotilde R. Martin, U.S. Work Projects Administration: Federal Writers’ Project, 1938.

[iv] Dolly Sumner Lunt, A Woman’s Wartime Journal (New York: The Century Co., 1918), 22

[v]Ibid., 26-27.

[vi] Hattie Brunson Richardson.

[vii] Sarah Morgan Dawson, A Confederate Girl’s Diary, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), 16.

[viii] Alice Campbell, North Carolina State University, c. 1865.

[ix] Andrews, 262.

[x] Lunt, 42.

[xi] Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1905), 389.

[xii] Emma Holmes, Diary of Miss Emma Holmes 1861-1866, ed. John F. Marszalek, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1994), 283.

6 Responses to The Art of Hiding Personal Effects, Part Two: Valuables

  1. Someone please enlighten me; these ‘bummers’ were the good guys, weren’t they? This seems like that out-of-control/ leaderless army sacking Fredericksburg, but to the nth degree. Would Jackson have issued a similar special order if , early on in the war, his standing had been equal to his drive, and Richmond would have consented to his version of a total war? You know, ‘kill them all’ sans the theft of blankets and tea pots. Methinks Jackson would have punished his men for behaving like that. Being in New Jersey, I think of Signer Richard Stockton’s home at Princeton, Morven being sacked and his law library destroyed by Cornwallis’ army and farmers hiding their possessions in wells to avoid theft and destruction by Clinton’s army near the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse. What’s the quote we always read and hear cited; “Why are fighting this war, Johnny Reb?” “Because you’re down here”.

    1. Hi Frank-
      Thanks for the comment! Ask most Southerners today, and you’ll receive a very similar, negative response from every one of them regarding Sherman’s march through Georgia and South Carolina. A lot of the Confederate primary sources I’ve read compare the Confederate army (all of which highlight the Rebels as high class gentlemen) to the Union army, which was made up of pilfering-up-to-no-good Yankees who left defenseless women and children starving. Those are just the opinions of what I’ve seen; whether they are actually the good guys or the bad guys is up to your own judgement! Because of the loose orders on foraging, and the sheer size of the army marching with Sherman (there were upwards of 60,000!), the stealing and lawlessness were given a blind eye. They had to eat somehow, and the Southern railroads were being destroyed on his orders; foraging on the local countryside became the next best option. I can’t attest to what Jackson may have done, as I’m not a studier of Jackson and his tactics, but I imagine the lawlessness applied by the Union troops on Confederate citizens would have contradicted any sense of honor upheld by Southern men at the time.

  2. So sad and yet the hiding places are so amusing!
    I’ve been reading Laura Lee’s diary (Winchester, Virginia) and the ladies in her home were hiding a Confederate flag. She never says precisely where it was kept, but the Yankees never found it. From her hints and way of writing about the safe, untouchable location, I’m inclined to think it might have been tied around her waist amongst the petticoats. Ha!

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