Onward from Columbia: Experiences of Union Soldiers in Sherman’s Armies

Major General William T. Sherman
Major General William T. Sherman

Writing after the end of the war, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote that his armies left Columbia South Carolina “utterly ruined”. Resuming their march, Sherman wrote “the right wing began its march northward, towards Winnsboro, on the 20th, which we reached on the 21st, and found General [Henry] Slocum, with the left wing, who had come by the way of Alston. Thence the right wing was turned eastward, toward Cheraw and Fayetteville, North Carolina to cross the Catawba River at Peay’s Ferry.” While the experiences of the Federal soldiers varied, they shared similar difficulties during the march.

Theodore Upson of the 100th Indiana Infantry wrote “it has been the same old story-march a great deal of the time through rain and mud, crossing swollen streams…foraging some when there was any show that we might find something to get”. Upson observed that “this is not as good a country as Georgia was, and if we can get a good supply of yams once in a while we are lucky.” Fortunately for Upson and his comrades, they had “not suffered for food, but do get so wet and cold that it is a wonder we are not all sick.”

One soldier and his friends from the 52nd Ohio Infantry did not fare as well as Upson. These Buckeyes had to contend with poor equipment. “We had drawn two pairs of shoes”, recalled Sergeant Nixon Stewart, “when we had started. They proved to be worthless, for as soon as the threads were cut, they were soleless.”

Other soldiers, such as Lyman Widney from the 34th Illinois Infantry, shared Upson’s thoughts on the area and the provender it offered. “The country around us being swampy and thinly settled, scarcely afforded one day’s ration, after which we were reduced to cowpeas alone and at last even these were exhausted, although our foragers scoured the land with tireless effort.” Widney remembered “dry land became swamps and swamps, lakes. When we were not building bridges we were building corduroy (roads) or lifting wagons hub deep in the treacherous quicksand. Every hour of daylight found us moving. We bivouacked long after night and departed long before day. Our clothing was never dry and our stomachs never full. We had no need to be told that General Starvation was not many paces behind and that a little delay on our part would cause us to be overtaken.” Despite the lack of food and poor equipment, Sherman’s men labored onward, driven by a determination and belief in the man who led them.

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