Vignettes of Sherman’s March to the Sea

     Captain Moses Osman of the 104th Illinois kept a detailed daily journal documenting his regiment’s march through Georgia in November and December 1864. Upon his safe arrival in Savannah, he sent the journal back to his brother in Ottawa, Illinois who published the journal in four successive issues of the Ottawa Free Trader. This blog post features some of the highlights from those journal entries.

 

This dramatic shot from Gone With the Wind gives some indication of what Captain Osman witnessed during the burning of Atlanta in November 1864. "The black smoke as it reflected the light from above formed a crimson canopy above us and gave a beautiful pink tint to the country around," he noted in his journal. "But gorgeous as the spectacle was to the eye, it filled me with gloom."

Burning of Atlanta- November 15, 1864

          “We encamped for the night on a height on the east of the city adjoining the Augusta Railroad affording a fine view of the city and its environs. The conflagration as it raged during the night was a grand spectacle. The black smoke as it reflected the light from above formed a crimson canopy over us and gave a beautiful pink tint to the country around. Hundreds of shells concealed in the houses kept exploding as the fire progressed, recalling vividly the scenes of the bombardment. But gorgeous as the spectacle was to the eye, it filled my mind with gloom. How must all this affect the Southern people, and especially those who once lived here in affluence but are now reduced to beggary? What will the fate be of our soldiers if we fall into their hands? What would we do should we get the men in our power who we knew had burned our homes and plundered our defenseless wives and children?”

 

Starting the March- November 16, 1864

          “Before starting this morning [November 16th] a general order was read from General Sherman in substance that we had now cut loose from all communication with our base of supplies and started on a long and arduous march through the enemy’s country, that we must depend on the country we traversed for subsistence and assigning the position of the various corps and division. This order was all the information vouchsafed us of the object and destination of the expedition.”

 

Uncle Billy was convinced that he could make his march across the state and "make Georgia howl." One of the most popular songs that the march inspired was Henry Clay Work's "Marching Through Georgia." Sherman was treated to the song so many times after the war that he grew to hate the tune. 

Scenes on the March

          “But little attention is paid to the squad of bushwhackers who follow on our trail. They are no doubt citizens who keep in our wake putting out fires to save their fences. They evidently have no desire to come in collision with our foraging parties. Soldiers are a queer set; nearly everyone smokes and fire is there constantly in requisition. The consequence is that all along the line of march either the woods or the adjoining fences are kept in a perpetual blaze. It is to extinguish these fires that these bands of horsemen follow after us. Should they fall in with any of our stragglers, they would no doubt capture them could they do it without exposing their own lives. The only effect their presence has produced upon our marauders is to induce us to keep together in a larger squad so they can defend each other in case they are attacked.”

          “When we came to a halt, the men were unusually cross as cold weather makes men ill-humored, but a long hard march on a cold day and empty stomachs makes one mad and insolent. Hot coffee and a full haversack, however, have a magical influence on a soldier’s temper, no matter how much he may be out of sorts before supper, he is always in a good humor after it. His belly full, he will sit down by his campfire, smoke his pipe, and tell stories or crack jokes for hours regardless of the fatigues of the day.”

 

"Hot coffee and a full haversack have a magical influence on a soldier's temper," Captain Osman observed. "No matter how much he may be out of sorts before supper, he is always in a good humor after it."

Meeting and Freeing the Slaves

          Captain Osman recalled when his column passed through the Shady Dale Plantation in Jasper County owned by the Whitefield family. “It is one of the richest estates in Georgia. This estate is said to own over 2,000 slaves and nearly one-third of Jasper County. As we marched through the Negro village, our bands played some lively pieces. This was something new to the Negroes who had never heard anything in the shape of instrumental music above the banjo and bones, and they all came streaming from their houses to the road apparently wild with enthusiastic delight at the great volume of music that poured forth from the band. Some of the jolly chaps, unable to withstand the temptation, leaped into the road and went to dancing with all of their might. The women who had on their best Sunday clothes clustered around the bands and followed the column for several miles hopping and stamping with their feet to keep time to the music. It is remarkable to witness the power music has over these Negroes.”

          “As the column was moving along, some 40 or 50 Negro men, women, and children came to the road to see us. Just then our band struck up playing a lively piece. This was too much for the Negroes and as if a bombshell had burst among them, they scattered to all directions for their personal effects. And before the whole column had passed, they came out with their bundles determined to follow their Yankee friends. As we passed along, one old man came rushing back from the front with his hands raised and followed by a squad of women crying out, ‘Don’t go too fast, we’s coming, too!’ And away they hurried to their cabins to gather up what few articles they wished to bring along. The Negroes throughout the whole extent of these plains are of the most degraded class. Generally field hands are kept as ignorant as possible, still they have their own notions about the Yankees. They think we have come here exclusively to set them free and take them with us.”

 

This 1868 depiction of Sherman's march captures many of the major themes Captain Osman recorded in his journal: the widespread destruction of the railroads, telegraph poles, and plantations. Freed slaves at the lower right walk across the tracks and into a very uncertain future: opinion in Uncle Billy's army was very mixed regarding the slaves. Osman eventually concluded that it was a mistake to encourage the newly freed to accompany the army, particularly when Confederate resistance near Savannah increased and forage became scarce. 

Camping in the Swamps

          By December 9th, the 14th Army Corps lay just outside of Savannah. “After a tedious march of 10 miles we arrived at another of those dismal swamps with which half the surface of this section of the state is covered. The enemy had again fallen trees across the road rendering further progress impossible until the road could be cleared. We therefore took up quarters for the night along the edge of the swamp in a thicket of brush knit together with rattan, grape, briar, and muskedine vines so closely that a bird could scarcely get through. Jack-knives, hatchets, axes, and spades were brought into requisition and in a few hours quite decent lodges were cleared up. The ground was covered with broad spreading palm leaves which furnished us material for comfortable beds on which we slept sweetly.”

 

Taking Savannah

          “All day yesterday [December 20th] the enemy was particularly lavish in the waste of their ammunition. Their artillery kept up a constant fire at our pickets and skirmishers. Everybody remarked that there was an unusual amount of shelling all along the lines and the question was frequently asked, “What can the Johnnys mean?” This morning, however, explained it all. As soon as day dawned, it was ascertained that they had evacuated their works. Our pickets immediately moved across the swamp and occupied the deserted forts. All the artillery was left in the forts, some of it spiked, but most of it in perfectly serviceable order. A great deal of ammunition had been spoiled by wetting it but much more was left uninjured. Everything had the appearance of a hasty evacuation. They left some 16 pieces of artillery in front of our division alone ranging in caliber from 6 to 64-pounders. Immediately after breakfast, our brigade moved across the pond into the Rebel works in our front. As soon as we arrived on this side, we learned that Savannah had also been evacuated during the night. This news was received with enthusiastic cheers by the troops as column after column came streaming across.”

 Sources:

Letters from Captain Moses Osman, Co. A, 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Ottawa Free Trader (Illinois), December 31, 1864, pg. 2, January 7, 1865, pg. 2, January 14, 1865, pg. 2, January 21, 1865, pg. 1

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