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December 23, 2014

Daybook Special – Minnesota and the March to the Sea

Filed under: Civil War Daybook — Lori Williamson @ 2:30 pm

2nd Minnesota regimental battle flag, possibly used in Sherman's March to the Sea, 1864.

Following the capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Union commanders faced a difficult choice on where to focus their next campaign.   Should they move toward Mobile, Alabama or Savanna, Georgia or maintain their hold on Atlanta?  In October Confederate commander John Bell Hood further complicated the situation by moving his army around the western flank of Sherman’s forces threatening the Yankee’s long and tenuous line of communications through North Georgia and Tennessee.   Sherman realized that he could not hold the railroad in what would amount to a guerilla campaign against the remaining Confederate forces.  He proposed to General Ulysses S. Grant, overall commander of Union troops, a bold and unorthodox plan.  Sherman would leave 60,000 men under General Thomas to oppose Hood’s army, taking his remaining 62,000 troops on a march from Atlanta to Savannah, living off the country, destroying everything of military value, making “Georgia howl.”    Grant and President Lincoln were initially reluctant but Sherman’s enthusiasm and confidence in his troops won them over.  Soon after the November election, his men wrecked everything of military value (and then some) in the city of Atlanta and on November 15, 1864 started their march to the sea.

Sherman’s troops advanced in four parallel columns allowing for quicker movement, wider foraging and greater destruction.  Among them were the Second and Forth Minnesota Infantry regiments and the First Minnesota Light Artillery.  There were few Confederate troops to oppose the Federal juggernaut, only some cavalry and militia.  Yankee foragers, known as “bummers,” ranged far and wide on daily patrols to acquire food and fodder.  Judson Wade Bishop, Colonel of the 2nd Minnesota, described the bounty they found waiting for them; “it was in that country a season of plenty; there had been cultivated by the negro labor a most bountiful crop of corn, sweet potatoes and various vegetables, and on every plantation were fat cattle, pigs and poultry in abundance, while the smoke houses were filled with hams and bacon just cured.  Butter, honey, sorghum syrup, apples, home-made jelly and preserves and pickles had been also provided and stored for us, and it wasn’t necessary even to ask for them.”[1] Many of the men involved in foraging saw it as a lark, and some took advantage of the situation to help themselves to more than food stuffs.  Even the normally upright Thomas Christie of the First Light Artillery helped himself to several volumes from a small-town book store, “as part payment” for several volumes he lost at Shiloh.[2] Foraging could also be dangerous as Confederate Cavalry and militia tended to look upon “bummers” as common thieves to be hung if captured.

In his orders for the march, General Sherman placed limits on the foraging, forbidding soldiers to enter dwellings or “commit any trespass” and left to his corps commanders sole authority regarding the destruction of mills, cotton gins, etc. according to the amount of resistance put up by “guerrillas or bushwhackers”.  To some extent these orders were followed but they could not control the activities of deserters from both Union and Confederate who followed in the wake of Sherman’s forces.  The Corps commanders tended to follow their own ideas about destroying resources.  In the Fifteenth Corps, which included the 4th Minnesota, troops were regularly detailed to burn cotton crops and destroy cotton gins[3].

The army reached Savannah in mid-December eventually making contact with the Federal fleet blockading the city.  The outnumbered Confederate army defending Savannah slipped away into South Carolina on the night of December 20 and Sherman’s troops occupied the city on the 21st.  The following day the general telegraphed President Lincoln:  “I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”  In his official report Sherman estimated that his troops had caused over $100 million in damage.  They had pillaged an area 300 miles long and sixty miles wide.  “This may seem a hard species of warfare”, he wrote, “but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.”

Beginning in February, 1865 Sherman’s forces would mete out the same treatment, with less restraint, on South Carolina and North Carolina.  The fighting would end in North Carolina with surrender of the last Confederate army to Sherman’s troops.  They then marched to Washington, D. C. for a grand review and victory celebration in May.   All told it was a prodigious march, with only a few weeks rest in Savannah and a short boat ride from there to Beaufort, S. C. where the march through the Carolinas commenced.  For the Minnesota troops involved the campaign really began in North Georgia, included hard fighting at Atlanta, the long march to Savannah then a long slog through the Carolinas and Virginia to Washington, D. C.

[1] Bishop, Gen. J. W., “Narrative of the Second Regiment”, Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, vol. I, p.113.

[2] Thomas Christie to Alexander Christie, Dec. 18, 1864.

[3] Brown, Alonzo L.  History of the Fourth Regiment of Minnesota Infantry Volunteers during the Great Rebellion, 1861-1865, p. 334-353.

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