sherman's march feature
photograph by David Stanley

He is named Tecumseh, after the fearsome Indian war chief from his native Ohio. “William” is added later, for respectability: William Tecumseh Sherman.

At West Point, his fellow cadets — including a champion rider named Sam Grant — nickname him “Cump,” the name by which his friends will call him ever after.

He is of average height and wiry build, recognizable by his receding, unkempt red hair and beard, and the intensity of his glaring eyes. He is smart and nervous, speaking in quick — often ill-considered — outbursts. His attention darts from one idea to another. He writes almost compulsively — candid, passionate, even intemperate letters.

Like his friend Grant, he takes up the habit of cigars, smoking furiously and lighting the next cigar off the glowing butt of the one in his teeth.

Sherman considers the South

By the time South Carolina secedes from the Union, Sherman has already long since resigned his U.S. Army commission and has performed stints as a banker and manager. At last, near Pineville, Louisiana, he has found his calling: superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy.

He intends to bring his wife, Ellen, and their three children from Ohio to settle permanently there. He loves the South and its genteel customs, and he has no moral compunctions about slavery. “I would not if I could abolish or modify slavery,” he tells his brother-in-law.

In the contentious presidential election of 1860, he does not vote for Abraham Lincoln. He does not vote at all.

But when Louisiana secedes, he speaks prophetically: “I see every chance of long, confused and disorganized Civil war, and I feel no desire to take a hand therein.”

He admonishes a pro-secession faculty member at the academy: “This country will be drenched in blood … Oh, it is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization!”

Worse, to Sherman, secession is treason. He resigns his teaching post and heads north.

There is nothing in Sherman’s character, background, or training to indicate that in a very short time, he will command the mightiest army on earth, liberate tens of thousands of slaves, and write the final chapter of the war.

But in the winter of 1864-65, having reclaimed an officer’s commission and risen quickly through the ranks to major general, and having commanded the Army of West Tennessee to a string of victories, he conceives a bold plan to restage his army in the east and support Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s final move on Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

It is, in fact, his signature asset: the ability to go for broke, to risk everything on a bold move, and then follow through come hell or high water. And he will see plenty of both.

Sherman cuts a swath of destruction across Georgia, from Atlanta to the coast, and presents Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas present. Grant wires him to ferry his army up the coast on transport ships, but Sherman calculates that this will take two full months, and on his arrival, many of his troops will be weak and sickened from the journey.

He proposes to Grant, instead, that he turn north and march his army toward southern Virginia. He argues, “I do sincerely believe that the whole United States, North and South, would rejoice to have this army turned loose on South Carolina to devastate that State in the manner that we have done in Georgia, and it would have a direct and immediate bearing on your campaign in Virginia.”

He will lead his combined forces — the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Georgia, more than 60,000 strong — 450 miles to Goldsboro through Fayetteville, the head of navigation of the Cape Fear River from Wilmington and site of one of the Confederacy’s last arsenals. There, at the junction of the Wilmington & Weldon and the Atlantic & North Carolina railroads, he can refit his army, then move on Virginia.

On Christmas Eve 1864, as the first naval shells are exploding against Fort Fisher, Sherman receives Grant’s telegram of permission: March.

Sherman spends a month culling the sick and wounded; procuring fresh horses and mules; and restocking ammunition, food, and medical supplies. His quartermaster and commissary train of 2,500 wagons are freighted with plenty of ammunition but carry just 20 days’ rations. After that, his men will live off the country.

Mostly his troops are men who reenlisted after hard campaigning. The slackers and green conscripts are long gone. The men regard their commander as invincible, almost godlike. One soldier writes, “[T]here never was such a man as Sherman or as they call him (Crazy Bill) and he has got his men to believe they cant be whiped.”

February’s march

On February 1, Sherman’s army begins its inexorable progress north. It pushes up the coast in two wings: Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard commands the right wing, the Army of the Tennessee; Maj. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum commands the left wing, the Army of Georgia; Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick — “Little Kil” — commands the cavalry, some 4,400 troopers armed with breech-loading carbines that can deliver massive firepower against single-shot muskets.

Sherman’s army surges through the Low Country in a swath 40 miles wide and 10 miles long — the wagon trains nose to tailboard for 25 miles, drawn by 10,000 mules.

sherman's march

Image courtesy of Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

Pointing his two wings in a Y formation, with a reserve held in the center, Sherman feints toward both Charleston, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, forcing the Confederates to defend both cities. But instead, he arrows due north for Columbia, South Carolina’s capital — the seat of secession and home of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Over the strenuous objections of Jefferson Davis, Lee calls on Johnston to stop Sherman.

Johnston writes, “Be assured … that knight of old never fought under his King more loyally than I’ll serve under General Lee.”

Many Confederates don’t believe Sherman’s army can possibly forge a road through the Low Country swamps, but Johnston knows his old stubborn adversary better: “[W]hen I learned that Sherman’s army was marching through the Salkehatchie swamps, making its own corduroy road at the rate of a dozen miles a day or more, and bringing its artillery and wagons with it, I made up my mind that there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar.”

The going is tortuous, in steady rain, but time and again the pioneers rise to the task, hauling wagons out of mud, shouldering limbers and cannons across creeks, chopping trees, and laying down the ever-lengthening corduroy roads.

Meanwhile, Kilpatrick’s cavalry runs rampant across the countryside, burning houses and stores, and the legions of “bummers” strip the countryside clean of livestock, grain, and any valuables they can find.

Columbia falls with barely a fight, and the first blue troops rush in skirmishing with Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton III’s retreating cavalry. And here one of the most shameful episodes of the war plays out, exciting accusations and denials for the rest of Sherman’s lifetime: Columbia burns.

Cotton bales are set ablaze — either by Hampton’s cavalry or U.S. soldiers — and then more fires are ignited by freed Union prisoners and other bluecoats. Because Columbia was thought safe from the advancing Union army, its warehouses and homes are stuffed with all kinds of goods brought here for safekeeping, including hundreds of barrels of whiskey and thousands of bottles of wine and brandy.

The occupying troops lose all discipline and degenerate into a drunken mob on a spree. They loot and burn private homes and shops, the Methodist Church, even the Ursuline Convent. A number of them seize slave girls and women, rape them in gangs, beat, and even kill them afterward.

Sherman’s conclusion of the burning of Columbia is characteristically candid: “Though I never ordered it and never wished it, I have never shed any tears over the event, because I believe that it hastened what we all fought for, the end of the war.”

On February 20, Sherman resumes his march. Soon his army crosses into North Carolina — to Sherman, friendlier territory. A member of his staff writes, “Our men seem to understand that they are entering a state which has suffered for its Union sentiment, and whose inhabitants would gladly embrace the old flag again if they can have the opportunity.”

Sherman now orders restraint. General Slocum counsels his officers, “It should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies to our Government, and it is to be hoped that every effort will be made to prevent any wanton destruction of property, or any unkind treatment of citizens.”

Although foraging to feed the army and its livestock is as necessary as ever, strict protocols are now in force. Soldiers are forbidden from entering private homes under any circumstances. Only food, livestock, and forage for horses and mules may be commandeered.

But among the contraband of war are naval stores — tar, pitch, and turpentine camps in the great forests of longleaf pine. Warehouses stacked with barrels of tar, turpentine stills, tools, and equipment all are put to the torch, and, inevitably, the thick stands of highly volatile pine trees catch fire. The route of the march is marked by gouts of flaming forests and plumes of thick, tarry smoke.

Sherman takes Fayetteville

The blue columns cross the Pee Dee, the Lumber, and the Cape Fear rivers, the cavalry scouting ahead. On March 10, at Monroe’s Crossroads, 15 miles south of Fayetteville, Kilpatrick’s cavalry is surprised by the dawn attack of General Hampton’s cavalry — buying time so Johnston’s main force can concentrate ahead of Sherman. In the fierce skirmish that follows, the Union cavalry first are routed, but regroup and counterattack. They fend off one of the last great cavalry charges of the Confederacy. Both commanders exaggerate the enemy’s casualties and minimize their own, but by any count, the dead, wounded, and captured number in the hundreds.

The following day, Sherman occupies Fayetteville and establishes his headquarters at the Fayetteville Arsenal.

The arsenal is a magisterial structure, both beautiful and functional, occupying 90 acres of meadows shaded by stands of hardwood. The main citadel, which took more than 20 years to build and was only completed on the eve of war, is a fortress 500 feet by 500 feet, with guard towers rising four stories high at the corners. The brick and sandstone walls are painted in a yellow wash, and inside, the doors are mahogany, strapped with brass hinges and locks — not the usual wrought iron.

It is a showplace, but also a factory that has turned out for the Confederacy 10,000 Fayetteville-model rifled muskets and nearly a million paper-wrapped cartridges, along with gun carriages, artillery fuses, and ramrods. Four thousand people work at the arsenal, including the women who make the cartridges.

The people of Fayetteville regard it as a civic monument, and on weekends and holidays, the grounds are crowded with picnickers and strolling couples.

Sherman writes Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I cannot leave a detachment to hold it, therefore I shall burn it, blow it up with gunpowder, and then with rams Knock down its walls. I take it for granted the United States will never again trust North Carolina with an arsenal to appropriate at her pleasure.”

He is wary of his old adversary, Johnston, who even now is concentrating the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, coastal artillery units from Charleston and elsewhere, and state militias on the ground in Sherman’s path. Johnston, the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to resign his commission at the start of the war, fought Sherman from Chattanooga to Atlanta, defeating him at Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.

Fayetteville burns

To Col. Orlando Poe and the 1,000 men of the 1st Regiment of Michigan engineers falls the task of destroying the arsenal. They spend March 12 smashing with sledgehammers whatever equipment they can find inside the walls — the rest has been spirited off to be secreted in coal mines in Egypt, in Chatham County.

The next day, they rig iron rails as battering rams and knock down the walls. Finally, on the third day, they dynamite the remains and set them on fire. The flames burn so high and hot that the wind whips the fire to neighboring homes and they, too, burn. The arsenal’s outbuildings are torched.

Sherman’s men fire warehouses and factories, confiscating whatever they can use.  An army comrade from prewar days seeks out Sherman at his headquarters, pleading with his old friend to spare his property. Sherman tells him, “You are here a traitor, and you ask me to be again your friend, to protect your property … Turn your back to me forever.”

And Sherman, no friend of even Yankee newspaper reporters, holds the Fayetteville Observer in special contempt. Not only has it been a loud champion of the Confederate cause, but its stories have also been reprinted far and wide across the South.

Editor Edward Jones Hale manages to rescue plates and some printing equipment, but his son, Edward Joseph Hale, writes what happened next: “His office, with everything in it, was burned by Sherman’s order.  Slocum, who executed the order, with a number of other Generals, sat on the verandah of a hotel opposite watching the progress of the flames, while they hobnobbed over wines stolen from our cellar. A fine brick building adjacent, also belonging to my father, was burned at the same time.”

The steamboat Davidson arrives from Wilmington, now in Union hands, and Sherman opens regular communication with General Terry, whose troops will rendezvous with Sherman in Goldsboro, along with General Schofield’s regiments from New Bern. By steamboat and mule train, he sends 25,000 camp followers — mostly liberated slaves — downriver to Wilmington.

Meanwhile, he orders Terry, “I want you to send me all the shoes, stockings, drawers, sugar, coffee, and flour, you can spare; finish the loads with oats or corn. Have the boats escorted, and let them run at night at any risk.”

The retreating Confederates burn the Clarendon Bridge across the Cape Fear, but in less than a day, Union engineers lay down pontoon bridges. After a three-day sojourn, Sherman quits Fayetteville — now a ruined city — and leads his army across the river, where the enemy is waiting.

Philip Gerard is an author and a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is also a commentator on WHQR-FM (91.3). Find his archived stories here

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Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.