Interrogating the Project of Military History

May 19 - More fallout from the newspaper feature on Sherman's March.  Got another email two days ago, also addressed to a couple of the other historians quoted in the piece.  I wrote back.  I don't include the exchange here because it doesn't advance the blog's  central concerns, but click here if you'd like to have a look.

Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"

More interesting has been a series of exchanges with a fellow interested in writing a book based on his family's Civil War experiences, which included enduring a raid by a Union force under Brig. Gen. Edward E. Potter in the closing days of the conflict.  The force reached his family's home town of Sumter, South Carolina, on April 9, 1865, a few short hours after Lee surrendered at Appomattox some two hundred miles away in Virginia.  Among the regiments in the force was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, immortalized in the Saint-Gaudens relief in Boston (shown at left) and more recently in the film Glory.   Then and now, the fame of the regiment rests almost entirely on its involvement in the attack on Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.   The action at Battery Wagner helped confirm the fighting effectiveness of African American troops even though it failed and took the lives of Col. Robert Shaw and  nearly one hundred of the six hundred troops who made the attack.*

By the time of Potter's raid, however, the attack upon Battery Wagner lay nearly two years in the past.  By this time the Union army contained over 180,000 African American soldiers and many of these U.S. Colored Troops were playing roles in the war far more consequential than the 54th Massachusetts, which throughout its service remained in the Department of the South (South Carolina, coastal Georgia, and Florida), a region in which military operations were comparatively minor.

The raid was the final action of the war for the 54th Massachusetts; indeed, one of the last military operations of the conflict, period.  It took place in the backwash of Sherman's march through South Carolina--Sherman's army was by then at Raleigh, North Carolina, having passed through South Carolina in February.  The line of Sherman's march cut across the central part of the state (see map 1, above), and bypassed a large area to the east.  In mid-March, although the port city of Charleston had surrendered to Union forces, the rest of this area was potentially still available to sustain continued Confederate resistance.

At that time, Sherman was rapidly closing in on Richmond-Petersburg, where for nine months Grant had kept Lee (partially) besieged (see map 2, above).  A force of about 20,000 Confederate troops under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, which was slowly being reinforced by more troops arriving from Mississippi (e.g., Cheatham), barred the way.  But 25,000 additional Union troops were pushing in from the North Carolina coast to join Sherman's main body of 60,000.  It was very clearly just a matter of weeks, if not days, before Lee and Johnston would likely combine forces in a desperate bid to destroy either Sherman or Grant before the two Union commanders to link up.

Alternatively, or a result of defeat, Lee and Johnston might try escaping toward the west.  Since Sherman had simply marched through Georgia and South Carolina and had left no garrisons, he controlled those states no more than a moving ship controls the ocean in its wake.  Therefore, if the Confederate armies could elude the trap Grant and Sherman were trying to set for them and succeed in reaching the Deep South, the war could continue for many more months.

Accordingly, Sherman saw a need to continue the destruction of infrastructure in South Carolina.  On March 15 he wrote Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South, that he knew a "vast amount of rolling-stock"--that is, train engines and rail-cars--lay between Sumter (he called it "Sumterville") and Florence.  He wanted it destroyed.  More importantly:

All real good soldiers must now be marching.  Do not let your command rest on its oars, but keep them going all the time, even if for no other purpose than to exhaust the enemy's country, or compel him to defend it.  The simple fact that a man's home has been visited by an enemy makes a soldier in Lee's and Johnson's army very anxious to get home to look after his family and property.  But the expedition I have indicated to Sumterville and Florence has even higher aims.  Those cars and locomotives should be destroyed, if to do it costs you 500 men.  I know you can get there all the bacon, beef, meat, &c., your command may want, and a good deal of corn meal.  The men could march without knapsacks, with a single blanket, and carry eight days' provisions, which, with what is in the country, will feed the command two weeks.  Let it be done at once. . . . After destroying those cars and engines (not merely damaging them, but an absolute destruction of boilers, steam chambers, connecting rods, flanges, &c.)--powder can be used to good advantage in blowing up boilers and engines, but we use cold chisels and crowbars--you may reduce your garrisons to the minimum, and send every man [by sea] to New Berne and Goldsborough [North Carolina].  I want to collect an army that can whip Lee in open fight if he lets go Richmond, which I think  he will soon be forced to do." (Official Records Series I, vol. 47. pt. 2, p. 857)

Notice six things about Sherman's order: 

First, the importance Sherman attached to the destruction of the rolling stock--Gillmore was to destroy it if it cost twenty percent casualties (500 out of the 2,500 men Sherman had estimated earlier in his letter the mission would require);

Second, the psychological blow aimed at Confederate soldiers by this "visit"--one might as well say "threat"--to their families and homes;

Third, the expectation that the raiders would secure almost half their provisions from the countryside;

Fourth, the detailed advice concerning the best way to destroy rolling stock, based on Sherman's extensive experience;

Fifth, the ultimate objective of taking advantage of this destruction to nullify the need to keep extensive forces in South Carolina, thereby freeing up thousands of reinforcements for the ultimate showdown somewhere between Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia;

And sixth, the complete absence of any advice or warning about the possibility that some troops, on such a raid, would loot and pillage--an issue with which, like the dismantling of rolling stock, Sherman also had extensive experience.

In future entries I want to use Potter's raid as microcosm of Sherman's brand of "hard war," and to examine it from several contexts:  how it compares with similar operations in the history of war; how well it squares with the laws and usages of war as they existed in 1865 and as they presently exist;  how it affected Southern civilians--both the Southern whites, who wound up feeding Potter's troops and enduring their presence, and the 6,000 Southern blacks who, we shall see, were liberated in the course of it.  I also want to look at the ways in which this brand of warfare has been remembered.  Finally, I want to look at the way historians have interpreted the man at the heart of this--Sherman--particularly the connection between his personality and his style of war.


*  Fifty-four were killed or fatally wounded.  Another forty-eight were never accounted for;  I suspect most of these either died in the battle or were killed soon afterward.

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