Marching Through Georgia, November 26, 1864: Hard War in Sandersville, Georgia

Colonel Ezra Carman lead the 13th New Jersey across the Cornfield toward the East Woods at Antietam on September 17, 1862.  On July 2 and 3, 1863, he and the regiment stood on the right of the Federal line south of Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg.  Carman lead a brigade sent to respond to the New York City Draft Riots.  Then he and his regiment went west to guard supply lines during the relief of Chattanooga.  Carman and the regiment saw more action in the Atlanta Campaign during the spring and summer of 1864.  And 150 years ago today, Carman, led Second Brigade, First Division, Twentieth Corps, which included the 13th New Jersey, into Sandersville, Georgia.  A more varied service for a regiment and its commander, I’d be pressed to find.

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Having bridged Buffalo Creek, the Twentieth and Fourteenth Corps converged on Sandersville that morning.  Skirmishers from Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry contested that approach.  Carman recorded the advance:

November 26, the brigade this day had the advance; moved out of camp at 6:30 a.m., and after marching two miles, the Ninth Illinois [Mounted Infantry] in our front encountered the enemy, who were posted on a small creek, the road through which had been obstructed by fallen trees. The enemy were soon dislodged and pursued to Sandersville, at which place they made a stand, driving back our cavalry. I then deployed six companies of the Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers as skirmishers, with four companies in reserve, and advanced on them, the Ninth Illinois being disposed on the flanks. The enemy gave way before my skirmishers, and I entered town at the same time as did the Fourteenth Corps, who came in on another road to the left.  Moving to the right I followed the enemy through town and one mile beyond, skirmishing a little. My loss was two men wounded, belonging to the Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers. I  was then recalled and ordered with the rest of the division to Tennille Station, on the Georgia Central Railroad, where I destroyed about three miles of track and encamped for the night.

The units of the Twentieth Corps covered between twelve and fifteen miles that day… not counting all the footsteps involved with wrecking railroads and other structures.

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For the most part, Sandersville’s residential buildings were untouched that day.  But Major-General William T. Sherman might have had other thoughts.  As Carman and others fought into town that day, Sherman noted the Confederate cavalry had burned fodder and other supplies to prevent them falling into Federal hands.  Sherman also noted that the Confederates had used the buildings of the town for cover in order to resist the Federal advance.  Taking that into account, Sherman may have considered retaliation… and justified such under the conventions of the time.

Conventions of the time?  Consider this Bible verse, Deuteronomy 20:19:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?

In that verse is a cornerstone for the Laws of War.  Not only was that applied to the besiegers, but to field armies – both aggressor or defender.  However, under this convention, should either party resort to destroying the “trees” then the other side was justified in retaliation to cutting down the trees… or in the case of Georgia in November 1864, burning out the farms.  (And large in the minds of military leaders at the time was the justification given by Napoleon for his actions during the march to and from Moscow.)

Likewise, Wheeler’s men had used the city and put it directly in the line of battle.  Wheeler was less concerned with Bible verses that day than tactical necessity.  But such situations get out of control (just ask the residents of Fredericksburg).  Had Sherman ordered the town of Sandersville to ashes, he might have rationalized such by pointing to Wheeler’s cavalry.

While the general and staff stayed in Sandersville that day, several citizens, mostly women, approached Sherman to plead for the city’s safety.  Major Henry Hitchcock, of Sherman’s staff, recorded the encounter in his diary:

Methodist preacher came to the house today and into room where General was, to “intercede for women and children.” Loud talker, vulgar fool – seemed to think he could talk General into anything. General bore with him ore than I expected or than he deserved, never lost his temper, never spoke even angrily, but gave some hard hits.  It seems a Confederate Major Hall burned the Buffalo Creek bridge, against remonstrance of citizens – so preacher says.  General gave him no comfort except, “I don’t war on women and children,” etc., and spoke sharply about firing in the streets, etc. Finally one of ladies whispered to preacher and he shut up and left.  General told ladies dwellings would not be burned, but Court House and stores would.

In this passage is a fine example of why we need to study the “nuts and bolts” of the campaign in order to put context to the “human” stories.  It is all good to talk about the burning of buildings, wrecking of railroads, stealing of foodstuffs, and other deprivations.  But we have to put that in context of what else was happening at that moment on the ground.  Otherwise we have shards of “memory” instead of a clear picture.  Worse, we lose the “human” element of the story completely.

In this case, Sherman heard something he needed to hear.  The citizens of Sandersville had resisted their own to the extent possible.  Far from the “defiant Confederate home front” indications are the people of Sandersville understood what “scorched earth” would bring to their community.   Sherman’s words on the subject had reached the intended audience, with the intended result.  Public buildings and commercial structures went up in flames, all but the Masonic Temple. But the homes, as Sherman promised, were not targeted.  (And as a side note, the County Courthouse was only nine years old at that time, having been rebuilt after an 1855 fire that had devastated the town worse than anything the Federals did in 1864.)

South of Tennille, the Right Wing proceeded across the Oconee at Ball’s Ferry. The pontoon bridges for the main crossing were not in place until around 10 a.m.  But that allowed much of the Fifteenth Corps to cross in daylight, though the swampy roads up from the ferry prevented anyone from making many miles beyond.  As happened with the Ocmulgee crossing a week earlier, while crossing at Ball’s Ferry, Howard ordered all of the extra mounts confiscated from the infantry.  And again, good animals were distributed among the train and authorized mounted formations.  Several hundred broken down horses and mules were killed at the crossing during the exchange.

Far to the north of the two main wings of Sherman’s force, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry rode hard to cross the Ogeechee River.  This move drew Wheeler’s cavalry out of Sandersville and well out of Sherman’s main path.  As this is, in my opinion, one of the under-discussed aspects of the march, I’ll take this up in a separate post (hopefully later today).

Following by way of the Georgia state markersSylvan Grove, Sandersville, Tennille, Irwin’s Crossroads, and Oconee are your stops.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 234; Henry Hitchcock, Marching with Sherman: passages from the letters and campaign diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Yale University Press, 1927, page 97.)

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