December 26, 1864: “The city of Savannah… will be held as a military post” – Military jurisdiction over the hostess city

If I were better at photo-editing, I’d have Sherman’s face here over that of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch:

On the day before Christmas, while communicating with Major-General Joseph Wheeler in regard to citizens requesting to pass through the lines, Major-General William T. Sherman wrote, “No provision has been made for the families in Savannah, and many of them will suffer from want – and I will not undertake to feed them.”  Sherman wanted no more refugees to pass into Savannah. Furthermore, Sherman added, “If your pickets fire on our boats, I will clear Savannah and river of all unfriendly parties.”  So much for the holiday spirit!  Those civilians left in Savannah might have expected a harsh, desperate winter lay ahead.

But on December 26, 1864, Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 143 from his headquarters at Savannah:

The city of Savannah and surrounding country will be held as a military post and adapted to future military uses; but as it contains a population of some 20,000 people who must be provided for, and as other citizens may come, it is proper to lay down certain general principles that all within its military jurisdiction may understand their relative duties and obligations.

I. During war the military is superior to civil authority, and where interests clash the civil must give way, yet where there is no conflict every encouragement should be given to well-disposed and peaceful inhabitants to resume their usual pursuits; families should be disturbed as little as possible in their residences, and tradesmen allowed the free use of their shops, tools, &c.; churches, schools, and all places of amusement and recreation should be encouraged, and streets and roads made perfectly safe to persons in their pursuits. Passes should not be exacted within the line of outer pickets, but if any person shall abuse these privileges by communicating with the enemy, or doing any act of hostility to the Government of the United States, he or she will be punished with the utmost rigor of the law. Commerce with the outer world will be resumed to an extent commensurate with the interests of the citizens, governed by the restrictions and rules of the Treasury Department.

II. The chief quartermaster and commissary of the army may give suitable employment to the people, white and black, or transport them to such points as they may choose where employment can be had, and may extend temporary relief, in the way of provisions and vacant houses, to the worthy and needy, until such time as they can help themselves; they will select, first, the buildings for the necessary uses of the army, next, a sufficient number of stores to be turned over to the Treasury agent for trade stores; all vacant storehouses or dwellings and all buildings belonging to absent rebels will be construed and used as belonging to the United States until such times as their titles can be settled by the courts of the United States.

III. The mayor and city council of Savannah will continue, and exercise their functions as such, and will, in concert with the commanding officer of the post and the chief quartermaster, see that the fire companies are kept in organization, the streets cleaned and lighted, and keep up a good understanding between the citizens and soldiers; they will ascertain, and report to the chief commissary of subsistence as soon as possible, the names and number of worthy families that need assistance and support. The mayor will forthwith give public notice that the time has come when all must choose their course, viz., to remain within our lines and conduct themselves as good citizens, or depart in peace. He will ascertain the names of all who choose to leave Savannah, and report their names and residence to the chief quartermaster, that measures may be taken to transport them beyond the lines.

IV. Not more than two newspapers will be published in Savannah, and their editors and proprietors will be held to the strictest accountability, and will be punished severely in person and property for any libelous publications, mischievous matter, premature news, exaggerated statements, or any comments whatever upon the acts of the constituted authorities; they will be held accountable even for such articles though copied from other papers.

These orders governed the Federal occupation of Savannah.  Contrary to fears and concerns expressed in the days before the city’s capture, Sherman did not plan to lay waste to the city.  Instead, the focus was on maintaining order and security. Brigadier-General John Geary, appointed military commander of Savannah, setup a headquarters downtown at the Central Railroad Bank Building, next to the US Custom House.  “Office hours for ordinary business from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.”   Within weeks, the City of Savannah was passing proclamations lauding the fair-hand of Geary’s administration.

Contrary to Sherman’s Christmas Eve note, plans were made to support the population of the city.  Most of that effort came by way of what we’d call today a “Non-Governmental Organization” or NGO.  Julian Allen, acting as an agent between Savannah and northern cities, made appeals through the respective Chambers of Commerce in New York and Boston.  Through Allen’s efforts, aid began to flow into Savannah. The city sold rice left behind by retreating Confederates for other foodstuffs.  (Allen, incidentally, was a Polish immigrant. Often cited as a Federal colonel, that rank appears to be tied to his service in Europe.  I will plan to explore this part of the story in more detail in a later post.)

Arguably, occupied Savannah had an easier winter of 1865 than Richmond or Charleston… probably better than any city left in the Confederacy at that time!  What can we attribute the change of policy, from December 24 to December 26?  Did Sherman’s heart warm, like the Grinch, over Christmas Day?

No so fast.  There were two separate audiences in the correspondence considered.  To Confederate authorities, Sherman gave a cold and uncompromising front.  He was also using the situation, pointing out it was Confederate citizens, which those authorities were charged with the care of, who were going to suffer if the situation deteriorated.  The Christmas Eve message to Wheeler had served notice – the Confederates had abandoned their “charge” to the mercy of the Federals AND the behavior of the Confederates would determine the measures taken to govern those abandoned charges.

But to the citizens of Savannah, the message was different.  Notice Orders No. 143 carried no requirement for oaths of allegiance.  So long as order was maintained and nothing interfered with military operations, the occupation would avoid harsh measures.  The Federals had learned from occupation of Confederate cities earlier in the war.  Savannah’s occupation was, for the most part, without incident.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 796, 800-1 and 812-3.)



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