“Should any delay occur it will arise from the endless excuses made by ladies….”: Savannah families permitted to pass through the lines

Relative to other points, say Vicksburg or Atlanta, the capture of Savannah to Federal troops in December 1864 involved a very short siege.  The speed of that campaign and the Confederate military’s focus on extracting their forces meant that a sizable population was left behind in the city.  And a large number of those left behind were family members of Confederate soldiers.  Quite naturally requests came forward to allow those who wished an opportunity to pass through the lines.  On January 9, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman, in a message to Major-General William J. Hardee, routed through Major-General Joseph Wheeler, gave his approval:

General: Yours of January 8, with dispatches inclosed, is received. I will send the families, as requested, to Charleston Harbor, and give public notice that a steamer will take them on board here on Wednesday, and suppose they can reach the anchorage off Charleston next day.; but should any delay occur it will arise from the endless excuses made by ladies, which General Hardee will understand. I will order my quartermaster to have a steamer at the wharf all Wednesday, to transport families to Charleston, to carry a small guard and flag to our gun-boat anchorage, and thence to such point as the naval commander may suggest.

“Endless excuses?”  There you have it.  Among other things, Sherman was a misogynistic pig.

To his Quartermaster, Brigadier-General Langdon C. Easton, Sherman instructed:

I have undertaken to send the families from Savannah to Charleston, and have fixed Wednesday, the 11th instant, to take them on board at our wharves. Captain Audenried, of my staff, will conduct the business, and I will authorize any expense necessary to carry out the undertaking. Please give public notice that the families who choose to leave Savannah under existing orders will be transported to Charleston, and that a steamer will receive them at such a time at such a dock on Wednesday. Place the steamer at the disposal of Captain Audenried. I think the admiral would cheerfully give you the use of the Harvest Moon, and Captain Audenried can relieve you of all details by simply giving him the necessary means and authority.

Very clear, specific orders that deserve attention.   Sherman wanted to be fully focused the invasion of South Carolina.  He was a general, and that’s the sort of stuff generals do.  But matters such as these families distracted him.  So what did he do?  Communicate a statement of intent to his staff so they would carry it out. This is little more than “please get this off my plate, OK?”

Captain Joseph Audenried was among the best staff officers of the Civil War.  Brian Downey provided biographic article with particulars of Audenried’s Civil War career for his Antietam on the Web project. Audenried was, as of January 1865, one of Sherman’s aides.

So what is the point here?  OK, having used Sherman’s somewhat humorous line in the first message to bring attention to this otherwise obscure, mundane aspect of the activity at Savannah, we see an example of how a good staff officer operates.  And at the same time, how a good commander uses a good staff.  Often you will hear derisive remarks about staff officers having cushy jobs.  Perhaps a staff officer’s life has some perks (the general’s mess being one of them).  But to keep that cushy job, a staff officer must perform well under the close observation of his boss.  Furthermore, the tasks given to staff officers are more often than not the unglamorous, but very much necessary, chores that need not pull the command away from important duties.  Things like the relocation of Confederate families, at their own wishes, to a transfer point.

How many things could go wrong with this operation?  One delay, one mistake, or one foul-up, Audenried’s fault or just an act of nature, might land this otherwise minor, unimportant operation on the front page of the newspapers.  Any resolution short of “transfer was completed with nothing significant to report” would be measured by degree of failure.  And a minor failure would not play well.  If nothing else, injury or insult of these families would provide the Confederates some “play” for the papers.  So Audenried did not have a “simple” task by any means.

Consider – we read little of this movement of families out of Savannah in secondary sources. Indeed, one has to dig around the Official Record and other primary sources in order to piece together what happened.  The transfer of the families took place at a busy time, on both sides of the line, and at a point where hostile guns fired almost daily.  Yet, I have practically nothing to write about it, save mention of a few dispatches.  I would submit that “consideration” is evidence of good staff work by Audenried.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 29.)



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