1864 December 19: “We destroyed R. R. almost daily” on the March to Savannah
“Sherman’s March to the Sea” is the common name of General William T. Sherman’s Savannah Campaign. The campaign began on November 15, 1864, when Sherman’s troops left Atlanta, Georgia, and ended with the capture of the sea coast port of Savannah on December 21. Along the way, his troops destroyed military targets, industry, infrastructure, and civilian property, and disrupted the South’s economy and its transportation networks. Operating deep within enemy territory and without supply lines was considered to be a revolutionary war tactic at the time.
In yesterday’s post, Edwin Levings of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry wrote, “I have not time to make any thing but a simple statement or outline of the trip, but will ere long give you a minute sketch of what I saw, and of what was done.” Here is that “minute sketch,” titled a diary but really just a long letter. The original letter is in the Edwin D. Papers (River Falls Mss BO), in the University Archives and Area Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Diary of the March to Savannah —
Before Savanna Ga., Dec. 19th / ’64
The 12th day of Nov. was a day that the soldiers of Sherman will never forget. To the spectator, the scenes of that day will, in after years, have lost none of their vivedness [sic] and interest, and in the rush of events will be singled out as the commencement of one of the greatest movements of “this cruel war.” A grand breaking up—like that of the ice in early spring—pointing to the approach of an event, the magnitude and importance of which can not be fully realized till it is come upon us. What is going to be done? Everything has an unsettled look,—there is a hurrying to and fro, but no sign of anxiety is apparent. Surely no evil is brooding. Every body wears a look of satisfaction—the paymasters have liberally distributed their “green backs” and there’s plenty to live upon for some time. [paragraph break added]
It is 12 o’clock M. There is a buzzing noise in camp—orders have come to fall in. What now? Well, no matter, “fall in,” is the order. Then there is a rattle of cups, plates, spoons &c.—some burn their mouths in their haste to drink their coffee,—rations half cooked are hurredly [sic] devoured or thrown away, ejaculations of all sorts, curses intermingled, fill the air. Who would’nt [sic] be a soldier? Some laugh, some are cross, some sing. All in line, we are soon marching up the R. R. to Marietta to begin the work of destroying the track and depot buildings. The regiments strung along at equal distances begin the work, and soon the rails are loosened, the ties & fencing piled up, and the rails placed across them. Fires are made, the rails heat & bend, or are bent & broken around a post or tree & then we sit down to cook our suppers. It was a grand sight to see those thousand fires along the track, the Military Academy which Sherman used to attend, in flames, & the depot buildings and public houses meeting the same fate. Simultaneously the destruction went on from Kingston to Atlanta. Then we began to consider the boldness of the act. We were severing our communications—cutting loose from our base to find another hundreds of miles away. Could we do it. Yes! No backward steps with Sherman’s army.
The morning of the 13th, long before light, the 17th Corps was marching to Atlanta. We crossed the Chattahoochee 1½ miles below the R. R. bridge and arrived at the city after dark & camped. The following day was spent in completing the preparations for the campaign. I improved the time in washing, sewing, &c. Rations (3 days to last 5) were issued at night, also some whiskey.
The morning of the 15th the march had fairly begun, our course being S.W. A good many were set up with whiskey and toddled along much to the amusement of the sober, but it was their last spree, and they would have their fun. The road was good most of the way, but the country already overrun by our foragers afforded but little subsistance [sic]. After marching 12 miles, we camped. I managed to get a yearling heifer so that we had plenty of meat. The 15 Corps was on another road to our right & the 14th & 20th were on our left, and in this way we marched through to S. The trains and batteries kept the road and the infantry marched outside through the woods & fields. There was considerable cannonading to our right, but no real fighting. A permanent detail had been made to forage provisions for the troops, and thus we were well supplied with flour, molasses, meat, pork, potatoes, etc. while on the march. Thus the march went on, the country becoming more level & richer & the roads better till we arrived at the Ocmulgee Mills on the 3rd or 4th day out. We crossed the river of this name on pontoons. Rainy weather set in, and for the next 3 days the roads were awful. Once or twice we did not get into camp till after midnight. On the 22nd we struck the R. R. junction at Gordon between Milledgeville and Macon. I was on picket,—the weather was very cold,—ice formed ½ inch in thickness.
Next day was not relieved till after the troops had all left, and thinking the opportunity a good one, we stole away & took the R. R. track for 7 or 8 miles, when learning that the troops had halted 1 mile north the R. R. on account of bad roads, we turned off. We were fortunate enough to get some cooking utensils, molasses, flour, meal, potatoes, meat &c—yes! and some nice butter & biscuits. What do you think of that Eh! At night we had to destroy R. R. The day following we were detailed for rear guard, and had charge of a lot of mules & horses that were to be brought along and turned over at night at Brig. Hd. Qur. [Brigade Headquarters]. Homer had one, so did I, an old slab sided fellow, thought to be the slowest, but emphatically one of the best—he had the regular “get up” to him, and out distanced the rest by a long ways. We took the R. R. track, came to a long trestle work spanning about 300 yds. of mud & water not less than 3 feet deep. Now here was a difficulty. In we go, one after another, & all are dismounted save one, before half way across. My steed stuck fast, lay down, blankets & bundles were swimming about and I got exceedingly wet. I lifted my load to those crossing the bridge and after much urging piloted him out to terra firma. One fellow was under his mule & it was with great struggling that he got out. It was a funny time. Two days more marching and we were at the Oconee River 6 miles below the R. R. bridge. The next day we crossed on pontoons, & camped 3 miles beyond. While foraging that after noon on his own account, Homer discovered hid in a gulley 3 trunks filled with valuables. He brought away a revolver worth $15, rings worth $5, tobacco & other things worth in all some $35.
The march was easy for us as we did not march more than 12 or 15 miles per day except once or twice when we made 20 miles. We destroyed R. R. almost daily, 5 or 10 miles in a place. The R. R. was very fine, the track being laid on stringers. This we would destroy in this manner. We would pry it up with rails, then pile it up & burn it. We arrived at Millen Junction Dec 2nd. From here we marched along the R.R. destroying every station we came to. The work of destruction was most complete. Foraging was most thorough and we were abundantly supplied with everything eatable the country afforded. From the Ogeechee the country is very swampy—all pine country. I would not live in it for all it contains. We burned a great many houses, taking for our own use every thing we needed. This movement is a most terrible blow to Rebels. The R. R. system of Georgia is used up. I want now to see S.C. [South Carolina] litterally [sic] torn in pieces, and if this army ever enters that state, it will be; and then, if by that time the rebellion does not cave, I mistake. 6 months more will tell.
Wish I had leasure [sic] to write a better account, but you will get a pretty correct idea, I think, from this epistle.
Yours as ever,
. .E.D. Levings