When Savannah was reached, the great lumber of refugees with all the columns were placed on the Sea Islands, under the care of government officers, and added largely to the colonies already established there. The Freedmen’s Bureau was afterward, in great measure, the necessary outgrowth of this organization.
The subsistence of the army upon the country was a necessary part of Sherman’s plan, and the bizarre character given it by the humor of the soldiers has made it a striking feature of the march. It is important, however, to distinguish between what was planned and ordered, and what was an accidental growth of the soldier’s disposition to make sport of everything that could be turned to amusement. The orders issued were of a strictly proper military character. The supplies in the trains were to be treated as a reserve to be drawn upon only in case of necessity, and a systematic foraging upon the country for daily food was the regular means of getting rations. Each regiment organized a foraging party of about one-twentieth of its numbers under command of an officer.
These parties set out first of all, in the morning, those of the same brigades and divisions working in concert, keeping near enough together to be a mutual support if attacked by the enemy, and aiming to rejoin the column at the halting-place appointed for the end of the day’s march. The foragers became the beau ideal of partisan troops. Their self-confidence and daring increased to a wonderful pitch, and no organized line of skirmishers could so quickly clear the head of column of the opposing cavalry of the enemy. Nothing short of an entrenched line of battle could stop them, and when they were far scattered on the flank, plying their vocation, if a body of hostile cavalry approached, a singular sight was to be seen. Here and there, from barn, from granary and smoke-house, and from the kitchen gardens of the plantations, isolated foragers would hasten by converging lines, driving before them the laden mule heaped high with vegetables, smoked bacon, fresh meat, and poultry. As soon as two or three of these met, one would drive the animals, and the others, from fence corners or behind trees, would begin a bold skirmish, their Springfield rifles giving them the advantage in range over the carbines of the horsemen. As they were pressed they would continue falling back and assembling, the regimental platoons falling in beside each other till their line of fire would become too hot for their opponents, and these would retire reporting that they had driven in the skirmishers upon the main column which was probably miles away. The work of foraging would then be resumed. It was of the rarest possible occurrence that Wheeler’s men succeeded in breaking through these enterprising flankers and approaching the troops of the line, and as the columns approached the place designated for their evening camp, they would find this ludicrous but most bountiful supply train waiting for them at every fork of the road, with as much regularity as a railway train running on “schedule time.”
They brought in all animals that could be applied to army use, and as the mule teams or artillery horses broke down in pulling through the swamps which made a wide border for every stream, fresh animals were ready, so that on reaching Savannah the teams were fat and sleek and in far better condition than they had been at Atlanta.
The orders given these parties forbade their entering occupied private houses or meddling with private property of the kinds not included in supplies and munitions of war, and in the best-disciplined divisions, these orders were enforced. Discipline in armies, however, is apt to be uneven, and among sixty thousand men there are men enough who are willing to become robbers, and officers enough who are willing to wink at irregularities or to share the loot, to make such a march a terrible scourge to any country.
A bad eminence in this respect was generally accorded to Kilpatrick, whose notorious immoralities and rapacity set so demoralizing an example to his troops that the best disciplinarians among his subordinates could only mitigate its influence. His enterprise and daring had made his two brigades usually hold their own against the dozen which Wheeler commanded, and the value of his services made his commander willing to be ignorant of escapades which he could hardly condone, and which on more than one occasion came near resulting in Kilpatrick’s own capture and the rout of his command. But he was quite capable, in a night attack of this kind, of mounting, bare-backed, the first animal, horse or mule, that came to hand, and charging in his shirt at the head of his troopers with a dare-devil recklessness that dismayed his opponents and imparted his own daring to his men.
hen, the confirmed and habitual stragglers soon became numerous enough to be a nuisance upon the line of march. Here again, the difference in portions of the army was very marked. In some brigades, every regiment was made to keep its own rear guard to prevent straggling, and the brigade provost-guard marched in rear of all, arresting any who sought to leave the ranks and reporting the regimental commander who allowed his men to scatter. But little by little the stragglers became numerous enough to cause serious complaint, and they followed the command without joining it for days together, living on the country, and shirking the labors of their comrades. It was to these that the name “bummer” was properly applied. This class was numerous in the Confederate as in the National Army, in proportion to its strength, and the Southern people cried out for the most summary execution of military justice against them. Responsible persons addressed specific complaints to the Confederate War Secretary, charging robbery and pillage of the most scandalous kinds against their own troops. Their leading newspapers demanded the cashiering and shooting of colonels and other officers and declared their conduct worse than the enemy’s. It is perhaps vain to hope that a great war can ever be conducted without abuses of this kind, and we may congratulate ourselves that the wrongs done were almost without exception to property and that murders, rapes, and other heinous personal offenses were nearly unknown.
The great mass of the officers and soldiers of the line worked hard and continuously, day by day, in marching, in bridging streams, in making corduroy roads through the swamps, in lifting the wagons and cannon from mud-holes, and in tearing up the railways. They saw little or nothing of the people of the country, and knew comparatively little of the foragers’ work, except to enjoy the fruits of it and the unspeakable ludicrousness of the cavalcade as it came in at night. The foragers turned into beasts of burden, oxen, and cows as well as the horses and mules. Here would be a silver-mounted family carriage drawn by a jackass and a cow, loaded inside and out with everything the country produced, vegetable and animal, dead and alive. There would be an ox-cart, similarly loaded, and drawn by a nondescript tandem team, equally incongruous. Perched upon the top would be a ragged forager, rigged out in a fur hat of a fashion worn by dandies of a century ago, or a dress-coat which had done service at stylish balls of a former generation. The jibes and jeers, the fun and the practical jokes ran down the whole line as the cortege came in, and no masquerade in carnival could compare with it for original humor and rollicking enjoyment.
The weather had generally been perfect. A flurry of snow and a sharp, cold wind had lasted for a day or two about November 23d, but the Indian summer set in after that, and on December 8th the heat was even sultry. The camps in the open pine-woods, the bonfires along the railways, the occasional sham-battles at night, with blazing pine-knots for weapons whirling in the darkness, all combined to leave upon the minds of officers and men the impression of a vast holiday frolic; and in the reunions of the veterans since the war, this campaign has always been a romantic dream more than a reality, and no chorus rings out with so joyous a swell as when they join in the refrain, “As we were marching through Georgia.”
Source: This article was excerpted from Jacob Dolson Cox’s 1910 book, The March to the Sea: Franklin and Nashville, published by C. Scribner, 1910. However, please note, the text as it appears here is far from verbatim, as it has been heavily edited, truncated, and updated.
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