There have been many conjectures as to why Major General William Tecumseh Sherman by-passed Augusta on his "March to the Sea." Some of them were reasonable, some romantic, some ridiculous. In his memoirs, Sherman gives a logical military reason, but it is entirely possible that there were extenuating circumstances.
Was it because of a beloved baby buried in the Arsenal cemetery that Sherman came no nearer than eighteen miles to Augusta? Did President Lincoln really order the by-pass of Augusta because of valuable cotton stored there as the property of Mrs. Lincoln's sister (Mrs.Helm)? Did the ruse work that Longstreet was on his way to join Bragg's forces to resist Sherman? Did Sherman have a sudden reversal of his feelings of bloodthirstiness, changing his plans to avoid a possible battle and unnecessary loss of life? Could he possibly have thought Augusta would be able to do battle against his forces? Was it the memory of a romance which lingered for twenty years?1
There were two dungeons deep in the dark underground beneath the Headquarters building of Augusta when that building was ready for use after having been removed from its old Savannah River site to the seventy-two acre tract (Bellevue) on Walton Way in 1827.
One of these dungeons played a part in Sherman's first visit to Georgia, which was in 1844--twenty years before his "March to the Sea."
For seventeen years the dungeons were unused, or, if they were used, no record was kept of the use to which they had been put. 1
The boy Sherman had been orphaned, adopted by Senator Thomas Ewing, attended grade school, high school, and the United States Military Academy. He had been graduated from West Point near the top of his class, and had been assigned in Florida during a Seminole Indian flare-up. His job was "mapping the terrain."2
In 1844, Sherman received a temporary duty assignment to Augusta Arsenal in Georgia. His mission was one requiring considerable tact and diplomacy.
Lieutenant John R. Vinton was the Arsenal's commander. Although the Arsenal was an Ordnance station, a half Company of Artillery had been garrisoned there. A young lieutenant of Artillery had, unwisely perhaps, "imbibed too freely of spirituous liquors", and behaved in such a manner (in the opinion of Lt. Vinton) as to bring "discredit upon the uniform of an officer of the United States Army."
The Arsenal commander had the drunken lieutenant "incarcerated in the dungeon" under the Headquarters building. Report of the matter was made to the Adjutant General in Washington, D.C. and that office sent order to Florida to Lt. William T. Sherman to "repair to Augusta Arsenal and there to take such steps as may be necessary to have one Lieutenant _________ removed from imprisonment."3
When Lt. Sherman arrived in Augusta, the elite of the city welcomed him. He was entertained at dinners, teas, receptions, and an elaborate ball was given in his honor.
He was charming, witty, diplomatic, and generally attractive in his auburn-haired, military way and won many friends in Augusta. He is said to have danced with one young Augusta belle many times and that he wrote to her (and to some of the other people he met during his stay in Augusta) for long years after. His affection for this Georgia belle has been given as the reason Sherman spared Augusta.4
Apparently Lt. Sherman's rather unstable personality, which became so obvious in later years, was not evident during his tour of duty in Augusta in 1844. He accomplished his diplomatic mission; succeeded in having the young Artillery lieutenant restored to favor; and when Sherman returned to Florida (by way of Charleston) he took the young lieutenant with him.5
While in Augusta, Lt. Sherman had an opportunity to see the city and its surroundings. Local residents were proud of Augusta's industries. They called the city the "Manchester or the Lowell" of the South. They pointed out to the young West Pointer the city's many advantages, its military possibilities and its fortifications. Sherman was shown the iron works, the carriage factory, the cotton mills, shoe manufactory, flour mills, machine shops, dye works, candle factory, and other industries. He was shown the Savannah River docks and boats which transported cotton. It is very probable that Sherman made topographical maps of the Augusta area similar to those he had been making in Florida.
All of the information which he gathered while he was in Augusta on his six months tour of "detached service" in 1844 was to be of value in 1864 to this young native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was born four weeks before the Missouri Compromise was passed.
When the bloody battles of Peachtree Creek and Atlanta had been fought and won by Union troops under Major General Sherman's command, the city which was the South's most important railroad junction) was ravaged and burned to total destruction. The man who had been so charming and so diplomatic in 1844 at Augusta, looked on the leaping flames with what he himself described as complete satisfaction. He said he thought of all the things which had been made in Atlanta and which had been used in fighting the soldiers of the north. He resolved that no railroads, no buildings, no machine shops, no machinery, or other equipment, would be left to enable the Confederates to send any more things "made in Atlanta to the battlefields.
(Could it be that Sherman did not have this same feeling about the large quantities of war material which had been "made in Augusta?")
Sherman had spent July 18, 1864, at which is now the Peachtree Golf Club at Peachtree Road and Old Cross Keys Road. He was increasingly nervous about the Georgia Railroad. From Virginia (the day before) Grant had telegraphed him that Lee was toying with the idea of sending twenty thousand of his own badly needed men to Johnston's aid by way of Wilmington, Charleston, Augusta and on to Atlanta. Such a transfer of troops had been done before, under Longstreet, resulting in a heavy defeat for the Union at Chickamauga. It could be done again.6
So, Sherman made ashes of' Atlanta and planned his next move with the shrewdness of a brilliant military commander. In his memoirs he quotes correspondence which he had with General U.S. Grant, in which Grant gave Sherman carte blanc in the conduct of his activities in Georgia.7
Grant's primary objective was the enemy's armies. Sherman's was the seizure of strategic points. Having leveled Atlanta, he decided that he would make a rapid march to the sea.
Sherman sent his excess artillery and stores, his sick and wounded, and all noncombatants to the rear. He destroyed the railroads as far back as the Etowah River, eliminating Atlanta from any further military purpose. "Traveling light", he then set out across Georgia on his infamous march.
Sherman's intent was to isolate the Confederate Government from any source of supply of food or funds. This he did without visiting Augusta. He reasoned that anxiety for their families would tempt Confederate soldiers to desert, thus weakening the confidence of the Confederate armies. Credit would be destroyed. Confederate paper money would become worthless. Foreign assistance would be cut off, and then the war must end.8
When Sherman left Atlanta on November seventeenth, the Confederates were almost certain that Augusta would be the next point of his attack. Military officials argued that the Federals would have to stay on the railroad in order to maintain their line of supply. At the end of the Georgia Railroad was Augusta, sheltering such grand prizes as the Confederate Powder Mills, the Augusta Arsenal, and the industries providing military supplies. Approximately twenty-five million dollars was invested in public interests in the city, besides an additional fifteen million to twenty million dollars worth of cotton in private hands. The capture of Augusta would have dealt an irreparable blow to the Confederacy's munitions supply.
A large amount of cotton stored at Augusta was owned by a Mrs. Helm, sister of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. This cotton has been given as a reason for Sherman's by-pass of Augusta. It has been said that President Lincoln ordered Sherman riot to come to Augusta, lest the cotton be destroyed.9
Preparing to leave Atlanta, Sherman divided his army (60,000 infantry and artillery, 5,500 cavalry, and sixty-eight guns) into two wings. The Right Wing, commanded by Major General O.O. Howard, left Atlanta by way of Stockbridge, McDonough and Jackson, to create the impression that the first objective was Macon. At Jackson it turned southeast, crossed the Ocmulgee on pontoons at Planters Factory, nine miles from Jackson, and marched through Hillsboro and Clinton to Gordon where it had been ordered to concentrate to receive orders for the next movement.
The Left Wing of Sherman's army was commanded by Major General H.W. Slocum, who, with his 20th Corps, left Atlanta by way of Decatur, Stone Mountain and Social Circle, and marched to Madison, creating the impression that Augusta was the objective. At Madison, Brigadier General John W. Geary was sent to the Oconee to destroy the railroad bridge and large stores of grain at Blue Springs (now Swords), and to rejoin the 20th Corps near Eatonton. After destroying the railroad facilities in and near Madison, Brigadier General A.S. Williams turned south toward Milledgeville where the Left Wing had been ordered to concentrate.
The Fourteenth Corps, accompanied by Sherman left by way of Covington, Shady Dale and roads west of Eatonton to rendezvous with the Twentieth Corps at Milledgeville.
From Milledgeville, the Left Wing moved on Sandersville, which it occupied after a sharp fight with Wheeler's Cavalry. The Right Wing, which Sherman had joined at Tennille, marched on roads south of the railroad and the Ocmulgee. The Left Wing moved east from Louisville, where it had assembled, crossed the Savannah and Augusta Railroad between Waynesboro and Millen, and marched down the peninsular between the Savannah and Ogeechee Rivers.
Sherman's army reached Savannah with no real difficulty.10
When Sherman had left Atlanta, moving his troops in three columns, Confederate military forces were forced to divide to meet the threat. At the time, Brigadier General Birkett D. Fry was in command of the Augusta district. He began making rapid preparations to secure the city against attack. Thousands of negroes who had migrated to Augusta were put to work on fortifications. Old men, young boys, women, and convalescing soldiers volunteered to dig trenches fill sand bags and throw up earthworks. The surrounded the city in a crescent-shaped chain of works which began at the Savannah River east of East Boundary and extended to the powder works on the west. In addition, there was an inner line of defense in the "commons" and ten earth forts around the downtown section. Bunkers were thrown up and trenches were dug near the Georgia Railroad on the Hill. Others ran along the top of the Hill just beyond what is now Peachtree Road. Gun emplacements were built near the railroad between Augusta and Belair.11
It is reasonable to think that Sherman's intelligence forces knew all of these preparations for defense of Augusta.
As early as November 14, camp rumors and prisoners reported that Sherman was on his way to Augusta. As a precaution, the state stores and records had been sent from Milledgeville to Augusta. By November 24th these records were shipped to Columbia, South Carolina. Augusta newspapers reported that valuable machinery had been shipped to Columbia. This was false but was calculated to mislead the Federals.
Augusta expected General Sherman to arrive for dinner on November 25th, which Lincoln had proclaimed Thanksgiving Day. Confederate generals and their staffs set up offices and quarters in Augusta hotels. Besides General Fry, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee and Brigadier Generals Ambrose R. Wright, James Chasnut, Jr., Albert G. Blanchard, and Lucius J. Gartrell were in the city. General Braxton Bragg came in from Wilmington with ten thousand men for reinforcements, and Major General Pierce M.B. Young arrived soon after with a dismounted cavalry unit.
Colonel John S. Mosby and his band of daring horsemen also rode in to help defend the city. The Chronicle and Sentinel noted that "Augusta ... now has the appearance of a vast military camp."12
Augusta remained on the alert for ten days and an editorial asked, "Where is that fellow Sherman, anyway?"
When Sherman began his journey back north from Savannah, rumors were rampant again that he was on his way to Augusta. This time he would approach the city from South Carolina. Lieutenant General Daniel H. Hill was then in command of Augusta and vicinity. Once more the city dug in to meet attack. Then the newspapers gave out the information that machinery had been shipped to Athens. This too was false. Torpedoes had been placed in the Savannah River seventy-five miles below Augusta, but no gunboats came up the river. "As Sherman marched through South Carolina, he sent Kilpatrick against Augusta, but Kilpatrick was defeated at Aiken, S.C. on February llth, by General Wheeler. Thus Augusta was saved."13
United States Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton criticized Sherman's march to the sea as "vainglorious". Stanton thought Sherman should have cut off Lee's ammunition supply by destroying the powder mills and government works at Augusta. Had he done so, the war might have ended earlier.
Confederate General Braxton Bragg, in a letter to a close friend, H. W. Graber, of Dallas, Texas, explained why Sherman did not include Augusta in Georgia cities visited on his march to the sea.
"When Sherman's infantry were nearing Waynesboro ... General Bragg instructed General Wheeler, whose cavalry was the only Confederate force disputing Sherman's advance, to notify him when his infantry entered the town; to leave the telegraph instrument intact, but give the office the appearance of having been abandoned precipitately. Waiting a reasonable time for the Federals to take possession of the telegraph instrument, he called for General Wheeler and was answered by some Federals, when he transmitted the following: 'General Wheeler hold Waynesboro at all hazards. Longstreet's Corps is arriving. I will take the field in person. Braxton Bragg.'"14
Sometime after the close of the war, a newspaper reporter had an interview with General Sherman in which Sherman gave the following reasons for not destroying Augusta: "I have often been asked my reason for not burning Augusta. To set this matter at rest, I will say that my army was without a commissary, depending upon the country for subsistence, therefore not in condition to give battle. When I reached Waynesboro, I learned that General Bragg with Longstreet's Corps and other troops, was in Augusta prepared to defend the place, which forced me to abandon its destruction and rapidly move to my new base of supplies, Savannah."
A few years later an article appeared in the Scientific American under the caption of "Telegraphy in War", by a writerwho claimed that he was a lieutenant in
Sherman's army and in the telegraph service; that he struck and tapped the telegraph wire between Augusta and Waynesboro and took off the following telegram: "General Wheeler hold Waynesboro at all hazards. Longstreet's Corps is arriving. I will take the field in person. Braxton Bragg."
"Thus we have General Bragg's own statement on his effective ruse to save Augusta when he had no troops there to defend it, corroborated by General Sherman's interview and the lieutenant's article in the Scientific American; therefore there can be no doubt that this was General Sherman's real reason for not destroying Augusta."15
Sherman's official report to the War Department concerning his march said: "We consumed corn and fodder in the region of country thirty miles on either side of the line from Atlanta to Savannah;also sweet potatoes, hogs, sheep, and poultry, and carried off more than ten thousand mules and horses. I estimate the damage done to he State of Georgia at one hundred million dollars, at least ten
Million of which inured to our benefit, and the remainder was simply waste and destruction."16
Sherman is credited with having said that "War is Hell." In Georgia, at least, he set out to prove that it was just that. He recognized that an Amy without a constant flow of sufficient supplies cannot fight to victory. By his march through Georgia, he cut off the main source of supplies of the Confederate armies as well as the means of transporting those supplies. He could and did accomplish this without touching Augusta.
Bishop Henry C. Lay of Arkansas had an interview with General Sherman in 1864, in which Sherman said: "To be sure I have made war vindictively. War is war, and you can make nothing else of it... Southerners are a military people. If I went to New York and was introduced as Captain or Major Sherman, U.S. Army, the people would pass me by as a useless man. But if I went to Charleston, my profession would be a passport into society and cause my acquaintance to be sought.'' So it had been in Augusta in 1844!
In describing Sherman, Bishop Lay said he had eyes that were restless; he was of active temper; ordinarily kind-hearted but when aroused he was severe and unrelenting. He said that Sherman was sarcastic, sometimes appears to be sober, thoughtful, and unpretentious; at times elated, yet at other times morose. Sherman, at 44 years, of age, was nervous in gesture, quick in action. Fighting in the last of the gallant wars, he was a realist before his time.17
The most ridiculous reason given for Sherman's bypassing Augusta has been put into newspaper print by enterprising reporters who fail to secure documentation for their feature stories. It is that Sherman and his young wife had to bury a beloved infant in the Augusta Arsenal cemetery in 1844; that the love of this baby made him spare the city in 1864. Since Sherman was not married until 1850, it is wiser to bury that story.
Sherman gave his own reasons for not attacking Augusta. He did not want to fight when he could achieve his objective without a battle. In a letter to Pleasant A. Stovall, editor of the Augusta Chronicle, in 1888, General Sherman wrote his explanation:
"Our enemy had garrisons at Macon and Augusta. I figured on both and passed between to Savannah. Then starting northward the same problem presented itself
as to Augusta and Charleston. I figured on and passed between. I did not want to drive out their garrisons to accumulate ahead of me... The moment I passed Columbus (Columbia) four factories powder mills, and the old stuff accumulated at Augusta were lost to the only two armies left, i.e. Lee's and Hood's so, if you have a military mind you will see that I made better use of Augusta than if I had captured it ...I used Augusta twice as a buffer, its garrisons were just where it helped me. If the people of Augusta think I slighted them in the winter of 1864 they are mistaken; or if they think I made a mistake in
strategy let them say so and with the President's consent, I can send a detachment of 100,000 or so of Sherman's Bummers andtheir descendants who will
finish up the job without charging Uncle Sam a cent. The truth is these incidents come back to me in a humorous vein."18
Sixty-eight years old, twenty-four years after the march to the sea, a vindictive spirit and a strange sense of humour were still part of Sherman's unstable personality.
Sherman's detour around Augusta was a defensible move. He never seems to have been wholly dedicated to this plan. At least twice he considered attacking the place but was dissuaded because of the large number of homeguards and troops there. As a result Sherman left Augusta unharmed by Federal guns and torches.
Sherman mayhave had a memory of moonlight and music and a happy sojourn in Augusta in 1844 twenty years before the torch of fury had been lighted in Georgia He may have remembered the minuet and the waltz and pretty girls with soft eyes and lovely hair. He may have had a spark of sentiment down deep inside and a compassion for people who had treated him as a gentleman-officer-graduate of West Point. If he did, memory was not his reason for by passing Augusta, leaving the city, the cotton, the Arsenaland the powder mill unbattered and unburned.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a master military strategist. He knew the land; he knew the people, he knew his mission. He took the shortest distance between two points both strategically important to the accomplishment of objective.
By his march through Georgia, Sherman cut off Lee's lifeline. After that the end came swiftly.
On the march, Sherman'smen romped down the red roads of Georgia in holiday, picnic spirit. Sherman had said, "...if the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity seeking."19
In his diary for one of the marching days Sherman wrote: "A spirit of exhilaration runs through the entire army. Fallen are the hopes of the Confederacy. We are marching through Georgia to the sea. As they travel my men are singing "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave but his soul goes marching on!"20
It is still marching!
Transcribed by William R. Wells, II. Reese Library. 2000.