January 17, 1865 (Tuesday)
With William Tecumseh Sherman’s 60,000 resting in Savannah, the South was doing all they could to find enough troops to oppose him. This, however, was an impossible task. General William Hardee, commanding at Charleston, was trying to drawn them from anywhere, fielding promises from South Carolina’s governor of 5,000 militia. Hardee didn’t believe for a second that he could field even a fraction of that number.
The biggest source for troops to fight against Sherman was the Army of Tennessee, which had opposed Sherman a few months back. Rather than dogging him all the way to Savannah, they begged off, turning toward Nashville, hoping that this would somehow play upon Sherman’s supply lines and cause him to turn back and to maybe even abandon Atlanta.
Needless to say, it did nothing of the sort, and Hood’s army could now only field, perhaps, 18,000. But even this number was far more than could be spared from General Lee’s forces.
President Jefferson Davis had sent P.G.T. Beauregard to John Bell Hood’s headquarters in Tupelo, Mississippi, “to bring all the troops which can be spared and resume control of operations against Sherman.” Hood had resigned and was already replaced, but the transition would take precious time that the Rebels simply didn’t have.
If it were not for the weather, inundated with rain and flooding, Sherman’s troops would have already marched from Savannah. “I am fully alive to the importance of successful resistance to Sherman’s advance,” wrote Davis to Governor Andrew Magrath in Charleston, “and have called on the governor of Georgia to give all the aid he can furnish.”
This was hardly a promising prospect since all the men Georgia could furnish didn’t even slow Sherman’s progress through their state, let alone pose a successful resistance. The messages flying from Charleston to Richmond on this day spoke of troops in the hundreds and several thousands – nothing that might be able to divert Sherman’s host.
A few Federals had deserted the army and fled into the Confederate lines stated that Sherman was probably already on the road. A few units had set out, but his grand march was not yet initiated. Still, the Rebels knew it would not be long before it was too late.
The cavalry, commanded by Joseph Wheeler, was doing all it could to round up Federal stragglers to figure out just which corps would soon be marching. The Seventeenth and Fifteenth were both represented. They also gleaned other important information, such as the fact that there was no cavalry in the van. There was a question of artillery, as well as supply wagons – both of which were said to be low in number. Also, the prisoners said “the talk in camp is that Charleston is their destination” and the line of march was along the railroad.
And while the Rebels were struggling to draw forces from Georgia, the prisoners reported that the Federals “received some recruits at Savannah and some at Beaufort.”
Meanwhile, as Sherman prepared his men, he also penned an order reiterating how the freed slaves were to be treated: “By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro is free, and must be dealt with as such. He cannot be subjected to conscription, or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share toward maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.”
Sherman was also creating settlements for the freed slaves in the islands south of Charleston and in the abandoned rice-fields thirty miles inland from the Atlantic, all the way down to Florida. There, “the blacks may remain in their choses or accustomed vocations” and “no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority, and the acts of Congress.”
An experiment, to be sure, and one that would be left in the care of another. In two days time, Sherman would finally issue marching orders.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 2, p1018-1020; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman. [↩]