‘I Say Jeff Davis Burnt Them’ – Sherman Begins His Destruction

November 13, 1864 (Sunday)

Sherman, poised.
Sherman, poised.

It was almost time to begin. Sherman had planned, pleaded, and proven his case for a march through Georgia, and now it was coming into being. All of the troops flagged for operations in Tennessee against John Bell Hood’s army were either before Hood or en route. Everything that remained behind was Sherman’s own, and all of the enemy that remained before Sherman was almost nothing at all apart from the cavalry under General Joe Wheeler.

“My army stood detached and cut off from all communication with the rear. It was composed of four corps – the Fifteenth and Seventeenth, constituting the Right Wing, under Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard; the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps, constituting the Left Wing, under Maj. Gen. H.W. Slocum – of an aggregate strength of 60,000 infantry; one cavalry division, in aggregate strength 5,500, under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, and the artillery, reduced to the minimum, one gun per 1,000 men.”

His forces now gathered in Atlanta, coming in from mostly Rome and Kingston, where they had rested after Hood made his initial move so many weeks before. Left behind in those towns were columns of smoke rising from the fires of a thousand buildings. Anything that could possibly be conceived as useful to an army was put to the torch. Warehouses and railroad depots, smithies and factories were gone or about to be.

Soon, the destruction came to Atlanta itself. But a city this size could not be toppled so swiftly. Days would be spent in its destruction, and now was but the beginning. Railroads and their bridges were exploded or torn asunder, private homes that might somehow be used for the mechanisms of war were leveled. There was plundering, looting and a general sense of destruction.

Sherman made his way to Marietta, where the destruction preceded him. For a day or so previous, the entire downtown had been engulfed. The hotels were burning, and houses as well. This was done without direct orders from Sherman. When he arrived, he saw what his men had wrought and said to another, “There are the men who do this. Set as many guards as you please, they will slip in and set fire. That Court House was put out – no use – dare say whole town will burn, at least the business part. I never ordered burning of any dwelling – didn’t order this, but can’t be helped. I say Jeff. Davis burnt them.”

Sherman's men tearing up track in Atlanta.
Sherman’s men tearing up track in Atlanta.

When someone suggested to him that he shouldn’t be blamed for what he didn’t order, Sherman replied: “Well, I suppose I’ll have to bear it.” And bear it, he would. Even before the year was out, it would become his legacy. Sherman would spend the night in Marietta, and would return the Atlanta the day following.

In his memoirs, Sherman explain some of his army’s preparations: “The most extraordinary efforts had been made to purge this army of non-combatants and of sick men, for we knew well that there was to be no place of safety save with the army itself; our wagons were loaded with ammunition, provisions, and for age, and we could ill afford to haul even sick men in the ambulances, so that all on this exhibit may be assumed to have been able-bodied, experienced soldiers, well armed, well equipped and provided, as far as human foresight could, with all the essentials of life, strength, and vigorous action.”

But also on this day, Joseph Wheeler had arrived in Jonesborough, south of Atlanta. He was taking over for General Alfred Iverson, who, apart from disgracing himself on the first day at Gettysburg, had done little of note. Certainly he didn’t send scouts into Atlanta to see just what the Yankees were about.

“On arriving here,” wrote Wheeler to Hood, “I find General Iverson in doubt regarding force in Atlanta.” Without any solid information, Wheeler turned to an escaped prisoner, but all he could relate to him was that quite a few train cars had gone up to Chattanooga, also, Atlanta was burning. But soon, he would be able to learn more, as he sent his own men toward the city. Perhaps the day following he would have news and better plan his resistance (as ‘defense’ might be too strong a word).1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 3, p918; Vol. 44, p7; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Marching with Sherman by Henry Hancock; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
Creative Commons License
‘I Say Jeff Davis Burnt Them’ – Sherman Begins His Destruction by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by