January 1, 1865 (Sunday – New Year’s Day)
“Your anticipations in regard to the Wilmington expedition have proved so correct that your reputation as a prophen may soon equal that as a general,” gushed Henry Halleck in a letter to William Tecumseh Sherman. The general had predicted on Christmas Eve: “I take it for granted the present movement on Wilmington will fail, because I know that gun-boats cannot take a fort, and Butler has not the force or the ability to take it.” Mystical potencies aside, Sherman was right about the man, wrong about the force.
But this wasn’t why Halleck was writing to his old friend. Sherman had submitted to Halleck a general outline for his coming campaign. Originally, Grant had wanted to load all of Sherman’s troops onto transports and meld them with the Army of the Potomac. Sherman very seriously did not want that to happen, and quickly devised a better plan, of which Grant approved.
Sherman wanted to march through Branchville and Columbia, avoiding both Augusta and Charleston, though the latter, the manger of the Confederacy, would be a loft prize. He would focus mostly on the railroads – the few remaining links of vitality in the South. By avoiding falling upon the link between Augusta and Charleston, he might do almost as well as sacking both. The same held true for the line from Charleston to Wilmington. “I rather prefer Wilmington, as a live place, over Charleston, which is dead and unimportant when its railroad communications are broken.”
The prize of capturing the home of secession was fine and well, but would hardly win the war. Sherman was reaching for the knife to slit the throat, not another pin with which to prick the diseased body.
In this, Halleck agreed. “The destruction of railroads and supplies in South Carolina will do the enemy more harm than the capture of either or both of those cities. They can be left for a backhanded blow.” This was, after all, a wonderful use of cavalry.
Halleck also agreed that Wilmington was a much better catch than Charleston. “If you can lay waste the interior of South Carolina and destroy the railroads Charleston must be abandoned by all except a small garrison.”
Still, Sherman entertained the idea of taking Charleston, being familiar with the ground from his days before the war. Even that was not an end to itself. Once taken, he “would make a bee-line for Raleigh, or Weldon, when Lee would be forced to come out of Richmond or acknowledge himself beaten.”
In their respective letters, both mused upon the idea of rapid strikes. “I think the time has come now when we should attempt the boldest moves,” wrote Sherman to Halleck, “and my experience is that they are easier of execution than more timid ones, because the enemy is disconcerted by them – as for instance, my recent campaign.”
To Halleck, who of course agreed, time was essential. “It is useless talking about putting any of our armies into winter quarters,” replied Halleck to Sherman. “It is not necessary, and the financial condition of the country wil not permit it. Those troops not required for defense must move into the enemy’s country and live on it. There is no alternative; it must be done.”
Sherman was in full accord, and hoped that General George Thomas would “follow up his success to the very uttermost point” by tracking down the tattered Rebel army of John Bell Hood. In fact, prior to the campaign, he had ordered Thomas to do just that.
Halleck was fuming over Thomas’ idea of going into winter quarters, writing that “he is too slow for an effective pursuit.” Thomas was, in Halleck’s words, “entirely opposed to a winter campaign, and is already speaking of recruiting his army for spring operations.” Halleck was already making plans to borrow Thomas’ army should Thomas see fit to not use it. Some would go to Mobile, others into Alabama’s interior to destroy their factories of war.
This would certainly please Sherman, who saw this war as different than those in Europe. “We are not only fighting hostile armies,” he had written to Halleck, “but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies.”
Cruel or not, it had the effect that Sherman wanted – to bring the realities of secession to the porchsteps of every man, woman, and child. “Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the believe that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience. To be sure, Jeff Davis has his people under a pretty good state of discipline, but I think faith in him is much shaken in Georgia; and I think before we are done, South Carolina will not be quite so tempestuous.”
In his Christmas Eve missive, Sherman wrote words soon seared into history:
“The truth is the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her. Many and many a person in Georgia asked me why we did not go to South Carolina, and when I answered that I was en route for that State the invariable reply was, ‘Well, if ou will make those people feel the severities of war, we will pardon you for your desolation of Georgia.'”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p798-800; Vol. 47, Part 2, p3-4. [↩]