January 22, 1865 (Sunday)
“But for bad weather we should have left Savannah at least two days ago, by land,” wrote General Sherman’s Judge Advocate, Henry Hitchcock, in a letter home. “As it is, a steady and heavy rain compelled delay, and today the General and his staff embarked on this steamer, en route for Beaufort, S.C., and thence – ?”
Henry Hitchcock had been a lawyer before the war. Graduating from Yale in 1848, he soon settled in St. Louis, where he also was the editor of the St. Louis Intelligencer. By the mid 50s, Hitchcock had established himself firmly within the ranks of the city’s finest young lawyers.
When the war came, he did not immediately join. Rather, he supported Lincoln through the 1860 election, and even joined the Missouri Secession Convention as a Unionist in the hopes of keeping his adopted state true. When he wound up on the losing end, he was appointed to the provisional state government, where he rallied against slavery.
By September of 1864, however, he decided to join the army, though his family disapproved. He went to Washington and received a commission from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton himself, “not in the hope, at that late day, of rendering military service of any value, but simply because I could not endure the thought of profiting in safety at home by the heroism of others, and of having no personal share in the defense of my country against her enemies in arms.”
He joined Sherman’s army just as they were leaving Atlanta, writing home continuously and leaving for future considerations his experiences and musings.
“We had this morning received notice from the General to pack up and be ready to leave on the “Coit” when she came,” Hitchcock continued. “And so I write on board the Coit, having suddenly bid adieu to Savannah.”
Sherman’s forces had begun moving out of Savannah, marching north, but had been slowed and even halted by the weather. Though not a soldier believed it was without purpose, few understood their destination.
“As to where we are going,” he continued, “or what we are going to do, that will all appear in time. Nobody knows the details except Gen. Sherman himself; very few know even the general outlines, though my position is such that I am one of those; and you may be assured that neither the rebels nor the newspaper men know anything about it – and value what you see in the papers accordingly.
“This campaign cannot but be even more important in its bearing on the war than the last; it will very likely not be as much of a mere “pic-nic,” because we may not go into so desirable or rich a country, – nor will it, in all probability, be as apparently remarkable because the novelty is worn off, like Columbus’ discovery of America or his standing an egg on end.”
Incidentally, the story of Christopher Columbus standing an egg on its end was an old legend that has since proved false. As the story goes, he was with dining with Spanish nobles who claimed that if he hadn’t discovered the Indies, someone else would have done it. In response, he supposedly pulled out an egg and said: “My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.” None were able to do it until they saw how Columbus did it. He tapped it gently on the table, flattening one end and stood it up. “All those present,” the fable concludes, “were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.”
Since the story had appeared fifteen years earlier as an example of the ingenious of the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who actually produced a lovely dome to be placed over a cathedral in Florence, the Columbus story was either fully fabricated or Columbus aped Brunelleschi.
“But we have the same genius to guide us,” continued Hitchcock, referring to Sherman, “an even more ‘demoralized’ enemy to meet, and the same good and loving Father to watch over us. And I assure you I am heartily glad to be moving again. I did not enter the service to ‘loaf’ anywhere.”
Over the next several months, we’ll follow Major Hitchcock, and loafing will be the last thing on his mind.1
- Marching with Sherman by Henry Hitchcock. The stuff about Columbus’ Egg comes from a Skeptical Enquirer by Martin Gardner, who wrote first about it in his book Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?: Debunking Pseudoscience. [↩]