‘You May Hang and Mutilate Man for Man’ – Sherman’s Hellish War Continues

December 1, 1864 (Thursday)

Sherman's Left Wing crossing the Little River.
Sherman’s Left Wing crossing the Little River.

Since last we looked in upon William Tecumseh Sherman and his March to the Sea, much destruction had been wrought, and little resistance had been given. To be sure, there were a few minor skirmishes, and even a well pitched cavalry battle, but on Sherman marched. They found themselves roughly 250 miles from Atlanta, nearly halfway to Savannah.

They marched along the railroad, destroying it as they went. Sherman’s cavalry, under Judson Kilpatrick rode north of the main body in hopes of freeing the prisoners at the camp in Millen. When Sherman reached the town of Barton, he learned that the prisoners had been removed. Thwarted, he ordered Kilpatrick to move on Augusta and then Louisville, where he joined with the Left Wing of the army, under General Henry Slocum.

The Union Left, comprised of the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps, had been spread out between Louisville and Sebastopol on the railroad which they were destroying. Around Louisville, on the 30th, a detachment of Rebel cavalry attacked a division from the Fourteenth Corps, but was repulsed with neither side doing much damage to the other.

This skirmishing was a hint of things to come. As the bulk of the corps began their move east from Louisville, Kilpatrick’s cavalry skirmished with their Confederate counterparts, commanded by Jo Wheeler, for much of the day.

Kilpatrick’s men had been resting in Louisville for several days, allowing the Left Wing to catch up with them. Now that they had, the cavalry served as a van for the infantry. His objective was “to cover the movements of our troops, marching in several columns on Millen.”

Skirmishing with Wheeler's cavalry.
Skirmishing with Wheeler’s cavalry.

The cavalrymen came upon the enemy nine miles from Waynesborough. Both the 5th Kentucky and 8th Indiana from Eli Murray’s Brigade were involved. Oliver Baldwin, of the 5th, reported that he received orders “to press forward rapidly, not to give the enemy time to form.”

This he did, moving rapidly down the road. Ahead of him, Baldwin found his skirmishers hotly engaged. Looking around, the ground around their position seemed uninviting of a victorious charge. And so numbers would have to do. Baldwin rode back to the main body and gathered as many of his men together has he could.

“My lines were pressed forward to within thirty yards of the enemy’s position in front, but as the enemy had the longest line he enveloped my flanks and caused some confusion. This confusion was greatly augmented by some one giving the command ‘Fours right’ or “Left about,’ and quite a number of officers and men left the field acting, as I have since learned, upon the supposition that they had been ordered to retire.

“The majority of my men, regardless of company organizations, rallied, reformed, and held the enemy at bay until a battalion of the Eighth Indiana relieved my left flank and enable me again to advance upon the enemy, which I continued to do until I was ordered to halt. This affair occurred at Millen’s Grove and certainly was a very warm and spirited little fight, as my regiment attacked and fought single-handed for twenty minutes a brigade of rebels in their chosen position where it was impossible to use the saber and where nothing save bulldog fighting could do any good.”

While the Kentucky troopers performed well enough, it delayed the column, which was moving northeast toward Waynesboro. Its only true intent was to occupy Wheeler’s Rebel cavalry so that they not poke too hard at Sherman’s other columns.

Today's incredibly approximate map.
Today’s incredibly approximate map.

These other three columns followed both the railroad and the Ogeechee River toward Millen, where they would bend more southerly for Savannah, burning nearly everything they could as they went.

While many of the lived-in homes were left in tact, Sherman’s horde set fire to abandoned structures, the flames of which very often set fire to the dwellings. In many respects, those responsible for the destruction were like locusts, breaking indiscriminately into homes and pillaging for the simple sake of pillaging. This rampant disregard was attempted to be brought into check by the inspection of cartridge boxes (to make sure no shots had been fired). Mostly, such measures were ignored.

For some foragers, bands of wayward Rebels were the problem. Detachments of Wheeler’s cavalry patrolled suspected Federal targets and made their enemies pay with their lives. This was sometimes called “murder,” as the Rebels often executed their captives.

Maybe not quite historically accurate.
Maybe not quite historically accurate.

Others under Sherman were more organized, especially those in charge of the railroad. There was no time for looting, as they had to more or less keep up with those on the march.

All this was becoming too much for Joseph Wheeler. From General Braxton Bragg’s headquarters in Augusta, he received the duty of stopping Sherman. He would soon be reinforced, and it was hoped that he would be able to “cover the enemy’s front and retard his movements much, whatever may be his line of march.” Just how Wheeler’s several thousand were to stop Sherman’s 60,000, Bragg never really mentioned.

But he did have some ideas: “The bridges, causeways, &c., on all creeks should be destroyed; forest trees should be felled at every point where they will obstruct the march; fences may be pulled down and used – indeed, every expedient which ingenuity may suggest should be adopted to retard the enemy’s movements. At the same time you should keep your fighting force close in his front, so as to make him work under every disadvantage.”

Wheeler was given leave to impress all slaves and any tools he needed. However, any tools or supplies that he could not use, even those of the citizenry, were to be destroyed.

Bragg also wanted Wheeler to put on a good show. “Let it be known through the country generally that we are very largely re-enforced here and at Savannah, and are prepared for any movement on us.” While Bragg had been somewhat reinforced, it was hardly the spectacle Wheeler was to make it out to be.

As Sherman settled down for the night, he had to address the growing number of reports about degradations supposedly perpetrated against his “foragers.” The stories came from Kilpatrick, and Sherman thought them to be dubious, but with some corroboration, he felt they at least needed to be looked into.

Seventeenth Corps crossing the Ogeechee River.
Seventeenth Corps crossing the Ogeechee River.

Kilpatrick wanted to know what was to be done with the prisoners taken. “Several of my men have been killed after being taken prisoners,” he wrote, “others have been found with their bodies mutilated, throats cut, &c.” He wanted to send a message to Wheeler, threatening retaliation if such things continued.

Sherman warned Kilpatrick that he had to be “very careful as to the correctness of any information you may receive about the enemy murdering or mutilating our men.” That said, he then gave Kilpatrick permission to retaliate “until you feel satisfied.”

“When our men are found,” continued Sherman, “and you are fully convinced the enemy have killed them after surrender in fair battle, or have mutilated their bodies after being killed in fair battle, you may hang and mutilate man for man without regard to rank.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p41, 55, 203, 368, 374, 384-385, 585-586, 601; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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