News & Articles
In Their Own Words
2011-2012, Volume 6
by The March Research Associate Margaret Lebron
The story of the Civil War is often told in terms of military tactics and political machinations. Firsthand accounts of the Civil War offer a direct connection to the personal, allowing us to imagine what it might have been like to live through that tumultuous time. The voices that follow span the spectrum of Civil War experience: from soldier to general, from slave to slave-owner.
Though Sherman took Atlanta in early September 1864, he spent the next month pursuing Confederate forces with no decisive victories. Finally, General U.S. Grant ordered Sherman to lead his troops on a campaign of “total war,” causing complete destruction as they marched to the sea. In his “Special Field Orders No. 119” issued on November 8, 1964, Sherman urges his men to keep faith in their cause, though he cannot reassure them about what lies ahead.
“It is sufficient for you to know that it involves a departure from our present base, and a long and difficult march to a new one. All the chances of war have been considered and provided for as human sagacity can. All [Grant] asks of you is to maintain that discipline, patience and courage which have characterized you in the past, and he hopes, through you, to strike a blow at our enemy that will have a material effect in producing what we all so much desire—his complete overthrow...All surplus servants, noncombatants and refugees should now go the rear, and none should be encouraged to encumber us on THE MARCH. At some future time we will be enabled to provide for the poor whites and blacks who seek to escape the bondage under which they are now suffering. With these few simple cautions in your minds, he hopes to lead you to achievements equal in importance to those of the past.” — General Sherman
One of the young men who took part in this campaign was Corporal George F. Cram, member of Company F of the 105th Illinois Infantry. After enlisting as a 21-year old Wheaton College student, Cram spent three years working his way through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama before reaching Georgia as one of Sherman’s men. The letters he wrote home to his mother remained reassuring even as he detailed the uncertainty and danger of life on the march.
December 18, 1864, Outside Savannah, GA
“My health was constantly good, I stood the march well, notwithstanding we had some severe times and were often on the road forty-eight hours without rest...What will eventually be done here is difficult to foresee. We may assault and we may besiege; the latter will be slow and sure with small loss of life, the former uncertain and bloody.”
January 5, 1865, Camp of the 105th, SC
“How long we shall remain here is more than we can tell anything about. Sherman is as secret as a post and no one knows his plans till they are entirely executed. The boys call him ‘crazy Billy,’ but there seems to be some ‘method to his madness.’”
March 28th, 1865, Goldsboro, NC
“When we reached this place I suppose we were about the dirtiest, raggediest lot of men that ever made up an army…In South Carolina we ruined the principle railroads and I am sorry to say, destroyed a great percentage of dwelling houses; this kind of campaigning is just as vicious to our army in its discipline as it is to the enemy. Your affectionate son George”
On November 19, 1864, Sherman’s army reached Covington, Georgia. There they passed through the home of Dolly Sumner Lunt. Originally from Maine, Dolly had moved to Georgia to join her older sister and teach school, eventually marrying a plantation owner. Now a widow, Dolly recorded the horror and violation she felt as Union troops ransacked her property.
“But like demons they rush in! My yards are full. To my smoke-house, my dairy, pantry, kitchen, and cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way...Sherman himself and a greater portion of his army passed my house that day. All day, as the sad moments rolled on, were they passing not only in front of my house, but from behind; they tore down my garden palings, made a road through my back-yard and lot field, driving their stock and riding through, tearing down my fences and desolating my home—wantonly doing it when there was no necessity for it...As night drew its sable curtains around us, the heavens from every point were lit up with flames from burning buildings...My Heavenly Father alone saved me from the destructive fire.” — Dolly Sumner Lunt
But not everyone in the South lived in such fear of the Union troops. Long before the “Emancipation Proclamation” many slaves in the South viewed the blue Yankee uniforms as signs of their liberation. Susie King Taylor was one such girl. Born a slave in Georgia, she was just a teenager when the first Union troops entered Liberty County, GA, just south of Savannah. Susie and her family ran away to join the ranks of the “contraband” blacks attached to one of the first colored units of the Union army, where she spent more than a year working as a nurse.
“I wanted to see these wonderful ‘Yankees’ so much, as I heard my parents say the Yankee was going to set all the slaves free. Oh how those people prayed for freedom! I remember, one night, my grandmother went out into the suburbs of the city to a church meeting, and they were fervently singing this old hymn—‘Yes, we shall all, be free, When the Lord shall appear’— when the police came in and arrested all who were there, saying they were planning freedom and singing ‘the Lord’ instead of ‘Yankee’ to blind anyone who might be listening...at last, to my unbounded joy, I saw the ‘Yankee’... [and] I was glad to be allowed to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades...It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war—how we are able to see the most sickening sights...and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds, and press the cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only of sympathy and pity...There has never been a greater war in the United States than the one of 1861, where so many lives were lost—not men alone but noble women as well.” — Susie King Taylor
Margaret Lebron is pursuing a Ph.D in Performance Studies at Northwestern University.