Right now the holiday season commands a great deal of attention from most of us. However, this time of year may also remind some people of Sherman’s march to the sea during the U.S. Civil War, which took place in 1864. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union forces had taken Atlanta on September 1–2. Sherman and his superior, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, decided that Sherman should take his army on a march to the Atlantic, cutting a broad swathe that would economically and psychologically eviscerate what was left of the Confederacy. This campaign took place from November 15 to December 21, when Sherman took Savannah. Sherman then turned north to move up through the Carolinas and come up in the rear of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, which was facing off against Grant’s army in Virginia.
The Hargrett Library at the University of Georgia has digitized the diary of Lt. Cornelius C. Platter of the 81st Ohio Infantry Volunteers, part of the XV Corps — one of four corps under Sherman’s command. The diary covers the period between November 10 and April 27, 1865 and it provides some fascinating snapshots of what this campaign of plunder and destruction looked like and how exotic Georgia appeared to a young man from the north.
Platter recorded that his regiment started its march at 7:30 a.m. on November 16, an hour behind schedule. That first day was a good one for him and his comrades. He wrote that “being in the advance we obtained plenty of Forage of every description — such as Pork Sweet potatoes Honey & c.” The next day they “lived on the fat of the land” again. On November 20 he wrote about the “killing of worthless horses & mules” and the burning of cotton and a factory. As Platter’s march continued he admired the Spanish moss — surely an exotic sight for a man from Ohio. Two weeks later he was still commenting on it. With rather less pleasure, he also marveled at the weather, complaining on December 2 that “‘Old Sol’ was sending down his scorching rays upon us. Expect we will have ‘Sun Strokes’ by Christmas if the weather gets much warmer. Wonder what our Northern friends would say if they knew we were suffering with the heat.” On December 6 he complained that it was “no fun being ‘cut off’ from the civilized world,” but in a cringe-inducing passage describes how the day improved when “quite a number of Contrabands [freed slaves] came in today and … afforded us a good deal of amusement dancing wrestling & c.” On December 21, Sherman’s army entered Savannah. Platter thought that “with the exception of Huntsville it is the prettiest city I have seen in the ‘Southern Confederacy.’” He observed that “quite a number of stores were plundered by soldiers assisted by negros and ‘poor white folks’ who seemed delighted at having a chance to pillage — As a general thing the Citizens kept ‘in doors.’” On Christmas day Platter attended church and then observed that “house sacking was carried on quite extensively all day on the road between camp and town. The city was full of drunken soldiers and officers — Had a splendid oyster supper this evening.”
Though Platter was exposed to combat, suffered from heat and later from cold, felt far from home, and was occasionally hungry, his diary is a fairly light, even amusing, read. However, if we turn it around and consider what these same scenes must have looked like from the point of view of the others — the southern white people of all social classes, the freed slaves — it becomes easy to imagine how horrible this war truly was for those who lived through it. But it did lead to the destruction of slavery.
As Western countries debate what their military role in Syria and Iraq should be, this is something to consider. War is suffering. It can only ever be justified through its results.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.