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100 Years Ago

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March to the Sea

With the fall of Vicksburg in the west and the victory at Gettysburg in the east in the summer of 1863, the federal soldiers were confident of victory. Cassius Wilson of the 118th Ohio wrote to brother Henry in Sidney, Ohio on October 18, 1863, stating, "Some of the officers express themselves confident that the war will be over in six months." It proved to be too optimistic a prediction. Unfortunately for Shelby County, the worst was yet to come.

The Union forces under Grant were massed for a spring and summer offensive in 1864 to capture Atlanta, the industrial center of the South, and sweep through Georgia to the sea. To accomplish this, Grant brought the three Union armies from the western theater, including the Army of the Ohio (which contained all of the men from Shelby County), over the mountains to help with this final drive of the war. These men had just endured a cold winter living on half rations. Many had no shoes or overcoats. Some units reported up to 70 percent of the men sick with malaria.

Dr. Albert Wilson reported to his family in a letter dated January 14, 1864: "We have been unpleasantly short of supplies of clothing and in fact the necessities of life. I have been living in a tent all winter except that portion when we were in east Tennessee, and then we lived without shelters. But our poor horses and mules have been starving by the score ever since early fall."

With Grant still contending with General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, Sherman's plan was to march across Georgia and the Carolinas to the sea, promising to "make Georgia howl!" The plan was not only to destroy the plantations and crops along the way, but to cripple the South's will to fight on as well.   Sixty-two thousand men under Sherman's command, divided into two columns, left Atlanta in November of 1864. The 20th Ohio, along with dozens of other regiments from Ohio, worked their way through Georgia and then the Carolinas. General Manning Force, the commanding officer of the 20th during the first part of the war, and then in command of the Third Division (which included the 20th), recorded details of a 54-day section of the march in his journal.

There wasn't much fighting during the march, but the conditions were memorable. Force recalled Sherman told him that rebel commander Joe Johnston said, "My engineer officers had all reported that it was absolutely impossible for an army to march across the lower portions of the state..." They were almost correct. Force remembered, "tangled swamps, miles across, dense with trees, vines and thickets, and meandering through them many channels of icy water." In no time, the wagons churned the soil until the wagon beds rested on the surface. The mules gave up. Each division had a 'pioneer' group which toiled daily to build roads and bridges. Force's note of February 9, 1865, is descriptive. "The division marched 12 miles. Began to rain at 2 p.m. and poured until night. The head of the division reached camp at 4 p.m. and the rear at 2:30 a.m. By that time, the roads were running, and all the corduroy laid (wooden roads) all floating."

Over 54 days, the 20th Ohio and the others marched 432 miles, during which they constructed 15 miles of wooden roads and 122 miles of side roads for the troops. Force noted, "New shoes were issued to 494 men, yet 172 others were still entirely barefoot. As they marched by General Sherman, he stated "Splendid legs! Splendid legs! I would give both of mine for any one of them!"

The practice of foraging became a necessity of life during the march to the sea. The foragers were called 'Sherman's Bummers.' The 54-day march started with only 25 days of rations for each man. The bummers scoured the land ten miles on each flank of the army, scavenging food and animals, and destroying the rest. The plantation owners attempted to bury or hide all they could, but the bummers usually found it. Force recorded that one slave told General Leggett in Georgia, "Dese Yankee soldiers have noses like hounds...Massa hid all his de swamp...They held up dere noses and sniffed...and Lord a' Massy, went right to where de horses were tied in the swamp."

'Civil War' segment written in July, 1998 by Rich Wallace


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