150 Years Ago This Week: March to the sea, and eloquence misplaced

November 1864

Alexander Hay Ritchie engraving via U.S. Library of Congress
Alexander Hay Ritchie engraving via U.S. Library of Congress

Our camp-fires shone bright on the mountain
That frowned on the river below,
As we stood by our guns in the morning,
And eagerly watched for the foe.

When a rider came out from the darkness,
That hung over mountain and tree,
And shouted, “Boys, up and be ready,
For Sherman will march to the sea.”

— from “When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea”

On Monday, Nov. 14, Maj. Gen. William Sherman and his 62,000 men were in and around Atlanta, preparing to depart for the Atlantic coast. The cavalry, under Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, had already started towards Jonesborough and McDonough, Ga. Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum took the 20th Corps of Federal troops out to Decatur and Stone Mountain, burning bridges and tearing up railroads.

In Tennessee, Union Maj. Gen. George Thomas had Maj. Gen. John Schofield and two army corps at Pulaski, south of Nashville, ready to oppose any movement by Gen. John B. Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Florence in northern Alabama. Gen. Hood’s cavalry, commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, was moving in from Corinth, Miss.

Around 7 in the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 16, Gen. Sherman, riding with the 14th Army Corps, left Atlanta, with his men loudly singing the hastily composed song above, and headed east towards the coast. Behind him he left a smoking city with its economy and infrastructure in complete ruins, and the remaining citizens desolate and bitter. “My first object was, of course, to place my army in the very heart of Georgia,” he wrote.

The Federals, carrying 20 days’ rations, took four routes to the east, to confuse the Confederates; however, there weren’t many Confederates to confuse. The Confederates numbered some 13,000, including 3,000 state militia, and 10,000 cavalry under Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler. These Confederate troops, under Brig. Gen. George W. Smith, were concentrated around Lovejoy’s Station on the railroad. The same day President Jefferson Davis wrote to a group of Georgia state senators expressing strong objection to any suggested possibility of separate state action for peace negotiations with the United States. Davis the next day wired Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb at Macon to “get out every man who can render any service even for a short period” to oppose the advancing Federals, “and employ Negroes in obstructing roads.”

Wet weather and strong storms in northern Alabama hampered Gen. Hood’s advance into Tennessee, but, on Nov. 18, he was ready to begin. Gen. Forrest’s cavalry had arrived from Corinth and was ready to screen the Confederate movement north. The next day, Georgia Gov. Joe Brown called for men between 16 and 55 to sign up to oppose the Federals. It was a wasted effort; there were few if any able-bodied men left in Georgia to step up to serve their state and Confederacy.

In Washington, President Lincoln ordered the naval blockade lifted at Norfolk, and at Fernandina Beach and Pensacola, Fla. He also wrote a letter that soon became quite famous and noteworthy for its eloquence. Writing to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, he wrote that he had learned that she was the mother “of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless may be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

The president’s eloquence was highly misplaced, as it was soon determined that only two of Mrs. Bixby’s five sons had been killed. Two of the others were said to have deserted from the army, and the fifth had been honorably discharged. For a number of years in Northern schools, Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby was used as a template for handwriting practice and penmanship.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.