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Sherman’s war on S.C. civilians

Posted: January 3, 2014 9:10 a.m.
Updated: January 6, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Prior to invading South Carolina, Sherman stated his intentions in a communication with General Grant. “I do sincerely believe that the whole United States, north and south, would rejoice to have this army turned loose on South Carolina, to devastate that state in the manner we have done in Georgia….”

When he “turned his army loose,” the results were much worse than the fate of Georgia. A Lancaster, Pa., newspaper reported on April 3, 1865, “…South Carolina presents a scene of devastation which no part of Georgia can rival. It seems as though the boys have had a fearful score to settle with the aristocracy of this pestilent state….”

Major General William. B. Hazen, Commander 2nd Division 15th Corps of Sherman’s army, described their “march” beginning at Pocotaligo as “a carnival of destruction that ended with the burning of Columbia, in which the frenzy seemed to exhaust itself.” Historian Tom Elmore chose Hazen’s words, “Carnival of Destruction,” as a part of the title for his well-crafted and acclaimed book on Sherman’s march published in 2012.

The New York Herald war correspondent Capt. David P. Cunyngham who served as an aide on Sherman’s staff, described the march in his book published in late 1865. “As far the wholesale burning, pillage, devastation, committed in South Carolina, magnify all I have said about Georgia fifty fold, and then throw in an occasional murder….”

Sherman began his march across South Carolina in early January 1865. However, since it took Sherman about a month to get his four corps and his cavalry across the waters of the swollen and flooded Savannah River, most of his march across the state occurred from early February to mid-March 1865. He actually traversed the state in about six weeks.

In 1959, The South Carolina Archives Department listed 64 skirmishes, four actions and one affair between Sherman’s army and Confederate and local militia forces, January 3 - March 10, 1865. Since all of these military encounters only served to slow Sherman down a little, they constitute a small part of what he did in our state.

It is clear from the northern descriptions of the march quoted above and from many other sources, his march chiefly consisted of actions to crush and destroy the state’s slave-labor-based agricultural economy and its infrastructure of railroads, bridges, and roads. Sherman’s overall goal was to suppress, cower and subdue the civilian population through fear and intimidation by robbing, pillaging and burning under the “cover” of foraging to feed his army.

Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard reported to Sherman on Feb. 26, 1865, “At the last crossing [Peay’s Ferry and Rocky Mount] about 2,000 horses and mules were taken from men unauthorized to have them. The unserviceable were killed.”

Six days later from Kelly’s Bridge Brev. Maj. Gen. John E. Smith reported, “…the trains were inspected and 3,000 lbs of tobacco and sundries which had gathered since a similar inspection was made at West Crossroads, were thrown out.” This was a large amount of “plunder” to “gather” over the 20 miles from the crossroads to the bridge.

Union Maj. Charles Wills wrote from Tiller’s Ferry, “Inspectors pounce down on the trains every day or two and search through. Everything imaginable is found in the wagons. The stuff is given to citizens or destroyed.” “Citizens” likely were refugees tagging along with the army.

Members of Sherman’s army reported the removal from their wagon trains: thousands of mules and horses, 8,000 lbs of tobacco, clothing, books, household goods, silverware, jewelry, watches, a gold cross from a church in Columbia, etc. Enlisted men complained that the officers kept the “good stuff.”

These facts plus northern prison records point us to an aspect of Sherman’s march which has seldom been mentioned much less addressed in any depth by historians, the fact that his army took captive 39 South Carolina private citizens and shipped them north to prison.

It actually is surprising that many more were not taken captive when one considers the thousands of confrontations with civilians which occurred when their homes were being robbed, their food taken away or destroyed, their livestock confiscated or shot, and their homes, barns, churches, some court houses and many towns and villages burned to the ground.

These civilians were listed as being captured all along his march across the state: Columbia-8, Flat Rock-5, Lynch’s Creek-5, Lexington/District-4, no location listed-3, Orangburg-2, and one taken captive each at Buford’s Bridge, Lydia, Cheraw, Branchville, Fairfield District and Liberty Hill.

The place of capture in many cases may have been near a place and not in it. This became clear since some places and dates of capture were listed as Columbia before Sherman’s forces were known to have entered the city. In the case of captives listed captured at Lynch’s Creek, they may have been captured on either side of the creek which may mean more than one county was involved.

These captives were sent north to various prisons: Hart’s Island near Long Island, New York-23, Point Look, Maryland-13, and one each to Fort Delaware; David’s Island near Long Island, New York; and a “no prison listed.” Eight of the 39 died in prison: from diarrhea-5, lung infection-1, typhoid-1, internal fever-1.

Ten of these 39 civilians were captured in Kershaw District. In the list below they are listed by name, place of residence, place of capture, date of capture. S. Crim -------, Lynch’s Creek, 2-25-65; J. M. Jeffcoat, Lexington, Lynch’s Creek, 2-23-65; Levi Kelly, Lexington, Flat Rock, 2-24-65; G. A. Lewis, 1st Mil., Flat Rock, 2-24-65; J. M. Lucas, Lexington, Flat Rock, 2-24-65; D. Ruff, Lexington, Flat Rock, 2-24-65; William Shaver, Columbia, Lynch’s Creek 2-25-65; C. F. Stinnyre, ------, Liberty Hill, 2-24-65; William D. Wannamaker, 15th S. C. Mil., Lynch’s Creek, 2-23-65; E. Wessenger, Lexington, Flat Rock, 2-24-65.

Five of the civilians captured in Kershaw District were from Lexington and were captured at Flat Rock. One wonders what set of circumstances placed them there at that time and what they did to result in being taken into captivity. In all other military actions throughout the war the Union only took captive and imprisoned 26 other South Carolina civilians. At least 11 and a likely six more were captured while involved in blockade running.

Most of these civilian prisoners, as well as the military ones, were not released from prison until June of 1865. By contrast, the Union military allowed Confederate soldiers who surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, and at Goldsboro on April 26, 1865, except for some high ranking officers, to leave for home on the surrender dates.

The prison terms for both citizens and soldiers captured on Sherman’s march may have been as much as six months if captured early in the march. If captured in March 1865, the term likely was about three months.

A search of the files in the Manuscripts Division of the South Caroliniana Library did not locate a war time or any other period manuscript, document, photograph or other source even mentioning the names of these citizen prisoners. An analysis of census information will be done in the future in an effort to learn more about them.

Dark Hours author Randoph W. Kirkland Jr. stated these civilians may have been “overactive military types.” That may explain their capture but research into the matter will continue. Kirkland’s book was the chief source of statistical information compiled by Teal for this column.

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