The Nero of the Nineteenth Century: Eyewitness Accounts of William T. Sherman’s Destructive March to the Sea

"Oh! The Horror of That Night!"
by Mrs. Nora Canning
Savannah, Georgia

About the 24th of November we heard that Sherman’s army was in possession of Milledgeville and was on its way to Savannah, burning and destroying everything in its course. Our home being directly on the wagon road from Milledgeville in Savannah, we of course expected them to lay everything in ashes that they could find.

On Sunday, the 28th of November, we heard that the destroyers were encamped just above our upper plantation, about four miles from our home. That night the heavens looked as if they were on fire from the glare of hundreds of burning houses. About noon, just as we were ready to sit down to dinner, a little negro boy came running in half breathless from fright.

"Marster," he cried, "dey’s coming down de lane."

"Who is coming.?" asked his master.

"Two white man’s wid blue coats on," the little negro answered.

Hundreds of the "Bluecoats" could be seen everywhere. One could not look in any direction without seeing them. They searched every place. Some of the men insisted that my husband should go down to the swamp with them to show them where some syrup was hidden. He told them he was old and feeble and was not able to walk so far. One of them thereupon went and brought a mule to put him on it and three of them started with him to the swamp.

While my husband was absent the destroyers set fire to the ginhouse, in which were stored over two hundred bales of cotton and several bales of kersey, which we had hidden between the bales of cotton. The granary, in which were several hundred bushels of wheat, was also set on fire.

One man, who had been particularly insulting, came up to me and laughed harshly. "Well, madam," he said, sneeringly, "how do you like the looks of our little fire? We have seen a great many such within the last few weeks."

Just then I saw my husband coming up on a bareback mule with a Yankee soldier on each side of him holding him on. He was brought up to the piazza, lifted from the mule and brought into the house. They took him into a small room and I followed. He turned to me and requested me to give the men his watch.

"Why?" I asked. "They have no business with your watch."

"Give it to them," he repeated with a gasp, "and let them go. I am almost dead."

I got my husband to his room as soon as possible. Imagine my horror, when he revived sufficiently to talk, to hear that the fiends had taken him to the swamp and hanged him. He said he suspected no harm until he got about two miles from the house when they stopped the mule, and said, "Now, old man, you have got to tell us where your gold is hidden." He told them he had no gold. They cursed him and told him that story would not do, then they said they had brought him to the swamp to make him tell where it was. He repeated his first statement, and told them he had no gold. They then took him to a tree that bent over the path, tied a rope around his neck, threw it over a projecting limb and drew him up until his feet were off the ground. He did not quite lose consciousness when they let him down and said: "Now, were is your gold?" He told them the same story, whereupon they raised him up again, and that time, he said, he felt as if he was suffocating. They again lowered him to the ground and cried out fiercely: "Now, tell us where that gold is or we will kill you, and your wife will never know what has become of you."

"I have told you the truth. I have no gold," he again repeated. "I have a gold watch at the house but nothing else."

They then lifted him up and let him fall with more force than before. He heard a sound as of water rushing through his head and then a blindness came over him, and a dry choking sensation was felt in his throat as he lost consciousness…. When he was able to sit up they placed him upon the mule and brought him to the house to get his watch.

Oh! the horror of that night! None but God will ever know what I suffered. There my husband lay with scorching fever, his tongue parched and swollen and his throat dry and sore. He begged for water and there was not a drop to be had. The Yankees had cut all the well ropes and stolen the buckets, and there was no water nearer than half a mile.

Saturday morning we looked out upon a scene of desolation and ruin. We could hardly believe it was our home. One week before it was one of the most beautiful places in the state. Now it was a vast wreck. Gin-houses, packing screws, granary — all lay in ashes. Not a fence was to be seen for miles. The corn crop had not been gathered, and the army had turned their stock into the fields and destroyed what they had not carried off. Burning cotton and grain filled the air with smoke, and even the sun seemed to hide its face from so gloomy a picture.

I remember well the distress of one of the negro women. She was sitting on her doorsteps swaying her body back and forth… and making a mournful noise, a kind of moaning, a low sorrowful sound, occasionally wringing her hands and crying out. As we approached her, she raised her head.

"Marster," she said, rolling her eyes strangely, "What kind of folks dese here Yankees? Dey won’t even let de dead rest in de grave."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"You know my chile what I bury last week? Dey take em up and left em on top of de groun for de hog to root. What you tink of dat, sir?"

Her story was true. We found that the vandals had gone to the graveyard and, seeing a newly made grave, had dug down into it and taken up the little coffin containing a dead baby, no doubt supposing treasure had been buried there. When they discovered their mistake, they left it above ground, as the poor mother had expressed it, "for the hog to root."

We soon discovered that almost everything we had hidden had been found, and either carried off or wantonly destroyed. All around the grove were carcasses of cows, sheep, and hogs, some with only the hind quarters gone and the rest left to spoil. There were piles of carcasses all around where the army had camped. Some of them had been killed and left without being touched. The question of getting anything to eat was a very serious one. The stores were all burned, not one being left within thirty-five miles. The mills were all destroyed, or partially so, railroads were torn up, bridges broken, all our stock carried off and our fences burned. There seemed to be nothing left to live on during the winter. Oh! the first of December, 1864, is indelibly impressed upon my mind.


"Debauchery… Afflicted on the Negroes"
by Dr. Daniel Trezevant
Columbia, South Carolina

The Yankees’ gallantry, brutality and debauchery were afflicted on the negroes…. The case of Mr. Shane’s old negro woman, who, after being subjected to the most brutal indecency from seven of the Yankees, was, at the proposition of one of them to "finish the old Bitch," put into a ditch and held under water until life was extinct….

Mrs. T.B.C. was seized by one of the soldiers, an officer, and dragged by the hair and forced to the floor for the purpose of sensual enjoyment. She resisted as far as practical- held up her young infant as a plea for sparing her and succeeded, but they took her maid, and in her presence, threw her on the floor and had connection with her….

They pinioned Mrs. McCord and robbed her. They dragged Mrs. Gynn by the hair of her head about the house. Mrs. G. told me of a young lady about 16, Miss Kinsler, who… three officers brutally ravished and who became crazy from it….


"My God! I Pity Your City!"
by John T. Trowbridge
Northern journalist

Early in the evening

[of February 17] as the inhabitants, quieted by General Sherman’s assurances, were about retiring to their beds, a rocket went up in the lower part of the city. Another in the center, and a third in the upper part of town, succeeded. Dr. R.W. Gibbes was in the street near one of the Federal guards, who exclaimed on seeing the signals, "My God! I pity your city!" Mr. Goodwyn, who was mayor at the time, reports a similar remark from an Iowa soldier. "Your city is doomed! These rockets are the signal!" Immediately afterwards fires broke out in twenty different places.

The dwellings of Confederate Treasury Secretary George A. Trenholm and General Wade Hampton were among the first to burst into flames. Soldiers went from house to house, spreading the conflagration. Fireballs, composed of cotton saturated with turpentine, were thrown in at doors and windows. Many houses were entered and fired by means of combustible liquids poured upon beds and clothing, ignited by wads of burning cotton, or by matches from a soldier’s pocket. The fire department came out in force, but the hose-pipes were cut to pieces and the men driven from the streets. At the same time universal plundering and robbery began.

The burning of the house of R.W. Gibbes, an eminent physician, well-known to the scientific world, was thus described to me by his son:

"He had a guard at the front door; but some soldiers climbed in at the rear of the house, got into the parlor, heaped together sheets, poured turpentine over them, piled chairs on them, and set them on fire. As he remonstrated with them, they laughed at him. The guard at the front door could do nothing, for if he left his post, other soldiers would come in that way.

"The guard had a disabled foot, and my father had dressed it for him. He appeared very grateful for the favor, and earnestly advised my father to save all his valuables. The house was full of costly paintings, and curiosities of art and natural history, and my father did not know what to save and what to leave behind. He finally tied up in a bedquilt a quantity of silver and gems. As he was going out the door the house was already on fire behind him — the guard said, ‘Is that all you can save?" "It is all I can carry,’ said my father. ‘Leave that with me,’ said the guard; ‘I will take charge of it, while you go back and get another bundle.’ My father thought he was very kind. He went back for another bundles, and while he was gone, the guard ran off on his lame leg with all the gems and silver."

The soldiers, in their march through Georgia, and thus far into South Carolina, had a wonderful skill in finding treasures. They had two kinds of divining-rods," negroes and bayonets. What the unfaithful servants of the rich failed to reveal, the other instruments, by thorough and constant practice, were generally able to discover. On the night of the fire, a thousand men could be seen in the yards and gardens of Columbia by the glare of the flames, probing the earth with bayonets.

The dismay and terror of the inhabitants can scarcely be conceived. They had two enemies, the fire in their house and the soldiery without. Many who attempted to bear away portions of their goods were robbed by the way. Trunks and bundles were snatched from the hands of hurrying fugitives, broken open, rifled, and then hurled into the flames. Ornaments were plucked from the necks and arms of ladies, and caskets from their hands. Even children and negroes were robbed.

Fortunately the streets of Columbia were broad, else many of the fugitives must have perished in the flames which met them on all sides. The exodus of homeless families, flying between walls of fire, was a terrible and piteous spectacle. Some fled to the parks; others to the open ground without the city; numbers sought refuge in the graveyards. Isolated and unburned dwellings were crowded to excess with fugitives.

Three-fifths of the city in bulk, and four-fifths in value, were destroyed. The loss of property is estimated at thirty millions. No more respect seems to have been shown for buildings commonly deemed sacred, than for any others. The churches were pillaged, and afterwards burned. St. Mary’s College, a Catholic institution, shared their fate. The Catholic Convent, to which had been confided for safety many young ladies, not nuns, and stores of treasure, was ruthlessly sacked. The soldiers drank the sacramental wine, and profaned with fiery draughts of vulgar whiskey the goblets of the communion services. Some went off reeling under the weight of priestly robes, holy vessels and candlesticks.

Yet the army of Sherman did not in its wildest orgies forget its splendid discipline. "When will these horrors cease?" asked a lady of an officer at her house. "You will hear the bugles at sunrise," he replied; "then they will cease, and not till then." He prophesied truly. "At daybreak, on Saturday morning," said Gibbes, "I saw two men galloping through the streets, blowing horns. Not a dwelling was fired after that; immediately the town became quiet."

Some curious incidents occurred. One man’s treasure, concealed by his garden fence, escaped the soldiers’ divining-rods, but was afterwards discovered by a hitched horse pawing the earth from the buried box. Some hidden guns had defied the most diligent search, until a chicken, chased by a soldier ran into a hole beneath the house. The soldier, crawling after and putting in his hand for the chicken, found the guns.

A soldier, passing in the streets and seeing some children playing with a beautiful little greyhound, amused himself by beating its brains out. Some treasures were buried in cemeteries, but they did not always escape the search of the soldiers, who showed a strong distrust of new-made graves.

Of the desolation and horrors our army left behind it, no description can be given. Here is a single instance: At a factory on the Congaree, just out of Columbia, there remained for six weeks a pile of sixty-five dead horses and mules, shot by Sherman’s men. It was impossible to bury them, all the shovels, spades, and other farming implements of the kind having been carried off or destroyed.

Columbia must have been a beautiful city, judging by its ruins. Many fine residences still remain on the outskirts, but the entire heart of the city is a wilderness of crumbling walls, naked chimneys, and trees killed by the flames. The fountains of the desolated gardens are dry, the basins cracked; the pillars of the houses are dismantled, or overthrown; the marble steps are broken. All these attest to the wealth and elegance which one night of fire and orgies sufficed to destroy.


A Souvenir of Sherman’s Bummers
Letter of Lieutenant Thomas J. Myers
to Mrs. Thomas J. Myers, Boston, Massachusetts
Found in the Streets of Columbia, S. Carolina

Camp Near Camden, S.C.
Feb. 26, 1865

My Dear Wife — I have no time for particulars. We have had a glorious time in this State. Unrestricted license to burn and plunder was the order of the day. The chivalry have been stripped of most of their valuables. Gold watches, silver pitchers, cups, spoons, forks, &c., are as common in camp as blackberries. The terms of plunder are as follows: Each company is required to exhibit the results of its operations at any given place — one-fifth and first choice falls to the share of the commander-in-chief and staff; one-fifth to the corps commanders and staff; one-fifth to field officers of regiments, and two-fifths to the company.

Officers are not allowed to join these expeditions without disguising themselves as privates. One of our corps commanders borrowed a suit of rough clothes from one of my men, and was successful in this place. He got a large quantity of silver (among other things an old-time milk pitcher) and a very fine gold watch from a Mrs. DeSaussure, at this place. DeSaussure was one of the F.F.V.’s of South Carolina, and was made to fork over liberally. Offiers over the rank of captain are not made to put their plunder in the estimate for general distribution. This is very unfair, and for that reason, in order to protect themselves, subordinate officers and privates keep back every thing that they can carry about their persons, such as rings, earrings, breat pins, &c., of which, if I ever get home, I have about a quart. I am not joking — I have at elast a quart of jewelry for you and all the girls, and some No. 1 diamond rings and pins among them. General Sherman has silver and gold enough to start a bank. His share in gold watches alone at Columbia was two hundred and seventy-five. But I said I could not go into particulars. All the general officers and many besides had valuables of every description, down to the embroidered ladies’ pocket handkerchiefs. I have my share of them, too. We took gold and silver enough from the damned rebels to have redeemed thier infernal currency twice over. This, (the currency,) whenever we came across it, we burned, as we considered it utterly worthless.

I wish all the jewelry this army has could be carried to the "Old Bay State." It would deck her out in glorious stle; but, alas! it will be scattered all over the North and Middle States. The damned niggers, as a general rule, prefer to stay at home, particularly after they found out that we only wanted the able-bodied men, (and, to tell you the truth, the youngest and best-looking women.) Sometimes we took off whole families and plantations of niggers, by way of repaying secessionists. But the useless part of them we soon manage to lose; sometimes in crossing rivers, sometimes in other ways.

I shall write to you again from Wilmington, Goldsboro’, or some other place in North Carolina. The order to march has arrived, and I must close hurriedly. Love to grandmother and aunt Charlotte. Take care of yourself and children. Don’t show this letter out of the family.

Your affectionate husband,
THOMAS J. MYERS, Lieut., &c.

P.S. I will send this by the first flag of truce to be mailed, unless I have an opportunity of sending it to Hilton Head. Tell Sallie I am saving a pearl braclet and ear-rings for her; but Lambert got the necklace and breast-pin of the same set. I am trying to trade him out of them. These were taken from the Misses Jamison, daughters of the President of the South Carolina Secession Convention. We found these on our trip through Georgia.