F.Y. Hedley: Marching Through Georgia

F.Y. Hedley: Marching Through Georgia

▪ Primary Source

      Marching Through Georgia is an account of Sherman's March "from the standpoint of soldiers in the ranks." F.Y. Hedley, a member of the 32nd Illinois Infantry, set out to describe how the ordinary soldier "lived, how he marched, and how he fought on skirmish line and in the line-of-battle. Its descriptions and incidents are . . . peculiar to no one soldier, but common to all, and any of the sixty thousand of 'Sherman's men' might say that his own history is contained in these pages." This view from the infantry lines, its reliance on "very complete diary entries, made at the time," and simple prose set it apart from autobiographies that are more dramatic but less truthful. The extracts reprinted here recount the 32nd Infantry's departure from Atlanta, and include detail that is often quite revealing. The preparations soldiers made before setting out—shedding tents and other heavy gear, throwing off extra clothing and bags—suggest how the march differed from other campaigns, in its speed and reliance on local sources of food and gear. The importance of the railroad to Civil War armies is made clear by the frantic carriage of supplies to the army, and the evacuation of wounded. Finally, Hedley's straightforward accounts of the burning of Atlanta and destruction of railroads speak volumes about the everyday manner in which veterans learned to treat such violence.



Chapter XXV. Stripping to the Buff.


      Events during the last week in October, and the first ten days in November, 1864, were stirring enough. The railroad, which had been completely wrecked by the enemy, was repaired from Chattanooga to Atlanta, where the bulk of Sherman's army was assembling. Every train going north was loaded to its utmost capacity with the wounded and infirm; with surplus artillery, and, in fact, almost everything that the men could not carry upon their backs. Returning trains brought only the most needed articles — hard bread, pork, coffee, sugar, and ammunition. It was evident even to those in the ranks that some important, if not desperate, undertaking was at hand. The acuteness of their perception and correctness of conclusion were surprising. The destination of the army was either east, to attack Lee, or south, to the coast. This was settling the matter almost as definitely as the General himself could, for he has said, since the war closed, that at the time he had two or three alternatives continually in mind.

      The army was now thoroughly reorganized for a new campaign. The Fourth Corps and Twenty-third Corps had been sent northward to assist General Thomas in disposing of Hood. General Sherman's immediate army now consisted of four corps, viz.: Fifteenth, temporarily commanded by General Osterhaus; Seventeenth, General Frank P. Blair; Fourteenth, General Jeff C. Davis; Twentieth, General A. S. Williams. General Dodge having gone North on account of wounds, the Sixteenth Corps was broken up, its two divisions being assigned to the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps. The army was divided into two wings, the right wing, commanded by General Howard, and the left wing commanded by General Slocum. The infantry numbered fifty-two thousand. In addition, there was a cavalry force of five thousand men under General Kilpatrick, and about fifty pieces of artillery. The grand total was a trifle under sixty thousand men.

      While the work of reorganization was going on, the paymasters were busy with their task. There were many months' arrearages due the troops, the unusual activity of the campaign preventing disbursements at the regular intervals of two months. Payment might as well have been postponed, for the army had little use for money. There were no merchants in the vicinity, and the rapid movements of the army had made the war-risk of the sutler so hazardous that he had retired from business many months before.

      The most exciting incident of the day was the presidential election. Most of the States sent to the army sworn commissioners to receive the ballots of those soldiers who would have been entitled to vote if at home. The Illinois troops, however, were debarred this privilege, an anti-war legislature of their State having refused to make the necessary provision. . . . The Illinois regiments, however, appointed judges, and took informal votes, merely by way of expressing their sentiments. In the 32d Regiment, the vote was recorded as two hundred and six for Lincoln, and fifty-eight for McClellan. The McClellan vote in this instance was unusually large, as compared with that in neighboring regiments; and the Iowa troops, who were almost unanimously Lincoln men, viewed the result with considerable contempt. In this canvass throughout the army, there was no political feeling, in the ordinary sense of the word. Very many of the soldiers who voted for Lincoln were known to be Democrats; but they recognized the fact that his reëlection meant an earnest prosecution of the war, while there was no assurance of good results coming out of the so-called "peace policy."

      The same day, November 8th, General Sherman sent out Special Field Order No. 119.

      . . .

      Accompanying this was Special Field Order, No. 120, containing directions for the march.

      Many of the troops neither saw nor heard of these orders until after the march had actually commenced; many more did not hear of them at all, in an official way. Army operations did not admit of the performance of the clerical work necessary to furnish so many copies of these papers as were needed; or, of holding dress-parades, which offered the only opportunity for promulgating orders meant for the mass of the army.



Chapter XXVI. The Last Link is Broken.


      November 8th was an eventful day. Lincoln had been elected President, the paymaster had made the grand rounds, and orders had been issued for beginning another campaign.

      A veteran regiment occupied the old railroad eating-house known as "Big Shanty," a short distance from the base of Kenesaw Mountain. The building was enclosed by a stout stockade, pierced for musketry. Vivid recollections of scenes at this and similar posts will come back to many old comrades—evenings of sport, followed by midnight alarms which called them out to meet real or imagined foes.

      That night, a merry party of soldiers gathered in an upper room of the "Shanty," which served as the adjutant's office. He shared his quarters with the post telegraph operator, whose instruments were on an improvised table. Outside, a severe storm raged, the rain descending in torrents; within, the fun grew fast and furious. The boys—there is no such fitting word to name those dear old comrades of years ago—were indulging in the amusement of a "stag-dance," and when the word came to "swing partners," the "gentleman" grasped the fingers of the one with a piece of cloth tied about his arm, to designate him as a "lady." The figures of the dance were accompanied with the melancholy thrumming of an old banjo in the hands of colored "Jerry," the mess-cook, who had unceremoniously left his master to enter upon a life of freedom.

      . . .

      While the sport was at its height, the telegraph operator called a halt, and handed to the adjutant the following dispatch which he had just received:


      Commanding Officers of all Posts:

      This is the rain I have been awaiting so long. As soon as it is over, we'll be off.

      W. T. SHERMAN.


      The orders for the great march . . . had not reached the merry-makers at Big Shanty, whose regiment was temporarily detached from its brigade. Yet the message was readily understood. Hood was so far north that it would be impossible for him to return. There were many large and greatly-swollen rivers between him and Sherman, and his pontoon-train was known to be well-nigh useless. Besides, any movement he might make southward, would bring Thomas' hardy veterans close upon his heels. He could no longer disturb this army, and Sherman need only care for what new enemy he might find in his front, and on his flanks.

      During the next three days, the railroad was pushed to its utmost capacity, trains bringing in supplies from the North, and returning loaded with surplus artillery, sick and wounded. Late in the evening of November 12th, the last train bound North rolled past Big Shanty. It would have been a windfall for the enemy. It carried many officers who had resigned, and soldiers whose terms of service had expired. Large sums of money were committed to them by their comrades, for delivery to families or friends at home. One, a surgeon, had not less than twelve thousand dollars in his valise, enclosed in ordinary envelopes endorsed with the amount and the name of the person for whom it was intended. Fortunately, no accident befell the train; but it was more than two months before this was known to the men who trusted so much to uncertain fate.

      The passing by of this train awoke strange sensations. Hearty cheers and "God bless you" came from scores of the homeward bound; as hearty cheers and fervent "Good-byes" from those left behind.

      But the brave works of both belied their hearts. The former gave an encouragement which was tinged with a feeling of dread; the latter felt an anxiety their shouts did not reveal. The departing train was the sundering of the last link connecting them with country and home. They were about to march out into a great unknown. It was as a voyage upon untried waters, beyond which might lie no shore. They knew not what course they were to pursue, what dangers they were to meet, what enemies were to oppose them. They expected battle, but what its issue would be, none could foretell. Those who might fall would leave their bones in a strange and unfriendly land forever. Then thought recurred to wife, mother, sister or sweetheart at home. What would be their fearful anxieties?

      A half-hour after the train was out of sight, the various troops along the road were set to work destroying the railroad, and by midnight a glare of light reaching from Atlanta as far northward as the eye could reach, revealed the thoroughness of their work. A regiment would scatter along one side of the road, each man picking up the end of a tie, then at the word of command, all would throw the ties end over end, the fall breaking the rails loose. Then ties and telegraph poles were piled up and fired, and the rails thrown across them. The latter were soon red-hot in the middle, and the men would pick them up and wrap them around trees, or twist them with cant-hooks into a corkscrew pattern which it was impossible to straighten. In many instances a dozen iron rails were twisted around a tree or a telegraph-pole. The men worked with a will, seeming to take a savage delight in destroying everything that could by any possibility be made use of by their enemies. They attained great proficiency in these methods; and after this fashion they absolutely destroyed three-fourths of the railroad between Chattanooga and Atlanta before beginning the great march; and, afterward, every mile of track they encountered from Atlanta to Savannah.

      These were the scenes transpiring as far north as Sherman's army extended. Each detachment, immediately upon accomplishing the work in its own vicinity, marched rapidly toward Atlanta. On the night of the 14th, the troops occupying Big Shanty set the torch to building and stockade, and followed the remainder of the army. There was now not a federal soldier between Atlanta and Chattanooga, and the hills and plains, which had lately echoed the fearful din of artillery and musketry, and had been alive with masses of fiercely contending human beings, were as still and desolate as if a demon of destruction had passed over.

      But there were monuments testifying to the fearful struggle—trees riven by cannon shot, and broken-down caissons. Here, there, and everywhere, were graves of those who wore the blue and those who wore the gray, each surmounted by a board upon which were rudely cut by knives of comrades, the name, company and regiment of him who lay beneath. But amid all the graves, not a single epitaph! There was no time for sentiment, and death's work had no novelty here.

      On the night of November 15th, the torch was applied to the railroad shops, foundries, and every one of the many buildings that had been used in fitting out the armies of the enemy in this vast "workshop of the confederacy," as Atlanta was called. The flames spread rapidly, and when morning came, it is doubtful whether there were a score of buildings remaining in the city, except in the very outskirts. Sherman had determined to render the place utterly incapable of any more service to the enemy, and with this end in view all the inhabitants had been removed weeks before.

      The Twentieth Corps, which had garrisoned Atlanta while the remainder of the army was pursuing Hood northward, were the last to leave the city, and as they marched out, the fine silver band of the 33rd Massachusetts—who that ever heard it, will ever cease to remember its glorious harmonies?—played "John Brown." The men took up the words wedded to the music, and, high above the roaring flames, above the crash of falling walls, above the fierce crackling of thousands of small arm cartridges in the burning buildings, rose the triumphant refrain, "His truth is marching on!"

      For picturesqueness and suggestiveness, the scene was one never to be forgotten.



Chapter XXVII. On the March.


      The army was now fairly out of Atlanta and on its way to the sea. It was a remarkable body of men, the like of which the world never saw before, and may never see again.

      Sixty thousand in round numbers—it was an army of veterans, who had served an apprenticeship of more than three years at their profession, and learned nearly all that was worth knowing, at least far more than their generals knew three years before. Their brilliant achievements had already gone into history, furnishing themes for poet and scenes for painter. Their calendar contained scarcely a day that did not commemorate some more or less important battle, skirmish, or march. Each regiment had been reduced by the casualties of constant service to less than one-third its numerical strength at the outset. He was a fortunate colonel who had three hundred men remaining out of the round thousand he enlisted at home; thirty men made far more than an average company; there were many which mustered less than a score. A brigade did not parade a longer line than did one of its regiments when it went into service.

      This army of veterans was also an army of boys. The old men and the big men had been very generally worn out and sent home or to the hospital. It was the "little devils" (as Sherman once called them in the hearing of the writer) who remained, and could always be depended upon to carry their load, march all day, and be ready for a frolic when they went into bivouac at night. Very many of them, notwithstanding three years of soldiering, were not old enough to vote. Many a regimental commander was not thirty years of age; and the majority of line and staff officers lacked a great deal of this advanced age. But they had been in the service from the beginning, and what they did not know about campaigning was not worth inquiring into. Each soldier was practically a picked man. Such had been the ratio of casualties that he may be said to have been the sole survivor of four men who had set out from Cairo in 1861; all but he having succumbed to disease or death.

      . . .

      This army, which had been marching light from Chattanooga to Atlanta, was now simply reduced to what it had on, and that was not much. . . . What few tents had been smuggled as far south as Atlanta were now entirely discarded, and only a few "flies" for the various headquarters, and one to each regiment to shelter the field-desks of the adjutant and quartermaster, were retained. A little furniture was supposed to be necessary to the last named officers, but they generally reduced this in about the same proportion as everything else. The greater part of their "office" was carried in breast-pocket and saddle-bags, making more room under the "fly" for comrades who would otherwise have been entirely shelterless. The "fly" was a fair cover in fine weather, when shelter was not needed; but, being open at both ends, it was a sorry makeshift in a rain storm. Each soldier was supposed to carry half of a shelter-tent, which, combined with the counterpart carried by a comrade, made reasonable protection for two, but many of the men regarded them with contempt. The average soldier cared only for a blanket, and this he carried in a roll, swung over his shoulder, the ends being tied together, meeting under the opposite arm. A majority of the men discarded knapsacks altogether; those who yet clung to them carried only a shirt and a pair or two of socks. Each soldier had forty rounds of ammunition in his cartridge-box and one hundred and sixty more elsewhere upon his person. His cooking utensils were a tin oyster can, in which to make his coffee, and some times one-half of a canteen to serve as a skillet, or frying-pan. His haversack contained a liberal amount of coffee, sugar and salt, a very small fragment of salt pork, and three days' rations of hard bread. This supply was habitually to last him ten days. It was expected that he would "skirmish 'round" and levy upon the country for such food as would be a fair equivalent for that large fraction of the army rations of which he was necessarily deprived.

      . . .

      The soldier's outfit was not complete without a "deck" of cards, and these were carried in the pocket so as to be convenient at any halt on the road. Frequent thumbing had so worn these treasured pasteboards, that in many instances it was an absolute impossibility for one to tell what card he held, if so be he took a hand with a party having a "deck" with which he was unacquainted. It is to be hoped the moralist will not grudge the "boys" the amusement they derived from the game. There were no newspapers, no circulating libraries, no Y.M.C.A., not even a tract in that desolate region.

      To sum up, no army ever marched with less impedimenta, and none adapted itself so completely or cheerfully to its conditions.

      The army marched in four columns, the various corps pursuing parallel roads. These columns were sometimes five, sometimes fifteen miles apart. Their combined front was from forty to sixty miles, for by day the skirmishers and flankers of each corps spread out until they met those of the corps next to them on either side, so that if anything unusual happened in any portion of the army, information was almost immediately given to the other commands. By night the positions of the various columns could generally be distinguished from their fires.

      In front of each corps marched a regiment of cavalry or mounted infantry. Frequently these troops, with the aid of the infantry brigade at the head of the column, were able to brush aside the enemy without much trouble, and without halting the main column; and it was only when crossing a stream, where the passage was contested, that anything like a general line of battle was formed. Each brigade in the column took its turn in the advance, and likewise each regiment in the brigade. A cavalry brigade under the dashing Kilpatrick, with a few light guns, moved on this flank or that, as the emergency required.

      The itinerary of the march of the Seventeenth Corps (whose movements this narrative mainly follows) shows the distance traveled between Atlanta and Savannah to have been two hundred and ninety-five miles. The crow's flight would make it much shorter, but he would not make so many flank movements or circuitous routes. The actual march consumed eighteen days. Nine days were spent in crossing streams where the passage was contested, or waiting for supporting columns. The army reached the defenses in front of Savannah, December 10th, but did not gain an entrance to the city until nearly two weeks later.



Source: F.Y. Hedley, Marching Through Georgia: Pen-Pictures of Every-Day Life in General Sherman's Army . . . (1884).

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Universalium. 2010.

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