Book Review

Sherman’s gift to President Lincoln

By Michael Kenney
December 25, 2009

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On Nov. 15, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union Army departed a battered, burning Atlanta to embark on a march through Georgia to a destination Sherman was keeping secret.

In an attempt to tighten the shroud around his men’s movements, Sherman ordered telegraph lines to be cut so sightings of the group could not be reported. Northern newspapers, trying to follow the story, were left to rely on sketchy accounts of the whereabouts of the soldiers, whom some dubbed “the Lost Army.’’

“General Sherman’s Christmas: Savannah, 1864’’ recounts the tale of Sherman’s March to the Sea, weaving in poignant anecdotes of Southerners, black and white, who found themselves in the army’s path.

It is the latest of Stanley Weintraub’s military-at-Christmas accounts, which include “Silent Night: The Story of the 1914 Christmas Truce,’’ “General Washington’s Christmas Farewell,’’ and “11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944.’’

Generally this story is well-told, historically accurate, and compelling. But as the book includes only one poorly drafted map to go on, some readers will have difficulty following the march. But I think most will find their efforts to stick with it rewarded.

As Sherman headed south, bypassing Macon and Augusta, Confederate military leaders had begun to suspect that Savannah, on the coast 300 miles southeast of Atlanta, was the target.

Southern families had been marking the Union Army’s approach by the distant sight of smoke from burning railroad depots, warehouses, and not a few houses, the destruction reflecting Sherman’s “scorched earth’’ strategy to destroy Southern infrastructure, economy, and the will to wage war.

The monthlong march was met with little significant military resistance, so was marked largely by the army’s encounters with civilians. And those make for interesting reading.

In one, a Union foraging party comes upon a lonely mud-chinked, log cabin that appears deserted. But inside, soldiers find two “wee bits of girls.’’ “Mamma gone, Mamma gone,’’ said one of the black children.

They were “shy as young partridges,’’ the captain wrote, but the soldiers fed and bathed the children and then, rather than abandoning them, hoisted them on pack mules and brought them along. “They would celebrate Christmas in Savannah,’’ writes Weintraub, a professor emeritus at Penn State University.

In another, Weintraub relates a story of an elderly slave who approached Sherman outside a farmhouse near Milledgeville where the general and his staff had spent the night. As Sherman and the man talked, a member of the general’s staff, a native Georgian who had joined the Union Army, recognized the gentleman as “the favorite slave’’ of his uncle who had lived nearby.

When the old man recognized the young officer, according to another officer’s account of the incident, “he fell on his knees and thanked God that he had found his young master alive and along with the Yankees.’’

The Union Army reached the outskirts of Savannah on Dec. 10, preparing for a bitter siege.

The expected siege never occurred as the city’s Confederate defenders had retreated under cover of darkness, and Union patrols entered the city on Dec. 21. That afternoon, the city’s mayor surrendered the city. Sherman, clearly feeling proud of his army’s accomplishment, sent a telegram to President Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas-gift the city of Savannah.’’ It arrived at the White House on Christmas Eve.

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

GENERAL SHERMAN’S CHRISTMAS: Savannah, 1864 By Stanley Weintraub

Smithsonian, 238 pp., illustrated, $24.99

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