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The Last Days of the Confederacy: Sherman in the Carolinas

In the early months of 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman's name came to embody the embattled Confederacy's worst fears. Sherman left Georgia devastated in December 1864, and then turned his forces northward to begin the Carolinas Campaign—an offensive that caused the collapse of the Confederacy's Western forces and removed nearly all hope of Southern victory.

In the December 31, 1864, entry of her diary, Columbia, South Carolina, resident Emma Florence LaConte writes, "Georgia has been desolated. The resistless flood has swept through that state, leaving but a desert to mark its track … They are preparing to hurl destruction upon the State they hate most of all, and Sherman the brute avows his intention of converting South Carolina into a wilderness. Not one house, he says, shall be left standing, and his licentious troops—whites and negroes—shall be turned loose to ravage and violate" (p.1).

Sherman's men met their first resistance in South Carolina on February 3, when Confederate General Lafayette McLaws tried unsuccessfully to prevent the right flank of the Union advance from crossing the Salkehatchie River in Bamberg County. By February 17, Sherman's men took Columbia, and LeConte, labeling the day's entries by the hour, writes at 1pm: "I ran upstairs to my bedroom windows just in time to see the U.S. flag run up over the State house. O what a horrid sight! what a degradation! After four long bitter years of bloodshed and hatred, now to float there at last! That hateful symbol of despotism!" (p.28). Over the following hours and days, LeConte writes of the "horror, misery, and agony" that accompany the occupation (p.29).

With Columbia subdued, Sherman's forces continued their advance toward North Carolina. Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who was living in Chapel Hill, writes in The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina of the sense of foreboding that permeated her community as they anticipated Sherman's wrath: "What the fate of our pleasant towns and villages and of our isolated farmhouses would be, we could easily read by the light of the blazing roof-trees that lit up the path of the advancing army. General Sherman's principles were well known … and had been thoroughly put in practice by him in his further progress since. To shorten the war by increasing its severity: this was his plan—simple, and no doubt to a certain extent effective" (p.31).

Spencer compares Sherman to Lord Cornwallis, who invaded the Carolinas during the American Revolution, but argues that Sherman is surprisingly more brutal, considering that he was "the representative of sister States, seeking to reclaim 'wayward sisters,'" but nevertheless left "waste and burning track behind it of sixty miles' width!" (p.44). Later in her book, however, she speaks more redemptively of Sherman, claiming that he "manifested an eager anxiety to save the South from further devastation. Perhaps a late remorse had touched him; but however that may be, in the civil policy he has always advocated toward the South, he has shown himself at once generous and politic. If he had pursued an equally far-sighted course as a soldier; if he had advocated a humane forbearance toward the defenseless people who were crushed beneath his march; if he had enforced a strict discipline in his army, and chosen to appear as a restorer rather than as a destroyer, there are few at the South who would not join to pronounce him the hero of the war on the Northern side …" (p.182).

On March 19, Sherman's forces engaged CSA General Joseph Johnston's men at the Battle of Bentonville, the last major Confederate offensive of the Civil War. Raleigh surrendered in early April, and Johnston officially surrendered at Bennett Place, near Durham, on April 26.

LeConte's narrative is part of DocSouth's "First Person Narratives of the American South" collection, which in addition to Civil War accounts includes diaries, travel writings, and ex-slave narratives written by Southerners. Spencer's narrative is part of "True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina". Civil War enthusiasts will also enjoy "The Southern Homefront 1861-1865" collection, which presents documents related to all aspects of Southern life during the Civil War.

Jennifer L. Larson