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At Exit 106 in GA, I-95s To: Jimmy DeLoach Pkwy No Services near Savannah, GA
You are about to cross the line… a line of march that lives even today in the minds of Georgians.
If you were stopped right here on the morning of December 20, 1864 you would encounter tens of thousands of soldiers in Blue. You may hear the groans of the suffering, the whinnying of horses and the creak of wagon wheels. No doubt there would be smells of breakfast fires commingled with the sweat of men who had been marching for weeks. You would also see bedraggled former slaves who camped nearby under the protection of the Union Army.
On December 20 in 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops arrived outside Savannah. Sherman’s army had departed Atlanta on November 15 for his so-called March to the Sea.
History is best told in the words of the combatants themselves. As the sounds of war approached, R.D. Arnold, the Mayor of Savannah, wrote this letter to Sherman:
“The city of Savannah was last night evacuated by the Confederate military and is now entirely defenseless. As chief magistrate of the city I respectfully request your protection of the lives and private property of the citizens and of our women and children. Trusting that this appeal to your generosity and humanity may favorably influence your action, I have the honor to be, your obedient servant.”
Then, the Mayor himself rode out to offer the surrender of the city. After devastating almost every town and homestead in his path, General Sherman surprisingly accepted the terms. Sherman promised to protect Savannah’s citizens and their property. By 8am December 21, Savannah was in Union hands.
Still, visitors to any of Savannah’s homes are not likely to find a portrait of General Sherman. In another Georgia City many miles northwest of here, even today Atlantans jokingly credit Sherman for inspiring an "urban renewal project”.
Atlanta had been the railroad and armaments hub of the Confederacy. Knock out Atlanta and the Southern war effort would die.
Nobody knew that better than Sherman. Starting in July, his torch throwing soldiers reduced 4000 homes to ashes.
Throughout Georgia, they set fire to plantations, blew up factories, slaughtered cattle and turned the rails into twisted steel. They occupied Atlanta for two months. Only a few churches, a medical college and about 400 homes were saved. Then, without supply lines to the North, Sherman's army marched toward the sea. The army would live off the land -- which meant every home and farm was a source of sustenance. The soldiers took everything and left nothing.
But Sherman had plans for Savannah all the same. It would pose as a propaganda piece. A Christmas gift to the Union. And even perhaps a premonition that the north could be forgiving of the Rebel South. In the final five months of the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman sent a message to President Lincoln: his three hundred mile “March to the Sea” was done. He had split the heart of the South in two.
Sherman’s letter was published in the December 26 edition of The New York Times. It read, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift: the city of Savannah.”
President Lincoln wrote back to Sherman:
“Many, many thanks for your Christmas-gift, the capture of Savannah. When you were about to leave Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours.”
After Savannah, Sherman did not however lay down his scorched earth policy. Sherman’s troops marched north through the Carolinas, again destroying everything in their path, including the South Carolina capital of Columbia.
Sherman’s tactics remain one of the most controversial subjects of the war. Many argue that he brought unnecessary hardship upon the Southern people. Like his Commanding General, U.S Grant, General Sherman believed the sooner the end of the war, the better for everyone. And being chivalrous just prolonged the suffering interminably.
This then became the future of warfare. It was called "Total War”. But lucky Savannah managed to avoid Total War.
Get off Exit 106 to the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway. It will lead you to an untouched antebellum gem that is the city of Savannah. You will be riding along with tens of thousands of soldiers who trod the road before you. Their footsteps promised hell for some -- but hope for many others.
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