Waiting for the end in Sherman’s path
“The cloud of war is darkening and threatens to burst over our heads. Wilmington has fallen, Charleston and Columbia. Sherman is still making his onward march. Our own town is threatened and all is dismay and uncertainty.” So wrote Jane Elliot from her plantation home beside the Lower Little River, near the Cumberland-Harnett line. And she was right. An army that often carved a swath scores of miles wide was bearing down on her and her family. Antietam had hurt. Vicksburg and Gettysburg had left Southerners contemplating a concept that many had gamely ignored: defeat. But this was more personal. “The front” was no longer confined to Virginia or Tennessee. In a few days the front would be the Carolina Sandhills, the streets of Lumberton and Fayetteville, the Raleigh and River Roads and people’s yards, homes, pastures and fields. And, somewhere along Sherman’s route, all hell would break loose as Gen. Joe Johnston made a last, desperate bid to stop him and keep hope alive in the Confederacy. Sherman had given North Carolinians little reason to be optimistic. During the siege of Atlanta, his artillery had shelled civilian neighborhoods. After Atlanta came the March to the Sea, and a new kind of war. After making the turn north into the Carolinas, Sherman’s “hard war” intensified as he approached the capital of the state in which the long and bloody affair had begun. So fear of the unknown and the scattered reports of what was happening farther south played with the minds of the people. There were specific fears, too. There was “thievery.” Southerners — new, like everyone else, to “hard war” — had no reason to view foraging as anything else, even if the assorted camp followers, deserters and scavengers trailing Sherman’s command passed them by. Homes were being torched, and not just those of planters. And there was rape. In one sense it wouldn’t have mattered whether rape victims along the Union line of march numbered only the one whose attacker was caught in the attempt and shot by one of Sherman’s staff officers, or the “scores” of slaves who, according to a South Carolina novelist close to the action, were repeatedly assaulted by their liberators. The reality most likely was that many rape victims, then as now, never reported the crimes. But none of that was a match for the deep dread instilled in southern females and their prospective mates from childhood, generation after generation: It was not safe Out There. Today, we know that Sherman intended to apply a lighter hand in North Carolina, sparing people’s houses; and he delivered, imperfectly, on that promise. But if word of his orders reached those in his path, it was sensibly weighed against what he had already done elsewhere. And the burning of Columbia would be the exclamation point at the end of that discussion. What, then, was the appropriate response to “dismay and uncertainty”? Opinions differed. Some sent women and children away in search of safety, although this was risky as Sherman’s destination was suspected, but not known. So, writing (cryptically) about a female relative, one Bladen County Robeson reported that “We are anxious to have her at home, but Bro’ H. speaks of taking her farther up the country.” Elsewhere in Bladen another Robeson, widowed and head of household for years, simply forged ahead, warping cloth and killing hogs. Her diary entries from the last weeks of the war include only a few brief references to her soldier son — until 10 a.m. on March 12, when “the Yankees paid me a visit.” The excitement was enough to expand that day’s entry to three whole lines. No few families got all fighting-age men off the premises, reasoning that an army would be less likely to torch homes with only defenseless women and old men in them. Often, the tactic worked. Clearly, from diaries and correspondence of the time, many made an effort to hide some of their possessions. There was no way to move a crop or to conceal an arsenal, a cotton gin, a mill or a newspaper office. The former U.S. Arsenal atop Haymount hill in Fayetteville also topped Sherman’s to-do list. As for smaller fare, His foragers could ransack a house, raid a root cellar, empty a smokehouse and make off with sacks of flour and dead poultry in short order, using the ladies’ stockings as saddlebags. It made little sense to hide art works, cash or bank or railroad shares in houses that all feared would be burned. But Jane’s own menfolk gathered, late at night, to conceal unspecified items from the yankees (and, it seems, from slaves who would soon be free to forage for themselves). Most livestock — cattle, sheep, swine, poultry — would be too unruly or too noisy to be safely hidden in swamps, but “four of our best horses” were spirited away from the Elliot place ahead of the Union forces. Heavy furniture would most likely share the fate of the house. There was no hiding it — not even John Cobb’s priceless table and chairs once owned, as his granddaughter recalled, by “Colonial Governor Tryon, whose furniture had been confiscated and sold at public auction, in New Bern, after the Revolutionary War.” But some things were compact and portable. Family after family buried its cherished silverware in the garden. Fayetteville residents would be among the first North Carolinians to discover that such efforts were mostly in vain, that Sherman’s foragers (and the non-military scavengers with whom they were easily and often confused) were experts who knew all the hiding places. During the long march Sherman himself, after taking a daughter of Dixie under his wing, warned her not to use the garden because that would be the first place they’d look. On a happier if painfully ironic note, word spread that Reb households would fare better with a Union officer in the house. And that was often true. Everyone had reason to be fearful. But those who had complained about “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” had little that was worth taking and were not Sherman’s targets, although they would feel the effects of his work in many ways for many years. Even slaves had been told that the yankees would murder them, that they needed the protection of the plantation and its owner. The planters themselves, “America’s royalty,” had risen so high there was going to be a long, hard fall no matter how many buildings were burned or left standing. The loss of slaves ensured both economic ruin and the end of a pleasant and lucrative way of life — not only luxury, but a family legacy of luxury, transportable through the ages. And, as frightening as the prospect of insolvency was, there was another that rivaled it: the mere presence of so many free black people with a stake and perhaps even a voice in whatever was to come next. Gov. Zebulon Vance painted a stark picture: “Two thousand millions of property gone from the South at one blow, leaving four million freed vagabonds among us — outnumbering us in several states to the Whites — to hang as an incubus upon us and re-enact from time to time the horrors of Hayt (sic) and St. Domingo.” There it was: Losing the war meant that those whose labor had built up all that wealth would thenceforth have to be compensated for their toil. The South could not survive such a travesty. The Old South didn’t survive. But neither did emancipation and equal protection under law.