"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Living Through The Civil War–Personal Accounts Of Sherman’s March, The Siege Of Atlanta, And The Destruction Of The South

The Hutchins B&B in Erhardt South Carolina was directly in the path of Sherman’s army as he led it through the state after having defeated the Confederate Army in Georgia and destroyed Atlanta.  In his own words his march through South Carolina, the state that precipitated the war by attacking Union forces at Fort Sumter, the first state to secede from the Union, and the most rebellious of the South, would be punitive.  After the South saw the power, determination, and absolute brutality of his army, it would never, ever rise again.

Sherman’s march through Georgia from Chattanooga to Atlanta was less purposely destructive and more ‘living off the land’.  The army did indeed burn and pillage as it headed for the coast, but it was to destroy all munitions and armaments and provision its troops.  Nevertheless, it was remembered by those who lived through it as the most frightening event of the war.

Image result for images general sherman

Earl Hutchins, the owner of the B&B was 6’7”, 82 years old who, many people said, looked very much like John Brown from Potawatomie, Kansas.
Brown was  '”a crazed man” said Hutchins, “and a crusading abolitionist who killed, burned, and savaged his way to Harper’s Ferry as though he was liberating Jerusalem itself. Even the thought that I look like that delusional, marauding Yankee is ridiculous. I am the great-grandson of a Confederate major and slaveholder; grandson of a boy who witnessed Sherman’s depredations from the very window of his bedroom and watched his soldiers burn the barn, slaughter the cattle, rape his aunt, cut the slaves loose, and sledgehammer every piece of furniture in the house looking for silver; and son of a father who fought the vile arrogation of power of the Federal Government until his dying day.”
Image result for images john brown abolitionist

Hutchins Run was settled in 1820 by Earl Hutchins’ great-grandfather who had come from Virginia where he had been farming tobacco. He had a small plot of land which was getting tired, and he was himself tired of selling to the Carter family and their merchants and always in debt to them. When the Carters moved to the more fertile land of North Carolina, Hutchins’ great-grandfather trekked inland to the homestead at Hutchins Run.

With his wife, three children, and five slaves he travelled by steamer to Charleston then by horse cart and mules over some of the worst, swampiest, insect- and snake-infested terrain in the South; but when he got to Hutchins Run he was happy. The land – some 300 acres – was high, dry, well-watered, and not far from a trading post. There were few problems with Indians, and other settler families close enough to help out but not too close for comfort. He, his family, and the slaves cleared the land, built the cabin Hutchins uses for the B&B, and started farming.

The house Hutchins lived in was built by my great-grandfather in 1845. At that time more land had been cleared, and the family raised dairy cows and some beef cattle. The number of slaves was around 15 which never changed until the War.

Hutchins’ grandfather was born and raised in that house and saw everything destroyed by Sherman’s army. Reconstruction was a bad time for everyone in the South; and the only consolation was that my grandfather never had to sell his land because of debt. “Nor”, said Hutchins, “ had any Yankee carpetbaggers or freed slaves attempting to appropriate it.”
“Our land was farmland”, Hutchins like to tell, “ but hard duty land – not the flat fields of the Northern Neck or the lands east of the Shenandoah where my folks had settled; and certainly not the Mississippi Delta. It was hilly and rocky, and every acre cleared was an acre of sweat and blood. For a hundred years harmony prevailed. Plantation owners lived in Aiken, Charleston, and Georgetown; farmers like me developed the rural inland counties; and poor whites and colored picked cotton and worked the tenant farms. Labor and capital were in equilibrium. Society was structured, predictable, stable, and peaceful.
Hutchins liked to show the few tourists who stayed at his B&B, the bullet holes around the upstairs window of the main house. 
“It wasn’t enough for Sherman’s men to shoot up the livestock and burn the stables, they had to take aim at the house where my grandmother and my mother were still living.  Every pane of glass was shot through, shattered, and splintered with shards on the floor, on the beds, and on every table and chair.  When they were sure that they had killed everyone on the property, they raided the chicken coops, corralled the horses in the field, and tied the cow to the back of the artillery wagon. My grandmother and mother somehow survived, and stayed on the property, eking a living from the animals they had hidden in the woods beyond the back forty, the corn fields, and their vegetable garden.”
The accounts of the destruction of Atlanta and Sherman’s march through Georgia described by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind, are, according to most historians, accurate.  Like Vicksburg, the city of Atlanta was under siege for weeks, and what wasn’t destroyed by the constant shelling, was burned to the ground.  Sherman was determined, confident, and utterly merciless; and yet understandable and, within the context of military engagement of the times, moral.  The fact that the civilian population was complicit in the rise of the Confederacy was beside the point.  Only if the civilian population could be killed, terrorized, and completely demoralized would the South capitulate.   There was no compassion for the region that defied Lincoln, the idea of union, and the North; the region that started the bloody conflict that resulted in over 500,000 Union military and civilian deaths.

Image result for historical images siege of atlanta civil war

Sherman was not the first to use all-out warfare.  Military leaders since Genghis Khan in the 12th century have acted no differently.  Truman’s decision to firebomb Dresden and bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final months of the war were less to destroy enemy encampments and materiel, but to show the Nazis and the Japanese that the United States and its Allies would stop at nothing to force surrender and complete capitulation.

Image result for images genghis khan

The siege of Atlanta, the total, destruction of all buildings and infrastructure was no different than accounts of the Battle of Britain during which Nazi bombers blasted London for weeks until forced back by the RAF.  An owner of a B&B in Vicksburg showed off the cannonball which was still lodged in the living room floor of his house.  He was a descendant of the owners of the house which somehow survived the shelling from Grant’s gunboats on the Mississippi River.  He told stories similar to Mitchell’s and Hitchins’.  The Union Army withheld nothing to bring the city of Vicksburg and its Confederate defenders to heel.  The siege lasted over a year. 

Mitchell describes the siege of Atlanta:
Within the space of a few days the battles of Atlanta and of Ezra Church were fought, and both of them were major engagements which made Peachtree Creek seem like a skirmish.
But the Yankees kept coming back for more. They had suffered heavy losses but they could afford to lose. And all the while their batteries poured shells into Atlanta, killing people in their homes, ripping roofs off buildings, tearing huge craters in the streets. The townsfolk sheltered as best they could in cellars, in holes in the ground and in shallow tunnels dug in railroad cuts. Atlanta was under siege…
It was unreal, grotesquely unreal, that morning skies which dawned so tenderly blue could be profaned with cannon smoke that hung over the town like low thunder clouds, that warm noontides filled with the piercing sweetness of massed honeysuckle and climbing roses could be so fearful, as shells screamed into the streets, bursting like the crack of doom, throwing iron splinters hundreds of yards, blowing people and animals to bits…
Lying in the pitiless sun, shoulder to shoulder, head to feet, were hundreds of wounded men, lining the tracks, the sidewalks, stretched out in endless rows under the car shed. Some lay stiff and still but many writhed under the hot sun, moaning. Everywhere, swarms of flies hovered over the men, crawling and buzzing in their faces, everywhere was blood, dirty bandages, groans, screamed curses of pain as stretcher bearers lifted men.
The smell of sweat, of blood, of unwashed bodies, of excrement rose up in waves of blistering heat until the fetid stench almost nauseated her. The ambulance men hurrying here and there among the prostrate forms frequently stepped on wounded men, so thickly packed were the rows, and those trodden upon stared stolidly up, waiting their turn.
A memoir of the wife of a Confederate officer described her ordeal during Reconstruction.  Penniless, homeless, and without the support of friends and family all killed or displaced by the war, she wandered through the South as homeless beggar, a woman who had lost everything, and whose descriptions of her ordeal were as much about the loss of the past as the impossible conditions of the present.

The question why the Confederacy did not surrender after the defeat of their forces in Atlanta and the complete devastation of the city has often been raised.  Atlanta was perhaps the most important city of the Confederacy, for after the complete blockade of South Carolina ports preventing any goods from England to arrive in the South, Atlanta mobilized and began production of weaponry, transport, uniforms, medical supplies, and all else needed to support an army.  Atlanta was the rail hub of the South with lines leading in all directions, and was becoming the most populous city of the Confederacy.  Once it was destroyed, there was little hope for military victory.

While campaigns fought in the North might continue, the South was outnumbered, ill-equipped, and demoralized.  Had Lee surrendered after Atlanta, thousands of lives would have been saved; yet the fight went on for many months more.  Political arrogance? Defense of the homeland, The Cause, States Rights, and the Cavalier tradition? Ignorance borne of a longstanding belief in cultural superiority? Or a more practical desire to simply bring about a more generous and accommodating truce?

Image result for images southern cavalier

In any case the war persisted, Sherman marched north through South Carolina and devastated every town, field, and granary in his path; and the Army of the Potomac continued to beat back persistent Confederate troops.

Accounts of the war, including the memoirs of Grant and Sherman; historical treatises discussing the underlying causes of the war and the battlefield strategies, and lengthy accounts of the aftermath of the war, Reconstruction and the surprising rebirth of the South can never do justice to the consequences of war.  Only accurate historical fiction, memoirs, and firsthand civilian accounts can. 

The Red Badge of Courage is perhaps the best war novel to come out of the South, a day-to-day account of the brutal, maiming, and destructive battles of the war.
The way seemed eternal. In the clouded haze men became panic-stricken with the thought that the regiment had lost its path, and was proceeding in a perilous direction. Once the men who headed the wild procession turned and came pushing back against their comrades, screaming that they were being fired upon from points which they had considered to be toward their own lines.
At this cry a hysterical fear and dismay beset the troops. A soldier, who heretofore had been ambitious to make the regiment into a wise little band that would proceed calmly amid the huge-appearing difficulties, suddenly sank down and buried his face in his arms with an air of bowing to a doom. From another a shrill lamentation rang out filled with profane allusions to a general. Men ran hither and thither, seeking with their eyes roads of escape. With serene regularity, as if controlled by a schedule, bullets buffed into men.
Image result for images book red badge of courage

Historians have wondered if the Civil War should have been fought at all, whether slavery as an economic system would have collapsed upon itself, and whether the South would have finally learned from the rapidly industrializing North and moved from an agrarian economy to one more consistent with the late 19th century.  Was the rush to war too precipitous on both sides?

In any case the bloodiest war in America’s history was fought in the North and the South, a million men and women were killed; and despite Radical Republicans’ desire to emasculate the South, it continued and extended a de facto slave system (indentured labor, tenant farming, plantation re-ownership, planter-dominated government).

Gone with the Wind, often characterized as a hymn to the Old South is nothing of the sort.  It is a book about the devastation of war and its human consequences; and joins the hundreds of other firsthand, personal accounts of Vicksburg, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Charleston, and New Orleans.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.