November 23, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman entered the capital of Georgia and saw that his Federals had already begun laying waste to the town.
Sherman’s two Federal armies continued moving east and south through Georgia on their way to the Atlantic coast. Sherman rode with Major General Jefferson C. Davis’s division of XX Corps, which was part of the eastern-moving column (i.e., the Army of Georgia) under Major General Henry W. Slocum. Sherman and his staff stopped at a 6,000-acre plantation about 10 miles north of Milledgeville. Sherman later wrote that they–
“… on inquiring of a negro, found that we were at the plantation of General Howell Cobb, of Georgia, one of the leading rebels of the South, then a general in the Southern army, and who had been Secretary of the United States Treasury in Mr. (James) Buchanan’s time. Of course, we confiscated his property, and found it rich in corn, beans, pea-nuts, and sorghum-molasses.
“Extensive fields were all round the house; I sent word back to General Davis to explain whose plantation it was, and instructed him to spare nothing. That night huge bonfires consumed the fence-rails, kept our soldiers warm, and the teamsters and men, as well as the slaves, carried off an immense quantity of corn and provisions of all sorts.”
Sherman encouraged the slaves to take what they wanted from Cobb’s plantation before the Federals destroyed it. Meanwhile, the Georgia legislature and other state officials fled the capital as the Federals approached. Slocum detached the 3rd Wisconsin and the 107th New York regiments under Colonel William Hawley to seize Milledgeville. The Federals entered the town on the afternoon of the 22nd, and Hawley reported that they–
“… Immediately proceeded to establish patrols in the streets, and detailed suitable guards for the public buildings, including the State House, two arsenals, one depot, one magazine for powder and ammunition, and other buildings containing cotton, salt, and other contraband property.”
The Federals raised the U.S. flag over the capitol building and held a mock session of the legislature, where they voted to repeal Georgia’s ordinance of secession. The troops ransacked the state archives, looted the state library, and burned Confederate currency. Hawley wrote that he believed it “would have required at least a week to obtain” a list of everything that was destroyed. But he provided his best estimate:
“One powder magazine, blown up; railroad depot and surrounding buildings, burned; 2,300 muskets, smooth bore, calibre 69, burned; 300 sets accoutrements, burned; 10,000 rounds ammunition, calibre 69, burned; 5,000 lances, burned; 1,500 cutlasses, burned; 15 boxes United States standard weights and measures, burned; 16 hogsheads salt, thrown into the river; 170 boxes fixed ammunition, and 200 kegs powder. Turned over all that was valuable to Major Reynolds, and threw the balance into the river. About 1,500 pounds tobacco were distributed among the troops. A large quantity of cotton–say 1,800 bales–was disposed of by General Sherman, manner not made known to me. One large three-story building in the square, near the State House, was burned, together with a large number of miscellaneous articles, as parts of harnesses and saddles, a repairshop, with all the necessary tools for repairing all kinds of materials, etc.”
Sherman accompanied XX Corps into Milledgeville the next day and took up headquarters in the governor’s mansion. This ended the first leg of his march through Georgia. His Federals were quickly earning the reputation of “bummers” by foraging throughout the countryside and seizing food, livestock, draft animals, wagons, and other supplies needed for their march. They looted and burned countless homes and businesses, leaving large swaths of destruction in their wake. Many civilians were left without food or shelter.
From Richmond, President Jefferson Davis wrote to all Confederate commanders in Georgia “that every effort will be made by destroying bridges, felling trees, planting sub-terra shells and otherwise, to obstruct the advance of the enemy.”
Lieutenant General William Hardee, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, had barely 3,000 militiamen under Major General Gustavus W. Smith to oppose Sherman’s 60,000 Federals. And the Confederates were still unaware that Sherman’s ultimate goal was Savannah, on the Atlantic coast.
Davis wrote Hardee, “When the purpose of the enemy shall be developed, every effort must be made to obstruct the route on which he is moving, and all other available means must be employed to delay his march, as well to enable our forces to be concentrated as to reduce him to want of the necessary supplies.” But Hardee did not have the manpower to obstruct any of the four different routes Sherman’s men were taking through Georgia.
On Thursday the 24th, the Federals at Milledgeville enjoyed a Thanksgiving feast of turkey and chicken. As they ate, Federal escapees from the Andersonville prison camp staggered into town, scantily clad and starving. Many prisoners cried upon seeing their comrades in control of the state capital. Their appearance “sickened and infuriated” the Federals, who thought “of the tens of thousands of their imprisoned comrades, slowly perishing with hunger in the midst of… barns bursting with grain and food to feed a dozen armies.”
The sight of such emaciated men ensured that Sherman’s march would be even more destructive when it resumed.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21069; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 490-92; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 13503-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 522-23; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 599-600; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 87, 305, 368, 474-75; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 810; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 59-60, 62, 68; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 340-44