'Forage Liberally on the Country’: Sherman's Troops Forage in the March to the Sea | HistoryNet MENU

‘Forage Liberally on the Country’: Sherman’s Troops Forage in the March to the Sea

By Anne Sarah Rubin
12/13/2016 • Civil War Times Magazine

IN A REGULAR CAMPAIGN, only a small proportion of the men would have been designated as foragers, and that was the basic idea in Sherman’s March as well. What complicates this was the expansiveness of Sherman’s orders, directing the army to “forage liberally on the country during the march,” and empowering commanders to destroy buildings and take live- stock. While the foraging was supposed to be done by “regular foraging-parties,” encamped soldiers were also “permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock in sight of their camp.” The result was an army of foragers, or “bummers.”

Essentially, Sherman’s men took the title Bummer on as a point of personal pride. Many postwar reminiscences took pains to legitimate the foragers, minimizing their excesses with a sort of “boys will be boys” tone. One example of this came in General Horace Porter’s eulogy for Sherman, published in Harper’s Weekly. Porter described the bummers as “a novel feature of Sherman’s command… organized for a very useful purpose from the adventurous spirits which are always found in the ranks.” In Porter’s definition, the bummers served more like scouts and were “a regular institution.” One member of the 116th Illinois, who fondly recalled his days along the March, quoted extensively from Sherman’s orders in order to claim that the bummers were a “necessity.” While he concedes that these “devil-may-care fellows” might have overstepped their bounds at times, they were isolated instances of dis obedience, followed by punishment. Most foraging operations, he assured his readers, “were marked by a rigid adherence to the restrictions laid down in orders.”

Although the March was largely unopposed by Confederate soldiers, the Union men still needed basic structures and protections. Thus the officially detailed foragers (as opposed to the more rough-and-tumble Bummers) also served as military scouts, often a day or two out ahead of the main column. This was the most dangerous position, for they sometimes skirmished with Home Guards or General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, and risked occasional capture. Charles Belknap, who foraged with the 21st Michigan Infantry, told of 11 Union men being captured, “and all shot, their bodies being placed in a row by the roadside, that all passing that way might see them and take warning.” One might conclude it was rather effective, but the display might also have backfired, leading to greater anger and vengeance on the part of the Yankees.

Nevertheless, the foragers did manage to insulate the main columns with, as one veteran put it, “a wide-spread cloud of skirmishers, which the enemy could not push through.” No less an opponent than Confederate General Joe Johnston supposedly praised the foragers after the war, calling them “the most efficient cavalry ever known.” More significantly, Johnston also praised the men for their discipline, given that they spent so much time away from their commanders, yet always returned. Too, at least the official foraging details, like the one of 90 men led by Belk nap, provided some valuable local intelligence, for Belknap recalled collecting “letters from the few post-offices in the country, maps hanging on the walls of village and country homes, newspapers old and new” and forwarding them all on to headquarters.

Belknap and his fellow Bummers constantly sought to strike a balance in their stories of the March. The over-arching story that they told was of the March as, in Lieu tenant Marcus Bates’ words, “a delightful memory to every one privileged to have had a part in it.” Bates nostalgically recalled living on “the fat of the land, the milk and honey of the confederacy,” with little thought for the original producers of that milk and honey. But at the same time, as they tried to paint the March as a party or a harmless lark, they realized that it was more than that, that when viewed from the perspective of Southern civilians, the March was no fun at all, and in fact was horrifying and destructive. One way to reconcile those two views was to claim that for aging was justifiable and legitimate.

Union Brig. Gen. Adam Badeau did just this in his children’s story “The March to the Sea.” He began by reminding his young readers “that soldiers must eat” and that they needed to eat before they could fight. Once that was out of the way, Badeau explained that men were ordered to “forage liberally” and that they were able to load themselves down so bounteously because this part of the country had been untouched by war. Even Badeau must have realized how feeble his argument was when it came to household goods like furniture and clothing, for he ultimately threw up his hands and conceded that “war is often only organized robbery.” In the end, though, Badeau could not condemn the March and marchers, finally concluding that “the romantic character of the march is unsurpassed.”

Not surprisingly, soldiers minimized the thefts of personal property. Occasionally items were returned in the years after the war, sometimes with great fanfare, sometimes quietly and anonymously. Stories circulated of Southerners recognizing family heirlooms on Northern wrists and fingers, and of soldiers showing off “vases and trinkets which they ‘picked up when they were in the army.’ ”

When veterans remembered the March, they too emphasized its romantic character, easy pace and light hearted tenor. These men were hardened fighters who had marched long and fought hard for up to three years, and they quickly realized that this expedition would be different. Colonel Charles D. Kerr recalled that “the brilliancy of the move lay alone in its conception. Its execution was simple and easy as a pleasure trip.” He described the men’s unshakeable faith and confidence in Sherman and their belief that they were embarking on a grand adventure. His delight leaps off the page as he remembered that, marching out of Atlanta, “the men were cheering and singing patriotic songs, and fairly reveling in the excitement and novelty of the situation.”

In an 1890 speech, General Henry Slocum, who commanded the Left Wing of the army, called the March “one great picnic from beginning to end” and regaled his listeners with stories of marching bands and dancing by fire light, with “just enough fighting and danger of fighting to give zest to the experience.” Charles Hopkins, of the 13th New Jersey, thought that the combination of high spirits, good weather, and abundant food turned the March into “one continual pleasure trip.” William Duncan described the combination of “good roads, pleasant weather, and practically no enemy,” along with plenty to eat, as “a picnic every day” as they marched toward Savannah, Ga.

Part of pride in the March came in the form of pride in one’s foraging skills, and as veterans reminisced, they often provided primers. In a lecture presented at a MOLLUS (Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the U.S.), “Marching Across Carolina,” Manning Force, a breveted major general who commanded the 3rd Division of the XVII Corps, described the foragers as performing “a service without which the army could not have advanced.” On the 54-day march from Pocotaligo, S.C., to Goldsboro, N.C., Force’s men were given 10 days’ rations before setting out, which translated into only three days of “hard bread” (hardtack) and some coffee and sugar.

If they wanted more to eat, they were expected to pro cure it themselves. Indeed, those were the only supplies available, for Force’s supply wagons contained only 25 days’ worth of hard bread and 30 days’ of coffee. He carried no meat, and had only a few head of cattle, for Force preferred “trusting to the country for meat.” Charles Kerr echoed Force when he explained that there was no centralized system for the distribution of supplies. Rather, “so far as supplies were concerned, each regiment was a law unto itself.” Each regiment had its own wagon onto which its supplies would be loaded and taken to camp.

Most veterans’ reminiscences dealt largely with the army’s movements or its occasional skirmishes with Confederates. These men might describe foraging, or they might not. But a few veterans took bumming or foraging as their main topic. Major Samuel Mahon was one of those who did, describing the process (at least as it functioned in the Carolinas) to the Iowa MOLLUS commandery in 1896. He stressed that there was some organization to the system, if for no other reason than to make sure that there was no interference or overlap among the foragers. Before finding food, the foragers had to find their own transportation, and thus they wound up on a motley assortment of animals, “from the humble donkey to the thoroughbred pet of the plantation and perhaps a zebra or two occasionally.” Their tack varied similarly, from “rope halter and corn sack saddle” to gilt mounted bridles and family carriages, even the occasional lady’s sidesaddle. A forager, Mahon declared, faced danger and excitement and needed to excel at “woodcraft,” finding his way without roads, outriding enemies, and simply enduring long hours in the saddle.

Once the men found a farm or plantation, according to Mahon, the real work would begin. Cattle were the preferred livestock, for they could be managed and driven back to the main column, whereas swine were far less com pliant. The men would be pleased to find mules, but often had to repair the harnesses before they could be led away. “Flour, bacon, potatoes, corn meal, sorghum, poultry, rice etc. had to be loaded into vehicles, carts, plantation wagons, and even carriages before being impressed….Often the concealed supplies of the plantation had to be discovered before being taken, but the negroes were our allies here, as well as on every other occasion, and the supplies were soon found and exhumed from the pits where they had been con signed and carefully covered up from sight.”

The best foragers were like 1st Lt. Richard Kennedy of the 13th Iowa, praised by his fellow soldiers for his audacity. In addition to having an eye for sweet potatoes and horses, he claimed to have the best mules around. Kennedy and his teamster, Julius T. Chaffee, “could take a southern mule from a canebrake, and with a pair of sheep-shears trans pose him to a government mule with the U.S. brand in five minutes so that his owner would not know him.” Charles Hopkins also proved a deft hand with livestock, skillfully butchering a flock of sheep, though he claimed that as a regular forager he was outclassed by the less-regimented Bummers, who “would probably have hunted up the owner of them…and have served a requisition on him for a wagon or two. If he had no farm wagon, a family coach, gig, or buggy would do.” Indeed, Hopkins pointed out that even though Southerners might hide their horses and mules, if they left the wagons behind, the foragers would know to search for the stock.

Just as Sherman’s veterans painted portraits of the March as a picnic or a lark, so too did they use humor and exaggeration when describing their fellow soldiers. Henry Marcy stated it most simply: “There is a comic side to many of the stories of these adventurers.” By describing the soldiers as “adventurers,” Marcy and his fellow veterans created an image of the Bummer fully at odds with his Southern portrayal. Rather than terrorizers or thieves, these Bummers were rogues with raffish charms. In his piece “The Army Bummer and Good Night,” Captain Joseph G. Waters paid laughing homage to the Bummer’s “boundless per capita of utility and gall,” while declaring that “he was a larger book of strategy than De Jomini ever wrote, and beyond doubt he was the only personage of whom William Tecumseh Sherman ever had cause to be envious or afraid.”

These conquests of comestibles were often accompanied by all sorts of other pilfering, most of which was described with winks and nods, and a sort of boys-will-be-boys attitude. That is, time and again, Sherman’s Bummers were praised for what would under other circumstances be regarded as simple theft. Thus Charles Hopkins provided listeners with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of the “professors of foraging,” who returned with “contributions” from a “kind and generous planter.” The veterans’ accounts seem to contain a sort of progression of taking: first food, which was clearly justifiable; then wagons and carriages to carry the food; and, finally, in Hopkins’s words, “anything that would contribute to the general frolic.” Stories abound of men riding into camp with carriages full of bacon, or feather beds thrown across the backs of mules. One 1866 account of the March condemned the Bummers for plundering and destroying personal property but ultimately undermined its argument by conceding that “some of the foraging stories are, however, full of humor, and could hardly be otherwise regarded than as excellent jokes, even by the sufferers themselves.”

Veterans also used humor to mock themselves and their superiors. One tale repeated in an obituary for General Sherman took aim at the Bummer’s tendency toward wan ton destructiveness. According to General Horace Porter a Bummer in North Carolina was found cutting the Union telegraph lines that led out of Wilmington. When asked what on earth he was doing, “The man cast an indignant look at the questioner, and said, as he continued his work, “I’m one o’ Sherman’s bummers, and the last thing he said to us was, ‘Be sure and cut all the telegraph wires you come across, and don’t go to foolin’ away time askin’ who they belong to.’ ”

While this clearly mocks the lower-level soldiers, other tales turned the tables. One that appeared in a compilation of wartime stories came from the family of an Ohio soldier. A group of soldiers caught, butchered, cooked and ate a pig, burying the skin so they would not be caught. When a Southern woman came by the camp in search of her pig, “the Captain, who had a private tent the boys seldom entered, said, ‘Oh, I’m sure you are mistaken. I haven’t a boy in my company that would do such a thing. I’ll order all tents searched.’ ” While he was occupied, “the boys” slipped around and hid the meat in the Captain’s tent, which he had ordered searched along with the others: “And there they found the meat. The embarrassed captain found it hard to explain.”

Many of the funny stories are directed against white Southerners. Just as Southern whites took pride in their ability to outsmart Sherman’s Bummers, so too did Union troops enjoy taking advantage of their enemies. Manning Force retold one typical tale, where a sergeant arrived at a plantation and asked if anyone had recently died. While the family initially denied it, they finally admitted that they had buried a slave boy the previous day. The sergeant then adopted a solemn tone and went on, “ ‘I only wanted to let you know that I have opened that grave and taken out the corpse.’ There were loud expostulations then, for this corpse, so called, was the plantation supply of ham.” Score one for the Union in this instance.

 

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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