A young Army officer’s travels through the Deep South in the 1840s would leave a lasting impression on him—and prove to be invaluable during his historic return in 1864.
In the winter of 1844, a lanky, red-haired U.S. Army lieutenant by the name of William Tecumseh Sherman traveled across the state of Georgia on rickety, unreliable trains and borrowed horses. His primary objective: to investigate suspected fraudulent claims arising from the Second Seminole War in 1837-38, but he managed to explore the countryside in his spare time. The 24-year-old officer visited Savannah, Columbus, Augusta and Macon, and spent several weeks in the resort town of Marietta, in the shadow of an oak- and pine-covered ridge known as Kennesaw Mountain. He also passed briefly through a dusty trading post called Marthasville, the newly selected terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, then under construction. A few months later, the citizens of Marthasville would reject the town’s folksy, backwoods name in favor of a more imposing moniker that would fit more easily on railway tickets: Atlanta. Exactly 20 years later, Sherman would return.
Sherman’s 1844 travels through what he called “Barbarous Georgia” are a remarkable yet little-explored prologue to his famous 1864 campaign to “make Georgia howl.” During the course of his assignment, he traveled on railroads he would later use for supply, stayed in cities and towns he would eventually occupy, and explored hills, gaps and mountains he would later assault—or outflank. By the end of the year, Lieutenant Sherman had seen more of Georgia than the overwhelming majority of Georgians had. His reconnaissance, 20 years in advance, would prove invaluable and contribute directly to the fall of Atlanta and the March to the Sea.
‘As bright as the burning bush’
Even as a tenderfoot lieutenant, Sherman—called “Cump” by his friends and “My Dear Cumpy” by his foster sister and future wife, Ellen Ewing—made a striking impression. He was tall, bayonetthin and “straight as an arrow,” according to one observer, with “a full suit of red hair.” Sherman graduated from West Point in the class of 1840. He was an excellent student but a rumpled and mischievous cadet, accumulating 380 demerits and ranking near the bottom of his class in conduct. His lack of spit and polish cost him a coveted appointment as an engineer, and he ended up with a second lieutenant’s commission in the 3rd Artillery. Following two years of duty in Florida, negotiating and skirmishing with Seminoles, Sherman’s regiment was transferred to Fort Moultrie near Charleston, S.C., in late 1842.
This new posting adjacent to the cosmopolitan port city was a dramatic and welcome change from the rattlesnakes and alligators of central Florida. “We have here an excellent Garrison,” Sherman wrote to Ellen, “with music and company, everything that so attaches us to Army life….” Sherman counted among his friends at the small outpost future Civil War generals John D. Reynolds, George H. Thomas and Braxton Bragg. He watched across the harbor as construction proceeded on a new redoubt that was to be called Fort Sumter, and spent evenings visiting with its future defender, Robert Anderson. Captain Erasmus D. Keyes, another future general, thought Sherman “then as bright as the burning bush,” describing him at the time as “thin and spare, but healthy, cheerful, loquacious, active, and communicative to an extraordinary degree.”
During the fall of 1843, after three full years of active duty, Sherman took a three-month leave, spending most of that time at home in Lancaster, Ohio. He left Lancaster on November 20 and began a yearlong odyssey that would take him through the heart of the future Confederacy. He traveled south by boat— his first trip down the Mississippi River— and visited St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans along the way. He then returned to Charleston by train, first by way of Mobile and Montgomery, Ala., then through south Georgia to Savannah, arriving there, in another ironic twist of fate, on Christmas Eve. Twenty-one years later he would present the city of Savannah as a Christmas gift to President Abraham Lincoln.
‘I am going to a wild country’
Sherman had scarcely settled back in at Fort Moultrie when he was handed a new assignment. On February 4, 1844, he was ordered to report to Colonel Sylvester Churchill, the Army’s inspector general, at Marietta, Ga., where he would help gather evidence and evaluate dubious compensation claims being made by Georgia militiamen who had served during the war in Florida. The travel-weary lieutenant, no doubt relieved to be back among his “kind chums” in Charleston, bemoaned his new assignment. “I am ordered into Georgia and Alabama, where Religion except of the rudest species, is never found,” he fretted to Ellen in a letter on February 8, his 24th birthday. Still, he headed for his new post with some enthusiasm, noting that his work for Colonel Churchill “will serve to advance my future and I hope secure for me the good opinion of one of the most influential men in our Army.”
Sherman described Georgia as “a wild country,” and he was largely correct in his assessment at the time. Contemporary maps still showed the northwestern quadrant of the state as a swath of featureless green marked “Cherokee Indians,” though the Cherokees had for the most part been driven out by way of the Trail of Tears following the discovery of gold in north Georgia in 1828. “If ever a curse could fall upon a people or nation for pure and unalloyed villainy towards a part of God’s creatures we deserve it for not protecting the Cherokees that lately lived and hunted in peace and plenty through the hills and in the valleys that stretch from the base of Kenesaw Mountain,” Sherman wrote in a letter to his foster brother Hugh B. Ewing shortly after arriving in north Georgia.
Georgia in the 1840s was a patchwork of plantations and tangled wilderness, its landscape covered with rolling, slave-tended fields of cotton, peanuts and wheat and hundreds of thousands of acres of little-explored and sparsely inhabited woodlands. Savannah, with a population of about 15,000, was Georgia’s largest city, but elsewhere in the state the towns ranged from the modest state capital of Milledgeville, population 7,000, to a scattering of settlements that were little more than frontier villages. Atlanta did not yet exist; its future location was an empty space between the towns of Decatur and Campbellton on most maps. Apart from shipping into and out of the port of Savannah, there was little commerce beyond the local level.
In due time the railroad would change all that, its arteries pumping industrial lifeblood through much of the state. By the time Sherman returned in 1864, Georgia would have a thriving industrial economy anchored around railroad depots, factories, arsenals and ports in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus and Savannah. But for now, the state’s rail system, like its industry, was of limited scope and makeshift quality, as the young lieutenant would learn in the course of his travels.
On February 15, 1844, Sherman crossed into Georgia at Augusta aboard a rattling train and then took the mail coach 88 miles from the town of Madison to his post at Marietta. “The way is rough between here and there,” he recorded, “my bones alone can answer.”
Sherman was tremendously observant throughout his travels, his diary reflecting the qualities of an engineer—notwithstanding his commission as an artillerist. He also showed signs of his future mastery of logistics, noting in his diary times of departure and arrival, rates of travel, prices and narrative impressions of the land and its towns. Georgia’s landscape, he noted in one entry, presented a stark contrast to the “pine barren” of Florida, instead being “high rolling and covered with trees of all kinds,” with “hickory, oak and chestnut predominating.”
Sherman described mountains and other topographical features in detail, estimating specific elevations and noting the views afforded. He even closely examined the state’s distinctive soil, which he described as “diluvial beds of red clay mixed with strata of flint & quartz pebbles lying upon primitive rock….”
‘I have unfolded some pretty pieces of rascality’
Marietta was a handsome young town of about 1,500 inhabitants when Sherman arrived on February 17, 1844. It had been selected six years earlier by Colonel Stephen H. Long, the chief engineer of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, as the base of operations for survey and construction work now underway from the road’s southern terminus at Marthasville northward through the mountains to Chattanooga. Sherman reported to Colonel Churchill, whom he described as “a hard working old soldier, who knows everything that transpired since the last war, and yet not devoid of fun,” that he found his quarters in a tavern near the town square “tolerable,” with room and board costing $15 a month.
Three days after his arrival, Sherman wrote home to explain to his family “the business that called an artillery officer from the Seaboard to the wild Cherokee country in Georgia.” The Army’s investigation arose from the 1837-38 deployment of 1,500 mounted volunteers from northwest Georgia to take part in the Second Seminole War in Florida. Upon their return, according to Sherman, every man reported the loss of one or more horses valued at $200 to $300. “The multiplicity of these claims and the exorbitant charges for Cherokee ponies” caused the War Department to decline payment of these accounts absent sufficient evidence to support them. Promptly upon arriving in Marietta, Sherman began trying to find evidence—or establishing its absence—by taking individual depositions from these officers and men.
Sherman reached a quick verdict on the character and culpability of the militiamen he examined. “They were about the d— dest rascals that could be found in the United States,” he said in one letter home. Sherman had never read law and had no experience either as an auditor or a prosecutor, but the self-assured young officer had no trouble either identifying baseless claims or vigorously interrogating the dishonest claimants. Indeed, he regarded it as easy work. “We have two clerks who keep all the books and papers,” he noted. “All I have to do is cross question the claimants to see whether the old horse (killed in Florida) is not still working in his cornfield at home. We have many a rich scene and I have unfolded some pretty pieces of rascality for an honest and religious people.”
‘I had noted well the topography of the country’
Spring came early to north Georgia in 1844, and Sherman took advantage of the fine weather to make excursions into the surrounding country. “I repeatedly rode to Kenesaw Mountain,” he recalled in his memoirs, “and over the very ground where afterward, in 1864, we had some hard battles.” In his diary, Sherman described the lovely and peaceful views at Kennesaw—a name derived from an ominous Cherokee Indian word Gah-nee-sah, meaning burial ground or cemetery. One diary entry recounts a Sunday afternoon outing that would seem like a meaningless diversion until it was emulated 20 years later: “Sunday Mar 3. Still at Marietta. Walked in company with a Charleston gentleman named Barbour to visit the Kenesaw Mountain, which is a solitary peak about 800 ft above the surrounding country affording a very extended view” of Marietta, Stone Mountain and the Etowah River. “The day was remarkably beautiful, in fact the whole spring has been in advance, the peach trees in full bloom and all other vegetation also budding. Seems an end to winter but a late frost may destroy all.”
Sherman would well remember Kennesaw Mountain upon his return. In May and June 1864, Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston made the mountain the centerpiece of their defense, with Marietta, the Western & Atlantic Railroad and the Chattahoochee River behind them to the south and east. Sherman’s description of the ground in his report on the Atlanta campaign echoed the sunny afternoon spent at Kennesaw two decades earlier. “Kenesaw, the bold and striking twin mountain, lay before us, with a high range of chestnut hills trending off to the northeast, terminating to our view in another peak called Pine Mountain, and beyond it in the distance, Lost Mountain,” he wrote. “All these, though linked in a continuous chain, present a sharp, conical appearance, prominent in the vast landscape that presents itself from any of the hills that abound in that region.” The general then remarked, in a wistful comment that seems sharply out of place in an official report: “The scene was enchanting; too beautiful to be disturbed by the harsh clamor of war; but the Chattahoochee lay beyond, and I had to reach it.”
Sherman recognized the conical heights at Kennesaw as a dominant position and “the key to the whole country.” Nevertheless, just as his dear friend Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had done at Cold Harbor three weeks earlier, he ordered an ill-advised frontal assault on the position on June 27, 1864, that resulted in 3,000 casualties. The attack was a rare misstep in an otherwise brilliant campaign. The following week, Sherman moved his forces southward around the Confederate left, continuing the flanking maneuvers he had used so effectively earlier in the campaign. He forced Johnston to abandon Kennesaw Mountain and Marietta and fall back beyond the Chattahoochee River. Sherman would establish his headquarters in the Fletcher House hotel in Marietta, just yards from the “tolerable” quarters he had enjoyed as a lieutenant.
But on a beautiful early spring day two decades before, Lieutenant Sherman simply enjoyed the view at Kennesaw Mountain and returned to those quarters, apparently in a reflective and sentimental mood. The next day, March 4, 1844, he wrote a letter to his stepfather, Thomas Ewing, and asked for Ellen’s hand in marriage. Reporting the event with apparent resignation in his diary, Sherman wrote, “The day before, Monday, sent to Mr. E a letter that will settle my fate as a Bachelor one way or the other.”
On March 16, Sherman’s north Georgia tour continued, as Colonel Churchill and his subordinates set out toward the town of Bellefonte in the extreme northeast corner of Alabama to continue their investigation and audit of dubious claims. Sherman borrowed a horse from a fellow lieutenant and detoured along the way to visit the Etowah Indian Mounds near the Etowah River, striking up a friendship with the owner of the property, Colonel Lewis Tumlin, that would endure for years. It was during this side trip that Sherman, riding along the unfinished grade of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, saw the rugged terrain at Allatoona Pass, at one point making a “topographical sketch of the ground.”
The rocky heights here made an indelible impression that would persist through the years and lead directly to Sherman’s decision in 1864 to bypass Allatoona en route to Atlanta, forcing Johnston to fall back from the strong position and allowing the Union to seize control of the pass. As Sherman later recorded in his memoirs: “I had ridden the distance on horseback, and had noted well the topography of the country, especially that about Kenesaw, Allatoona, and the Etowah River….I therefore knew that the Allatoona Pass was very strong, would be hard to force, and resolved not even to attempt it, but to turn the position, by moving from Kingston to Marietta via Dallas….”
The young lieutenant arrived in Bellefonte, Ala., then a bustling crossroads town wedged between Mud Creek and the Tennessee River, in early April and continued gathering evidence and testimony. Again taking advantage of the few hours he had outside the deposition room, Sherman visited Lookout and Raccoon mountains, among other future strategic points.
Having seen much of central and south Georgia through the window of a rail car or coach, Sherman covered a vast amount of territory in the northern third of the state in the saddle. In retrospect, his 1844 diary entries and recollections in his memoirs read much like a north-south premonition of key points on his famous 1864 campaign map. “I return[ed] South on horseback, by Rome, Allatoona, Marietta, Atlanta, and Madison Georgia,” he later wrote, though the reference to Atlanta is obvious hindsight, since the site of his greatest triumph had not yet been established. Sherman rode alone to Augusta, returned the horse to his comrade and boarded a train for Charleston and his comfortable billet at Fort Moultrie. “Upon my return I found few changes at the post,” he reflected in a letter home, “and after being seated in my old armchair for a few days, I could scarcely realize that I had been away among the Barbarians and heathens, robbing them of the pleasing dreams of Gold and Silver for their poor old horses sacrificed to an ungrateful Government.”
‘The knowledge thus acquired was of infinite use to me’
History records several instances where a prominent military commander has lived in the land of a future enemy early in his career—Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, studied at Harvard and worked in Washington, to cite one modern example. But Sherman’s lengthy posting in Georgia and his detailed exploration of the same ground where he would later direct a vital campaign is remarkable and perhaps even unique, and it laid the foundation for his future actions in many respects. First, his encounters with unscrupulous militiamen would shape his views of Georgia’s citizenry, which he regarded, then and later, as uncivilized, irreligious and barbaric. “Until we repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it,” he argued in an October 1864 telegram to Grant. Second, his posting in Georgia led to significant changes in his personal life. Isolated from the social life and fraternal camaraderie of Fort Moultrie, he took the leap of becoming engaged to Ellen, and his experience as a claims investigator convinced him that he could perhaps, after all, embark on what he called a “civil life” outside of the Army.
Finally, and most important, Sherman gathered a vast amount of detailed firsthand knowledge of Georgia’s geography, roads, developing rail system and natural features, and he would make daily use of this information during his ferocious drive through the state in 1864. “It seems impossible for us to go anywhere without being where I have been before,” Sherman wrote to Ellen from Savannah on January 5, 1865. “My former life from 1840 to 1846 seems providential, and every bit of knowledge then acquired is returned, tenfold.” Sherman reflected again on this providential coincidence in his memoirs: “[B]y a mere accident I was enabled to traverse on horseback the very ground where in after-years I had to conduct vast armies and fight great battles,” he wrote. “That the knowledge thus acquired was of infinite use to me, and consequently to the Government, I have always felt and stated.”
In addition to chronicling these formative developments in his life, the early letters and diary entries of Lieutenant Sherman also foreshadow the dominant personality of the major general to come—not the skittish, uncertain brigadier of 1861, but the cool, unflappable commander of the first day at Shiloh, and the confident, determined mastermind of the Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea. Walt Whitman would famously describe Sherman as “seamy, sinewy, in style—a bit of stern open air made up in the image of a man.” From the deposition rooms of the inspector general to the wilderness of north Georgia, Sherman’s 1843-44 diary and letters paint a picture of a younger version of the same.
Several Sherman biographies discuss his early military career in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, especially Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, by John F. Marszalek, and The White Tecumseh, by Stanley P. Hirshon. His 1864 campaign in Georgia is described in compelling fashion in Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, by Albert Castel, and in Marching Through Georgia, by Lee Kennett. Sherman’s original diaries, including the volume from November 1843 to March 1845 emphasized here, are maintained in the William T. Sherman Family Papers at the University of Notre Dame Archives.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.