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“The army that marched Sherman from Atlanta to the Atlantic was probably the with finest army of military ‘workmen’ the modern world has seen. An army of individuals trained in the school of experience to look after their own food and health, to march far and fast with the least fatigue, to fight with the least exposure; above all, to act swiftly and to work thoroughly. Each individual fitted into his place in a little group which, messing, marching, and fighting together, by its instinctive yet intelligent teamship reduced alike the risks and the toil of the campaign. The sum of these teams formed an army of athletes stripped of all impediments, whether of kit or weaklings, and impelled by a sublime faith in their captain, ‘Uncle Billy.’”

So states Basil Liddell Hart in his Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American. With rare exception this is the standard view of the army with which Sherman made his famous, or infamous, March to the Sea in November and December 1864. There is much truth in the view, but it is not the whole truth. Although most of Sherman’s soldiers were stalwart veterans, many had never before smelled powder in battle.

During the Atlanta campaign (May 1- September 8, 1864), Sherman’s army lost around 40,000 to death, wounds, capture or illness. When it ended, several regiments numbered little more than a company nominally contained. By early August, the 47th Ohio Regiment had been reduced to only 89 enlisted men—a seemingly extreme example, yet not excessively so, for the division to which it belonged (Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s of the XV Corps, Army of the Tennessee) totaled only 1,700 combatants including officers in its 15 regiments and three batteries.

The 47th Ohio received 400 new men following the fall of Atlanta, which transformed it from the smallest to the largest regiment in its brigade. Most of them were conscripts and substitutes, but according to Major Thomas Taylor, a highly capable officer who had served as the regiment’s acting commander during the final phases of the Atlanta campaign, they were “good, large men” who marched well on the way from Atlanta to the Atlantic and fought in the storming of Fort McCallister on December 13—the capture of which opened up an ocean supply line for Sherman and made his seizure of Savannah inevitable.

Not all of the fledgling soldiers became hardened veterans during that march. Some died, while many more fell ill or broke down. Among the last group was Private John Davis Vail, a preacher and conscript from Ohio. Vail chronicled his thoughts in a journal he kept at the time and in comments he added to it long afterward. His is not a tale of gallantry and glory; instead it is a record of physical and psychological misery. Yet it is still worth reading, for it is unusual among the vast literature to emerge from the Civil War.

On September 22, 1864, the Reverend Vail, a Methodist minister residing in West Wheeling in Belmont County, Ohio, received a notification that he had been drafted for service in the Union Army. He read it, pondered it and then made his decision: He would become a soldier. Patriotism demanded it, honor required it.

He did not have to serve. Thirty-three, married and a man of the cloth, he could have hired a substitute to take his place, a widespread and generally accepted practice in the North. In fact, he would have done so had not his outspoken “Union and Abolition proclivities,” as he later put it, made him highly unpopular with the area’s numerous pro-peace and proslavery Democrats, a group, according to him, consisting largely of “ignorant Irish” and “lager beer Dutch.” These “butternuts” were gleefully predicting that rather than suffer the degradation of becoming a common soldier, he would pay somebody to serve in his stead.

He bade farewell to wife and friends, then hastened to Urichsville in Tuscarawas County, where he reported to the district provost marshal. Told he had five days’ grace, he visited his parents, who lived nearby, before returning to Urichsville. There, he passed a physical and with an officer in charge joined 20 other new warriors-to-be on a train to Columbus.

He arrived there on the morning of October 7 and went to Tod Barracks, where he “found great wickedness of all kinds going on among the men, swearing, card playing, &c., and this continued day and night,” causing him not “to sleep any at all.” Finally, on October 11, he became one of 200 neophyte soldiers assigned to the 38th Ohio, a veteran infantry regiment stationed at recently captured Atlanta, Ga.

From Columbus Vail’s group traveled by trains, most if not all of the way atop boxcars, to Chattanooga, where it arrived on October 16. After being marched through the town, the unit encamped on bare ground, with a blanket for each man as the sole shelter. The men were issued rifles the following day, but did not receive tents until the 18th, providing Vail with the opportunity to discover that “It is remarkable how cold the nights are in this Southern Clime, and yet how warm the days are.” He also developed a low opinion of “shoulder straps,” as enlisted men called officers, quoting in his journal entry for October 22 a song the “boys in camp sing: There’ll be no more shoulder straps there, There’ll be no more shoulder straps there, In heaven above where all is Love, There’ll be no more shoulder straps there.”

Later the same day a “shoulder strap” assigned Vail’s contingent the glorious mission of escorting a herd of beef cattle to Sherman’s troops, most of whom were engaged in pursuing General John B. Hood’s Confederate army in northern Georgia, where it was attempting to cut the railroad and sole supply line between Chattanooga and Atlanta. For the next three weeks Vail and his comrades marched hard, sometimes more than 20 miles a day. They first moved westward, then southward until Sherman—concluding that he could never overtake Hood, who had swerved off into Alabama—decided instead to head for Savannah and the sea, making “Georgia howl” while he did so.

Initially Vail, as he wrote in his journal on October 23, “stood it [the incessant marching] well, better than I expected,” despite being “tired and foot sore.” But as the march wore on, he began to wear down. By November 1, “after a hard and weary march,” he had decided that “there is nothing about soldiering that has the least attraction,” and confided, “I am constantly tormented with an earnest desire to return home.” His mood didn’t improve the following day, at the end of which he noted in his journal that “one of my boots has given out” and complained again about being “compelled to listen day and night” to the “profanity, filthy talk and vulgar songs” of the “reckless men” around him.

It could get worse than this—and soon did. First, on November 3, he became sick. He wrote, “feel very unable to travel and carry a knapsack but I suppose I must.” The next day, despite feeling “very well” in the morning, his other boot split open and he passed the night “with cold feet” in “quite a heavy frost.” On November 7-8, by which time his detachment had reached Marietta, a short distance north of Atlanta, he finally stated in his journal what had been obvious from the start: “I feel out of place” in the Army. He added that his main desire now was to escape “this kind of life and its associations.” He wanted to find out “what is being done in the North to relieve me from my present position” by his wife, who at his behest was seeking to secure for him a medical discharge. However noble serving the cause of Union and abolition as a common soldier might have been in the abstract, in practice he found it very much otherwise.

Getting out, though, was about to become difficult, if not impossible. “Everything,” he commented in his November 9 entry, “indicates some important military enterprise afoot on the part of Sherman….The camp report is that the R.R…and all the Towns [are to be] destroyed between Atlanta and Chattanooga….Some think we will… guard this herd of cattle on an expedition, supposed to be about to start from Atlanta to some point further South….”

Three days later orders came to “draw five days rations tomorrow,” and he decided that this “looks like a move of some kind.” In the afternoon the “destroying of the R.R. along here…commenced,” and it continued into the evening. He wrote: “To the South I see immense columns of smoke ascending. To the North I see the flames of burning houses. There is a great destruction of property about here….It is a pity to see homes of comfort destroyed thus. I think of my own home and I can estimate the feelings of the enemy when I think how I would feel if served thus.”

On the afternoon of November 13 Vail’s contingent crossed to the south bank of the Chattahoochee River and bivouacked. Then, in the morning, it marched to the outskirts of Atlanta, passing “immense lines of fortifications thrown up by Union and rebel troops” along the way and again camped. All through the rest of that day and into the night other units passed into the city proper, from whence Vail could see “continually arising…immense volumes of smoke….” During the afternoon of the 15th, Vail’s outfit also entered and passed through Atlanta. As it did, “the smouldering ruins of once beautiful homes met our gaze on every hand.” He also saw many houses still intact, a few inhabitants, and “Here and there you would see a woman sad and dejected standing by a door or window peering through… gazing at the troops as they pass. These are the innocents whom war affects and they feel its pangs deeper than others.”

South of Atlanta Vail’s group pitched tents, ate dinner and then slept. In Vail’s case that repose was not as long as normal. “Last night,” he wrote in his journal at “about 5 o’clock” in the morning, “I was awaked out of sleep, and a letter was given me from my wife. I read it with eagerness….Her letter contains much information from home for which I am very thankful.” Was this information about efforts to procure his much-desired medical discharge? Then it came to him that with this letter a “long silence will ensue now that we have no communication with the outside world.” By the same token, “now she will have no letters from me for so long, perhaps never.” Even so, he added, “I feel, I cannot tell why, that I will return.”

Vail would return home—but not before undergoing ordeals that made everything he had previously experienced seem easy. His journal relates his sufferings, along with his observations during his march through Georgia.

Nov 17th Thursday: All day from early morn until late at night we were on the march [escorting now a wagon train]. I was sick all day with Diarhea….I sold my overcoat in the morning to lighten the load.

Nov 18th Friday: Feel much better this morning…though still far from well I still have an appetite to eat. Ate nothing hardly yesterday. The Company has halted to help pull the wagons up a hill. A rope is fastened to the end of the tongue & 50 or 100 men will get hold of it and walk right up a steep hill with wagon mules and all. The Country through which we are now passing is I suppose a good one, but like all Southern Country the Soil is red and dont strike a Northerner very favorably. The people seem to be taken by surprise by this movement of Sherman . . . . Negroes abound and gather in groups by the wayside. It is with the greatest exertion that [I] can keep up with the veterans.

Nov 19th Saturday: I am still sick and weak with the Diahrea. I get my knapsack hauled again today. I find they have abandoned no sick men yet to the tender mercies of the rebels, though they are disposed to have him march until his tongue hangs out nearly before they have compassion on him. I have eaten nothing scarcely for the last two or three days. How long I can endure marching at this rate God only knows.

Nov 20th Sunday: This morning is wet—feel some better this morning—have some mutton soup—am treated very kindly by the men—feel in good hope I’ll get well.

Nov 21st Monday: Last night I took a drink of briar root tea and it has checked the disease that has been preying on me. It rained steadily all night and it has been raining steadily all day until now about noon. We have been marching since daylight.

Nov 22nd Tuesday: Very cold this morning. This though disagreeable for the time is nevertheless a blessing to us for the roads will dry up and the expedition will be facilitated….It froze considerable ice last night. Snowed some this morning, hence we feel the cold considerably in marching along. We find the Country abounding in sweet potatoes, molasses and corn….I feel the exposure and exertion takes a hard strain on my system. Yet I trust in the Lord that it be preserved until we have communications with the U.S. Gov.

Nov 23rd Wednesday: It froze hard last night. I slept very uncomfortably. So much so I was compeled to get up in the night and hunt rails to make a fire. Health somewhat improved….The country through which we are now passing is beautifully situated and lies well, plantations are large. Everywhere we go are forests of pine….The land is evidently poor and worn out….My health and spirits are better than they have been for a week. We are encamped for the night in a large and rich plantation. It is sundown. The boys are now catching and killing the old rebel hogs.

Nov 24th Thursday: It is not daylight yet and we are sitting around our camp fire eating our breakfast of fresh pork and sweet potatoes….I still feel better in health—hope and pray I may be recovered. The boys get abundance of forage. I think much of home and wife and wonder how they do. I dont feel any better reconciled to soldiering than I did….We hear the sound of guns at Macon, 15 miles distant.

[The sound of guns came from east of Macon near the now long-since disappeared village of Griswoldville, where around 2,000 Georgia militia attacked a Union brigade that was heavily armed with Spencer repeating rifles, losing close to one-third of its number while inflicting less than 100 casualties on the Federals. This was the only significant engagement of the March to the Sea until Vail’s group reached the vicinity of Savannah.]

Nov 25th Friday: We have just been aroused from our slumbers by our Lieut. and Commanded to pack up and get ready for the march—feel pretty well. We pass large forests of pine, beneath them the ground is covered with cones….I am oftimes seized with an intense longing for home. This I suppose is home sickness.

Nov 26th Saturday: Health returning. I dreamed last night of home and thought I was going there, but alas I awaked and found myself in this wilderness of pines.

Nov 28th Monday: We are again on the march….The general direction of our marching is Savannah or Hilton Head.

Nov 29th Tuesday: All day yesterday and last night I have been preyed upon by the Diarrhea—[it is] weakening me down. My mess mate has given out and he will have to be hauled or left. The Lord deliver me from the terrible misfortune of being left.

Nov 30th Wednesday: The disease that has been preying on me for so long is checked. I can attribute this to but two causes—eating salt or eating a mess of onions….Our rations are 4l⁄2 pieces of hard bread for 4 days. We have to forage for the balance. Old Soldiers among us say this is about as hard soldiering as they ever experienced.

Dec 1st Thursday: Up again and ready to march—feel well. Major [David] Skeels [of the 80th Ohio, a friend of Vail’s from civilian life] came to our detachment and took me along with him to the 80th Ohio. I have eaten dinner with him—and stayed all night and was treated kindly.

Dec 2nd Friday: It is four o’clock in the morning. I have been sick all night. The bugles are now sounding to awake the troops. Through the active exertion of Major Skeels today finds me in an ambulance, being hauled over corduroy roads and sometimes jolted and thumped until I can nearly see stars. Yet I am so feeble and have been preyed upon so long by the Diarrhea I feel almost unable to walk.

Dec 3rd Saturday: Feel tolerably well this morning but weak. I get my knapsack hauled today, and I myself walk along beside the wagon. I feel grateful to God who has led me along thus far.

Dec 4th Sunday: Another Sabbath has dawned upon the earth but with us there is no commemorating it. We have started on a march this morning and are meandering around among the swamps of Lower Ga.

Dec 5th Monday: We have eaten our breakfast and have orders to do up our things & get ready to march. For the last 8 or 10 days we have been passing through a wild wilderness region, of an excessively sandy soil having nothing scarcely but a pine forest, and a kind of grass the beasts wont eat. Now we have entered a rather productive region having plenty of forage both for man and beast. We are now informed on the last 60 miles of our trip. We will be glad beyond measure when it is ended.

Dec 6th Tuesday: Feel well this morning and very thankful to God for it. We are, so they say, 39 miles from Savannah. If this is our destination we hope in a day or two to have a terminus to our long march. I lost my pivot tooth this morning, eating parched corn, we being out of hard bread.

During the next six days federal forces approached ever closer to Savannah, and on each of those days Vail noted the “roar of cannons” up ahead. Then, on December 13, he made the following entry in his journal: “Morning clear. We breakfast on coffee, hard bread &c. Feel unwell again this morning but I hope it will be transient. Dont hear any more firing in front. The joyful news has just come that Ft. McCallister is taken. While I write I hear the troops cheering and the bands playing Yankee Doodle. This opens communications.”

Even allowing for his being ill again, it is puzzling that Vail did not hear any firing that day, as a brigade from Hazen’s division, behind which his detachment was marching, stormed Fort McCallister, a Confederate bastion on the Ogeechee River below Savannah. This enabled Sherman to supply his army from a fleet standing off the coast. Sherman then slowly—too slowly, as it turned out— sought to cut off Savannah and its garrison from the rest of the Confederacy. While this operation took place, Vail’s complaints about military life continued:

Dec 14th Wednesday: Orders are this morning to pack up and move to another plantation about 4 miles distant—been sick during the night and feel weak this morning. Among the men I…associate with there are none that profess religion and I am compeled every day to listen to their profanity and vulgarity.

Dec 15th Thursday: Last night one of our men died of Typhoid Fever. The Lieut Commanding the Co has come and invited me to attend the funeral. It is sad thus to die so far from home, with no sympathizing friend near. The report in Camp now is that we are to go down to the [Ogeechee] river and do post duty for the Commissary Department. If so all right. Any thing to be kept out of these hard marches and battles.

Dec 16th Friday: It is within a week of Christmas and yet there are frogs whistling, and mosquitos & flies are about. We marched back to the Ogeechee river where Capt Root took charge of the Commissary for the Army. So we conclude that the great march is ended at least for the present.

Dec 18th Sunday: Another Sabbath….We are short of rations still. Some of the boys have had nothing for three or 4 days. In the Afternoon Maj [John W.] Fouts of the 63d [Ohio] Reg called on me and obtained permission of the Capt. for me to go with him to his regiment. He says he will try and get me detailed to his Reg to act as Chaplain. I preached to a part of his regiment in the evening.

Dec 19th Monday: Left the Headquarters of the 63d and walked to my post of duty. My health seems better now than it has been for a month. I hope I may be fully restored. Communications are now fully opened and Army supplies are pouring in.

Dec 22nd Thursday: Last night a great light was seen in the direction of Savannah. Some think they [the Confederates] are burning portions of the city. . . . We will evidently have to move from here to some other base of supplies. We are now back on the march. In a deserted house I found a copy of Doldridges’s rise and progress of religion in the Soul. In reading it I find great comfort.

Thus Vail related the victorious conclusion of Sherman’s famous march, for the “great light” out of Savannah came from torches carried by its 10,000-man garrison as it evacuated the city.

On December 23, he and the other assignees to the 38th Ohio received an order to join that regiment, which badly needed reinforcements, having dwindled in size to the point where it was commanded by a captain. First, though, on December 24 they were marched into Savannah to watch other Federal troops enter in a “grand parade,” during which Vail noted that the citizens, ladies included, seemed “to take the occupation of the city by the Yankees much better than one would suppose.” They then marched out of Savannah to the 38th Ohio’s camp, where—after almost 3l⁄2 months of service in Georgia—they finally became actual members of the regiment. Vail was assigned to Company C.

Three days later he returned to Savannah with the regiment to participate in a review of the XIV Corps. This being his “first good view of the city,” he noted that there “are many fine residences,” but that “many of the houses look old and are moss covered.” As for the review, “We were formed as in dress parade and Gen. Sherman rode along the Lines and reviewed the troops.”

Back in camp, Vail and the other new men spent much time drilling. On New Year’s Day the news he had so long awaited arrived in a letter from his wife Lizzie, “bringing the welcome intelligence that…Gen. Cowan was waiting to know my whereabouts so that he could have me discharged from the Service.” It would be another two weeks before the papers came through.

On the 15th, he had “a warm argument” with his tent mates, both “butternuts,” who declared that they “wished that not only I but all ministers that had preached politics as they called it (by which they meant preaching against slavery) would have to carry musket and knapsack during the war” and that “they hoped also that I wouldn’t get my discharge….”

Hardly had this discussion ended “when the Lieut in command of our Co. came into our tent” and asked Vail to “come to his tent,” whereupon he “immediately arose from the blanket on which I was lying and went.” As he entered the lieutenant’s tent, “the first words he said were ‘Well Mr. Vail the long looked for papers have come at last.’ Says I thank God. I then asked ‘What shall I do with my gun?’ Says he ‘bring it to me.’” Returning to his tent, Vail “went for my gun and traps. My antagonists asked what I was going to do. Says I, ‘I am going to hand over one Springfield,’ and with that I shook my discharge in their faces.”

The following day Vail boarded a steamship that took him to Port Royal, S.C., where he boarded another vessel that delivered him to New York on January 20. He again had fallen ill from having to travel in the unheated ship’s hold, compared to which he found staying at the New York Soldiers Home “like going to heaven from hell.” He spent the next two days in quest of rail transport to Ohio before finally obtaining it on the day, he noted in his journal, exactly four months after “I was drafted into the service of the U.S. and what a varied Service I have had….”

Still “very sick,” he reached Cleveland on January 25 and from there rode a train to Wellsville, Ohio, where he had to wait until 4:30 a.m. “Oh how it vexes me to think that I must lie here within a few hours ride of home and can’t go right on.” Then “in due time the train arrived and I was carried by it to my own home which I reached before any of them [presumably his wife and children] were up and was unknown by them when I first entered the house, such being the great change wrought by exposure and disease in 4 months.”

When Vail died in 1910, 45 years later, he was still serving as a Methodist minister in eastern Ohio. Late in life he prepared a typed transcript of his journal, then appended to it these words: “It is a matter of pride with me that in the great struggle of my country I lent my active support for the preservation of the Union and the maintenance of the laws.”


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here