Ebenezer Creek, Georgia, where on December 9, 1864, Union troops prevented thousands of black refugees who had been following them during Sherman’s March from crossing, and hundreds of the refugees subsequently drowned trying to ford the creek seeking to escape pursuing Confederate cavalry. Source: http://www.civilwaralbum.com/misc5/ebenezer_pan1.htm
The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is now squarely focused on William Tecumseh Sherman’s legendary March to the Sea, in which he led the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of Georgia, and a cavalry division on a grand raid through the heart of Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah that lasted from mid-November to shortly before Christmas 1864. An important focus in the commemoration of this event has been on Sherman’s treatment of Georgia’s population, especially to what extent the activities of his army, particularly in foraging, caused suffering among civilians.
With one notable exception, coming from Carole Emberton over at Heather Richardson’s new website, We’re History, the debate of late over civilian suffering from Sherman’s March has focused mostly on Georgia’s white population or been essentially race-blind. Emberton, in her web article, “A Hungry Belly and Freedom,” shifts the focus to how Sherman’s March affected Georgia’s African Americans. She contends that Georgia’s slaves bore the brunt of food shortages created by Sherman’s foraging. They had never been fed terribly well to begin with, Emberton asserts, and years of malnutrition left many slaves on the path of Sherman’s March especially vulnerable to the resulting food scarcity in its wake, resulting in widespread suffering and even death from malnutrition-related causes.
The suffering also certainly puts into skeptical perspective Sherman’s subsequently famous and celebrated Special Field Orders, No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, in which he set aside 400,000 acres of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida for ex-slaves to subsist on (helping to create the legend of “40 Acres and a Mule” since each family was limited to forty acres and the Union forces supposedly donated some former slaves surplus army mules). The suffering of Georgia’s slaves during the march helps explain this humanitarian gesture as essentially an act of damage control in the press from a general officer not noted for sympathy to African Americans.
Still, the incident which no doubt played the greater role in prompting Special Field Orders, No. 15 occurred on December 9, 1864, at Ebenezer Creek, Georgia (please see the image above). If some slaves were starving due to the foraging of Sherman’s men, it did not stop thousands of other slaves from attaching themselves to his army. The presence of some of the slaves was welcome, especially strong, able-bodied men who served in the “pioneer corps” at the front of the columns clearing the army’s way by repairing and building-up roads for heavy wagons, removing obstructions placed by Confederate militia and cavalry that shadowed Sherman’s army, and any other tasks necessary to assisting its forward progress. Various of other slaves made themselves useful in camp and in other roles.
The problem from the perspective of Union forces were the hundreds, eventually thousands of refugee slaves that attached themselves to Sherman’s columns but did not labor for it. Some were the dependents of African Americans working for Sherman’s army. Others simply sought to secure their freedom and safety by attaching themselves to the white Northerners, not trusting what their owners or other white Southeners would do when the Yankees moved on. Still others, as Carole Emberton noted, were hungry as a result of Union foraging and sought food from the one place they could be reasonably sure had it–Sherman’s army. It also was the case that some slaves simply were curious to see the northern army, which they regarded as their liberators and once they located the Yankees were loath to return to their place of enslavement. The efforts of slaveholders and other whites to discredit Union soldiers in the eyes of the slaves prior to Sherman’s arrival had backfired, as Edmund L. Drago put it, with “stories of Yankees’ burning and drowning blacks, forcing them to fight, harnessing them to carts, or shipping them to Cuba seldom succeeded in engendering fear among the slaves.”
Some Union commanders wanted to get rid of the black hangers on, who they believed potentially imperiled the progress of the army and proved a drain on its resources. No officer felt this way more strongly than Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, the XIV Corps’ commander, who used his middle initial in vain attempt to avoid association with the Confederate President to whom he was not related by blood, but had caused him to be nicknamed uncharitably within the Union Army, “General Reb.”
On December 9, 1864, as the XIV Corps crossed swollen Ebenezer Creek about twenty miles north of Savannah, Davis acted ruthlessly to detach his army from the approximately 5,000 black refugees who had joined his column. The refugees were kept from crossing the creek until the army had passed over the pontoon bridge, which was then dismantled before the refugees could cross. The black refugees were left to the mercy of Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler, who had been shadowing Sherman’s army throughout the march, much too weak to attack Sherman head on, but able to pick off stragglers and foraging parties that strayed too far from the main columns. Rather than allow themselves to be captured by Wheeler’s cavalry, hundreds of black refugees, mostly women, children, and the elderly, tried to ford Ebenezer Creek, where many drowned. The remainder were captured by the Confederate cavalry and faced an uncertain fate, with no doubt many being returned to slavery.
Cut off from communications with the North during the march, news of the incident at Ebenezer Creek initially was slow to spread, but after Sherman’s forces occupied the port of Savannah, Georgia, on December 21, 1864, accounts from appalled eyewitnesses in Davis’ army quickly made their way to the outside world and into the northern press, prompting Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton himself to travel down to Savannah to investigate, arriving on January 11, 1865. Sherman managed to convince Stanton that Davis had acted properly, and the furor over the incident quickly died away in the glow in the North over the general success of the March to the Sea. Jefferson C. Davis never faced any formal proceedings over Ebenezer Creek and was even later breveted to Major General. It was easy for most white Northerners quickly to forget the incident because from their perspective the victims were only negroes. Especially, with Sherman’s grand if dubious gesture of granting 400,000 acres for recently liberated slaves to occupy five days after Stanton’s arrival (land which would be returned to its original owners months later by Andrew Johnson’s amnesty for ex-Confederates in May 1865).
So despite William Tecumseh Sherman’s successful effort at damage control in the northern press and his superiors in Washington, the incident at Ebenezer Creek on December 9, 1864, remains a blot on Sherman’s March and a tragic moment in the history of emancipation in the United States. Hundreds of slaves died so close to final freedom and thousands of others presumably were re-enslaved for a time because one Union corps commander placed questionable military expediency over urgent humanitarian considerations. Of course, this was indicative of the character of the entire march, where many thousands more Georgia slaves suffered hunger, and possibly starved, because the Union Army confiscated food that would have fed them.
Still, one cannot help but believe that despite the death and suffering for African Americans from Sherman’s March that for most it was heartening for Georgia’s slaves to see the arrival of the blue columns, for all the suffering their transit caused. The Union soldiers, as elsewhere, were the harbingers that the death of slavery was near and day of jubilee would soon arrive. For if the Confederates could not stop the Sherman’s legions as they marched through Georgia, how could they stop the final collapse of slavery?
Sources: 1) http://werehistory.org/hungry-belly-and-freedom/; 2) http://www.historynet.com/betrayal-at-ebenezer-creek.htm; 3) Edmund L. Drago, “How Sherman’s March Through Georgia Affected the Slaves,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 57 (Fall 1973): 361-75.