Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

As seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war online

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had been about a fifth of that number. Mean-
time he had received considerable reinforce-
ments, and in turn had sent back a large
number to assist Thomas at Nashville.
There was now^ a final examination of the
men, the invalids and weaklings were sorted
out, and we then had an army of nearly
seventy thousand men.

When all the preparations were completed,
the railroad and the telegraph lines were
destroyed, and for a month our friends could
only hear of our whereabouts by stray infor-
mation from the enemy. When Hood evacu-
ated the city he destroyed property and
stores to the extent of many millions of dol-
lars in value, and now when Sherman evacu-
ated it he ordered the remaining public



buildings to be destroyed, for war at the best
is but a game of destruction.

It is probable that the flames spread — it
could not have been otherwise in fact — and
most of the city was consumed. We then
started on a tour in which the destruction of
property was unequalled in the history of
the war. But it was not done wantonly. It
was done as a military measure, for war, as
Sherman forcibly reminded one of the Con-
federate generals who had undertaken to
criticise some of his measures — -"War is
cruelty; you cannot refine it."

And again, writing to Charles A. Dana, he
said : " To make war we must and will harden
our hearts."

The campaign which followed achieved
such a strategic success that it seems sure of
posthumous fame in both history and song,
being known in the former as "Sherman's
march to the sea," and in the latter as
Marching through Georgia.

On November 15, 1864, we broke camp,
and turning our faces to the southeast began
a march to — we did not know where. Little
did I think when a few years before I looked
at a picture of burning Moscow, which
Napoleon said was the grandest sight the


world ever beheld, that I should so soon wit-
ness a similar one.

Reaching a little rise of ground at a dis-
tance from the city we halted for a rest, and
turning to take a last look I beheld a column
of black smoke ascending to the sky. Then
another column of smoke arose, and another,
and another, until it seemed that they all
merged together and the whole city was in
flames. Great beetling towers of smoke rose
higher and higher; gigantic tongues of flame
leaped out here and there, or serpent -like
seemed to raise their heads and uncoil in the
smoke; again they would run together and
form sheets of flame which rose "high aloft,
and breaking sent fiery couriers into the sky.
The jet black smoke of the southern pine, of
which the city was mostly built, spread and
thickened until it covered the sky and made
the day dark.

*' Forward, march!" and we passed on,
leaving the ''Gate City" behind, a city no
longer — so it seemed to us then. And yet —
for Truth is ever outstripping the wildest
flights of Prophecy — the city was rapidly re-
built in after-years, and a quarter of a cen-
tury later the National Grange met there,
the farmers of the South extending the


fraternal hand of greeting to the farmers
of the North and West. Verily, we chose
a good time in which to be born !

In looking over some old letters I am re-
minded of so many incidents in connection
with the campaign which followed, and my
Imp persists in crowding my brain with so
many vivid pictures, that I hardly know
what to select. I will quote a paragraph
from one of the letters.

"Our first day's march brought us to Stone
Mountain, and here our whole brigade went on
picket for the night. We spent the next day in
destroying railroads, and so began our second
day's march after sundown, and finished it in
time to eat breakfast and begin the third day's

Such experiences were not remarkable, but
they may serve to give the reader a hint of
how the boys sometimes managed to get so

Stone Mountain is a village which takes its
name from a remarkable mountain near at
hand, which is about a thousand feet in
height, and is seemingly one immense granite
boulder. Its surface is so smooth that in
only a few places have trees and bushes found


a foothold, and its sides are so precipitous
that its summit can be reached from but one
direction. Standing thus isolated and rising
to such a height, it forms . a very striking
feature in the landscape. From there to the
coast there is no other considerable rise of
ground ; in fact, the country grows more low
and flat as you proceed, until it ends in rice
plantations at the coast.

It must be difficult for one who has never
seen an army, with all its supplies and accom-
paniments, to form an adequate conception
of its size and the amount of country it
covers. I am sure there were large portions
of Sherman's army which I never saw during
the. year and more that I was with it. It
was now organized in four infantry corps,
each corps taking a road b}^ itself, the four
corps keeping about abreast of each other;
the cavalry forming an advance guard, push-
ing out in front and in all directions. I re-
member that it took our corps about all day
to pass one point, so not infrequently the
head of the column would be going into
camp before the rear had begun the day's

As the army was now separated and sev-
ered from all communication it became neces-


sary to march it in such order that not only
the front and flanks, but the rear also, should
be securely guarded. The accomplishment
of this resulted in more or less night march-
ing. There were pontoon bridges to be put
down in front and taken up again when the
army had passed over, and then to be got to
the front again in time for it to cross another
river. And again, troops which were at the
front would be thrown out to guard the
flank, and then bring up the rear.

I recall that all of one day and the night
following, there was a terribly heavy rainfall,
and it seemed to us that the roads would be
impassable the next day, and we should get
a day's rest. But the indefatigable "Old
Tecumseh," as Sherman was nicknamed, had
seemingly forgotten there was such a word
as rest. Before morning ten miles of our
road was corduroyed with rails, and orders
were issued to the effect that every wagon
which became hopelessly mired must be
burned with its contents. "The army must
move," were the concluding words of the
order, — and we moved.

The softened roads caused by that rain
made much wearisome labor for the troops,
but it was a sight worth seeing, the energy


with which they labored. Sometimes the
bottom of the road seemed to just fall out all
at once, and a wagon would suddenly sink so
deep in the mud that it was utterly beyond
the power of the six-mule team to draw it
out. Then a rope of some length would be
attached, and perhaps two or three hundred
men would line up on it, while the wagon it-
self would be surrounded by as many as
could touch it or reach it with their guns.
When all was ready the officer in charge
would give the word. Then the driver
would slash his whip and pour forth a strange
profanity (for mule drivers were noted for
their picturesque use of the language), and
all would strain and shout.

Look! the wagon sways, it moves, the
wheels bringing up great masses of mud;
the mules are straining in the harness, every
one is yelling and tugging. Now it lunges
forward into another slough; now it rises
again. Ah, here we are! It is on hard
ground once more, and every one has paused
to get breath.

But the place had to be mended, for there
were other wagons waiting in line, so all ran
to bring rails from the fence, and they were
laid across the road in the mud to make a


flooring. Where the mud was the deepest
they were laid in several thicknesses. A
roadbed of rails or trees laid in that way was
called a "corduroy." I remember one in-
stance where the wheels on one side of a
wagon had settled deeply in the mud, and the
wagon had fallen over on its side. Impossi-
ble as it may seem, the wagon with its ton or
more of freight was lifted upright and drawn
out of the slough by human strength.

I believe, however, that there were a few
instances in which the wagons with their con-
tents were burned, in accordance with the
orders, for they were so hopelessly mired
that they could not be extricated without
causing too much delay.

There is an old saying, attributed to the
Duke of Wellington, I think, to the effect
that "an army travels on its belly." The
meaning of this homely adage is that an*
army is dependent, above all things else,
upon food supplies. Hence the great promi-
nence given in reports, orders, and military
literature of all kinds to what is aptly termed
"the base of supplies." In this campaign
the country itself was made the base of sup-
plies, and food disappeared before us as frost
disappears before the morning sun. When


we marched at the head the country opened
before us teeming with a wealth of domestic
animals and harvested crops, all of which
was manna to our cracker-and-salt-pork-
wasted stomachs and scurvy-infested bodies ;
and I may as well say in passing that, in ac-
cordance with orders from headquarters, we
promiptly assumed proprietary rights in
everything of the food kind.

But when it became our turn to bring up
the rear of the army, the pleasant rural land-
scape seemed to have been swept by the
wand of the Angel of Death. Stock and food
of all kinds had disappeared, while buildings
and fences were transformed to smoking
ruins, and sometimes even the forests were
in flames. Let the reader imagine, if he can,
a strip of country '* sixty miles in latitude, —
three hundred to the main," subjected to
such a visitation ; it will be likely to give him
a renewed interest in international arbitra-

Roads filled with wagons and artillery,
with troops marching at the sides or through
the fields, and followed by unnumbered
crowds of slaves revelling in the fervent be-
lief that " De day hab come," made a picture
not soon to be forgotten.


But the thought of freedom was too great
for some of the poor creatures to grasp. I
remember one group of slaves who stood by
the roadside looking wonderingly at the pass-
ing body of troops. As there was a halt for
rest just as we reached that point, some of
the boys entered into conversation with them.
One asked them why they did not follow
the army and go to the North. "You are
free now, you know," the soldier explained.

"Free!" They could not understand it.

" Yes, Abe Lincoln has made you free ; you
can go where you please now, and your mas-
ter can't stop you." They looked from one
to another, and then one seemed to be struck
by a bright thought.

"Guess dat wouldn't go down wid ole
Marse!" he exclaimed, and they all chuckled
and laughed in accord, for they thought they
saw now that we were trying to joke them.
So we left them, but as we were in the ad-
vance that day, and thousands of the freed-
men were following on behind, they were
probably convinced before night.

But not all of them were so slow in grasping
the thought. In one of our night camps
there was an old white-headed negro who
went limping around from one camp-fire to


another, and the excitement of it all had
fairly wrought him into an ecstacy of feeling
in which he seemed to be contemplating him-
self complacently as being in some sort a

"De Lor' bless ye, boys!" he exclaimed,
raising both hands above his crown of white
wool; " I knowed it 'd come; I 's looked for
it dis fifteen year, and I pray de Lor' I might
live to see de day."

And then this Simeon of his race leaned
heavily on his staff again and went tottering
on into the night towards other fires, no
doubt to again congratulate himself and call
blessings on the Northmen because of the
early fulfilment of his prophecy.

Sherman's march to the sea

"Sherman's Bummers" — Writer Joins the" Foraging
Party — An Antique of the Race Course — Capture
of Millegeville — A Calaboose, a Church, and a Lib-
erty Pole — Investigating a Prison-Pen.

IN connection with the food supply of this
army a few words should be said here
in reference to those erstwhile famous bands
known as "Sherman's Bummers," for there
seems to have gone forth an impression that
they were an irresponsible set of pillagers.
When we left Atlanta it was published far
and wide in Northern papers that our wagons
contained five months' rations, but this was
probably intended to mislead the enemy, for
from that time until we entered Savannah, a
month later, not five days' rations were
issued from the wagons.

To use the country as a source of supphes


became a necessity, and to provision his
army in this way Sherman, not only in this
campaign, but more especially in the sub-
sequent Carolina campaigns, made use of a
new organization which may fairly be said
to have been his invention. A certain por-
tion of each regiment was detailed to act as a
foraging party, and was placed under com-
mand of a commissioned officer, who led his
little band where he chose. Some of the
parties would push out north or south of the
army, and some w^ould go directly ahead of
it, and they would be absent a day or two,
and sometimes several days.

It was these small bands of foragers (which,
however, were perfectly legitimate military
(Organizations) w^hich received the nickname
of "Bummers." This word, at first used in
derision, soon took its place in the army
vocabulary, and occasionally made its ap-
pearance in general orders. They brought in
all manner of provisions, from sweet pota-
toes to beef on the hoof, and when they re-
turned to the regiment whatever was brought
in was turned over to the Quartermaster, and
was issued by him in regular form. Some-
times a poor strip of country would be passed,
where nothing but com in the ear could be


obtained; but one may feel perfectly secure
against hunger if he but have corn to parch
in the frying-pan.

They started out on foot of course, but it
was not many da}^s before they had supplied
themselves with mules and horses from the
plantations, and thereafter might have been
not inappropriately termed mounted infantry.
The orders were strict not to enter private
houses, but there were some stragglers, men
who strayed away from their commands to
pillage and destroy, and to this irresponsi-
ble class must be attributed the burning of
houses, and other wilful acts of destruction.

Provisioning the army was only one of the
benefits realized from this organization. Its
effect was to surround us with an extremely
active and aggressive advance guard, which
kept the enemy in ignorance most of the time
of what our army was doing, and, in fact, of
its exact locality. The complete indepen-
dence of action of these small bodies enabled
them to outstrip even the cavalry, which
moved under orders from headquarters.

There was one instance of this which I re-
member hearing of at the time, and as I
have since heard General Kilpatrick tell the
same story, it may now be considered as


vouched for, and better entitled to a place in
history than some things that have found
one there. I ought to prelude by saying that
we were not confronted by any considerable
body of the enemy, but bands of their cav-
alry were continually hovering about, seek-
ing to delay our progress by burning bridges
and felHng trees across the roads, especially
where they passed through swamps.

There was a certain bridge over a large
river which Sherman was very desirous of
saving from being destroyed. To accom-
plish this. General Kilpatrick, who was in
command of the cavalry of vSherman's army,
took personal command of a considerable
body of cavalry, and pushed forward by
forced marches, night and day, hoping to
surprise the enemy and secure possession of
the bridge in time to prevent it from being
burned. As they approached the vicinity of
the bridge he heard the sound of firing, and
hastening his command with all speed he
rushed to the scene. Judge of his surprise
when he found the 1: ridge already in posses-
sion of the " Bummers," who with a thick-set
skirmish-hne were holding the enemy at bay.
Upon his approach he was recognized and
hailed by an irreverent private, who shouted.


"We 've got the bridge; come on ' Kil' and
help us hold it."

The General used to tell this story with a
great deal of relish, for such delightful forget-
fulness of rank by volunteers under stress of
emotion never gave him the least offence.
With the regular troops it could never have
happened; and it is possible also that with
the regular troops the bridge would not have
been saved. These skirmishes with the enemy
were of frequent occurrence with the " Bum-
mers," and sometimes a whole detail would be
surprised and captured.

As the personnel of the detail was changed
from time to time, I one day volunteered
my services as "Bummer," and they were
promptly accepted. The horse assigned to
me was tall, thin, and gaunt, "old as the
hills," and withal was as blind as a stone.
The saddle was a sheepskin strapped on, but
as I was accustomed to bareback riding T did
not mind the trappings. We left the camp
before daylight, and after travelling some
distance reached the main highway. We had
not proceeded far on this before we found the
detail from another regiment was on the same
road. It soon became apparent to every one
that the body which succeeded in getting


ahead would have the first foraging in a
fresh country, though of course they would
also run the first risk of capture; this last
item, however, was not considered at the time.

Without a word of command there soon
began a furious race on that broad sandy
road, and presently the two details were inter-
mingled for miles along the highway, while
horses and mules were being urged on by the
wildest shouting and whipping. I now dis-
covered that my mount, which looked so un-
promising when at rest, was in reality an
antique of the race course, and doubtless had
a lineage as proud as that of Kubla Khan.
As a matter of fact, I had left the camp with
the last of the column, and by the time I had
reached the main road and had grasped the
situation, the head of my command was al-
ready in the race and probably far ahead of

But the resounding hoofs, the whipping
and shouting, and other reminders of race-
track days soon woke the spirit of "Old
Steeplechase," and we began to pass the other
riders as an ocean liner passes sailing craft.
I found I had no use for the nail that I had
carefully fixed in the heel of my shoe to be
used as a spur. All might have gone well,


but rounding a turn in the forest-lined road, I
suddenly discovered directly in my course a
man who had dismounted from his mule and
was fixing his saddle.

Alas, my fleet but blind craft failed to an-
swer to the helm, and there was a collision,
two men and two animals being scattered on
the ground, and barely escaping the hoofs of
the oncoming multitude. The horse scram-
bled to his feet in fright, and with an agility
born of necessity I recovered my place on his
back, and we sped on, but I have sometimes
wondered since how long that man of the
mule continued to use such language as was
filling the air when I left. Even with this
hindrance, long before the officer in command
called a halt after some fifteen or more miles
of racing, I was at the head of the column.

We now waited an hour for the stragglers
and slow mounts to come up. The compet-
ing body were not to be seen, and they had
probably turned off on some other road. As
we were now entirely beyond the army, the
command was drawn together and kept in a
better defensive attitude, flankers being put
out where the lay of the country permitted.
Some time in the afternoon we turned off the
main road to a large plantation, and here we


found the supplies we wanted for the regi-
ment. Not a white person was visible, but
several slaves were about the place. We
gathered quantities of smoked meat and
bags of meal and corn from the outbuild-
ings, and, piling them into the farm wagon,
found we had quite a wagon load.

I was armed only with a pistol, but the men
had their rifles and ammunition, and pickets
were at once posted about the place. Not
only did we stay there that night, but on the
succeeding night also. When on the third
day we set out to look for the regiment, we
had several wagon loads of food supplies
which we had gathered, with the plantation
teams to draw it, and we had to go back some
miles to meet the army. Even after getting
into the army again it was no easy task to find
that portion of it where our regiment was, and
it was night when we reached it, but the sup-
plies were much appreciated.

We arrived at Milledgeville, then the capi-
tal of the State, November 2 2d, and the place
was surrendered by the Mayor. This stately
event of surrendering a country village,
"inhabited by women and niggers," as
the wag remarked, to an army of seventy
thousand, was unusual, and to us it seemed


entirely unnecessary. But we were not to be
outdone in ceremonious courtesy, it seemed,
for the troops entered the town in proper
form, with martial tread, while the Mayor on
the court-house steps reviewed the procession.
Ours was the lead that day, and we headed
the column playing Yankee Doodle. His
Honor neither praised nor criticised the selec-
tion, but then, — his eye may have caught
sight of a fat Pekin duck which I was carry-
ing in my left hand while I played with my
right! It was one that I had picked up a
little way back, — perhaps on the Mayor's
plantation, who knows?

For some reason we remained near Milledge-
ville during the following day. It was the
only da^^'s rest we had between Atlanta and
Savannah, and a most fortunate rest it was
to me, for my physical condition at the time
was such that probably this opportune halt
saved me from completely giving out. It was
a very cold day, especially so we thought for
November weather in Georgia, water freez-
ing in pools all day. But the opportunity
for rest was appreciated, as was also the duck,
which, after being picked and stuffed with
broken hardtack, was nicely roasted over the
fire, poised on a spit of green wood.


This place was about the last of the good
country, — from an agricultural point of view,
I mean, — for from this point eastward the
farm land grew less in area, and the swamps
grew more extensive, until near the coast it
became "a dreadful hungry country," as one
of the boys called it ; but it was not so much
the country as it was the army that was

The town of Eatonton presented a scene
which has ever since been to me a source of
much perplexity of thought on the intricacies
and mysteries of human nature. The scene
was this :

A church, and near at hand a calaboose,
which is a place where some men had made
it their occupation to whip slaves for their
refined and genteel owners, — and towering
above the calaboose was a "liberty pole."
Religion in fact; liberty in theory; slavery
in practice. How shall we explain it^*

It will perhaps assist us if we are reminded
again that the acts were not of men, but
rather were the natural outgrowth of the
institution of slavery, for we must remember
that since the coming of King Demos nations
no longer stand in danger from men ; the role
of tyrant has passed now to institutions


instead. The modern danger to the Common-
wealth was clearly prophesied by Thoreau as
being "that some monster institution would
at length embrace and crush its free members
in its scaly folds." Happily, by the outcome
of the war one monster institution was laid
at rest, but barely in time to save us from
being crushed in its scaly folds.

"But the inconsistency!" you exclaim;
"the emblem of liberty raised over a cal-
aboose, and both presided over by the
church ! ' '

Yes, certainly, but let us suspend judg-
ment, for we of the North had our inconsist-
encies, and the next generation — aye, and

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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 11 of 14)