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chapter 9 The Final Months The people are sullen and will not speak to us if they can help it. Not so with the Negroes. I went into several of their shanties and found them in great glee. They say, “why did you stay away so long? We’ve been praying and praying for you to come.” —Ashael Sumner Dean As December 1864 came to a close, General William T. Sherman’s army approached its objective: Savannah, Georgia. During the army’s movement across Georgia to Savannah and on toward Columbia, Union soldiers frequently encountered and interacted with African Americans. Although many northern soldiers manifested varying degrees of racial prejudice, historian Joseph Glatthaar concludes that “most of the soldiers treated blacks reasonably well.” There were minor incidents, of course, and some serious cases of mistreatment of blacks by soldiers. The most famous of these involved the Fourteenth Corps on its march from Augusta to Savannah, with Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry in pursuit . The Union troops crossed safely over a pontoon bridge spanning Ebenezer Creek, but the corps commander, Jefferson C. Davis, ordered the pontoon removed, denying its use to hundreds of black men, women, and children following his troops. Trapped on the wrong side of the creek, many drowned attempting to swim across; others were shot or captured by the rebels.1 Despite this tragic incident and other less well known or undocumented cases of cruelty, Sherman’s march across Georgia afforded many Union soldiers the opportunity to become acquainted with and befriend black civilians. Young northern soldiers hired black men as servants, teaching them to read and offering them tips on how to survive in their new world of freedom. In letters home, soldiers wrote of their admira- 250 Bluejackets and Contrabands tion for blacks who assisted escaping Union prisoners and guided Union soldiers on foraging parties in search of food. In one instance, an elderly black man offered his shoes to a barefoot forager, reasoning, “Soldier, honey, doan’t you know dat I’se glad to go barefooted to help you fight de battle of freedom?”2 On December 21, 1864, Sherman’s troops occupied the city of Savannah, which had been abandoned by Confederate forces. Reporting the good news to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren wrote: “I have walked about the city several times, and can affirm that its tranquility is undisturbed. The Union soldiers who are stationed within its limits, are as orderly as if they were in New York or Boston.” On January 4, 1865, Dahlgren returned to Savannah to confer with Sherman, who had already begun moving his troops out of the city, sending 30,000 men from his right wing for transport to Beaufort. The admiral offered Sherman the navy’s assistance and hoped that Sherman’s troops would move on toward Charleston and attack that city, which had long been an objective of the Union war effort.3 To Dahlgren’s disappointment, three days later Sherman informed him that he had ordered four army corps, General John G. Foster’s 5,000 men at the Tulfinney, and a regiment at Boyd’s Neck to move out toward Florence, not Charleston. Although clearly displeased with Sherman’s decision, Dahlgren supported the army’s operations by ordering the Pontiac to the Savannah River, the Mingoe to cooperate with General Foster’s force, and the Dai Ching and Sonoma to operate in the Coosaw or the “nearest rivers to assist the advance of troops.” Dahlgren told Welles that any further cooperation would be confined to assistance in attacking Charleston or in establishing communication at Georgetown.4 According to Charles P. Ware, hundreds of blacks who had accompanied Sherman’s army to Savannah followed it northward, many of them arriving in the Port Royal area. “They are said to be an excellent set of people, more intelligent than most here,” he wrote, “and are eager for work. They will get distributed onto the plantations before a great while.” Referring to them as “the Georgia refugees,” Harriet Ware wrote on January 6, 1865: “Miss Towne gave us quite an interesting account of the Georgia refugees that have been sent to the Village. The hardships they underwent to march with the army are fearful, and the children often gave out and were left by their mothers exhausted and dying by the roadside and in the fields.” One couple who had twelve children carried one child each and tied the rest “all together by the...


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