December 30, 1864: Sherman and the “negroes”

A group of "contrabands"

News of the incident at Ebenezer Creek, where Jeff C. Davis took up the pontoon bridge, abandoning hundreds of escaped slaves to recapture by Wheeler’s cavalry or drowning, has reached the north. Sherman is under considerable criticism from abolitionists in the north, for what they see as his antagonism toward civil rights for black former slaves. Here Halleck suggests that Sherman could help slaves left in his path to escape to Savannah, and build up some good public relations at the same time. We’ll see Sherman’s reply on Jan. 12. Spoiler alert: he’s not particularly supportive.

Official Records:

Washington, D. C., December 30, 1864. *
Major General W. T. SHERMAN,

MY DEAR GENERAL: I take the liberty of calling your attention, in this private and friendly way, to a matter which may possibly hereafter be of more importance to you than either of us may now anticipate. While almost every one is praising your great march through Georgia and the capture of Savannah, there is a certain class, having now great influence with the President, and very probably anticipating still more on a change of Cabinet, who are decidedly disposed to make a point against you – I mean in regard to “Inevitable Sambo. ”

They say that you have manifested an almost criminal dislike to the negro, and that you are not willing to carry out the wishes of the Government in regard to him, but repulse him with contempt. They say you might have brought with you to Savannah more than 50,000, thus stripping Georgia of that number of laborers and opening a road by which as many more could have escaped for their masters; but that instead of this you drove them from your ranks, prevented them from following you by cutting the bridges in your rear, and thus caused the massacre of large numbers by Wheeler’s cavalry.

To those who know you as I do such accusations will pass as the idle winds, for we presume that you discouraged the negroes from following you simply because you had not the means of supporting them and feared they might seriously embarrass your march. But there are others, and among them some in high authority, who think, or pretend to think, otherwise, and they are decidedly disposed to make a point against you.

I do not write this to induce you to conciliate the this class of men by doing anything which you do not think right and proper and for the interest of the Government and the country, but simply to call your attention to certain things which are viewed here somewhat differently than from your standpoint. I will explain as briefly as possible: Some here think that, in view of the scarcity of labor in the South, and the probability that a part, at least, of the able-bodied slaves will be called into the military service of the rebels, it is of the greatest importance to open outlets by which the slaves can escape into our lines, and, they say, that the route you have passed over should be made the route of escape and Savannah the great place of refuge. These I know are the views of some of the leading men in the administration, and they now express dissatisfaction that you did not carry them out in your great raid.

Now that you are in possession of Savannah, and there can be no further fears about supplies, would it not be possible for you to reopen these avenues of escape for the negroes without interfering with your military operations? Could not such escaped slaves find, at least, a partial supply of food in the rice fields about Savannah, and occupation in the rice and cotton plantations on the coast?

I merely throw out these suggestions; I know that such a course would be approved by the Government, and I believe that a manifestation on your part of a desire to bring the slaves within our lines will do much to silence your opponents.

You will appreciate my motives in writing this private letter.
Yours, truly,

*General Sherman’s reply of January 12, 1865, refers to this letter as dated January 1st, but General Halleck’s copy is dated as here given.

This entry was posted in Abolitionism, Contrabands, Georgia, Henry Halleck, Savannah, Sherman's March, William Tecumseh Sherman. Bookmark the permalink.

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