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Following his capture of Atlanta and "march to the sea" at Savannah, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman with 65,000 men marched through South Carolina from January 19 to March 8, 1865. This book tells that story.

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"Our military appear paralyzed." (Confederate Major E.D. Bennett, Camden, SC, 01/24/1865

  • Jul 29, 2013

In retrospect, militarily the South's effort to secede from the United States (1860 - 1865) began rapidly to unravel July 17, 1864 when Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved cautious General Joseph Johnston as head of the Army of Tennessee defending Atlanta from more than 100,000 men under Major General William Tecumseh Sherman


Johnston's replacement, hot-headed Texan Lt. General John Bell Hood lost Atlanta on September 2nd. By December 15 in a disastrous battle at Nashville, Tennessee. Hood's army was shattered, reduced from an initial 60,000 to 20,000 men. Hood never again posed a serious threat to General Sherman as the latter first "marched to the Sea" and captured Savannah, Georgia then later conducted what his adoring troops styled the "Smokey March" through both Carolinas in a slow, ineffectually opposed "carnival of destruction" procession to join General Grant, capture Confederate capital Richmond, compel the surrender of Robert E. Lee and end the Civil War. 


With focus on Sherman's time in South Carolina (January 19 to March 8, 1865), this oft told story is well and in much day to day detail retold in Tom Elmore's 2012 A CARNIVAL OF DESTRUCTION: SHERMAN'S INVASION OF SOUTH CAROLINA.


A CARNIVAL OF DESTRUCTION (580 pages following xxxiii pages of preliminaries) is massively informative and replete with contemporary photos of Union and Confederate Generals. 


Its most striking weakness (apart from typos) is lack of maps. All that a reader finds as a guide to geography occurs just inside the front cover, styled "Routes of Sherman's Army from Savannah to Columbia." This map is reproduced from General Sherman's MEMOIRS of 1875. I had to squint back at it in frustration during every chapter that I read. 


Let us pray that future editions will add 21st Century state of the art terrain maps to every chapter. Sherman faced only two principal enemies in his "smokey march" through South Carolina. 


-- The first was the bitter cold, unending rain and high winds. 


-- The second was the forbidding geography of the land between Savannah, Georgia and South Carolina's capital city Columbia. That land began as mainly swamp, creeks and rivers. The generally inept, clueless Confederates whom Sherman's 65,000 men faced held as dogma that it was physically impossible for any army to cross that terrain in the depth of winter. 


They were wrong. But the book's sole map is not remotely as good as the book's text for showcasing the formidable terrain that was conquered by Sherman's army of healthy young men, of which Confederate General Joe Johnston opined: "no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar." 


By the time Sherman had conducted "hard war" in Georgia and the Carolinas, most Southerners knew deep in their bones that they were well licked. For Lincoln had been re-elected, would soon begin his second term and would not permit the reeling Confederates to leave the Union. Lincoln did, however, at a five hour January 1865 conference with the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens at Hampton Roads, Virginia, offer incredibly attractive terms if the South stopped fighting at once and simply rejoined the Union. Even the issue of slavery would be left to the Courts to decide. The South would have been wise to accept (for all would otherwise be lost within four months). But unrealistic, stubborn, even stupid President Jefferson Davis rejected everything but a troop exchange.


The growing despair of South Carolinians helpless before Sherman's ruthless "smokey march" through their proud state was recorded in a January 24, 1865 letter written by Confederate Major E. D. Bennett from Camden, South Carolina: 


"Sherman seems to be advancing unmolested through our State, it is sad to think of an enemy just walking through our country, without a single effort being made to stop their progress. Our military appear paralyzed" (Chapter Three, p.81).



A CARNIVAL OF DESTRUCTION is a very good, albeit mammothly day by day detailed read. I have no idea how "original" it is. The author gives credit to a handful of his history-writing predecessors. The volume's strong points include:


-- A terse, limpid Table of Contents making clear the book's essentially chronological nature,


-- "IMAGES," sandwiched between Chapters Ten and Eleven: photos of selected Union and Confederate leaders and of various buildings on Sherman's route,


-- APPENDIX A: extraordinarily helpful chronology of events presented in two columns (Confederate on left, Union on right),


-- Lavish ENDNOTES worth reading for unexpected nuggets,



-- a lengthy BIBLIOGRAPHY.


Not notably useful: the book's INDEX. So much that I sought there I did not find, e.g. General Johnston's comparison of Sherman's army to Caesar's legions.


Another criticism: for non-experts such as myself it is very hard to keep straight never heard of places: especially, locations of rivers and railroad lines. Ditto the numerous generals and colonels on both sides (at times the Confederates seemed to have almost as many generals assembled in one spot as they had battle-ready troops).


General Sherman was fortunate in both the quantity and the quality of his political and military opponents, notably Jefferson Davis and Generals Beauregard and Hood. Sherman consistently misled them by feints of his widely separated left and right wings as to his real intention to capture and punish the Palmetto State's capital, Columbia. The Confederates tried to defend too many less militarily vital cities at once, notably Augusta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. The result was that the South never assembled enough infantry, artillery or cavalry in one location to offer effective opposition to Sherman. Or slow him down as remotely as well as did swamps, cold and high winds. Days after the fall of Columbia, when restored to command on February 23, 1865, General Joe Johnston was reluctant to accept, expecting to be called on to do little more than surrender his forces to Sherman and/or Grant.


General Sherman on his "smokey march" through South Carolina, destroyed so many stores of cotton bales, so many locomotives and rolling stock and tore up so many miles of track as effectively to take South Carolina out of the war as an essential supply source for Lee's embattled army at Richmond/Petersburg. 


When Southern ladies complained that Sherman's foraging, scavenging "bummers" were burning their homes in addition to seizing their livestock and grains, William Tecumseh Sherman was wont to retort roughly as follows: he would clearly prefer fighting the armies of their husbands and fathers if only there were any such armies to fight. Where, by the way, were those husbands and fathers and their armies? They should be here at Branchville or Orangeburgh or Columbia defending their home state and their plantations. Wives,  tell your husbands to give up, come home and live in peace reunited with a forgiving United States. Otherwise clench your teeth and endure total war.



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July 30, 2013
An interesting period in American history!
About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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