Sherman more lore than reality

The Old Sheldon Church ruins in Beaufort County, near Yemassee.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman crossed into the Lowcountry from Savannah 150 years ago this month.

His army destroyed McPhersonville, burned the historic Sheldon Church in Yemassee, razed Middleton Plantation and others outside of Charleston, en route to burning Columbia Feb. 17-18, 1865. That is the lore. Outrage of it still festers throughout the region, a century and a half later.

But the tail end of Sherman’s infamously destructive “March to the Sea” — the trek of 60,000 Union troops from Savannah to Columbia — stirred more panic in the Charleston environs than it did actual damage.

Most of the trouble here was caused by other troops and looters in the collapsing region at the end of the Civil War.

The Sherman stories “are fascinating. Some have gotten better over the years,” said Lowcountry historian Stephen Rise, co-author of Rebellion, Reconstruction and Redemption 1861-1893.

The march did scar the Lowcountry.

“Sherman’s ‘bummers’ foraged for food, ransacked for supplies, anything they could carry. After Sherman came stragglers, criminals, outriders, tens of thousands of displaced slaves. South Carolina was this cauldron of activity,” Wise said.

“You can imagine, 60,000 troops ranging through South Carolina — it’s just hard to imagine,” he said

Before and during the march, Sherman let it be known, loudly, that he was out to take Charleston. It was a ploy to distract enemy forces, he would claim later. The fear he stirred spurred legends.

In upper Dorchester County, some residents will tell you his troops camped on high ground north of Four Holes Swamp, and they know people who have found artifacts at a site kept a secret. The brick ruins of the Middleton Place manor house near Summerville were said for years to have been the work of his ransacking troops.

Myths like that were spawned even along the route he took. A marble plaque at the historic Sheldon Church ruins in Yemassee avers that Sherman burned the place. In McPhersonville, his troops are said to have burned all but two homes and a church.

But Sherman’s forces didn’t burn so much as they dismantled buildings to build bridges and corduroy roads. They tore up rail lines where they crossed them.

Recently published period letters from Leverett family include letters from a son stationed near the Sheldon Church with Confederate forces, Wise said. The son wrote that the church was still standing after the war, Wise said, but months later wrote it had been cannibalized for building materials.

The “bummers” did a number on the region, Wise said. Against orders to leave private possessions alone, they toted off so much stuff that Sherman twice ordered his officers go through the troops, seize the loot and leave it by the roadside, because the load was slowing the advance.

“Too often, foraging parties became bands of marauders answering to no authority,” notes the American Civil War Home in its website description of them.

The Middleton ransack and the rumored camp near Dorchester could well have been Union troops, just not Sherman’s. After the general’s troops marched out of Beaufort, where he landed to invade the state, Union forces stationed there moved out on their own.

They sacked as far inland as Walterboro and “definitely occupied Dorchester County,” Wise said. The troops by that time were in large part made up of former Lowcountry slaves. A doctor traveling with them wrote they were encouraged by plantation slaves to burn the places to keep the owners from reclaiming them.

Meanwhile, Confederate troops that evacuated Charleston also spread out through the countryside scavenging food and supplies.

In the memoirs, Sherman notes that as he ordered troops to move on Jan. 2, “I still remained in doubt as to the wishes of the administration, whether I should take Charleston en route.” His troops were divided on the issue too.

“Somehow, our men had got the idea that South Carolina was the cause of all our troubles; her people were the first to fire on Fort Sumter, had been in a great hurry to precipitate the country into civil war; and therefore on them should fall the scourge of war in its worst form.”

But the cannon-blasted and blockaded port was, as he noted, “a mere desolated wreck ... hardly worth the time it would take to starve it out.”

Among other factors at play were the difficulties and dangers of moving his forces along the few roads through a flooded-at-the-time swampland. The inland-raised troops he had sent by ship to the headquarters at Beaufort got seasick and didn’t want any more of that:

“Afterward they begged me never again to send them to sea, saying they would rather march a thousand miles on the worst roads of the South than to spend a single night on the ocean,” Sherman wrote.

But fear that Sherman would storm up the coast to Charleston was so great people burned cotton and possessions along the route to keep them from being seized. It’s still debated whether the fires in Columbia were set entirely by Union troops or some were caused by burning cotton to keep it from him.

“There was a tremendous amount of panic,” Wise said. “People were hiding livestock in the swamps. People were fleeing the (Lowcountry) area and actually ending up in the line of the march.” Among the favored destinations was Columbia.

Sherman’s actual invasion began on Jan. 2, 1865. One wing of the troops began marching from Union-held Beaufort up the Pocotaglio River while the other crossed the Savannah and took Hardeeville, at today’s Interstate 95.

After the general joined them from Beaufort, they moved inland fanned out like that for the next month, through McPhersonville, near today’s Hampton, then through Bamberg and Orangeburg on their way to destroy the rail hub in Columbia.

Small-scale skirmishes marked their passage, and a few noted pitched battles, including the Battle of Rivers Bridge near Ehrhardt on Feb. 3. In each fight, Sherman employed a timeless military strategy against seriously outnumbered Confederate forces. One wing engaged the opposition to hold them where they were, while the other “just outflanked them,” Wise said.

“Some of his troops got as far as Orangeburg. Others as far as Aiken,” according to historic records, said Mount Pleasant historian Richard Hatcher, retired from the U.S. Park Service. But they never got closer to the Charleston area than Branchville, across I-95.

The bottom line is that Sherman “did very little here,” Hatcher said.

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