A heartbreaking story from Sherman’s March to the Sea that doesn’t involve fire but rather water is the Ebenezer Creek Massacre. The betrayal happened towards the end of his infamous march, only some twenty miles from the city of Savannah, Georgia. It also led to the question that our nation has wrestled with for the ensuing 150 years: What should the government do for black people?
More than 10,000 black refugees followed Sherman’s March to the Sea. The black ‘pioneers’ were making the sandy roads passable for heavy wagons and removing obstacles that Rebel troops had placed in his path. One of Sherman’s generals, the ironically named Jefferson C. Davis, commanded Sherman’s Fourteenth Corps. Davis was irritated by the black refugees following his troops. He had been unable to shake them since the Union army stormed through Atlanta and other places in Georgia in late 1864, liberating the slaves from their owners.
In spite of the fact those who joined the march were supplying a great deal of the labor for making the sandy roads passable for the army. Davis blamed the refugees following his unit for slowing down his men in the closing weeks of the march. He was also an unremorseful supporter of slavery.
Speed was vital. Davis knew that Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry was hot on their heels. On the night of Dec. 8, the corps arrived at the western bank of Ebenezer Creek. The bridge had been destroyed, in anticipation of their arrival, and the winter rain had swollen the creek to overflowing. Scouts from Wheeler’s cavalry harassed Union troops in the rear.
A floating bridge was in place by midnight, and Davis ordered the corps to cross the creek in silence and under the cover of darkness. As the troops began crossing Ebenezer Creek, Davis issued instructions that the black refugees remain behind until the Army had crossed the pontoon bridge.
As soon as the Army and their workers were safely across, General Davis ordered his men to dismantle the bridge, trapping the refugees between the icy river and the oncoming Southerners. Colonel Charles D. Kerr of the 126th Illinois Cavalry, wrote that orders were given not to let any negroes cross, and that a guard was detailed to enforce the order.
Because the able-bodied refugees were up front working in the pioneer corps, most of those stranded would have been women, children, and old men.
Just before sunrise, the refugees cried out as their escape route was pulled away from them. Moments later, Wheeler’s scouts rode up from behind and opened fire. Hundreds of refugees rushed forward into the icy current. Several Union soldiers on the eastern bank tried to help, pushing logs out to the few refugees still swimming.
Davis ordered his troops to ignore the cries for help and to continue moving forward. It is said that so many perished in the water that for some time after, their bodies piled high enough to create a macabre dam before finally washing away. Many were shot by the Confederates, and hundreds were sent back to their owners.
How many women, children, and older men were stranded cannot be determined precisely, but 5,000 is a conservative estimate.
James Connolly, a 21-year-old major in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry was outraged. Connolly wrote a letter to the Senate Military Commission.
The letter was leaked to the press, where it caught the attention of the secretary of war. Edwin Stanton was bothered by Sherman’s apparent dislike toward black Americans, both enslaved and free. He rushed to Savannah to speak to Sherman. Sherman urged the Secretary not to jump to conclusions.
Sherman and Stanton met with local Black leaders in Savannah days later on January 12, 1865. Four days later, President Lincoln approved Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, or the “40 acres and a mule” rule. The mule technically came later, but the order set aside islands along the Georgia, Florida and Carolina coasts – nearly 400,000 acres – for black resettlement. Within months, more than 40,000 black Americans had flocked to the Sea Islands area, dubbed “Sherman Land.”
History, however, was as unkind to Sherman Land as it was to the stranded refugees at Ebenezer Creek. After Lincoln was assassinated, his successor, Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer, overturned Field Order No. 15 in the fall of 1865. The Sea Islands were returned to their prewar white owners, the sacrifice of hundreds of refugees at Ebenezer Creek went unpunished — and the debate about reparations for black Americans continues to this day.