Sherman’s Andersonville Dilemma (Article 73)

In April, 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had been given a mission by his superior officers; to take his over 60,000 Union troops out of Tennessee, into Georgia. Once there, he was to conquer Atlanta, move southeast through Macon (a strategic rail center) and then march to the sea to take Savannah. The strategy behind the Georgia campaign was not to just capture important Southern cities, but to split the diminishing Confederate forces and to demoralize the population so that they would seek an earlier end to the Civil War. An ancillary mission was to, hopefully, weaken the Confederate resistance against General Grant’s forces in Virginia by Robert E. Lee’s army; as Sherman moved his troops further south and around those battlefields.

General Sherman completed his mission, but under a historical cloud. The Georgia campaign is forever marked in history for the burning of Atlanta and for the widespread (and some say unnecessary) destruction of homes and farms during his army’s “March to the Sea” toward Savannah.

But, during that same time-period, there was another immense human tragedy taking place in Georgia, near a town called Andersonville, in a prison named Camp Sumter. The Union soldiers, held there as prisoners-of-war, suffered under inhumane conditions; a situation, at least in part, known to many Northern civilian and military officials. By the time Sherman was preparing to leave Tennessee for Georgia, he was aware of the existence of Camp Sumter, if not of the full scope of the unfolding tragedy. In spite of that knowledge, Sherman’s Georgia campaign strategy did not include the liberation of the lightly defended prison complex; and some critics suggest that it should have.

The prison had been started in December 1863, with a plan to house 10,000 Union prisoners, but was still unfinished when the first prisoners began to arrive in February 1864. In only a few months the prison population swelled to over 33,000 and conditions deteriorated rapidly. Sherman was at least somewhat aware of the deplorable conditions within the prison since a few men had escaped and told of the many prisoners who had died, and were dying, of starvation and disease. His large army would be within about 140 miles of Andersonville during his two-month siege of Atlanta (from early July-September 3rd), and even closer, about 50 miles, as the army marched through Macon, Georgia; on the way to Savannah. However, Sherman decided to not veer the army off course to liberate the thousands of Union prisoners suffering at Camp Sumter. By most estimates, at least 13,000 prisoners died there with many succumbing from the time Sherman entered Georgia in April 1864 until their liberation in April 1865.

Why did Sherman not prioritize the liberation of the Andersonville prisoners? Certainly, many more would have survived if they had been rescued anytime during Sherman’s nine-month campaign in Georgia.

Sherman gave various reasons for his decision.  After he completed his march to the sea in December 1864 he said he had been given a mission that was never altered. Then, just after the war, he said that he could not justify dividing his forces since he could not be sure of the size and capabilities of Confederate General John Bell Hood’s forces which were in the area. Later, he said that, while it would have been a humanitarian mission to relieve the suffering of the prisoners, if he had divided his forces to essentially begin a second and separate campaign, it would have put the remaining soldiers under his command at greater risk in battle against the enemy. He also explained that he could not have cared for the prisoners without halting his campaign; which was probably a fact, since he had organized his force to travel quickly, (read lightly), from Atlanta and obtained most of his food supplies by foraging off the land. Therefore, Sherman believed that he could not have fed and cared for another 30,000 sick soldiers.

What is often lost is that he did permit a voluntary, but limited, attempt at liberating Andersonville in July 1864 when he agreed that General George Stoneman could undertake a rescue mission after his 2,200 men destroyed railroad tracks near Atlanta and otherwise disrupted General Hood’s supply lines. General Stoneman had requested that Sherman grant permission for the liberation effort after completing his primary mission; and General Sherman agreed that Stoneman’s idea might work. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote, “There was something most captivating in the idea, and the execution was within the bounds of probable success.” Sherman recalled that, in his orders to Stoneman, he wrote, “If you can bring back to the army any or all of those prisoners of war, it will be an achievement that will entitle you, and your command, to the love and admiration of the whole country.”

But, it was not to be!

The attempt ended in a disaster for the Union Army when Stoneman was caught in a pincer action between two Confederate forces. Stoneman decided that he and 700 of his troops would remain in place to provide withering cover fire for 1,500 of his men who would attempt an escape through enemy lines. The larger group did break out; however, soon afterward, Stoneman and the 700 remaining troops ran out of ammunition, were captured, and became prisoners themselves. Fortunately for Stoneman and his men, they were not taken to Andersonville, and were exchanged a few months later for a like number of Confederate soldiers in Union hands.

A few weeks after Stoneman’s failed attempt at liberation of Andersonville, on September 1, 1864, Confederate forces under General John Bell Hood pulled out of Atlanta and the city was surrendered the next day. Sherman sent a famous message to Abraham Lincoln writing, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” During the siege, the Union Army had fired thousands of artillery shells into the city, some of which caused fires. Then when Confederate General Hood abandoned the city, he ordered the destruction of military facilities, equipment, and supplies which he could not carry; some by setting more fires. Because Hood’s army remained in the area, Sherman chose to extend his stay in Atlanta to defend the city, and did not leave for Macon and then Savannah until mid-November. But then, before he set off on his famous “March to the Sea” on November 15, Sherman had his forces set fire, or otherwise destroy, any remaining facilities that might be of future use to Confederate troops, including warehouses, factories, and railroad facilities.

When those later fires became uncontrollable, the result was the infamous “Burning of Atlanta.”

Sherman left the devasted city in the hands of a small defensive unit, and took his remaining 60,000 troops toward Savannah, Georgia, about 250 miles to the southeast.  As he passed within about fifty miles of Andersonville, we do not know if he considered a second attempt to liberate the prisoners held at Camp Sumter; we only know that no attempt was made.

Moving generally in front of Sherman’s advance, Confederate troops foraged their way across Georgia taking food, horses, mules and equipment from local farmers, many of whom, but not all, willingly shared what little they had with the Southern soldiers. Sherman’s troops followed the Confederate troops through the countryside, also foraging, but in their case, they often stole any remaining food and livestock they found, leaving the families destitute; and often burned the houses and barns of the farmers who resisted.

When Sherman arrived in Savannah on December 21, 1864, Confederate troops had already abandoned the city, and the citizens quickly surrendered. Therefore, unlike Atlanta, their town was spared. Sherman remained near Savannah for a few weeks to rebuild his supplies and rest his army.  With Bell’s Confederate troops scattered, some critics of Sherman argue that he could have then sent a contingent from Savannah back to liberate the Andersonville prisoners because his primary “mission” was complete; but, by that time Sherman had other plans. In January 1865, ten months after he entered Georgia, he turned his troops northward towards the Carolinas; where he would engage Confederate troops and forage off the small farms on his way back to established Union lines.

As time went on, General Sherman continued to reflect on his decision to not make further attempts to liberate Andersonville. After Stoneman’s capture, Sherman wrote, “Nothing but natural and intense desire to accomplish an end so inviting to one’s feelings would have drawn me to commit a military mistake at such a crisis, as that of dividing and risking my cavalry so necessary to the success of my campaign.” It appears Sherman’s only regret was that he divided his forces (no matter how small the contingent) to allow Stoneman’s liberation attempt. After the Stoneman debacle, Sherman wrote to his wife, “I have already lost Stoneman & near 2,000 Cavalry in attempting to rescue the Prisoners at Macon (Andersonville). I get one hundred letters a day to effect the exchange or release of these Prisoners.” But Sherman would not yield to those hundreds of appeals. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote, “(There were)…more than twenty-five thousand prisoners confined in a stockade designed for only ten thousand; debarred of the privilege of gathering wood out of which to make huts; deprived of sufficient healthy food, and the little stream that ran though their prison-pen poisoned and polluted by the offal from their cooking and butchering houses above.”

Some historians blame much of the suffering at Andersonville on the Union decision, in early 1864, to stop permitting most prisoner exchanges, which had been a common practice until that time. Union leaders including Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and General Ulysses S. Grant, did not support additional prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy because they did not want to help re-enforce the diminishing Southern armies. There was some logic to the decision as it was common for released Confederates to be pressed back into service, while the Union army did not necessarily need the additional troops gained from any exchange. General Grant wrote in a letter “It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man (Confederate soldier) released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated.”

General Sherman had to live with his decisions to never again attempt to liberate Andersonville and to cause such destruction throughout Georgia. But his mission was to conquer Atlanta and destroy the city’s ability to provide supplies to the Confederate armies, to then drive across Georgia to cut the Confederacy in half, and to take Savannah. He accomplished his mission, and, for most Generals, despite other collateral suffering, that is their sufficient reward; it evidently was for General William Tecumseh Sherman. To him, he did his job!

The prisoners at Andersonville just had to wait.