A review of Karen Stokes, A Legion of Devils: Sherman in South Carolina (Shotwell Press, 2017).
Many of us have read about the horrendous things William Tecumseh Sherman did as he and his “bummers” marched through Georgia, things a lot of us would rather not have read about. However, if we are to properly understand our history we are often compelled to read material that is not necessarily “fun” reading, but is rather necessary reading so that we will have a fuller understanding of what really happened and why.
Such a book is Karen Stokes’ A Legion of Devils–Sherman in South Carolina, published by Shotwell Publishing in Columbia, South Carolina. Shotwell has published some very informative books on Southern history that more people need to be aware of and to read, so that we can begin to learn the history most of us were denied in government schools when we attended them.
Karen Stokes has written several books, but this may be one of the most important. It is a narrative, with many contemporary quotes, from people who were on the scene when Sherman invaded South Carolina toward the end of the War of Northern Aggression. If you think what he did in Georgia was bad, as the man says, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Yet we hardly ever read anything about what he did in (and to) South Carolina. Somehow his incendiary activities there and the base behavior of this troops there never seem to make it into the history books. South Carolina suffered every bit as much as Georgia did under Sherman’s benevolent hand.
Many instances of brutal treatment of civilians in South Carolina when Sherman passed through are recorded in Stokes’ book, including one where Yankee soldiers attempted to set fire to a bed with an old lady still in it. Such instances are too numerous for me to mention them all here, but I will list a few so you can get a general feeling for Sherman’s accomplishments in the Palmetto State.
The naive among us actually still believe that generals like Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant fought the war to free slaves from Southern bondage. Those on the ground there knew better. In the introduction to the book, on page viii, it is noted: “…the federal soldiers frequently mistreated them (the slaves)). A newspaper correspondent for the New York Tribune reported in its issue of December 7, 1861, that ‘one enterprising and unscrupulous (Federal) officer was caught in the act of assembling a cargo of Negroes for transportation and sale in Cuba…a Northern female physician who worked for the Freedmen’s Aid Society noted in her diary how disgracefully the black people of the Beaufort area were treated by the federal soldiers. She observed that “no colored woman was safe from the brutal lusts of the soldiers’, and that they were not punished for their offenses.”
When the city of Columbia was occupied by Sherman, the mayor and other municipal officers went to Sherman’s headquarters and officially surrendered the city and they received from Sherman the assurance that the city would be as safe as it would have been under the mayor’s administration. Suffice it to say, that was a bald-faced lie. The city was burned and Stokes goes into quite a bit of detail about how that was accomplished, again, quoting from people who were there and saw what happened. The sources for what she wrote were all primary sources.
She noted the comments of a Mrs. S. A. Crittenden of Greenville, South Carolina, who said: “Oh! The utter desolation of a city in ashes and its people wanderers! Even the very landmarks were lost, and you stood a stranger on your own threshold. Nothing was left but the smokeless chimneys, keeping ward over the widespread ruin. Hundreds of Yankees with ramrods and bayonets, were prodding the still smoking soil in quest of buried treasure.” And let us not kid ourselves–the Yankee soldiers, from officers on down, stole everything that was not nailed down–and what was nailed down they destroyed if they couldn’t pry it up! This was as much a grand looting expedition was it was an invasion!
And then they tried to blame the fires that destroyed the city of Wade Hampton’s retreating Confederate cavalry. On pages 40-44, Stokes provides General Hampton’s own statements about what really happened. On pages 54-56 are the comments of one Yankee soldier who disagreed with what his comrades were doing, and he pretty well laid out what they were doing. He noted: “…drunken soldiers rushing from house to house,emptying them of valuables and then firing them..Officers and men reveling on wines and liquors until the burning houses buried them in their drunken orgies.” So much for “preserving the Union and freeing the slaves!”
Stokes gave us the commentary of an August Conrad, a native of Germany, who had come to South Carolina in 1859 and had taken over his brother’s position as the Hanoverian Counsel. He had thought it would be safer in Columbia that in Charleston, so he went to Columbia. Big mistake! He published a memoir later, when he was back (safely) in Germany, about his time in South Carolina that dealt with the burning of Columbia. It was translated into English y William H. Pleasants and published as The Destruction of Columbia, S.C. in 1879. In it he observed: “In the houses, on the streets, the infamous rabble plundered, destroyed, and raged as the Wild Hunt, just as if hell had broken loose.” Hell had broken loose–Sherman was in South Carolina with his Legion of Devils, and doing the devil’s work!
One of those Stokes quoted said: “The fall of Columbia stands quite unique in the history of the American war, but it was sufficient to sully the principle, the conduct, and the results of it, and must for many generations entail the hate of the South Carolinians toward their Northern brethren, who brought upon their forefathers such atrocious treatment.”
Starting on page 111, Stokes gives a timeline covering Sherman’s gentle ministrations in South Carolina, from the time he landed in Beaufort until the time he crossed the North Carolina border. Suffice it to say that it was much more of the same treatment that Columbia got, and his men were particularly vicious when it came to churches.
I have often wondered if Sherman had a touch of pyromania in his makeup, as his men burned everything they came across, no matter what or where it was. I can see destroying military objectives, that’s a part of war, but Sherman destroyed it all. He made war on civilians with more gusto than he made war on Confederate troops. Of course the civilians couldn’t fight back and so that made it easier.
When you look at the makeup of Sherman’s army, you have to wonder just how many ‘Forty-Eighter” socialists he had with him that reveled in the destruction of private property.
If you are going to have some idea of what the War of Northern Aggression was really all about, you need to read Stokes’ book, and Shotwell has done yeoman duty in putting it out there for you, because I don’t think you will get this kind of documentation much of anyplace else today given our politically correct environment.