Jefferson C. Davis
In addition to the murder of
General “Bull” Nelson, Union General Jefferson C. Davis is also
remembered for what occurred on December 9, 1864 at Ebenezer Creek,
Georgia. As Sherman’s army neared Savannah in its March to the Sea,
the 14,000 man XIV Corps commanded by Davis was the rear guard.
Union engineers had to place a pontoon bridge across the creek
swollen by rain to replace a removed bridge. As the troops passed
over the creek, they were trailed by a mass of former slaves that
was following Sherman’s army across Georgia.
Once the last Union troops had
crossed the creek, Davis ordered the pontoon bridge removed
immediately. This left a large number of black refugees stranded on
the western bank with Confederate General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry
closing in on them. Upon their arrival, his scouts exchanged shots
with Union soldiers, who attempted to help blacks who attempted to
swim across to escape death or recapture by the Confederates.
Hundreds, including women and children, died in their unsuccessful
attempts to swim across or use logs thrown to them by Union
soldiers. Both Sherman and Davis had previously been unhappy about
having these refugees trying to escape and traveling along with the
army and seeking protection and food.
Edwin M. Stanton
A couple of officers of the 16th
Illinois were outraged by the deaths of so many entrapped refugees
and alerted the U.S. Senate Military Commission. This was leaked to
the press and got the attention of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
After Sherman’s capture of Savannah, Stanton arrived in January to
investigate. Davis was considered hostile to the Negroes by Stanton
but Sherman defended Davis on military grounds against charges that
he deliberately intended to cut off the refugees from following his
Stanton then called a meeting on
January 12 with twenty black church leaders (sixteen were former
slaves) and Sherman. The church leaders asked for land separate from
whites. On January 16, 1865, Sherman issued Field Order No. 15. It
set aside about 400,000 acres along the Atlantic coast from
Charleston to Jacksonville in 40-acre plots for the freed slaves.
This is said to be the origin of the promise of 40 acres and a mule.
This land and the black settlers came under the control of the
Freedman’s Bureau after the war but President Andrew Johnson ordered
the confiscated land returned to its owners.
Rick Beard. “Forty Acres and a
Mule” New York Times (January 16, 2015)
James Lee McDonough.
William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, a Life.
2016: W.W. Norton & Company