The Fateful Lightning
Atlanta, Georgia—November 16, 1864
He halted the horse at the crest of a hill, pulled back on the reins, stared out westward for a long moment. The staff did the same, following his lead, spreading out to give him room, no one moving close unless he was told to. He heard the low murmurs, their reaction to what they were leaving behind them, the picture they would carry within them for the rest of their lives, the perfect portrait of absolute victory.
Sherman held the horse as still as possible, the high-spirited animal moving nervously beneath him, seeming to know there was much more to be done. He clamped his legs in tight, calming the horse, his focus now on the scene. He didn’t try to see detail, absorbed instead the vast panorama, the entire city offering itself as a marvelous showpiece. He wrapped his mind around that, what this meant, what it would mean to Grant, to the War Department, what it would mean to all those whose homes were boiling up in black smoke. Pieces of the enemy, he thought. No, it is more. It is the enemy itself. All of it. Everything I can see, everything beneath the march of my army.
The sun was rising behind him, but the city was lit from within, the spreading fires blowing through the fragility of the wooden structures, homes, businesses, factories. He had no urge to destroy the homes, had surprised his staff the night before when he pitched in, trying to extinguish the flames on several small houses near his headquarters. Those fires were premature, without purpose, defiance of his orders that infuriated him. His hands were still smeared with soot, but he ignored that, the futility and anger now past. Throughout the night the fires grew far beyond what a few men attempted to contain. Those men were outnumbered, swarmed over by a passion fueled by alcohol and a lustful revenge. The first fires had been set by vandals, miscreant soldiers more interested in a cruel game than in waging war. But the game became more ugly very quickly, a contagious disease spreading among men who knew that Sherman’s order would eventually come, that in time he would have given them permission to set the fires anyway. As the night wore on, the torches were thrown by not only drunken soldiers but even the sober, seduced by the raw power of the fires they could create. Those fires were indiscriminate, aimless, and Sherman was disgusted by that, had hoped instead to offer the rebels the message with clarity.
The order had been given to his chief engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, and Poe’s men had been selective, had followed Sherman’s instructions to leave nothing behind that the rebels could ever use again, nothing that could help anyone make war. The factories had been the greatest priority, whether munitions and powder plants or the simplest ironworks. The mills and cotton gins had gone as well, along with storage facilities for everything an army used, food and fuel, and any structure that aided transportation. But Sherman had seen this before. Atlanta was no different than Jackson, Mississippi, or any other town on the continent. Even the brick and stone structures had skeletons of wood, and so the slightest breeze pushed the destruction from the intended target to the random storefront, the house that happened to be downwind. He saw it now, a vast sea of red, the harsh glow of a hundred small fires uniting into a raging mass that swept away entire neighborhoods, ash and smoke billowing through every alleyway, the wider avenues bathed with clouds of gray and black, pierced by sharp fingers of red. The smoke rose high, columns of raw heat caught by the morning’s breeze, drifting out over him, a light rain of ash filtering down around him, around the others. In the road, the soldiers marched, some of them staring back, a last glimpse, trying to see the amazing horror of it. But there were others who kept their eyes away, hard stares into the backs of the men who marched ahead.
Sherman knew there had been protest, some born of guilt in those men who saw the civilians for what they were: obstacles. Sherman had dealt with that as efficiently as he could, had issued an order to the city’s authorities that the civilians simply leave, vacating their homes and businesses to avoid what might follow, what he knew would follow. The order was met with outrage, heated letters from Confederate commander John Bell Hood. Sherman responded with vigorous outrage of his own, wondering if any rebel leader thought it best that the civilians remain where they were, ensuring they would suffer from Sherman’s occupation of the city. But Sherman had no intention of occupying anything, though he would never reveal that to Hood.
The order was pushed hard into the faces of the civilian leaders still in Atlanta, and the word had spread, much of the population accepting their fate. The refugees had boarded trains provided by the Federal army, some leaving in their own wagons. The scene had been as dismal for the civilians as any other time of the war, some knowing of the exodus from Fredericksburg two years before. But there was one very sharp difference. The citizens of Fredericksburg evacuated to avoid the inevitable fight that would sweep over their town. In Atlanta, the fights were over, the town held firmly in Sherman’s hands. Whether or not anyone in Atlanta saw compassion in Sherman’s order, he was certain it was the moral thing to do, that removing the civilians from the enormity of his newly acquired armed camp was most certainly in their best interests. He dismissed Hood’s protests as the necessary quest for honor, that particular Southern trait, the gentleman’s objection to the ungentlemanly. As though, he thought, we are spreading an indecent stain over their precious illusion of Southern sainthood. There are no saints in this army. Just men who know how to fight, who want to go home to their families with victory in their hearts.
He knew there would be protest even in the North, mostly from civilians with ties to Atlanta or those with political animosity toward President Lincoln and his generals. The word had come only the week before that Lincoln had been reelected, that the so-called Peace Party of George McClellan had been soundly defeated. Sherman received that news with smiling satisfaction. He had no doubt at all that the fall of Atlanta had ensured Lincoln’s victory, that the citizens in the North could finally feel confident that the war was nearly won. But the newspapers wouldn’t just let that pass; the enemies of Lincoln, of Sherman himself, were certain to raise a cry against the punishment of the innocent. He fought through the stench of smoke, thought, There is no innocence here. They have made this war, and no matter that the good citizens of this city choose not to carry the musket or fire the cannon, they are just as much my enemy. The mother who sends her boy away to fight, the wife who sacrifices so her husband can make war, the others who go about their business supporting the health of the South while their army does the dirtiest part of the work.
He chewed on the cigar furiously, had gone through this before, through every part of the South. The image flowed through his brain, so many fights, the chaos and horror. A soldier who has been in the fight . . . he knows of pain and tragedy, bloody wounds and the death of a friend. A man has brains splashed upon him . . . he knows what war can do. Now, there is pain here, and horror and punishment. And now these people, these civilians who feign outrage that this army has soiled their innocence, those gentlemen and Southern belles who dared send their sons off to destroy our flag, now they will know what their soldiers have already learned. War is absolute and when you innocent civilians started this, when you ripped and spit at my flag, you invited this. Do not speak to me of innocence or blamelessness. In war, there is no such thing.
He spit the cigar out, brought out another, stabbed it through his teeth, unlit, rolled it with his tongue, side to side, new thoughts breaking through his concentration. He was angrier still, thought, You cannot let this drive you. It is no one’s doing. God’s maybe. That’s what Ellen believes, certainly. Why would God cause affliction to a child, to the truly innocent? Or is it the child’s father that must be made to suffer?
He carried the note in his pocket, word coming in a telegram from Ellen, only three days before. His infant son, Charles, was gravely ill. Sherman struggled to keep that from his thoughts, had tried so very hard to dampen down the crushing sadness from the death of his oldest son, Willie, memories from a year ago stuffed in a place inside him he could never really shut away. Nine-year-old Willie had been something of a mascot to the troops, the young boy named honorary sergeant, his death casting a pall over Sherman’s entire command. It had steeled Sherman against ever bringing his children anywhere near the war, which he knew was a useless gesture meant only to appease Ellen, his feeble attempt to ease her sorrow. Willie had been struck down by typhoid, a deadly enemy that had nothing at all to do with the war. Now it was baby Charles, Ellen not specific, perhaps not knowing just what the malady was. There was time for only one response, the rail lines and telegraph wires soon to be cut by his own orders, severing him and the rest of his army from any communication northward. The isolation he imposed on the army struck him harder than anyone around him, and so he could not tell them. He could only mask his fear: a hopeful note to Ellen, a show of confidence that the infant would recover fully. He had fought against seeing her in his mind, what kind of torture this was for a mother who has already lost one son, whose husband is a thousand miles distant. There was shame as well, the worry softened by a numbness that made Sherman more guilty than afraid.
Willie had been a part of Sherman’s daily routine, a bright light suddenly turned dark. But Sherman had never seen Charles, had never held him, had fashioned a fantasy around the baby that one day he would rise up to assume Willie’s place, capturing the affections of Sherman’s men, that finally Sherman would know a father’s joy at doing all those things that would make his son a man. Ellen’s news only intensified the need he felt to end this war, to put aside the army and the duty and find a way to be a family. There had always been a low burn of conflict between them, Ellen’s devout Catholicism just not Sherman’s way. Throughout most of the war, the miles between them muted that conflict, but if there was luxury in not having her close to him, there was guilt as well, more so now that his selfish need to keep the peace with her meant burdening her alone with the care for her infant son, in the deepest agony a parent can have. Now Sherman had no choice. His attentions could be focused only on what lay close to him: Atlanta, the new campaign, the job he was expected to do.
He glanced at the marching troops in the road below, pushed thoughts of his family far away. There were faces looking up at him, a few hats in the air, muted cheers. Fourteenth Corps, he thought. Jeff Davis’s men. Damn fool, that one. Jefferson C. Davis. By God, change your damned name. If those other fellows had a general named Ulysses Grant, he’d catch grief everywhere he turned. Davis seems oblivious, like he’s proud to wear the same badge as that lunatic in Richmond. Too much temper for my taste. Killed a man, General Nelson, I think. Got away with it. Not sure that would wash today. Damn sure won’t have anyone killing their commanding officer in this army. Bad for morale. Mine.
Sherman turned away from the troops, drawn again to the sea of fire, still thought of Davis. Maybe it’s just bad luck that he shares that name. His mama couldn’t know what she was doing to her boy. Well, Jeff, keep your pistol in its holster and do the job, and maybe you’ll end up more famous than the other one. Maybe we grab those scallywags and Grant will let you do the honors. President Davis, meet General Davis. He’s the one with the rope.
The voices caught him again, more cheers, and he looked again to the road, another regiment passing by, flags in the breeze, smiles, waving hats. He straightened in the saddle, acknowledging them, heard the fife and drum, those men in perfect rhythm, the march of the soldiers punctuated by what passed for music. He saw the drummer, an older man, no surprise there. Sherman had removed the human baggage from the army, those who took more in rations and care than the power they could give to the fight. That man will fight, he thought. Knows it, too. They all know it. No sick men on this march, no feebleness, no one too weak to keep up.
He couldn’t avoid the surge of strength from the column of men, the smiles only reinforcing what he already believed. They have no idea where we’re going, but they know what I expect of them. Sixty thousand men who know what the enemy looks like, and what they have to do to him, what they want to do to him. It’s up to me to put them in the right place, keep them ready for anything we find. But look at the faces. They’re smiling, for God’s sake. He clamped hard on the cigar, offered a slow, deep nod to one group, knew the look of veterans. Yes, by God, let’s win this thing.
Another regiment passed, and now he heard music, real music, a band, the tune clear, distinct, joyful. He saw them now, moving up behind an officer, the tune flowing through the column, carried on the voices of the men. It was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He stared at the musicians, felt pulled into the moment more than their joy, their skills with the instruments. He didn’t hide the smile, put one hand up, removed the shapeless hat, raised it just off his head, his silent salute. The soldiers cheered him again, but still they sang, the glorious words digging deep, opening a soft place Sherman couldn’t show them. He jammed the hat back down, both hands on the reins, felt suddenly as though he knew them, all of them, each man a piece of who he was.
The band was past now, the notes softening, and Sherman felt the staff close by, knew they would expect orders, that he was too energized to stay in one place for long. He noticed the smoke again, the breeze picking up, the view of the city obscured by its own death. He pulled the reins, turning the horse away, patted the animal’s neck, said, “Sam, you know what that stink is? It’s the rebels’ defeat. Rather enjoy that smell myself.” He tossed a glance toward the staff, Hitchcock, Dayton, the others waiting for the command. He didn’t hesitate, slapped the reins against the horse, his single spur digging into the flank. “It’s time to go to work. I’ve had all the Atlanta I want.”