How War-Torn Savannah Celebrated Christmas 1864 Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reached Savannah, Ga., just before Christmas 1864. His capture of the city helped hasten the end of the war. NPR's Guy Raz talks to historian Stanley Weintraub, author of the new book General Sherman's Christmas, which tells how the city celebrated Christmas in the midst of war.

How War-Torn Savannah Celebrated Christmas 1864

How War-Torn Savannah Celebrated Christmas 1864

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Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reached Savannah, Ga., just before Christmas 1864. His capture of the city helped hasten the end of the war. NPR's Guy Raz talks to historian Stanley Weintraub, author of the new book General Sherman's Christmas, which tells how the city celebrated Christmas in the midst of war.

GUY RAZ, host:

A few days before Christmas 1864, Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman sent a dispatch to President Abraham Lincoln. Mr. President, it read:

Mr. STANLEY WEINTRAUB (Author, "General Sherman's Christmas"): I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton.

RAZ: That's author Stanley Weintraub reading from his new book, "General Sherman's Christmas." It's the story of Sherman's march to the sea, from Atlanta to Savannah, that ended in triumph just before Christmas 1864.

And Stanley Weintraub joins me from his home in Delaware.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. WEINTRAUB: Thank you. Glad to be with you.

RAZ: Stanley Weintraub, before we get to the actual Christmas in Savannah, I want to start by asking about the march itself. In around the middle of November 1864, Sherman takes 62,000 of his soldiers, marches them through rural Georgia all the way to Savannah. It takes about a month. It became known as Sherman's march to the sea. What was the point of that march to the sea?

Mr. WEINTRAUB: The point of the march was that Sherman had no reason to stay in Atlanta anymore. The town was destroyed. There was no place for his troops, there was no food, there was nothing. He had to go on from there. He wanted to get to the sea because the Union Navy was offshore. And if he could get to Savannah 300 miles away, he would cut off the Southern Confederacy from the northern part in which Robert E. Lee was in Virginia, near Washington, D.C.

RAZ: Now, this march was never supposed to be an assault. They didn't expect to meet too much resistance. How much of Sherman's decision was just a show of force? To show the people in Georgia that the Union Army was powerful and could defeat them?

Mr. WEINTRAUB: I think that was part of his intention because he said, I want to make Georgia howl. And he did make Georgia howl, but he did not deliberately destroy anything but infrastructure. He destroyed cotton mills, gins, warehouses, factories, anything that would support the Confederate rebellion.

RAZ: What was fascinating to me was along that march, thousands - hundreds, perhaps thousands of slaves simply left their plantations and joined this column of Union soldiers.

Mr. WEINTRAUB: Sherman didn't want the slaves to follow him because if they did, he'd have more mouths to feed. He had enough trouble trying to forage off the farms on both sides in order to get 62,000 troops fed. He didn't want tens of thousands more. But many slaves did follow him. And about 10,000 actually arrived in Savannah with him.

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. WEINTRAUB: And Sherman celebrated Christmas and New Year's Eve in Savannah. The troops were actually quite well-behaved. They paraded through the city. There was very little drunkenness. The churches were open. The people got fed. And then he marched north into South Carolina and into North Carolina and then into Virginia, and Lee was trapped. And 80 days after Savannah fell, Lee surrendered.

RAZ: Sherman, of course, spent Christmas of 1864 in Savannah, Georgia, really one of the most beautiful cities in America, for anybody who's been there. He largely spares the city.

Mr. WEINTRAUB: He spared the city. The city remains beautiful. Not a single one of the beautiful mansions in Savannah was harmed. Sherman took over one of the mansions owned by a British merchant named Green, and remained there. Now, if you go to Savannah, you see a plaque in front of the mansion that says, this is Sherman's headquarters.

RAZ: Hmm. There were about 60,000 Union troops at this point on the outskirts of Savannah. How did they celebrate Christmas of 1864?

Mr. WEINTRAUB: Sherman and his generals made sure that they didn't overwhelm the city of Savannah. Most of them camped outside. The city was quiet; everything seemed very Christmas-like. As I said, the churches were open, people had food for Christmas dinners. And in the suburbs near Savannah where people had very little food, the troops got together mule carts and sent mule carts of food out to the environs, and actually tied twigs to the heads of the mules so they'd look like reindeer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Now, Stanley Weintraub, William Tecumseh Sherman was regarded as a hero in the North, a man who really hastened the end of the Civil War. In the South, he was seen as a villain, considered by many Southerners almost as a war criminal. Was that - in your view, is that an unfair view of Sherman?

Mr. WEINTRAUB: I think the war criminal charge is very unfair. He was after Confederate infrastructure; he was not after Confederate homes. And many of the tales of his burning homes and burning down villages are just plain not true, and were part of the Confederate press desire to vilify him so that the anger would continue to make the Confederates want to continue fighting.

He was really a very humane guy. And one story I tell there in the book is about Sherman encountering a group of soldiers who were trying to build a fire in the rain. And a drummer boy of 13 years old tells the story that they couldn't get the fire going, and he tried to blow it into flame. And then a man in a poncho and hood came forward and said, why don't you hold the poncho over it? Let me help you.

And he stood with them and he held it, and the flame flickered up. And suddenly, the little boy realized that it was the commanding general. And he said, thank you, Uncle Billy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINTRAUB: Uncle Billy was the way the soldiers thought of him. And that's a better picture of him than the devil.

RAZ: That's Stanley Weintraub. He's the author of the new book, "General Sherman's Christmas." It's the story of William Tecumseh Sherman's march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, in 1864.

Stanley Weintraub, thank you so much.

Mr. WEINTRAUB: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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