By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved
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 tried 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.
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 corps anymore.
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.
References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
Rick Beard. “Forty Acres and a Mule” The 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.