War Diary: Marching through the Stronghold of Secession Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea is immortalized in Civil War history as the action that broke the will of the South. Pursuing what would come to be known as a scorched-earth policy, during November and December 1864 Sherman’s army marched from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying nearly everything in their path of military value to the Confederacy. In his diary, Lieutenant (later Captain) Cornelius C. Platter documents the march and the strategy employed by Sherman. The Union armies not only attacked military garrisons and installations, but also businesses, factories, infrastructure such as railroads, and even civilian residences and plantations. The goal was two-fold: to deprive the Confederate armies of any source of supplies and war materiel and to make a psychological impact on both the military and civilian population of the South. His armies outpaced Union supply lines, living off of the land and raiding the local populations to resupply.

Summary Overview

General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea is immortalized in Civil War history as the action that broke the will of the South. Pursuing what would come to be known as a scorched-earth policy, during November and December 1864 Sherman’s army marched from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying nearly everything in their path of military value to the Confederacy. In his diary, Lieutenant (later Captain) Cornelius C. Platter documents the march and the strategy employed by Sherman. The Union armies not only attacked military garrisons and installations, but also businesses, factories, infrastructure such as railroads, and even civilian residences and plantations. The goal was two-fold: to deprive the Confederate armies of any source of supplies and war materiel and to make a psychological impact on both the military and civilian population of the South. His armies outpaced Union supply lines, living off of the land and raiding the local populations to resupply.

Defining Moment

Although it can easily be argued that the defeat of the South was a foregone conclusion after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s abortive campaign into the North that ended with his defeat at Gettysburg, Sherman’s March to the Sea was the critical campaign that did the most to bring the Civil War to a conclusion. Lieutenant Cornelius C. Platter’s diary details the campaign from the perspective of a Union soldier, combining his views on the actions being taken with the more mundane concerns of the life of a soldier who was far from home, yet fighting a war that he considered completely just. Such diaries are not rare, as many soldiers kept records of their exploits during the war.

Platter’s diary’s focus on the final thrust into the South, however, makes it important in that the war had been going on for over three years by the time of his writing, and a number of important decisions that would have ramifications on postwar America had already been made. Although President Abraham Lincoln had gone to great pains to point out that the war was about the South’s secession from the Union and not directly about slavery, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, had added the abolition of slavery to the aims of the war effort. Further, it was an important tool in the arsenal of Sherman’s army as it travelled ever deeper into the South. Platter describes the now ex-slaves as “contrabands”, and describes seeing them leaving their plantations as the Union armies liberated them.

However, the central focus of the diary is the movement of the Union troops from Atlanta to the coastal city of Savannah, intent on destroying everything in their path of military value to the Confederacy. This was a practical strategy, as the Union troops wanted to cut off all supply from reaching the remaining Confederate armies as well as needing the supplies to sustain their own needs (McPherson, 778). However, in the larger scheme of the war, it was a psychological strategy. Considering the smaller size of their armies and the fact that their population as a whole was less than half that of the Northern states, the South had fought tenaciously, and showed little inclination toward giving up even when Lee’s 1863 excursion into the North was repulsed. They were fighting a defensive war on their own ground, and extraordinary measures would be needed to break their will to fight.

Author Biography

The documentation left behind by Civil War soldiers on both sides of the battlefield is notable less for the specific identities of the soldiers doing the writing than for the common man’s perspective given in such writings. Before the Civil War, Cornelius C. Platter was not a person of note. He was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, on April 22, 1839, and like most people of his generation and those that came before, he did not travel far from his place of birth. He attended the South Salem Academy, which was approximately twenty miles from his birthplace. In 1860, he graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, about one hundred miles from his home.

Like so many others of his generation, Platter answered the call to volunteer after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. By August of that year he had enlisted in the 81st Ohio Volunteers, and appointed quartermaster sergeant of his regiment. After a year, he was promoted to second lieutenant, and shortly thereafter to first lieutenant, and by the time of the 81st Ohio’s participation in Sherman’s March to the Sea, he was adjutant to the commander of his brigade. By the time the war came to an end, he had achieved the rank of captain.

A lasting legacy of Civil War military service was that people who had seldom traveled far from their birthplace were able to see much of the country and gain a larger perspective on what it means to be American, and this was certainly true for Platter. His diary is filled with his impressions of the different locations where his regiment was camped, and after the war he married Lizzie Irwin, who he had known in college, and settled first in Forest City, Missouri, and finally in Red Oak, Iowa. He became a farmer and rancher, and he and his wife had three children. He became politically active during the 1870s, serving two terms as a Republican representative in the Iowa State Assembly. President William McKinley appointed him postmaster of Red Oak in 1900, and he passed away in 1909.

Document Analysis

In nearly any historical event, there are a number of different perspectives, and the differences between those perspectives are usually even more pronounced during times of warfare. Sherman’s March to the Sea is recalled one way by Confederate citizens who were unlucky enough to live on the route that Sherman’s armies took from Atlanta to Savannah. Many of their narratives recall the brutality of the Union troops and the hopelessness that many Southerners felt as they saw their country “invaded” by the Northerners. Of course, the reactions of a Union soldier to those same events would be very much different. The diary of Cornelius C. Platter presents one such perspective on Sherman’s March. Though he readily addresses the ruthless strategy employed by Sherman in his effort to both cut off supplies to the Confederate armies and break the will of Confederate citizens, his tone is much more matter-of-fact. He is writing a daily diary of the events of the Civil War from the perspective of a soldier, so his work contains details of battles and the efforts of the troops to destroy the Southern infrastructure, and yet he also addresses day-to-day human concerns–physical comfort, the quality of the food they ate, the length of each day’s march, the availability of mail from home. Platter also presents some perspectives on the changes taking place all around the soldiers. Slaves leaving their masters’ plantations for freedom, the rumors surrounding the terms of peace at the end of the war, and the devastating news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. For the most part, Platter gives us a rather unemotional view of the conduct of Sherman’s campaign, but that dispassionate disposition, which was likely necessary to survive the horrors that the soldiers witnessed, evaporates into joy when the news of the end of the war reaches him, and into sadness when Lincoln’s assassination becomes known.

Sherman’s Scorched-Earth Campaign

When Platter’s 81st Ohio Volunteers left Atlanta, they were already a seasoned group. Platter himself had been there since the unit was mustered in the first months of the war, over three years earlier. So, by the time they left on the March to the Sea in November 1864, Platter’s unit had seen all of the horrors of war close up. They did not know exactly where they were going, but the destruction of Atlanta two months earlier had already established the blueprint they would follow, destroying both military and civilian targets, confiscating property, killing livestock, burning crops, and blowing up railroad tracks and other infrastructure that would be necessary for the cities of the South to ship goods and war materiel to Confederate troops. This had the added benefit of minimizing the need for supply lines from the North, as Sherman’s armies were told to take whatever they needed and live off the land. Some troops would traverse the countryside, seizing food from local farms and taking it back to the camp while others would burn buildings, destroy crops, and demolish railroads and other transportation infrastructure. This was definitely not an ad hoc strategy, Sherman had researched where the food supplies were being produced on the way and planned the soldiers’ route to give them the best chance to procure the greatest amount of foodstuffs. Platter took note of this, as he described “passing through a country abounding in Hogs, Cattle, Chickens, &c.” The scorched-earth tactics that Sherman employed during the March were so revolutionary and so effective in breaking the will of the South to fight that many later generations of military leaders would follow his example. Platter did not know immediately exactly where they were headed, but he had absolute trust in Sherman’s leadership and no qualms at all about either the strategic goal of the operation or the devastating tactics they employed. In contrast to the Southerners’ descriptions of hopelessness and devastation, Platter writes on November 19, 1864, “[p]lenty to eat and every one enjoying the Campaign finely.”

Platter describes reaching the town of Cartersville and the destruction of nearly everything there–including medical supplies–in order to achieve their goals: “[q]uite a number of wagons were burned and enough medical supplies to last a Division 3 months.” Of course, a side effect of destroying the railroads as they went was to cut off their access to communication with both the military command in the North and mail both to and from home. On the way, Platter describes the Ockmulgee Mills as “the finest I ever saw,” but then states almost nonchalantly “suppose the Factory mill & cotton will be destroyed by our troops.” However, the destruction of the Southern infrastructure and the breaking of the Confederate will to fight was not the only goal of Sherman’s campaign. To the north in Virginia, troops under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant were fighting a fierce, yet inconclusive, series of battles with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. If Sherman were able to cut a swath from Atlanta to Savannah, it was hoped that this would put additional pressure on Lee as well as cutting off his supply lines.

One sight that the Union troops often saw as they marched through the South was that of slaves leaving their plantations. The Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect since January 1863, but it was not until the Union troops arrived in the South that it had any real impact on the lives of African Americans. Platter states that “[i]n our route we find many ‘Contrabands’,” which was the term the Union troops used to describe the ex-slaves. They still were not “citizens,” as white Southerners might have been called, and it is interesting that a property-related term would be employed. In another entry, Platter calls the freed slaves by the more commonly used term, “negroes,” and states that they brought horses and mules with them. He does not disclose whether or not the Union troops confiscated the animals, as they often took horses to replenish the stock utilized by the cavalry units and used mules to transport goods.

The Siege of Savannah and the End of the March

On December 10, 1864, Sherman’s 60,000-man army arrived outside the coastal city of Savannah, Georgia, and laid siege to it for the next ten days. The garrison in the city was under the command of Confederate General William J. Hardee, and it was believed that he had at least 10,000 men entrenched in the city. However, the fact that Sherman had reached the coast meant that his troops could now be resupplied by the U.S. Navy, and that they could surround Savannah and bombard it from both sides. On December 17, 1864, Sherman sent a message to Hardee requesting his surrender, with the threat that the bombardment would begin shortly if he did not comply quickly. However, instead of resisting, which was what the Union armies expected, Hardee decided to withdraw from the city on December 20. To Platter, this was a completely unexpected maneuver, and he refused to believe it until he and his men were able to enter the city themselves. Even after entering the city, Platter and his men “supposed at first that the enemy had only fallen back to a stronger line of works – so after crossing we advanced cautiously – but soon discovered that they had bid the city of Savannah adieu.” As they had along the way, the soldiers–and Platter emphasizes they were assisted by “negroes and ‘poor white folks’”–pillaged the city for supplies and food. The plundering was not only confined to Sherman’s troops, as approximately 25,000 bales of cotton were sent North, and the city’s fortifications, cannons, and ammunition fell into Union hands. From Platter’s description, however, Savannah does not meet the same fiery fate that Atlanta had three months earlier. Instead, Platter remarks that “[w]ith the exception of Huntsville it is the prettiest city I have seen in the ‘Southern Confederacy’.” After taking Savannah, Sherman’s armies headed north through the Carolinas to further pressure Lee’s army. The war was nearly over at that point, and Platter discusses with joy the numerous rumors of impending Southern surrender.

Platter’s entry on April 17, 1865, is perhaps most poignant portion of his diary. On that day, the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s shooting on the night of April 14 and subsequent death the following morning reached the troops. Platter notes “I never saw such a gloomy set of men in my life as the soldiers were after the news came…[h]is loss is a great calamity -- and the nation mourns his loss as she never mourned before.” However, the business of negotiating an end to the war continued, as Sherman held discussions with Confederate General Joe Johnson that very day. Somewhat surprisingly for the conclusion of a diary entry on what was likely one of the saddest and most devastating days of the war, Platter concludes his writing with the observation, “[h]as been a most beautiful day.”

Platter’s diary gives a valuable window into both Sherman’s campaign and the life of a common Union soldier during the Civil War. The perspective he lends to the actions taken by Union troops during the March to the Sea are important, as they are fact-based, but care needs to be taken to look at the multiple other possible viewpoints on the events Platter describes. For example, the newly freed slaves had a complex view of the Union troops that came marching through the South. Certainly, many of the troops believed strongly in the abolition of slavery, but that does not mean that racism was not present as well. Also, the fact that the Union troops came in and took whatever they wished, often destroying everything they could not take, had a lasting impact on the way that Southern whites looked at the war and the relationship between the North and the South for generations. Platter’s diary is clearly a history written by the victors, and the aspects he chooses to focus upon are important in learning what the life of a Union soldier during the Civil War was like, and how they viewed the actions they were being asked to take. It also demonstrates that, even three years into the conflict, the morale among many Union troops was high. Platter’s perspective as he marches through the South gives significant context to the changes that would take place during the Reconstruction era that followed.

Essential Themes

Cornelius C. Platter’s diary is frank about the scorched-earth warfare that characterized Sherman’s March to the Sea. Although Sherman did not invent the strategy, to many in the United States his actions in 1864 came to embody the idea of total war, including breaking the will of the civilian population to continue the conflict. Just as some in the Southern states still today view the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” some still hold Sherman personally responsible for the wholesale destruction of much of the coastal South. However, the effectiveness of the strategy caused it to be used in later conflicts. After the Civil War, many Union soldiers, including Sherman, participated in the Indian Wars over the next thirty years. One of the main strategies the U. S. Army used during these conflicts was to lay waste to Native American homes, fields, and civilian populations. One might even argue that during the Indian Wars the Americans took the strategy a number of steps further, actively working to destroy Native American cultures and continuing the policy of forcing the tribes to march hundreds of miles to new reservation lands, far from their homelands.

During the two world wars of the twentieth century, the idea of laying waste to the landscape reached new extremes. During World War I, the Russian armies destroyed railroads, crops, and cities to prevent them from falling into German hands. Numerous incidents of total war can be seen in World War II, pursued by both the Axis and Allied nations. Platter’s diary gives us a very personal window on what life was like for the soldiers carrying out total war.

Bibliography
  • Drago, Edmund L. “How Sherman’s March through Georgia Affected the Slaves.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 57.3 (1973): 361-75. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns. Albany: New York UP, 1985. Print.
  • Kennett, Lee B. Marching through Georgia: The Story of Soldiers and Civilians during Sherman’s Campaign. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine, 1989. Print.
  • Platter, Cornelius C. Cornelius C. Platter Civil War Diary, 1864–1865. Digital Library of Georgia, U of Georgia Libraries, 2001. Web.
  • Platter, David E. A History of the Platter Family from about the Year Sixteen Hundred to the Present Time. Cleveland: n.p., 1919. Print.
  • Trudeau, Noah Andre. Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.
  • “Cornelius Platter.” Iowa State Legislature, n.d. Web.
Additional Reading
  • Chamberlain, W. H. History of the Eighty-First Regiment Ohio Infantry Volunteers during the War of the Rebellion. Cincinnati: Gazette Steam Printing House, 1865. Print.
  • Ecelbarger, Gary. The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta. New York: Macmillan, 2010. Print.
  • Hughes, Jr., N. C. “Hardee’s Defense of Savannah.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 47.1 (March, 1963): 43-67. Print
  • Rhodes, James Ford. “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” The American Historical Review 6.3 (April 1901): 466-74. Print.
  • Wright, Charles. A Corporal’s Story: Experiences in the Ranks of Company C, 81st Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the War for the Maintenance of the Union, 1861–1864. Philadelphia: n.p., 1887. Print.
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