Anne Rubin Follows the Traces of Sherman’s March

I set out on a bright June day, heading south to retrace the path of William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1865 march through the Carolinas.  I’m currently working on a project about the way Americans have remembered Sherman’s March, and I had already driven across Georgia the spring before.  Now it was time to work my way from the Bennett Place in Durham, NC to Columbia, SC and then as far south as Barnwell, SC to see what traces of the march remained, which events were commemorated or highlighted, and which have disappeared.   Perhaps this path would also give some sense of the place of the Civil War in the modern South.   Although I wound up following the march in reverse order, from north to south, this allowed me to go deeper into the South, and further back into the past

What I came to realize over the course of several days and visits to about two dozen sites, is that what we can see of the march today are the exceptions.  If the story was that Sherman and his men burned everything they could, few buildings would have survived at all, much less lasted for another 140+ years.  I came to realize that it’s easier to commemorate a battle or a skirmish, than simply the movement of an army across a landscape.  Thus the places that are highlighted on Civil War Trails and set off with historic markers are disproportionately sites of military importance—clashes of troops, rather than places were civilians and soldiers interacted for a moment in time.  But most of the march was the reverse:  small-scale moments, played out with a limited cast and leaving few traces behind.  Too, one can hardly expect the landscape itself to have remained unchanged since 1865.  Where Sherman’s men once saw plantation homes and broad fields, we now see tangles of timber interspersed with dollar stores and gas stations.

With all of this in mind, lets begin at the end:  The Bennett Place State Historic Site, in Durham, NC, which bills itself as the “location of the largest surrender of the American Civil War.”  The surrender at the Bennett place, which officially took place on April 26, 1865 (after several days of negotiations) is often overshadowed by the surrender at Appomattox, and what is striking about the Bennett Place is the degree to which its small museum and reconstructed farm buildings seem to acknowledge that.   The most striking feature at the site is the Unity Monument, erected in 1923 by the Morgan family (members of whom eventually dedicated the land that became the park.)


The monument describes the surrender on a low tablet, literally overshadowed by two pillars (representing North and South) supporting a crosspiece reading UNITY.  Thus, it would seem, the significance of the Bennett Place lies in it not as a commemoration of the end of the war, with winners and losers, but as the beginning of peace.

The other places I visited, in both North and South Carolina were much less about reunion, and much more about emphasizing white Southern resistance or defiance.  The battlefields of Bentonville and Averasboro in North Carolina and Rivers Bridge in South Carolina all stress military history—troops movements and the like, while downplaying the causes and results of the war, the people of the area and Sherman’s destructive ways.  Interpretations at all three sites, to varying degrees, emphasize the degree to which Confederates were able to slow Sherman’s men, though in the end never for long. Bentonville and Averasboro both have several monuments to fallen troops.  I found the small Chicora cemetery at Averasboro to be a poignant spot, with the expected monument to the Confederate dead flanked by rows of markers to unknown soldiers, identified only by their states.


Averasboro actually has a monument to Union troops—listing the regiments in the 20th corps, but set so far back from  the road as to be virtually invisible.

I found very few sites, or even historical markers, attesting to the destructiveness of the March.  Perhaps it was naïve to expect to find ruins still standing so many years later.  Certainly very few destroyed private homes have been left as reminders or testaments. Two sets of striking ruins remain however:  the remains of the Fayetteville Arsenal, in Fayetteville, NC, and the ruins of the Saluda Factory and Saluda River Bridge in Columbia.  The Fayetteville site (part of the Museum of the Cape Fear complex) is bisected by a highway now, but piles of rocks and some foundations can still be seen, along with a metal “ghost tower,” erected to give some scale to the ruins.   They reminded me of an ancient civilization, for the layout of the actual building can still be seen.


All that remains of the Saluda River Factory are some walls and stones that made up part of the millrace.   It’s deep in the woods of Columbia’s Riverbank Zoo and Botanical Garden, and it was an unusual experience to have to turn left at the baboon cage in order to do my research!  Here the feeling was less of an enduring civilization as one slowly being retaken by nature.


The further south I went, the greater the emphasis on the devastation Sherman’s men left in their wake.  In part, this may be a function of the claim that Sherman’s men took the gloves off in South Carolina, and put them back on again when they entered North Carolina.  Certainly, those sites that I visited in

South Carolina seemed to take the war, and Sherman’s part in it, a bit more personally.  The displays in the Cheraw Lyceum museum, complete with tiny dioramas, described the Cheraw region as having been “ravished” by Sherman’s men , but conceded that the explosion which destroyed the business district was a pure accident.  Indeed, places that survived, whether a town like Cheraw or an individual home or church along the way seem to take pains to explain why they were spared:  a Masonic emblem left out, a church used as a stable (in Barnwell, SC) or a shared last name.

The city of Columbia, at least immediately after the March, seemed to take a perverse pride in having been the target of so much Yankee wrath, and the question of exactly who set off the fire that burned the town has never quite been settled.  Like many places through which the march passed, Columbia has a bit of a contradictory identity as far as Sherman is concerned.


On the one hand, there is the sense of victimization at the city having been bombarded and burned.  On the other hand, however there’s an element of pride or defiance in having survived and thrived.  This juxtaposition can best be seen on the grounds of the South Carolina state house.  You can see a marker commemorating the original state house (which was being replaced by a new building) which was “burned by Sherman’s troops.”

But turn around and you can see six stars on the walls of the state house, marking dents in the stone from Union cannonballs.  Devastation and survival coexisting in the same spot.  Perhaps the lesson we should take from the remains of Sherman’s March is that the past can’t be completely erased.

-Anne Rubin, professor of history (UMD), author of  A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868