In 1864 Many Black families were left to drown
Story by Richard Thomas + Illustration by Megan Goheen
As Union armies began converging to support General William Tecumseh Sherman’s advance into the Southern heartland, hundreds and later thousands of enslaved were liberated as fearful slaveholders and Confederate troops fled the approach of the Federal troops. Many of the formerly enslaved chose to follow the Union column in its march from Atlanta to Savannah as they feared their former owners or Confederate patrols would return to the vacated areas and recapture them into slavery.
After the occupation of Macon and a battle on the avenue of approach to Savannah, Sherman divided his troops into three columns to pursue the retreating Confederates and capture strategic objectives in lower Georgia in defense of his flanks. The northern column was directed to secure the Savannah River crossing near Burtons Ferry and proceed along the river to the port, while the southern column was to secure Fort McAllister on the banks of the Ogeechee River. The center column, commanded by Union General Jefferson C. Davis, would make the direct approach to the defenses of the city.
Davis had a record of suspect judgment. He had been exonerated in the killing of his commanding officer in a duel years before. He was not well liked by his men who derisively called him General Reb behind his back due to his name. On December 8, 1864, the 14,000 men in the central column reached the western bank of Ebenezer Creek, a small river flowing into the Savannah from the west. Confederate General Wheeler and his cavalry were following Davis and his troops and had come close enough to pour artillery fire on the Union encampment while the engineers were assembling a pontoon bridge.
The troop crossing began at midnight, and 600 anxious, liberated people wanted to cross with the vanguard, but they were told they could cross when the enemy troops on the other side had been scattered. Davis reasoned that if he could free his column from the encumbrance of the following Blacks, he could speed his advance to Savannah. In reality, there were no such enemy troops, and when the federal column had reached the eastern bank, Davis ordered the bridge cut loose from the far bank and tied up on the near shore. Knowing the Confederate cavalry was close by, a panic set in among the freed slaves, and after a brief hesitation hundreds of people plunged into the freezing cold, rain-swollen creek in an attempt to swim across and flee their pursuers. Despite some attempts by Union soldiers to rescue the ones they could reach, hundreds drowned.
A humanitarian outcry ensued, prompted by the outrage of two of Davis’s officers, which attracted the attention of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Stanton personally traveled to Savannah after its capture to meet with Sherman and investigate the tragedy. The incident at Ebenezer Creek had served to elevate the question of what to do with the liberated slaves to the policy level in the wake of the Union’s advance through the South. On January 12, 1865, 20 leaders of the Savannah Black community met with Sherman and Stanton. The leaders had previously met with two men from Mitchelville, Mayor Abraham Murchison and Marshal March Haynes, to help them plan what to ask of Union officials. Murchison and Haynes had by that time had more than two years working with Federal officials dealing with the formerly enslaved.
Four days after the meeting, following the personal approval of President Abraham Lincoln, Sherman issued General Order Number 15. That created what was called a “reservation” of 440,000 acres of former planters’ land to be parceled out to applicant Freedmen in 40-acre plots,” the origin of the Forty Acres and a Mule policy. Less known is the fact that Sherman issued the order from the Hilton Head headquarters of the Department of the South when he was forced by bad weather to come ashore on a steamship headed north. Also little known is that General Rufus Saxton in Beaufort, then a deputy commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, added the grant of one government mule to each applicant’s award with Sherman’s approval.