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This Day in Georgia History

January 11, 1865

Stanton Sherman Met

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived in Savannah to meet with Gen. William T. Sherman. The visit was not over military strategy but rather in response to concerns over Sherman’s treatment of freed blacks. Word had reached the North that during the March to the Sea, Union Gen. Jefferson C. Davis had caused the death of hundreds of freed slaves at Ebenezer Creek, when he ordered the pontoon bridge removed before the former slaves following his army could cross the creek. Few could swim, but rather than be left behind, many jumped in the water and drowned while trying to make to the other side. Also, it was rumored that many of those left behind had been killed by Confederate cavalry. And, there were other charges. Gen. Henry Halleck, a friend of Sherman’s, had written him to warn:

“They say you have manifested an almost ‘criminal’ dislike of the Negro, and that you are not willing to carry out the wishes of the Government in regard to him, but repulse him with contempt. They say you might have brought with you to Savannah more than 50,000, thus stripping Georgia of that number of laborers, and opening a road by which as many more could have escaped from their masters; but that, instead of this, you drove them from your ranks.”

Stanton, a staunch abolitionist, had decided to come personally to investigate. He proceeded by holding a meeting with Sherman and a group of 20 black ministers. At first, Stanton asked about enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Then, he asked Sherman to step out of the room. Stanton then asked the ministers about Sherman’s actions toward blacks. They cleared Sherman, describing him as “a friend and a gentleman” in his treatment of blacks. Stanton recalled Sherman to ask about the Ebenezer Creek tragedy. Sherman excused the incident as blown out of proportion. No blacks had been turned back, and Gen. Davis had removed the bridge simply because he needed to carry it with him. Also, as far as Sherman knew, no freed slaves had been killed by the Confederates. Whether Stanton was convinced is not known, but this ended his investigation.