On this day in history, the African Americans who helped push Sherman’s army through the swamp territory during his famous March to the Sea were betrayed at Ebenezer Creek, only some twenty miles from the city of Savannah, Georgia.
One of Sherman’s brigadier generals, the ironically named Jefferson C. Davis, commanded Sherman’s Fourteenth Corps. In spite of the fact that black refugees who joined the march were supplying a great deal of the labor for making the sandy roads passable for the army, Davis wasn’t fond of them. He saw them as exacerbating the food shortage problem, and slowing down the march. He was also an unrepentant supporter of slavery.
As the troops approached the Ebenezer Creek, Davis issued instructions that the black refugees remain behind until the Army had crossed the pontoon bridge. As soon as the Army and their workers were safely across, General Davis ordered his men to dismantle the bridge, trapping the refugees between the icy river and the oncoming Southerners. Colonel Charles D. Kerr of the 126th Illinois Cavalry, which was at the rear of the XIV Corps, wrote that orders were given not to let any negroes cross, and that a guard was detailed to enforce the order.
Major General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the right wing of Sherman’s army (which included Davis’s corps), recalled seeing ‘throngs of escaping slaves’ of all types, “from the baby in arms to the old negro hobbling painfully along the line of march; negroes of all sizes, in all sorts of patched costumes, with carts and broken-down horses and mules to match.” Because the able-bodied refugees were up front working in the pioneer corps, most of those stranded would have been women, children, and old men.
A number of the refugees, mindful of the fate awaiting them with the rebels, threw themselves into the the 165-feet-wide and 10-feet-deep swollen and icy Ebenezer Creek and drowned. Many were shot by the Confederates, and hundreds were sent back to their owners.
Eventually the matter was leaked to the press, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton went to Savannah to talk to Sherman, demanding an explanation for what happened at Ebenezer Creek. Sherman urged the Secretary not to jump to conclusions and, in his postwar memoirs, reported that he ‘explained the matter to [Stanton’s] entire satisfaction.’
How many women, children, and older men were stranded cannot be determined precisely, but 5,000 is a conservative estimate.
You can read more about the massacre in this Washington Post article.