Article 97

Capt. David P. Conyngham's Account

David P. Conyngham was not only an officer in General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Republic, but a newspaper correspondent for the New York Herald. His account of the Southern campaign included many convincing anecdotes of ordinary life during war.

It was no unusual thing to see our pickets and skirmishers enjoying themselves very comfortably with the rebels, drinking bad whiskey, smoking and chewing worse tobacco, and trading coffee and other little articles. The rebels had no coffee, and our men plenty, while the rebels had plenty of whiskey; so they very soon came to an understanding. It was strange to see men, who had been just pitted in deadly conflict, trading, and bantering, and chatting, as if they were the best friends in the world. They discussed a battle with the same gusto they would a cock-fight, or horse-race, and made inquiries about their friends, as to who was killed, and who not, in the respective armies. Friends that have been separated for years have met in this way. Brothers who parted to try their fortune have often met on the picket line, or on the battle-field. I once met a German soldier with the head of a dying rebel on his lap. The stern veteran was weeping, whilst the boy on his knee looked pityingly into his face. They were speaking in German, and from my poor knowledge of the language, all I could make out was, that they were brothers; that the elder had come out here several years before; the younger followed him, and being informed that he was in Macon, he went in search of him, and got conscripted; while the elder brother, who was in the north all the time, joined our army. The young boy was scarcely twenty, with light hair, and a soft, fair complexion. The pallor of death was on his brow, and the blood was flowing from his breast, and gurgled in his throat and mouth, which the other wiped away with his handkerchief. When he could speak, the dying youth’s conversation was of the old home in Germany, of his brothers and sisters, and dear father and mother, who were never to see him again. In those improvised truces, the best possible faith was observed by the men. These truces were brought about chiefly in the following manner. A rebel, who was heartily tired of his crippled position in his pit, would call out,

“I say, Yank!”

“Well, Johnny Reb,” would echo from another hole or tree.

“I’m going to put out my head; don’t shoot.”

“Well, I won’t.”

The reb would pop up his head; the Yank would do the same.

“Hain’t you got any coffee, Johnny?”

“Na’r a bit, but plenty of rot-gut.”

“All right; we’ll have a trade.”

They would meet, while several others would follow the example, until there would be a regular bartering mart established. In some cases the men would come to know each other so well, that they would often call out,—

“Look out, reb; we’re going to shoot,” or “Look out, Yank, we’re going to shoot,” as the case may be.

On one occasion the men were holding a friendly reunion of this sort, when a rebel major came down in a great fury, and ordered the men back. As they were going back, he ordered them to fire on the Federals. They refused, as they had made a truce. The major swore and stormed, and in his rage he snatched the gun from one of the men, and fired at a Federal soldier, wounding him. A cry of execration at such a breach of faith rose from all the men, and they called out, “Yanks, we couldn’t help it.” At night these men deserted into our lines, assigning as a reason, that they could not with honor serve any longer in an army that thus violated private truces.…

Our campaign all through Central Georgia was one delightful picnic. We had little or no fighting, and good living. The farmyards, cellars, and cribs of the planters kept ourselves and animals well stored with provisions and forage, besides an occasional stiff horn of something strong and good, which, according to the injunctions of holy writ, we took “for our stomachs’ sake.” Indeed, the men were becoming epicures. In passing through the camp one night, I saw a lot of jolly soldiers squatted outside the huts in true gypsy style, and between them a table richly stocked with meats and fowls of different kinds, flanked by several bottles of brandy.

They were a jolly set of scamps—talked, laughed, jested, and cracked jokes and bottles in smashing style.

Chase’s financial speculations were nothing to theirs; and as for their war schemes, Stanton’s and Halleck’s were thrown in the shade by them. On the subject of eating they were truly eloquent, and discussed the good things before them with the gusto of a Beau Brummel.

They thought campaigning in Georgia about the pleasantest sort of life out, and they wondered what would become of the poor dog-gone folks they had left with their fingers in their mouths, and little else to put in them.

Many of our foragers, scouts, and hangers-on of all classes, thought, like Cromwell, that they were doing the work of the Lord, in wantonly destroying as much property as possible. Though this was done extensively in Georgia, it was only in South Carolina that it was brought to perfection.

When we reached Milledgeville, we had about thirty days’ extra marching rations.

It is impossible to enter into the details of the many ways an army can live on the country. Besides the regular detailed forage parties, there are the officers’ servants and cooks, black and white, all wanting something nice for massa general or the captain’s mess. Some of these black and white rascals draw largely on the mess fund, with the honest intention of paying for what they get, but somehow forget doing so.…

War is very pleasant when attended by little fighting, and good living at the expense of the enemy.

To draw a line between stealing and taking or appropriating everything for the subsistence of an army would puzzle the nicest casuist. Such little freaks as taking the last chicken, the last pound of meal, the last bit of bacon, and the only remaining scraggy cow, from a poor woman and her flock of children, black or white not considered, came under the order of legitimate business. Even crockery; bed-covering, or cloths, were fair spoils. As for plate, or jewelry, or watches, these were things rebels had no use for. They might possibly convert them into gold, and thus enrich the Confederate treasury.

Men with pockets plethoric with silver and gold coin; soldiers sinking under the weight of plate and free bedding materials; lean mules and horses, with the richest trappings of Brussels carpets, and hangings of fine chenille; negro wenches, particularly good-looking ones, decked in satin and silks, and sporting diamond ornaments; officers with sparkling rings, that would set Tiffany in raptures,— gave color to the stories of hanging up or fleshing an “old cuss,” to make him shell out.

A planter’s house was overrun in a jiffy; boxes, drawers, and escritoirs were ransacked with a laudable zeal, and emptied of their contents. If the spoils were ample, the depredators were satisfied, and went off in peace; if not, everything was torn and destroyed, and most likely the owner was tickled with sharp bayonets into a confession where he had his treasures hid. If he escaped, and was hiding in a thicket, this was prima facie evidence that he was a skulking rebel; and most likely some ruffian, in his zeal to get rid of such vipers, gave him a dose of lead, which cured him of his Secesh tendencies. Sorghum barrels were knocked open, beehives rifled, while their angry swarms rushed frantically about. Indeed, I have seen a soldier knock a planter down because a bee stung him. Hogs are bayonetted, and then hung in quarters on the bayonets to bleed; chickens, geese, and turkeys are knocked over and hung in garlands from the saddles and around the necks of swarthy negroes; mules and horses are fished out of the swamps; cows and calves, so wretchedly thin that they drop down and perish on the first day’s march, are driven along, or, if too weak to travel, are shot, lest they should give aid to the enemy. Should the house be deserted, the furniture is smashed in pieces, music is pounded out of four hundred dollar pianos with the ends of muskets. Mirrors were wonderfully multiplied, and rich cushions and carpets carried off to adorn teams and warsteeds. After all was cleared out, most likely some set of stragglers wanted to enjoy a good fire, and set the house, debris of furniture, and all the surroundings, in a blaze. This is the way Sherman’s army lived on the country. They were not ordered to do so, but I am afraid they were not brought to task for it much either.

SOURCE: David P. Conyngham, Sherman’s March Through the South (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1865).

Page last modified on November 27, 2014