Thursday, March 3, 2016

William T. Sherman and Connecticut's Scorched Earth

William T. Sherman was well into his Carolinas campaign 151 years ago this week as his 60,000 men neared the end of a destructive march through South Carolina. Sherman’s ultimate goal was to destroy the one significant Confederate army still in the field when he got to northern North Carolina. When Sherman met and defeated Joseph Johnston in April the war was essentially over.

Sherman’s guiding principle in the initial march through Georgia during late 1864, and to a lesser extent in the Carolinas, was to wage war on everything except the very lives of civilians. It was scorched earth and total war and it earned Sherman a reputation that survives today.

Sherman’s ancestors actually had experience with scorched earth long before the Union general began his Civil War career. His grandfather Taylor Sherman and father Charles Sherman had left their homes in Norwalk. Connecticut, to move to Ohio, primarily to work on land claims in the Firelands. This 500,000 acre area in northern Ohio was also known as the Sufferers’ Lands and was the surviving part of millions of acres of land claimed by Connecticut, thanks to a 17th century royal patent. In exchange for the federal assumption of debt run up during the Revolutionary War the new state gave up most of the claims, retaining only the Western Reserve, a part of Ohio soon sold to a land company.

Connecticut did retain the half million acres of the so-called Firelands to compensate state residents for the losses of their homes, barns, shops, and other property burned by the British in several raids during the Revolution. Connecticut was never controlled by the British but it certainly was damaged. Four separate raids, each including several towns, occurred between April 1777 and September 1781. Nearly a thousand structures, mostly houses, were burned in Norwalk, Danbury, Ridgefield, Greenwich, Fairfield, New Haven, East Haven, New London, and Groton. Benedict Arnold, having turned coat, led the attack on the last two towns, near neighbors of his birthplace in Norwich.

Arnold's birthplace in Norwich was 15 miles
from the Groton Massacre
The purpose of the earlier raids was similar to that of William T. Sherman—to destroy supplies and provisions and to break the will of the civilians supporting the army. Few civilians died. In New London, Arnold proved a little more bloodthirsty. Although he wasn’t present, his subordinate in Groton ordered the massacre of 50 Connecticut militia members who had already surrendered. The Ohio Firelands were intended as recompense for the losses from the four British raids. Taylor Sherman went west to help survey the Firelands while Charles arrived in 1810 to prove title and do other legal work to help the eligible sufferers.  As it turned out, Charles found more lucrative work further south in Ohio, and his third son William Tecumseh was born there.

William was only ten when his father died and by then his grandfather was also gone, so he probably heard few first-hand stories of the British destruction in Connecticut. He mentions the Firelands only briefly in his memoir but was aware that scorched earth was responsible for his family being in Ohio.

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