150 years ago today, William Tecumseh Sherman began his famed March to the Sea. While much has been written about the March–and much is still to be written about it–I just wanted to share the thoughts of one Ohioan that were recorded on November 15, 1864.
Albert Champlin was a private in the 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His diary, preserved at the Western Reserve Historical Society, is one of the best accounts of the war that I have come across, and perhaps my personal favorite from my time researching. One of the reasons why I enjoy Champlin’s thoughts so much is that he was from Willoughby, Ohio, the town next to where I grew up. Another is Champlin’s continued focus on God in his writings, speaking of camp revivals, prayer services, and even his interpretations of the events of the war as though each day saw evidence of God’s existence and divine guidance. For Champlin, this meant that the destruction of Atlanta and Sherman’s success in Georgia were God’s way of punishing the Confederacy for its wickedness.
On June 19, 1864, when Confederate forces first took their positions on and around Kennesaw Mountain, Champlin recorded the following in his diary:
“Oh, that our work may still be blessed of God, that the time of its completion may not be far distant, the time when rebellion shall have been put down to be known no more in our land and when quiet, civil pursuits shall have taken the place of the stern duties of the soldiers in the field, and Sabbath and sanctionary privileges the place of military necessities. But while it is necessary, let us be soldiers. And may an Overruling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice to many has long prevailed, and finally, peace quiet and harmony out of this terrible confrontation and our country’s fiery ordeal.”
Champlin’s words show a man of strong faith, believing in the righteousness of his cause. Clearly, much more suffering lay ahead for Champlin’s hope of victory blessed by God to become a reality, but through the difficulties of the Atlanta Campaign, seen at places such as Kennesaw Mountain, Champlin did not lose faith. With the fall of Atlanta, Union forces under Sherman were rewarded for their perseverance and tenacity that they displayed during one of the most difficult campaigns of the Civil War.
I chose to open the introduction to my book with the scene of Atlanta burning and Sherman’s men marching onward on the night of November 15, 1864, because it seemed a fitting way to understand the significance of the Atlanta Campaign. It was a moment of total victory and triumph in Georgia; all that Johnston and Hood had defended for months and months during 1864 was being destroyed, and Sherman was headed on to destroy the heart of the Confederacy. None of that would have been possible without the sacrifices made and lessons learned at Kennesaw Mountain several months before.
During that fateful November day 150 years ago, as Champlin and the rest of Sherman’s command headed south once again, the young Ohioan remained ever faithful to the cause of his country, believing that Union victory and Southern defeat were not simply the result of battles in Georgia, but the consequence of God’s will for the nation. Accordingly, Champlin wrote the following in his diary that day:
“March at 6 AM and reach Atlanta at 10 AM, stop till after noon and then move to the east side of the city and there camp. Here Orderly Elder Maynard and others who came to Atlanta on business rejoin us. Atlanta, too, we find on fire and all the Railroads leading into it are thoroughly destroyed. Night comes on and yet the city is burning; what a magnificent sight and what a work of destruction. The destroying blow with the rebels aimed at our government and country is falling fatally upon themselves—Dearly they are paying for their folly and crime and wickedness.”
Champlin’s words remind us of the strong and abiding faith that imbued many soldiers with a sense of purpose and mission, that they were not only fighting for the preservation of the Union, but for a higher purpose in a righteous war. With such destruction in Atlanta and beyond, these feelings of righteous indignation were shared by many in the Union army who had struggled through the forests, swamps, and battles of the Atlanta Campaign, and emerged victorious on the other side. The war was not yet done, but it was entering its final chapters.