Cyrus Marion Roberts, my great-great grandfather, was a Captain in the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the American Civil War. He was born in Morgan County and died in Granville where he is buried. He kept a diary during the war, which I was privileged to donate to the Ohio History Connection.
Although I am an Ohio History Connection Curator of Archaeology and not History, I have had an abiding interest in the Civil War since I was a child. During this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I’ve been re-reading Roberts’ diary and occasionally posting a few of the more interesting entries on my Facebook page. In reading about the history he was living 150 years ago, it occurred to me that some of his observations might be of interest to a wider circle of folks than just my Facebook friends.
In January of 1865, Roberts returned to his regiment having spent the previous two years on detached service with the U. S. Army Signal Corps. The Army of General William Tecumseh Sherman was about to begin its march northward through the Carolinas.
Roberts was placed in charge of foraging for food and other supplies for the Second Brigade, Third Division, Seventeenth Army Corps, Army of the Tennessee. He and his men would scour the countryside along the route of the Army’s advance and commandeer anything that might be of use to the Union Army while destroying anything that might give aid and comfort to the Confederate Army. He must have done his job well, for the History of the 78th Regiment reports that “the regiment under the efficient energy and activity of Captain C. M. Roberts… sat down to a sumptuous supper every night.”
Sherman’s foragers have been criticized for engaging in fairly discriminant looting, but this was not true for the foragers under Roberts’ command. As one example, Roberts’ men found a large number of items buried near the home of Mrs. L. M. Kitt whose husband had been a “famous Secessionist.” Burying valuables in gardens was a common practice by Southerners in the Union Army’s path, but Sherman’s “bummers” became experts at finding such caches. Among the things recovered from Mrs. Kitt’s garden was “a set of fine jewelry,” but rather than robbing Mrs. Kitt of these valuable heirlooms, Roberts returned them to her.
In mid-February, Sherman’s Army was approaching Columbia, South Carolina – the “mother of secession.” The following entries from Roberts’ diary describe what he witnessed of the destruction of this great city. They are among the most poignant passages in the entire document:
February 16th – Leave Camp about 11 A.M. Our march is over swamps and sandy hills. On a road parallel with the river (Broad) arrive on bank opposite the City of Columbia & Capitol of South Carolina. Cannonading and musketry at long range is engaged in.
The City looks beautifully from our bivouac. The State House and churches are quite prominent. Get no forage today of consequence. The country poor and four Army Corps present & close together.
February 17th – Do not move out early as the 15th Corps is ahead and a pontoon bridge is to be laid across the Saluda & Broad rivers before we cross, but the first is soon cross’d the latter we have to be cautious about, however a Brigade of the 15th Corps is crossed in boats drive away the rebels and meet the Mayor of the City in his carriage who surrenders the City to Maj. Genl. Jn. A. Logan. The pontoon was soon finished and Gens. Sherman, Howard & others crossed. I followed closely with my foragers, and while they were Marching thro’ the City, I pounced upon 3 or 4 plantations near the City and obtained 6 loads of meal, flour, molasses, tobacco, bacon & c. & c. beside a rebel battle-flag, the salt-petre manufactory & several mules & horses – then marched into the City. Saw several intoxicated men (soldiers) on the streets. My Division does not get in till nearly 11 P.M. at which time the City is on fire. A strong wind prevails and desolation spreads far & wide. I never saw such a sight in my life and hope I may never have to see such again – women & children are clustered in the fields & out of the way places with perhaps two or three bundles of individual clothing – everything else burned. These have been worth from 2 to 3 hundred thousand dollars and now homeless — out in the night air witnessing the burning of their city. Such are the consequences of Secession.
February 18 – Move out early, thro’ the city and along the Charlotte and South Carolina R. R. As we pass up the main Street every thing we see is smoke from smouldering ruins, brick walls – and here and there a house left unburned.
You can read the Roberts diaries in their entirety online at http://www.civilwarsignals.org/brown/signalmen/576/cyrusmarionroberts.pdf
Brad Lepper, Archaeology Unit Head