Today is 155th Anniversary of Ebenezer Creek Massacre of Slaves
Throughout Sherman’s March to the Sea, thousands of people escaping slavery attached themselves to the Union army’s various infantry columns. Most eventually turned back, but those that remained were looked on as “a growing encumbrance” as the army approached Savannah in December 1864. Complicating the situation, Confederate cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler was actively harassing the Federal rear guard during this period.
Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek
On December 9, 1864, the Union XIV Corps, under Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, reached the western bank of Ebenezer Creek. While Davis’ engineers began assembling a pontoon bridge for the crossing, Wheeler’s cavalry approached close enough to conduct sporadic shelling of the Union lines. By midnight the bridge was ready, and Davis’s 14,000 men began their crossing.
Over 600 freed people were anxious to cross with them, but Davis ordered his provost marshal to prevent this. The freedmen were told that they would be able to cross after a Confederate force in front had been dispersed. In reality, no such force existed. As the last Union soldiers reached the eastern bank on the morning of December 9, Davis’s engineers abruptly cut the bridge loose and drew it up onto the shore.
On realizing their plight, a panic set in amongst the freedmen, who knew that Confederate cavalry was nearby. They “hesitated briefly, impacted by a surge of pressure from the rear, then stampeded with a rush into the icy water, old and young alike, men and women and children, swimmers and non-swimmers, determined not to be left behind.” In the uncontrolled, terrified crush, many quickly drowned. On the eastern bank, some of Davis’s soldiers made an effort to help those that they could reach, wading into the water as far as they dared. Others felled trees into the water. Several of the freedmen lashed logs together into a crude raft, which they used to rescue those they could and then to ferry others across the stream.
While these efforts were underway, scouts from Wheeler’s cavalry arrived, fired briefly at the soldiers on the far bank, and left to summon Wheeler’s full force. Officers from the XIV Corps ordered their men to leave the scene, and the march was resumed. The freedmen continued their frantic efforts to ferry as many as possible across the stream on the makeshift raft, but when Wheeler’s cavalry arrived in force, those refugees who had not made it to the eastern bank, or drowned in the attempt, were enslaved once more.
Davis’s orders infuriated several of the Union men who witnessed the ensuing calamity, among them Major James A. Connolly and Chaplain John J. Hight. Connolly described the events in a letter to the Senate Military Commission, which found its way into the press. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton brought the incident up with Sherman and Davis during a visit to Savannah in January 1865. Davis defended his actions as a matter of military necessity, with Sherman’s full support.
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