The Story of the Great March

Author: George Ward Nichols  | Date: 1865

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Brevet Major George Ward Nichols New York 1865

Sherman Marches to the Sea



I began today’s record early in the evening, and while writing I noticed an unusual glare in the sky, and heard a sound of running to and fro in the streets, with the loud talk of servants that the horses must be removed to a safer place. Running out, I found, to my surprise and real sorrow, that the central part of the city, including the main business street, was in flames, while the wind, which had been blowing a hurricane all day, was driving the sparks and cinders in heavy masses over the eastern portion of the city, where the finest residences are situated. These buildings, all wooden, were instantly ignited by the flying sparks. In half an hour the conflagration was raging in every direction, and but for a providential change of the wind to the south and west, the whole city would in a few hours have been laid in ashes.

As it is, several hundred buildings, including the old State House, one or two churches, most of the carved work stored in the sheds round about the new capitol, and a large number of public storehouses, have been destroyed. In some of the public build-hags the Rebels had stored shot, shell, and other ammunition, and when the flames reached these magazines we had the Atlanta experience over again—the smothered boom, the huge columns of fire shooting heavenward, the red-hot iron flying here and there.

But there was one feature, pitiable indeed, which we did not find at Atlanta. Groups of men, women, and children were gathered in the streets and squares, huddled together over a trunk, a mattress, or a bundle of clothes. Our soldiers were at work with a will, removing household goods from the dwellings which were in the track of flames, and here and there extinguishing the fire when there was hope of saving a building. General Sherman and his officers worked with their own hands until long after midnight, trying to save life and property. The house taken for headquarters is now filled with old men, women, and children who have been driven from their homes by a more pitiless enemy than the detested "Yankees."

Various causes are assigned the origin of the fire. I am quite sure that it originated in sparks flying from the hundreds of bales of cotton which the Rebels had placed along the middle of the main street, and fired as they left the city. Fire from a tightly-compressed bale of cotton is unlike that of a more open material, which burns itself out. The fire lies smouldering in a bale of cotton long after it appears to be extinguished; and in this instance, when our soldiers supposed they had extinguished the fire, it suddenly broke out again with the most disastrous effect.

There are fires, however, which must have been started independent of the above-named cause. The source of these is ascribed to the desire for revenge from some two hundred of our prisoners, who had escaped from the cars as they were being conveyed from this city to Charlotte, and, with the memories of long sufferings in the miserable pens I visited yesterday on the other side of the river, sought this means of retaliation. Again, it is said that the soldiers who first entered the town, intoxicated with success and a liberal supply of bad liquor, which was freely distributed among them by designing citizens, in an insanity of exhilaration set fire to unoccupied houses.

Whatever may have been the Cause of the disaster, the direful result is deprecated by General Sherman most emphatically; for however heinous the crimes of this people against our common country, we do not war against women and children and helpless persons.


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Chicago: George Ward Nichols, "Sherman Marches to the Sea," The Story of the Great March, ed. Brevet Major George Ward Nichols in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed December 11, 2023,

MLA: Nichols, George Ward. "Sherman Marches to the Sea." The Story of the Great March, edited by Brevet Major George Ward Nichols, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 11 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Nichols, GW, 'Sherman Marches to the Sea' in The Story of the Great March, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 11 December 2023, from