Sherman in Madison?

General Sherman


Hank Segars

Lakelife Associate Editor


Okay, let me get this straight. Sherman spared Madison because the town was “too pretty to burn.” Really?


According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Sherman’s March to the Sea “was the most destructive campaign against a civilian population during the Civil War.” The cigar-chomping general’s stated objective was to “make Georgia howl” and he did so with cruel efficiency.


Factories, warehouses, railroad depots and the homes of Confederate officials were set on fire. Union troops stole livestock, destroyed cotton, plundered houses and consumed all available food sources. Union troops had no qualms about robbing civilians and even those enslaved, and a heavy price was paid for resistance. For example, when Confederates took shots from the courthouse in Sandersville, the structure was completely burnt down.


In more recent years, there have been efforts to soften the image of General William T. Sherman and to make his “March to the Sea” seem less heinous. We’ve also seen in print -- especially in travel magazines -- that Sherman spared Madison because the town was “too pretty to burn.” Could this be true?


I spoke with Woody Williams, historian at the Morgan County Archives, and both of us agree that we never heard this story prior to the 1970s. We know that Sherman never set foot in Madison or Morgan County. “From Covington, the Fourteenth Corps (Davis’s), with which Sherman traveled, turned to the right for Milledgeville by Shady Dale. Gen. Slocum was ahead at Madison, with the Twentieth Corps . . .” confirmed Katherine Walters, author and historian, in her writings of many years ago. It was General Henry T. Slocum’s troops that visited our fair city on November 19th, 1864.


Author Burke Davis provides one of the best accounts about Union soldiers in Madison in his book entitled Sherman’s March: “General Slocum was met outside the town by the mayor [Joshua Hill] and three others, who begged him not to burn the place, but the interview was brief and the general made no promises. The troops found this the most beautiful town they had seen in Georgia, a quiet village of stately houses and large trees . . . A few houses and other buildings in the town were burned . . . The town’s stores were pillaged by ‘vagabonds’ from the rear of the army who flung bales of cloth and clothing, hardware and harness into the streets. Two soldiers bore off a large gilt mirror, tired of carrying it, dashed it to the ground. Drunken soldiers lay on the streets of the town with wine bottles lying about them.”


Another account by Frances T. Howard who lived during the invasion confirms that Madison was “heavily looted.” And, in the December 14, 1864, edition of “The Southern Watchman,” an Athens newspaper, we find that Joshua Hill’s rural property was affected:

“In order to wreak vengeance upon Mr. Hill for preventing from plundering the City of Madison, the Yankee soldiery determined to burn every house upon his plantation, and we understood they did – including the dwelling, negro cabins, corn cribs, stables, and everything else. The course pursued by the Federal Army towards the Mayor of Madison is another evidence of Yankee meanness.”


“I’ve looked through many of the early newspapers and can’t find the origin of these Madison myths and never found any evidence of the original quote,” Woody Williams says. “I think it was first stated by a tour guide in Madison.”


“Within days of the march through Madison a few newspaper reports credited Hill, the town's most prominent citizen, with inducing the Federal troops to spare Madison.” adds Brad Rice, retired Madison professor. “In later years as letters and diaries of Union soldiers began to be published, Madison readers noticed that several northern writers had praised the beauty of the village. Thus, the story grew. It must be kept in mind, however, that Conyers, Covington, Eatonton, and several other towns tell their own, often fanciful, stories of why their towns were spared.”


The late Marguerite Copelan of Madison’s Chamber of Commerce may have said it best in an interview for the June 11, 2006, edition of The Chicago Tribune : “Somewhere they came up with the little tag-line, ‘The town Sherman refused to burn’ – which I think is goofy . . . They did burn bridges, and they burned parts of town. They burned our cotton gin, which was on the north end of town. And they burned enough to create terrorism of a sort.”


  1. appears to be no evidence that Madison wasn’t burned because Sherman thought the town to be too pretty. There are other things, however, that remain indisputable: Madison is indeed beautiful and Union troops didn’t cut the residents much slack. And, in the long run, maybe we aren’t served well to by repeating historical narratives that are incorrect and misleading. Knowledgeable visitors know better anyway.


In the summer edition of Southern Living, there appears an exceptional travel advertisement: General Sherman is not mentioned and the city of Madison is promoted as the “Best Southern Secret.” Now, that makes perfect sense!


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