The Territory of Mississippi existed from April 7, 1798 to December 10, 1817, when the western half of the territory was admitted as a state. The eastern half was redesignated as Alabama Territory until its admission to the Union on December 14, 1819. Before becoming a US Territory, the area was divided between France, Great Britain, and Spain. Spain, the last European power to control the region, signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795, recognizing the 31st parallel as the boundary between the United States and Spanish Florida—although they immediately regretted this decision and made numerous excuses for not evacuating the area for the next two years. They finally relinquished their control in March of 1798.
The original Mississippi Territory was a strip of land about 100 miles north to south and from the Mississippi River to the Chattahoochee. The boundary between Mississippi Territory and Georgia was defined to follow the Chattahoochee River north from the border with Spanish Florida—however, the river’s upper course veered northeast and cut deep into Georgia, so the boundary was redefined to follow the river until it turned, and from that point, to follow an angled line north to the 35th parallel. This angled boundary stopped at the Tennessee River.
The attraction of vast amounts of high quality, inexpensive cotton land enticed settlers to the territory, mostly from Georgia and the Carolinas, and from tobacco areas of Virginia and North Carolina (at a time when tobacco farming barely made a profit) From 1798 to 1820, the population soared from less than 9,000 to more than 22,000. Migration came in two fairly distinct waves—a steady movement until the outbreak of the War of 1812, and a flood afterward from 1815 to 1819. The postwar flood was caused by several factors, including high cotton prices, the elimination of Native titles to much of the land, new and improved roads, and the acquisition of new direct outlets to the Gulf of Mexico.
After seizing the city of Atlanta during the Civil War, Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman embarked on a scorched-earth campaign intended to cripple the South’s war-making capacity and wound the Confederate psyche. Sherman’s army marched 285 miles east from Atlanta to the coastal city of Savannah, arriving on December 10, 1864.
In the spring of 1864, Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant conferred with his generals to devise a strategy to bring the Confederate war-machine to its knees. Sherman was charged with three armies totaling some 100,000 men: the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee, and the Army of the Ohio. His primary objective was to capture the city of Atlanta, a major railroad center, supply depot, and manufacturing hub for both Georgia and the Confederacy. The ensuing campaign and siege occupied most of the summer, with Sherman finally forcing a surrender on September 2. Sherman remained in Atlanta for a little over a month, during which time he ordered the evacuation of some 3,000 civilians, seizing their homes for his soldiers’ living quarters.
On October 9, Sherman sent the following telegram to Grant:
“I propose we break up the railroad from Chattanooga and strike out with wagons for Milledgeville, Millen, and Savannah. Until we can repopulate Georgia it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources. By attempting to hold the roads we will lose a thousand men monthly and will gain no result. I can make the march and make Georgia howl. We have over 8,000 cattle and 3,000,000 pounds of bread but no corn, but we can forage in the interior of the state.”
Although he had reservations, Grant gave his official approval to Sherman’s plan on November 7. Through this “March to the Sea,” Sherman hoped to deny Georgia’s resources to the Confederacy. In a November 6 telegram to Grant, he had argued that to every onlooker, the destruction of Georgia’s economic and industrial potential would be “proof positive that the North can prevail in this contest, leaving only open the question of its willingness to use that power.” Far more than a mere display of brute force, Sherman’s wager would prove to be equal parts political and psychological.
On November 10, following Sherman’s orders, Union troops began torching military and industrial buildings in Atlanta. By the following day, soldiers were setting unauthorized fires and the flames spread to business and residential districts. Within a week, some 40 percent of the city was in ashes. On the morning of November 16, Sherman set out for the coast at the head of roughly 62,000 men. Although clearly headed eastward, he was determined to conceal his movements from Confederate eyes. Because of this, he divided his expeditionary force into two infantry groups. The Army of the Tennessee, headed by Major General Oliver O. Howard, comprised the right wing, while on the left, Major General Henry W. Slocum commanded the Army of Georgia. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick led the force’s single cavalry division.
With Kilpatrick as a mobile screen, Howard took the right wing southeast of Atlanta in the direction of Macon, while Slocum’s left wing marched east toward Augusta. Sherman gave explicit instructions to his troops regarding their conduct while on this march. He encouraged foraging and the confiscation of livestock but forbade home invasions. However, if antagonized by Confederate soldiers, Union officers could destroy private and industrial property. The field order also permitted able-bodied Black laborers to join the march, but commanding officers were instructed to remain cognizant of supplies intended for their army group. Most men complied with Sherman’s orders. However, some, called “bummers,” roamed the countryside to intentionally terrorize and loot Confederate civilians.
Although bummers engaged in prohibited activity, the overall psychological impact on the local population was precisely the purpose of the march. This effect was likely compounded by the army’s continued railroad destruction. Railroads doubled as a conduit for industrial growth and transportation for the military. By ripping up and melting down tracks, Union soldiers slowly crippled the state’s industrial and military potential in full view of its civilians.
Confederate leadership was never able to discern the final destination of the two-pronged Union force and in early December, troops arrived at Savannah, which surrendered without the siege its sister city had required. Georgia was effectively pacified.
Your characters may well have experienced either of these occurrences, or at least read of them in the newspaper (or heard stories from soldiers). These December 10 events had a major impact on life in the Old West, as your characters would have known it.