December 1864: “… from the roof of the City Hall we could see the whole City in flames at once … whole blocks falling in with a crash that sent a fiery cloud of cinders up, up, up, like they seemed to mingle with the stars…”

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Samuel Storrow to Lydia Storrow, 24 December 1864

Letter from Samuel Storrow to Lydia Storrow, 24 December 1864

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    “The sight was superb; from the roof of the City Hall we could see the whole City in flames at once, great tongues of fire leaping up into the air 50 or 100 feet above the roofs, whole blocks falling in with a crash that sent a fiery cloud of cinders up, up, up, till they seemed to mingle with the stars,” writes Samuel Storrow, a Bostonian serving with the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in this lengthy letter begun on 24 December 1864. Using his diary as a reference, Storrow provides his mother with a month’s worth of stories about his participation in Sherman’s March to the Sea, beginning with the burning of Atlanta. Well-read and gifted with the pen, Storrow brings the rice swamps and towns the Union army passed through to life as he describes the landscapes, weather, and people he encountered on the way to Savannah.

    Born in Boston to Charles S. and Lydia Cabot Storrow on 24 July 1843, Samuel Storrow entered Harvard College in 1860. He left after two years to enlist in the Union Army. On 20 September 1862, he began his military career serving as a corporal with the 44th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a nine-month regiment. Storrow mustered out of service in June 1863 and returned to Harvard, graduating the following summer. Shortly after, in September 1864, he accepted a commission as a lieutenant, and joined the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. With the 2nd, Storrow travelled deep into the southern theater of war, joining Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia in the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea.

    Storrow opens his letter describing the brutal conditions of the long march from Atlanta to Savannah, and praising William Tecumseh Sherman’s decision to hold this campaign in the winter as “had it been summer many of us who are safe and sound would have found their last resting place in the deadly swamps of Georgia” adding, “The rice swamps that we have skirmished through would have swarmed with snakes and reptilia of every kind to say nothing of mosquitoes [and] gnats” (page 1). He then shifts his narrative back to mid-November, noting the destruction of the city of Atlanta before offering a detailed description of his regiment’s various duties along the route to the coast.

    Storrow describes in great detail the work of destroying railroad tracks, a task necessary to ensure that supplies and munitions could not reach the besieged Confederate troops. Explaining that there are multiple ways to destroy tracks, Storrow notes that “The quickest way is to form a reg’t in single file on one side, all taking hold of the rail; then all lifting together the whole thing … is raised from the road bed & tipped right over.” Once that work is done, the men “separate the ties, pile them up & set them on fire.” With pride he adds that the 2nd Massachusetts accomplished this task “without any tools but our hatchets” (page 10).

    Using vivid imagery, Storrow describes the various people his regiment encountered as they marched through Georgia. He notes that as the Army passed through Covington, a town about forty miles east of Atlanta, “it was very amusing to see the length and sourness of the inhabitants’ faces as they timidly peeped out of doors and windows to see the Yanks go by” (page 4). Harking back to works by Sir Walter Scott and John Keats, Storrow recalls that as they passed through Sandersville, a town about 80 miles southeast of Covington where the advancing army destroyed and looted private property, “One old Meg Merrilies stood in her door with uplifted arms, and called down upon our heads all the curses she could think of” (page 8).

    Storrow writes of the “immense number of negroes that flock to our columns,” noting that they range in age from “the grey wooled patriarch to the child at the breast” (page 15). Storrow recounts seeing black women and children standing in front of houses until one woman “seized with a sudden desire for her freedom” would rush into the home, bundle up her belongings and “trudge off by our side leading by the hand some young Ascanius toddling along like his prototype haud passibus aequis” (page 16). Storrow marvels that these woman and their children kept pace with the advancing army.

    Storrow mentions two curious instances of special treatment—even protection—extended by Freemasons on both sides of the conflict. Reflecting on the burning of Atlanta, he writes the “business streets, and R.R. & all other public buildings, with the exception of the Jail, Masonic Hall, City Hall & the Churches around it, had been burnt” (page 2). While the Masonic temple being spared destruction along with other public buildings may not seem extraordinary, paired with a second anecdote on page 13, it seems more than coincidental. Storrow relates that on a day that his company went foraging for supplies, the sergeant major of Company D of the 2nd Massachusetts was taken prisoner “by two Johnnies.” One of the Confederate soldiers “was for hanging him on the spot” until the other, “espying a Masonic pin” that the sergeant major wore, “interfered and saved his life” (page 13). According to Storrow, “this was indeed a narrow squeak for his neck, as he would have assuredly gone up but for this single thing.” In these two instances, at least, it seems that the bonds of Masonic brotherhood were stronger than the animus between North and South.

    Storrow was fatally wounded on 16 March 1865 at the Battle of Averasboro, near Fayetteville, North Carolina. In a letter dated 24 March 1865 sent to Storrow’s father, General Cogswell wrote that Storrow was wounded while carrying an order to his brigade and died approximately fifteen minutes later. Cogswell further wrote that “the fact that he was a brave, intelligent, and most promising young officer, together with the fact that he died nobly in a just cause, may, in part, console you on your loss.” Cogswell concludes by stating “Allow me to claim in part this loss as my own, for neither in my old regiment nor in my present command can I replace him.” Storrow was buried near the battlefield in North Carolina beside his fellow officer and Harvard classmate, Captain Joseph Grafton, who died on the same day.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    The Samuel Storrow Papers contain dozens of letters written by Storrow while serving with both the 44th and 2nd Regiments. The collection also contains the diary Storrow kept during his service, which he used as a reference while writing the featured letter for his mother. The letter from General Cogswell to Charles Storrow quoted above is also included in this collection.

    Halleran, Micheal. The Better Angels of our Nature: Freemasonry in the American Civil War. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2010.

    McDonough, James Lee and James Pickett Jones. “War so terrible”: Sherman and Atlanta. New York: Norton, c1987.