You won’t find Grace Pierson James Beard’s name in any history books. She doesn’t exist on any historic registrars’ roster, nor in any photographs sealed behind vellum or glass. Even the dates of her birth and death have been washed away, lost in the annals of time. Yet in an unbound, time-softened sheaf of papers tucked safely away among stacks of manuscripts in the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection, Grace Pierson’s memory lives on. “A Series of True Incidents Connected with Sherman’s March to the Sea: The Experiences of a Lady who Lived in the Line of His March,” a fifteen page memoir, provides an intimate glimpse into a moment that history too often reduces to one dimensional statistics: a ruthless campaign of psychological and economic warfare burned into the Southern landscape from Atlanta to Charleston: Sherman’s March to the Sea.
In the chill twilight of a February evening in 1865, Grace Pierson stood on her front porch, watching the flickering glow of distant campfires. The Union army, she knew, would soon arrive. Left alone on a South Carolina plantation with her servants and two small children, Pierson remained steadfast in her resolve to submit neither to the notoriously brutal army nor her fear. She had passed the previous three days with single minded purpose, working alongside her servants to haul stores of food and livestock to a makeshift encampment in the uncultivated land behind her home. It was here, she planned, that she would safely await the passing of Sherman’s army. Confident in the righteousness of her efforts, Pierson turned her back to the curling smoke of the soldier’s fires and returned to her camp.
The comfort was to be short lived, however. An ominous message soon reached the camp: Confederate soldiers had overrun the plantation and demanded to speak with the head of the house. Reluctantly, Pierson tucked a small pistol into the folds of her dress and made her way back to her home, now swarming with the raucous celebration of soldiers. Though the men would prove to be harmless in action, almost sheepish in their discomfort at being under the scrutinizing eye of the woman whose living room they had ungraciously overtaken, the news they delivered bore the impact of an enemy’s blow: Sherman’s army, due at noon the following day, was under orders to burn any vacant houses to the ground.
Pierson refused to let her absence give the approaching Union army license to destroy her home, yet she also had no intention of handing them the provisions she had painstakingly laid aside for her family. When the morning arrived and the Confederate soldiers left, Pierson set to work: individual pieces of meat were hidden beneath leaves along the fence line, bales of cotton tucked among the branches of nearby trees, and the wagon disassembled and its parts dispersed. In a final flurry of activity, Pierson unlocked the doors, tossed their keys into a nearby slop barrel, and set the table for lunch. It was in this condition—poised over a finely appointed meal—that Mrs. Pierson prepared to introduce herself to the Union army.
Introductions were brief. The soldiers “covered the face of the earth like the locusts of Egypt” as they made their way through the house, yard, and barns, indiscriminately killing livestock and burning stores. Pierson remained in her rocking chair beside the fireplace, baby in arm, coolly feigning an air of indifference until an officer, flanked by a horde of bayonet bearing soldiers, forced his way into her living room. Pursuing a rumor that Pierson was hiding numerous items of value in her home, the officer threatened to burn the house down around her if the property was not relinquished. Pierson, having endured watching her barns burned, livestock slaughtered, servants manipulated, children frightened, and pride thoroughly insulted, stood and faced the officer head on. “Your soldiers,” she indignantly scolded, motioning to the motley crew gathered around her, “are ruining my floors.” Whether shocked or flustered into submission, the officer and his men retreated, empty handed, back into the yard.
The next morning’s light revealed the extent to which the army had laid waste. Unperturbed by the last passing stragglers of the army, Pierson set about sifting through the smoking remains of ash and rubble that had once surrounded her home. Her search yielded a store of potatoes and corn, an upturned barrel of molasses, and a sullen hog, trapped in the unburned portion of the barn, enough rations to bring Pierson to her knees. “When I realized that I had saved from the wreck a sufficiency to keep my family until more could be raised,” she writes, “I collapsed.”
Though the remainder of Pierson’s story remains largely unwritten, the existence of her memoir, written when she was “old and long since a widow,” proves that her tenacious spirit continued to forge forth. Sherman’s devastating march to the sea typically evokes images imbued with somber nods to the power of psychological warfare, the breaking of a spirit, and the weakness of the downtrodden, yet Grace Pierson breaks this mold. Her fight was not for the glory of war or the ideologies that feed it, but for survival, to provide a chance for the echo of her fierce, indomitable spirit to be heard.