Let me get all “science-y” on you to start today and talk about soils and vegetation. As Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies marched today they crossed an important line, but one not marked on their maps. Forward elements passed into the “Atlantic Coast Flatwoods” soil province:
OK, big deal? As far as the army is concerned, soil is what they march over or dig in, right? Well two points for consideration. First, as the march transited from the Piedmont, over the sand hills and fall line, to the coastal plan areas, there was less and less of the famous “Georgia clay.” Sand is the predominate soil type, but that is not to say it is not fertile. Indeed, the area was good pasture-land and for root crops. But less so for grains, except for rice. That has, of course, some implications for an army foraging its way along.
Second change due to the soil type is the natural vegetation. The soldiers’ diaries began to mention a lot of pine trees and different kind of grass. Let me borrow an image from the University of Florida:
Aristida stricta… Wiregrass. OK, but the army was not there to cultivate natural grasses. So what is the big deal? Well look at the line, “blooms only after a growing-season burn.” The eco-system of the “Atlantic Coast Flatwoods”, or shall we call it “Pine Barrens,” depended upon a cycle of wild-fires. Now with an army that is – shall we say – pre-disposed to the use of matches passing through, wild-fires were commonplace. Fires marked the path of the army. And a haze of smoke covered it. In short, soil types are important to armies, and even to historians.
The reason I am able to allocate space to talking about sand and grass is the “fizzle” to the drama that was expected on December 5, 1864. The movements of Sherman’s force centered on one critical objective – Train Station 4½, where Ogeechee Creek gave the Confederates a good defensive position to block the march. On December 4, scouts from the Seventeenth Corps reported defenders well entrenched there. And that information governed the Federal movements of the day… even though the Confederates had already withdrawn the evening prior:
Sherman’s plan was to have Seventeenth Corps confront the Confederate positions in front, while the Twentieth Corps moved up on the left, and behind the Confederate line. The Fifteenth Corps, with its pontoon train, would threaten a crossing of the Ogeechee River downstream, if necessary.
With the First Division under Major General Joseph Mower at the point, the Seventeenth Corps advanced toward Station 4½ that morning. Behind a screen of mounted men was a pioneer section, followed by Second Brigade of Brigadier-General John Sprague. Supporting that lead brigade was a battery of artillery and the corps’ pontoon train. The formation was configured to secure and improve the approaches to the creek, assuming the need to “develop” the position while other forces maneuvered on the flanks. But as the scouts approached the site of skirmishing on the previous day, they encountered no Confederates. While the train bridge over Ogeechee Creek was destroyed, a wagon bridge would allow passage of at least the vanguard. The engineers promptly went to work laying a better bridge.
Sherman, moving with the Seventeenth Corps, came forward later in the day the station. In a dispatch to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Right Wing, he provided his assessment of the situation and amended guidance for movements to follow:
Since sending the messenger to you this morning General Blair has entered this place almost unopposed. Some field works are fresh, and, so far as I have examined, would be such as would be thrown up by 5,000 inexperienced hands. General Slocum reports he will be to-night at the point where his road next north of this intersects the one from here to Poor Robin, but he has not heard from Generals Davis and Kilpatrick since he heard their firing yesterday morning. Davis has orders to move from the point where he separated from Slocum, viz, Buck Head Church, to Halley’s Ferry, abreast of this on the Savannah, via Sylvania. I have sent a courier to General Slocum, to communicate with General Davis at once and report to me at what moment he will be ready to move on. You will observe that, with Davis at Halley’s, we threaten South Carolina, and to that extent will confuse our enemy; but I will not lose a moment, only we must move in concert, or else will get lost. You may make all the dispositions to cross at 3, but the point 2 is the true one, unless modified by local geography. I will disturb the railroad but little south of this, as we may have use for it out this far. Still, Blair can burn the bridges and culverts, and also enough cotton-gins and barns to mark the progress of his head of column. I don’t want him to start till I know Davis is abreast.
Sherman wanted to setup the next move by closing, compacting his columns. Take note here. We often read about battles in which commanders commit their forces piecemeal, or “what ifs” that center on the late or tardy arrival of formations to the battlefield. What Sherman did on December 5 is an example of how to avoid those problems. And even though the most obtuse observer could see his objective was Savannah, Sherman kept options open with threats to Charleston.
Sherman sent orders for Major-General Henry Slocum to hurry the Left Wing forward, particularly bringing the Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, to close up the gap. For the day’s march, Davis recorded:
The 5th, after a hard day’s march over country roads which required much repairing, the whole corps, with Kilpatrick’s cavalry, encamped in the vicinity of Jacksonborough, the advance at Buck Creek Post-Office.
To facilitate the linkup of Brigadier-General Absalom Baird’s division and the cavalry, the engineers repaired a bridge over Beaverdam Creek during the night. And verbally orders passed down to once again pull the bridge up after the last military units crossed, in an effort to discourage the growing number of former slaves who were following the corps.
The Twentieth Corps, just to the south, also closed up its formation that day. The lead division marched only a few miles before halting. But the trail divisions labored forward on bad roads. Brigadier-General John Geary recorded:
December 5, moved at 6.30 a.m. Crossed during the day Little Horse Creek, south fork of Little Ogeechee, destroying all bridges after crossing. Much of the route to-day was through swamps, which had to be corduroyed for my trains. At the south fork of Little Ogeechee I destroyed a large saw-mill. Here we heard what the inhabitants stated to be cannon in Charleston Harbor, about 100 miles distant. Weather pleasant; country poor. Distance t0-day, twelve miles.
The next day, the Charleston Courier ran this update for the “Five Hundred and Fifteenth Day” of the siege of the city:
The agreement … for a suspension of all firing in the harbor and upon the city during the continuance of the exchange of prisoners at this point, was unintentionally violated by a sharpshooter at Fort Sumter Monday…. One of our men observing a body of men at [Battery] Gregg, fired his rifle, the ball taking effect upon one of the party and, it is believed, killing him. The enemy thereupon opened all their batteries upon Fort Sumter, and kept up a heavy fire for about an hour, firing twenty-six shots.
Soon afterward an apology silenced the guns, allowing Charlestonians, and Geary in Georgia, a quiet evening.
At Ogeechee Creek, staff-officer Major Henry Hitchcock accompanied Sherman forward. Waiting their turn to cross the creek, Sherman remarked, “This is better than having to fight those fellows in the bushes, ain’t it?” Later, as he explained how the abandoned line changed the situation, Sherman explained the military maneuvers to Hitchcock, “Now you understand what a flank movement means.” In conclusion, Hitchcock would add in his diary, “Flanking is good – very.”
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 165, 275, and 628; Charleston Courier, December 6, 1864, page 1, column 3; Henry Hitchcock, Marching with Sherman: passages from the letters and campaign diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Yale University Press, 1927, pages 145-8.)