At this time in 1865, the Federal armies in Savannah were like a coiled spring, waiting for the trigger to surge forward again. On Christmas Eve, Major-General William T. Sherman wrote to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant suggesting a move through South Carolina. Sherman preferred to leave Charleston and Augusta (Georgia) alone while he drove through the center of the state towards Branchville and Columbia. From there, Sherman proposed to move towards Wilmington, North Carolina to assist sea-based forces in the capture of that important Confederate port.
On January 2, Sherman received correspondence from Grant, written on December 27th, approving the conceptual plan. Grant wrote, “Without waiting further directions, then, you may make preparations to start on your northern expedition without delay.” That in hand, Sherman responded to Grant,
Everything here is quiet, and if I can get the necessary supplies in my wagons I shall be ready to start at the time indicated in my project, but until those supplies are in hand I can do nothing; after they are I shall be ready to move with great rapidity.
Sherman also enclosed a copy of his “project for January” outlining preliminary movements:
Right Wing move men and artillery by transports to head of Broad River and Beaufort; get Port Royal Ferry and mass the wing at or in the neighborhood of Pocotaligo.
Left Wing and cavalry work slowly across the causeway toward Hardeeville to open a road by which wagons can reach their corps about Broad River; also by a rapid movement of the Left secure Sister’s Ferry and out as far as the Augusta road–Robertsville.
In the meantime all guns, shot, shells, cotton, &c., to be got to a safe place, easy to guard, and provisions and wagons got ready for another swath, aiming to have our army in hand about the head of Broad River, say Pocotaligo, Robertsville, and Coosawhatchie by the 15th of January.
Second. Move with loaded wagons by the roads leading in the direction of Columbia, which afford the bust chance of forage and pro visions. Howard to be at Pocotaligo 15th of January, and Slocum to be at Robertsville and Kilpatrick at or near Coosawhatchie about same date.
General Foster’s troops to occupy Savannah, and gun-boats to protect the rivers as soon as Howard gets Pocotaligo.
Let me lay those proposed movements on the map, also showing some of the actual movements taking place in those first days of January 1865:
As Sherman wrote his response to Grant, Brigadier-General William T. Ward’s division (Third Division, Twentieth Corps) was crossing the Savannah River and securing the shore opposite the city of Savannah. I’ll detail Ward’s advance in a separate post. But his objective was to clear the Confederates out of the area between Savannah and Hardeeville (Point #1 on the map above). Confronting him was a screen of Confederate cavalry. The main Confederate line of resistance was the Combahee River. However, the local commander, Major-General Lafayette McLaws, maintained forces at Grahamville, Coosawhatchie, and Pocotaligo.
The initial movements proposed by Sherman, to develop over the first weeks of January, would spread the wings of his army back out from Savannah. The Right Wing would move by ship, up the Broad River, to the foothold held by Brigadier-General John Hatch outside Coosawhatchie (Point #2). From there, Major-General Oliver O. Howard would press the Confederates out of Pocotaligo (Point #3). Meanwhile, Major-General Henry Slocum would move the Left Wing up the Savannah River, major elements crossing at Sister’s Ferry (Point #4), to gain Robertsville (Point #5). Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry would move behind the Right Wing to Coosawhatchie (Point #6). If successful, these movements would prompt the evacuation of Beaufort County, South Carolina and give Sherman a firm foothold in the state.
At that moment, the Confederates directly facing Sherman’s force numbered only around 12,000. So if anything were to stop him from moving, it was, as he alluded to in the message to Grant, logistics. Attempting to tie up that loose end, Sherman’s Quartermaster, Brigadier-General Langdon C. Easton sent a message to Major-General Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster-General in Washington:
General: I wrote you on the 30th ultimo in regard to sending to this place sixty days’ grain for 35,000 animals; also requesting you to send me six very light-draught steamers and twenty Schuylkill barges. I am now instructed by General Sherman to say that he contemplates a very important move, and desires the sixty days’ grain and subsistence for 70,000 men for sixty days sent forward as rapidly as possible, one-half the grain and one-half the subsistence (thirty days’) to be sent into Wassaw Sound in steamers drawing not over twelve feet of water, and the other half to Hilton Head in such vessels as can be procured, but the lighter they are the better. There is but thirteen feet water from Wassaw Sound to this place, at the highest tide. It is important in selecting the vessels that as many as possible be fixed upon that have capacity and conveniences for carrying animals, and I request that they may be selected with that view. Time is a very important consideration, and I suggest that such sail vessels as it may be necessary to use in this work be towed by the steamers in order to save as much time as possible. Send all grain and no hay. Hurry forward all the clothing and other stores I have asked for as soon as possible. The sixty days’ grain will be required at the commencement of the move. In addition to this we must have grain to last us until that time, say fifteen days. The light steamers and barges asked for in my letter of the 30th ultimo I still require. The animals of this army are in great jeopardy at present for the want of grain, as but little has as yet arrived, and the animals have been without for several days. Grain should be pushed forward with the utmost dispatch.
The opportunity that lay before Sherman had a shelf life. If his armies did not move quickly, the Confederates might find a way to mass forces to oppose him… or someone in Washington might come up with a better use for his troops. So Easton pressed for light draft steamers and all the supplies need for another sixty days’ worth of campaigning.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 820; Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 6-8.)