During the first weeks of January 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman completed preparations for a campaign into South Carolina. A question lingered in regard to objectives. Should Sherman direct his columns against Charleston?
Sherman had already voiced his opinion to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on the matter. And on January 7, 1865, Grant indicated his concurrence in a message to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was in route to visit Sherman in Savannah:
Please say to General Sherman I do not regard the capture of Charleston as of any military importance. He can pass it by, unless in doing so he leaves a force in his rear which it will be dangerous to have there. It will be left entirely to his own discretion whether Charleston should be taken now.
On the same date, Sherman passed a message to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron (indicating recent correspondence with Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron):
The letter you send me is from Admiral Porter, at Beaufort, N. C. I am not certain that there is a vessel in Port Royal from Admiral Porter or I would write him. If there be one to return to him I beg you to send this, with a request that I be advised as early as possible as to the condition of the railroad from Beaufort, N. C., back to New Berne, and so on toward Goldsborough; also all maps and information of the country above New Berne; how many cars and locomotives are available to us on that road; whether there is good navigation from Beaufort, N. C., via Pamlico Sound, up Neuse River, &c. I want Admiral Porter to know that I expect to be ready to move about the 15th; that I have one head of column across Savannah River at this point; will soon have another at Port Royal Ferry, and expect to make another crossing at Sister’s Ferry. I still adhere to my plan submitted to General Grant, and only await provisions and forage. The more I think of the affair at Wilmington the more I feel ashamed of the army there; but Butler is at fault, and he alone. Admiral Porter fulfilled his share to admiration. I think the admiral will feel more confidence in my troops, as he saw us carry points on the Mississippi where he had silenced the fire. All will turn out for the best yet.
Clearly Sherman was already looking far beyond South Carolina to formulate his options for movement into North Carolina. Likewise, the dependencies to operations at Wilmington appeared in the message. Recent failures were all on Butler – so Sherman said, to deflect any criticism from Porter, Dahlgren’s peer and Sherman’s friend.
But the meat of this message was in Sherman’s concept of operations. He would first gain three footholds in South Carolina – Hardeeville, Port Royal Ferry, and Sister’s Ferry. As he had already related to Dahlgren, in earlier meetings, is the desire to strike across the state to cut the railroads.
Dahlgren, in turn, passed Sherman’s message to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells (also on January 7), with his assessment of the planned operations:
I presume the first point where the two wings from Savannah and Port Royal Ferry will meet will be at Branchville, and the march thence to Florence and so on, following the railroad.
I have no expectations that an attack on Charleston is embraced in this plan, as General Sherman has not suggested any arrangements for a cooperation with the Navy.
Dahlgren went on to point out the Confederates would likely concentrate forces in Charleston to defend the city. And, as Grant mentioned in his message to Stanton, the Confederates might operate that force against Sherman’s “flanks and rear as the opportunity may offer.” Dahlgren went on to point out that terrain would impact Sherman’s options:
It will always be convenient for General Sherman to attack Charleston until he passes the Santee; after that the swampy land would interfere.
Charleston being left behind, there remains but a single occasion when the army may communicate with the squadron, that is by way of the Santee or Georgetown; and I shall hardly look for this except as an incident from the extension of the foragers on the right wing, as it would be very little further to communicate with the North Atlantic Squadron at Wilmington and convenient to forward march of the army.
File away the reference here to Georgetown and the Santee. What Dahlgren suggested as a contingency plan would indeed play out as an operation, which would cost the admiral a ship, as events unfolded later in the winter.
Closing, Dahlgren lamented that the prize for which he had arrived in theater to obtain was still seeming to elude his grasp:
It is with great regret that the conclusion is forced on me that the work marked out here will not include Charleston.
We know, with hindsight, that Charleston would fall and Dahlgren would be there to play a part in that act. But it would not be taken by the firestorm assault predicted by some. Instead the city would fall almost as a domino in a chain. But for the day on January 7, correspondence from Virginia to Georgia and back to Washington centered on the desire to by-pass Charleston.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 21-22; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 161-2.)