“I am strictly on the defensive”: Hardee and Davis consider arrangements to defend South Carolina

For Major-General William J. Hardee, commanding the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, the conclusion of the Savannah Campaign in December 1864 left one redeeming positive result – his field army escaped largely intact.  Granted, that “army” was little more than a corps in terms of manpower. But having at least a force in the field was better than nothing.  With the likelihood of Major-General William T. Sherman’s next campaign venturing into South Carolina, that force was Hardee’s main bulwark against the Federals.

In a letter to Confederate President Jefferson C. Davis on January 8, 1865, Hardee outlined his dispositions and plans for the defense of South Carolina. Hardee opened discussing the former:

I am holding the line of railroad from the Savannah River to [Charleston]. The principal force on this line is at Pocotaligo, under Major-General McLaws, who when compelled to retire will take up the line of the Combahee, which I am actively engaged in fortifying. Major-General Wright’s division is stationed in the Fourth Sub-District principally to protect the approaches from John’s Island to the lower Combahee, inclusive. Brigadier-General Taliaferro’s division is distributed in the Second and Third Sub-Districts, principally on James and Sullivan’s Islands and in Christ Church Parish. Conner’s brigade when it arrives will be stationed near Charleston, whence it can re-enforce the Second, Third, or Fourth Sub-Districts. I have armed the heavy artillery as infantry, brigaded the entire command, and hope soon to provide it with field transportation. Of the force above mentioned. McLaws’ is the only command I regard as movable. The remainder is needed for the defense of Charleston.

Conner’s brigade, mentioned by Hardee, was that of Brigadier-General James Conner, formerly the South Carolina Brigade of Major-General John Kershaw.  Recall that South Carolina Governor Andrew G. MacGrath requested these men, and Kershaw, by name at the end of December.  That brigade, worn down in numbers after fighting in three major campaigns during 1864, was due for a refit.  It would not constitute a major reinforcement for Hardee.

Hardee’s dispositions were oriented on Charleston, considering that the main objective. Here’s how those looked on the map:


You may want to open this in Flickr and use the full screen option (set of arrows on the upper right of the page) to better read this broad scope map.  The map also shows the militia dispositions mentioned later in Hardee’s letter.  For simplicity I’ve depicted the divisional sectors as one solid line.  These were, of course, more or less lines of outposts.  Notice on the map where McLaw’s second line was drawn along the Combahee-Salkehatchie River.  This position gave up a significant portion of South Carolina, as a contingency to the Federal advance.  And as mentioned before, the plan was to leave nothing behind in that strip as the Confederate fell back.  This plan kept Charleston covered, but did little to protect the center of South Carolina.

Continuing, Hardee touched upon his plans in the event – somewhat inevitable – that Sherman advance into South Carolina:

I am acting strictly on the defensive, and unless heavily re-enforced must continue to do so. In case of a movement upon Charleston similar to that on Savannah, a movable force of 15,000 additional men operating outside of the city defenses will be required to oppose the enemy. If this force cannot be furnished, 5,000 regular troops will still be required for the present defensive line.

Success depended upon reinforcements.  But other than Conner’s brigade, what could Hardee call upon?  At hand was the state militia, or at least the promise of the state militia:

Governor Magrath promises to put in the field 5,000 militia, but I much question his ability to do so. I have requested him to place 1,500 militia at Barnwell, and a like number at Branchville, which with Wheeler’s cavalry will make the railroad from Augusta to Branchville secure. I have no reason to expect re-enforcements from Georgia other than Maj. Gen. G. W. Smith’s force of militia, now at Augusta, which is rapidly diminishing by desertion, and numbers less than 1,500 muskets.

The evaporation of the Georgia militia had to be considered in light of what had happened during the previous months.  With Georgia reeling from the campaigns from Atlanta to Savannah, the state was hurting.

Looking further afield, Hardee mentioned General John B. Hood’s command:

I have no information whatever from Hood, and have no reason to expect re-en-forcements from that quarter. My effective force in Carolina, exclusive of Conner’s brigade, is as follows: 3,500 regular infantry, 3,000 reserves, 1,100 militia, 3,100 heavy artillerists, 1,700 light artillery, and 6,100 cavalry.

The total, without Conner, without MacGrath’s “new” militia, and without Hood was only 18,500 men.  Sherman had some 58,500 men in the two wings of his command, not counting those in the Department of the South and others he could call upon.

To this plan, Davis responded on January 11:

Your plan seems to me judicious and I hope may, with Divine favor, prove successful. General Beauregard is probably by this time at Hood’s headquarters, and if troops have not already started to aid you he will, I am assured, make every exertion to re-enforce you from that army as rapidly as possible. You must use all means to obtain men from Georgia, either reserves, militia, or recruits. General Cobb can more effectually aid you by having his headquarters at Augusta. If your relations to Governor Brown enable you to influence him that is the means to be employed.

Clearly Davis had no better ideas to deal with the anticipated crisis.  As he wrote, Governor MacGrath initiated a series of correspondence with fellow governors.  Writing to Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina, MacGrath proposed, among other things, placing General Joseph E. Johnson in overall command of the forces facing Sherman and bringing Hood’s troops east to defend the Carolinas.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 999 and 1003.)



Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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