Through most of 1864, Brigadier-General Innis N. Palmer held command of forces posted to various garrisons in eastern North Carolina. The “District of North Carolina” was formally a part of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. For much of the last year, the district guarded against any Confederate attempt to break the status quo in North Carolina while larger armies fought in Virginia. Even the expedition against Fort Fisher, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, was done outside the District of North Carolina. Palmer held command over a “backwater” sector of the war.
All that changed with the start of 1865. Major-General Benjamin Butler, who commanded the District of Virginia and North Carolina, fell into disgrace after the failures of the First Battle of Fort Fisher. And the operational picture shifted with Major-General William T. Sherman’s arrival in Savannah. The grand plan then called for Sherman to advance through the Carolinas. So with Butler relieved and Sherman approved to advance, responsibility for North Carolina transferred. And to facilitate such, Palmer’s command transferred to a position under Sherman.
(Initially, the District of North Carolina would become part of the Department of the South, Major-General John Foster, which was at around the same time made subordinate to Sherman’s Military Division of the Mississippi. However, being distant from Foster’s headquarters and reinforced with the Twenty-Third Corps from Tennessee, the District was reorganized as a “new” Department of North Carolina, commanded by Major-General John Schofield, also directly under Sherman’s Military Division. Confused? Well, just simplify this to say Palmer reported to Sherman starting mid-January 1865.)
On this day (January 13) in 1865, Palmer responded to an earlier inquiry by Sherman (forwarded through naval command channels) in regard to the situation in North Carolina:
My Dear General: I have just sent a letter to Admiral Porter, giving him the information you ask for in your letter to Admiral Dahlgren of the 7th instant. When you get into this State, where I think you will be joyfully received by the mass of the population, I hope to be able to assist in some way. My force in this district is some 9,000. and of these scarcely more than 6,000 effective. Everything that could be spared was sent to Virginia. I can worry the rebels on the railroad between Wilmington and Goldsborough, if you think that advisable. Do you wish that road destroyed? I have 1,000,000 rounds of small ammunition and a good supply of other. When you get near me I can furnish you supplies. Please suggest to me, if you have time to do so, what you would like to have me do and what preparations you would like to have me make here for you. If you wish the railroad put in order I must have iron and workmen, &c. If you are going to need supplies I must prepare for that, and if more cars or engines, or more river transportation, &c., is to be needed I would like to know it. I hope you will find time to write to me. We are all throwing up our hats for Sherman and his army, and the whole country is rubbing its hands over you.
A criticism that I have made in regard to Sherman’s advance to Savannah is that he failed to properly coordinate with commanders along the Georgia-South Carolina coast. This failure was a significant contributing factor to the defeat at Honey Hill and subsequent failure to cut the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. And there are other issues that arose from a general lack of awareness, on Sherman’s part, of the situation in the Department of the South at that time. But Honey Hill cost the most in terms of lives, with other issues costing more in terms of sweat.
However, clear from the dialog between Sherman and others in theater, such as Palmer, that mistake was not repeated for the advance through the Carolinas. Palmer’s message gave Sherman options to consider while also confirming the ability to execute his plan of operation. Telling is the hint Palmer gave of the sentiment of North Carolina’s citizens. An entire country rubbing its hands….
(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 49.)