For Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, or Right Wing of Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies, the march through South Carolina started on the wrong foot on January 13-14, 1865. Sherman’s plans called for both corps of the army – the Fifteenth and Seventeenth – to move by water to Port Royal Sound, with the Seventeenth taking the lead. From there, the Right Wing would move up from the established Federal bases to move inland. Sherman’s intent was to have the two wings drive into South Carolina from separate points, and thus spread the Confederates thin in their defense.
Within days of putting that plan to paper, Sherman made some small modifications. One of which had the Right Wing moving to Beaufort, where port facilities were better, across Port Royal Island, and thence onto the mainland by way of Port Royal Ferry. Keeping to the proposed start date for the offensive, the Seventeenth Corps, under Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr., began movement from the docks at Thunderbolt to Beaufort on January 4.
But that movement was slow due to the lack of suitable transport vessels. Yet, on January 11, Howard issued orders for Seventeenth Corps to “make every preparation to cross the Whale Branch of Coosaw River at Port Royal Ferry at daylight on Friday morning, the 13th instant.” Howard’s orders called for a pontoon bridge spanning to the mainland, from which the corps would build a bridgehead. From that purchase, Blair would “push on and secure Pocotaligo.” The Fifteenth Corps would follow as it arrived.
At that time, the troops of the Seventeenth Corps were on Port Royal Island. But their trains, artillery, and horses were delayed in transit. On January 12, Lieutenant-Colonel Greensbury L. Fort, Chief Quartermaster of the Fifteenth Corps, reporting the delays at Thunderbolt. He counted a total of 103 wagons and 1,745 animals remaining from the Seventeenth Corps awaiting transport.
I am advised by officers of the Seventeenth Army Corps, now here, that at the average rate of shipment they will not all embark before to-morrow night or next day morning, after which we can commence on the transportation of the First Division of our corps…. Hardly any of these vessels but would carry a brigade of men after all transportation is on board. The great trouble is to store the animals on these little boats.
Fort was sure he could get the First Division (Major-General Charles Woods) out on the 13th. But the Second Division (Major-General William Hazen) could not move until the 15th at the earliest.
Due to the delays, Blair held the movements of his lead divisions – Third and Fourth Divisions under Brigadier-Generals Mortimer Leggett and Giles Smith, respectively – until the afternoon of January 13. First Division, under Major-General Joseph Mower remained in camp until the bridgehead was established. At the tactical level, Blair’s plan was for a small force under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis T. Kirby, Blair’s Chief Picket Officer, to cross Whale Branch on small boats that evening. Once across, a portion of Leggett’s division would follow to secure a bridgehead. If all went well, “The bridge will then be laid and the command crossed over and placed in camp until daylight… when the forward movement on Pocotaligo will be commenced.”
At the prescribed time, Kirby led the first boats to effect a landing. Shortly after that, details from Third Division followed. But the bridging would have to wait.
Whale Branch, unlike some of the inland rivers that the engineers crossed in Georgia, was a tidal feeder. It featured a long flat on either bank. Its channel was about 100 yards at low tide. While a bit more difficult than a normal river crossing, still within the capabilities of the engineers. However that task was made more difficult by the number of pontoon boats with rotted canvas. While enough serviceable boats were on hand to make one span, Howard had to draw additional pontoons from Major-General John Foster’s command at Hilton Head.
Leggett’s command finally moved across Port Royal Ferry (Point A on the map above) at daylight, followed shortly after by Smith’s division and Mower’s. According to Blair’s report, “The enemy, consisting of one regiment of cavalry and three pieces of artillery, was first encountered at a small stream about five miles from the ferry, in a strongly intrenched position.” Colonel Charles Colcock commanded the Confederate cavalry, numbering only 150, contesting Blair’s advance. Leggett easily outflanked Colcock’s first positions, just outside Garden’s Corners. Then Colcock fell back the bridge over Horspa Creek (Point B on the map). At 9:30 a.m., Colcock reported:
We have checked thus far skirmishing. Now his advance has appeared in front of the bridge. Take care of our rear and we will try to hold the position as long as the general wishes.
At other times during the war, a small force such as Colcock’s had stopped large forces attempting to move out of the narrow corridors through the marshes. However, in this case Leggett had two roads to use and did not delay. Sending one of his brigades on the Sheldon Road (Point C) towards Pocotaligo, Leggett had rendered Colcock’s position untenable. Using his full force, he pressed the Confederates at all points. At 3:15 p.m., Colcock reported:
The enemy having flanked me by the Sheldon road and driven in my cavalry there, I am falling back to Old Pocotaligo. I could not hold the position at Stony Creek because the enemy were on the other road also.
Leggett’s skirmishers pursued Colcock right up to the works at Pocotaligo (Point D). Blair summarized the closing actions on the 14th:
The skirmishers moved forward through an almost impassable swamp or flooded rice-field to within musket-range of his works. About this time it became so dark that further movements were impossible.
These movements prompted a flurry of activity on the Confederate side. At first, Major-General Lafayette McLaws, commanding the sector, called upon Major-General Joseph Wheeler to reinforce Colcock. But later that evening, as the situation became clear, McLaws countermanded his earlier request. “The enemy are immediately in front here at Pocotaligo. I will try and withdraw to-night, the movement commencing from the right.” This triggered the contingency plan laid out by Lieutenant-General William Hardee (and approved by no less than President Jefferson Davis himself) to fall back on the Combahee-Salkehatchie River line.
Though the Seventeenth Corps’ start was delayed by transportation problems and delays, as the sun sat on January 14 they were well into South Carolina. The next phase of Sherman’s march was on.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 374-5; Part II, Serial 99, pages 35, 43, 48, 1011, and 1013.)