January 20, 1865: Logistic constraints and rains delay Sherman’s movements

Following the Confederate withdrawal from Pocotaligo on the night of January 14, 1865, Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps consolidated positions for its foothold in South Carolina (Point #1 on the map below).  Immediately, Federal officers began looking at the Confederate line along the Salkehatchie River for possible crossing points.


Further south, Major-General Henry Slocum’s Left Wing had established a division-sized foothold in South Carolina earlier in the month.  Shortly after the Confederate withdrawal back to the Salkehatchie River, Brigadier-General William T. Ward’s division moved up to occupy New River Bridge.  From there Ward’s men made contact with cavalry from Blair’s corps.  On January 17, Ward moved further inland to Hardeeville, finding nothing but road obstructions to resist the march (Point #2).  This was, on the map, a promising position.  Slocum began moving the remainder of the 20th Corps, under Major-General Alpheus Williams, across the Savannah River in order to exploit.

However, unlike the aggressive movements that characterized the Savannah Campaign, the Federals did not take immediate advantage of the Confederate actions.  Maj0r-General William T. Sherman originally intended to have both wings of his army moving by mid-January.  But several factors forced that schedule to shift to the right.  Two constraints began to work against against Sherman.  Both can be summed up in a word – logistics.  Because Savannah’s main channel remained blocked for normal use, all supplies sent to Sherman’s command had to pass through the dock at Thunderbolt.  Those facilities were simply not sufficient to support four army corps.  And the channel allowed only light draft vessels.  So the buildup of supplies needed for the push into South Carolina required more time.  Furthermore, the movement of the Fifteenth Corps, which also used Thunderbolt and required light draft vessels, could not take place within in a timely manner.

The first adjustment with these constraints was to change the Fifteenth Corps’ movement orders.  Instead of moving by way of boat to Beaufort (Points #3), orders came down for Major-General John Logan to move those troops (minus one division already on Port Royal Island) by way of Union Causeway to join the rest of the Right Wing (Points #4).  Also using that causeway were two divisions of the Twentieth Corps moving up to reinforce Ward’s advance position.  So five divisions would use that one path through the rice fields leaving Savannah.

There and then the weather, which had been generally favorable through November and December, turned against Sherman’s columns.  A strong front brought rains.  Off shore, this disrupted shipping.  Ashore, this brought flooding and made the roadways muddy.  The rains were so bad that on January 19, Williams requested (and was granted) permission to hold his last division, that of Major-General John Geary, in Savannah. The following day, reporting from the causeway, Williams provided a dismal appraisal of the situation:

The whole country on this side of the river is entirely submerged by the freshet in the river. I attempted to get back to my headquarters trains, but found it impossible.  The water has broken away the dikes and washed away the corduroy. It is utterly impossible for the trains now on the island to come through this way.  The causeway is not yet flooded, but from this point to the river is warn out, and impassible even for empty wagons…. The water is rising rapidly, and the negroes here say that the causeway also will be flooded.

Williams would, however, move what he had over the river at that time up to Purysburg and Hardeeville.  While somewhat isolated, they were at least over the Savannah River.

The Fifteenth Corps, on the other hand, now switched back to the boat route to Port Royal.  A portion of Brigadier-General John Smith’s division moved by the causeway.  But eventually all but one division would move by boat.  The last division of Fifteenth Corps and the Cavarly Division of newly brevetted Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick would follow the Fourteenth Corps (Point #5) looking to cross the Savannah River upstream.  The rains had forced a significant revision of Sherman’s plans.

While the Federals fought floods and mud to get out of Savannah, further north Blair looked to gain some lodgement over the Salkehatchie.  The hope was for a bridgehead to avoid a situation such as happened on the Oconee in November.  Major-General Joseph Mower’s division drew the task (Point #6 on the map), as Blair later reported:

On the morning of the 20th the First Division, Major-General Mower commanding, started upon an expedition to the Salkehatchie bridge for the purpose of surprising, and, if possible, capturing a portion of the force, consisting of about 3,000 infantry and cavalry and one battery of artillery, stationed at that point.  From information derived from negroes and deserters we were led to believe that the river was fordable at a point about three miles above the bridge, but upon the arrival of the command at that point they discovered that in consequence of the late heavy rains there was from twelve to fifteen feet of water in the river.  Not being provided with boats it was found to be impracticable to effect a crossing without attracting the attention of the enemy, so the expedition returned the same night.

Corresponding with Blair the next day, Right Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard expressed some relief at the failure.  “General Sherman particularly requested me not to reconnoiter beyond the Salkehatchie, and I am glad that General Mower did not cross the river.”  Perhaps a curious statement to come from an army commander.

But read a bit between the lines.  We credit Sherman for a lot of things – good and bad – while assessing his generalship.  On January 20, 1865, he at least had the good sense to understand the limits of logistics.  A lone division across the Salkehatchie, however attractive that lodgement might be, would stretch the command’s reach beyond its grasp.  The flood waters may have been an ally to the Confederates that day, but time was not.  A fact that Sherman had in plain view.  So plans and time lines would be adjusted while the floods subsided.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 375; Part II, Serial 99, pages 101 and 107.)


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