By January 1865, even a biased observer of the Civil War would have to agree the final acts were due to play out within months. But before the curtain would open on the next rounds, several actors had to move about on the stage. As some of the fall 1864 campaigns reached conclusions, the demands of January 1865 prompted movement of troops across theaters. Both Federal and Confederate troops were in motion that month. There are three movements which I’d highlight as rather important to the last phases of the Civil War.
I’ve mentioned one of those movements in brief already. The Second Division, Nineteenth Army Corps, under Major-General Cuvier Grover, were veterans of the vicious fall campaigns of 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley. But in January 1865, Grover’s men were designated to be the new garrison of Savannah, Georgia. The division departed Camp Sheridan, outside Winchester, Virginia, on January 7, 1865. From there, the troops moved by railroad to Camp Carroll, Baltimore, Maryland. This first leg of the journey was about 100 miles.
The division’s second leg was by steamers from Baltimore to Savannah – some 625 miles, give or take. The division arrived in Savannah on January 20. This freed up the division of Major-General John Geary (Second Division, Twentieth Corps) for the movement into South Carolina. And thus the force that Major-General William T. Sherman had marched through Georgia in the fall of 1864 remained intact for similar treatment of South Carolina. Grover’s men spent the last winter of the war at the enviable posting of Savannah.
The second troop movement to consider is that of the Twenty-third Army Corps. The lone formation in the Army of the Ohio, Major-General John Schofield’s troops were veterans of the Atlanta and Franklin-Nashville Campaigns. And at the start of January 1865 they were south of Nashville. From the big overview, Schofield’s troops were extra chess pieces on the far side of the board, better employed on the Atlantic Coast. But Schofield could not simply march the direct route through to the Carolinas. Instead their route was opposite that taken by the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps in the fall of 1863.
The key individual in the Twenty-third Corps movement was Colonel Lewis Parsons, Chief of Rail and River Transportation. On January 11, 1865, Parson’s received an order from Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana:
It having been decided that the Twenty-third Army Corps, Major-General Schofield commanding, shall be transferred from the Tennessee to the Chesapeake, you will immediately proceed westward, and take the general supervision and management of its transportation.
Dana advised Parsons to use boat transportation, if practical, to Parkersburg, West Virginia. But if needed, the rail system should be leveraged. Parsons wasted no time, departing Washington on the same day.
A railroad man before the war, Parsons hedged his bets and contacted “several trustworthy gentlemen intimately connected with the management of Western railroads” to have sufficient rolling stock to move the troops if the situation arose. Initial estimates called for boat (or rail) capacity to move 10,000 men. But by January 18, Parsons realized the number was in reality 20,000! Adjusting, Parsons shuffled resources to meet the demands.
The first leg was movement by river boat from Clifton, Tennessee to Paducah, Kentucky. The second leg, along the Ohio River, used over fifty steamboats to move the troops to Cincinnati, Ohio. At first Parsons planned to move the troops by rail from there because of river conditions. But as the boats arrived, on January 21-23, ice in the river cleared up. So the boats pressed on for over 300 more river miles to Wheeling, West Virginia (well past Parkersburg, by the way) where they transferred to the rail-cars.
Though moving from Wheeling to Washington by rail, a harsh winter stood in the way of the next leg of the journey. To avoid unnecessary delays caused by stops to prepare rations, Parsons had local quartermasters, or the railroad operatives themselves, stage cooked meals ready to serve the troops. Parsons personally supervised the loading of the last trains on the west side of the Appalachians on January 31. “I took the train and reached [Washington] on the night of the 1st instant, where, on the following day, I found upon the banks of the Potomac the Twenty-third Army Corps safely encamped.”
Parson reflected on the achievement:
The distance transported is nearly 1,400 miles, about equally divided between land and water. The average time of transportation, from the embarkation on the Tennessee to the arrival on the banks of the Potomac, was not exceeding eleven days; and what is still more important, is the fact that during the whole movement not a single accident has happened causing loss of life, limbs, or property, except in the single instance of a soldier improperly jumping from the car under apprehension of danger….
And keep in mind, I’m offering only the “Cliff Notes” version here. Parson’s report, including attachments, runs some sixty pages within the Official Records. Parsons earned a promotion to Brigadier-General that winter.
But while Parson’s job was done, the Twenty-third Corps was still moving. Within days some troops moved again to Annapolis, Maryland where they boarded ocean-going transports headed to North Carolina. And here the movement met its first major snag. Several of the transport vessels were not outfitted to handle troops. Regardless, the troops went south… some cases on cargo vessels. Schofield, now in command of the Department of North Carolina and having placed Major-General Darius Couch in command of the corps, directed the Twenty-third Corps to Cape Fear. The Corps Third Division arrived at Fort Fisher on February 9. But the remainder arrived in serials. The last of the corps did not complete the journey until February 28 (with the last elements disembarking at Morehead City, North Carolina). Though the movement by sea was slow in comparison to Parsons’ charge, elements of the corps arrived in time to take part in the final operations at Wilmington.
The last major movement I’ll mention here is on the other side of the lines. The start of the new year found the Army of Tennessee somewhat beaten, but still in being. And an army that “is” is still an army. However, that army was most needed in South Carolina. So orders came forth to move some parts of the army eastward. I’ll step past the organizational changes and such details in this post. But for comparison to Federal activities, let me summarize the movements of Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps, as recorded by one of the corps’ staff officers, Major Henry Hampton. On January 27, the corps left Meridian, Mississippi by rail. Making stops at Demopolis, Selma, and Montgomery, the Corps moved through Alabama from January 29 to February 3. Starting at Columbus, Georgia on February 3, the troops were able to ride by train to Milledgeville. On February 7, Hampton recorded:
Left Milledgeville in a storm of rain and rode horseback twenty-five miles, bivouacking near Colonel Lane’s, two miles from Sparta.
Of course, staff officers ride while infantry march. But using the much maligned Confederate rail system, some of which Sherman had wrecked only a few weeks earlier, from Mississippi to central Georgia, many footsteps were saved. Indeed, for Cheatham’s men to reach Augusta, Georgia, the only leg were no railroad existed was the forty-five or so miles from Milledgeville to rail stops on the Georgia Railroad. By February 10, Hampton reported camping across the Savannah River in South Carolina. Such was a feat that one could argue rivaled the movements facilitated by Parsons … when one considers what resources were available to the Confederates.
Three movements. Three substantial troop formations placed at new locations on the map. All accomplished within weeks. Although the war was winding down, the troops were still in motion.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1080-1; Part II, Serial 99, pages 215, 216-7, 219.)