Sherman’s March, February 1, 1865 (Part 1): Turning “supplies scarce” to “supplies abundant” by crossing the Savannah River

Back when I started daily postings to parallel, 150 years after the fact, Major-General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia to Savannah, I’d given thought to continuing those for the march into the Carolinas.  A portion of that campaign relates to Charleston, of course.  And since postings concerning the 150ths related to Charleston is my “schtick,” then I an obligation of sorts.  While I don’t think I will cover the march in the depth provided for that of November-December 1864, at a minimum I’ll work to provide an “on this day 150 years ago” map with brief description.

There are two aspects, both more interpretive in nature, of the march into South Carolina which I feel should be discussed before stepping out too far.  First, we tend to break the Savannah Campaign, or “March to the Sea,” out separately from the Carolinas.  Indeed, we even tend to separate the march in South Carolina from that in North Carolina.  But the participants, at least those in blue, didn’t see things that way.  They wrote of a “Great March” that started in Atlanta and did not end until the big parade in Washington.  I think in that context, we should embrace these campaigns as part of a larger theme, as defined by the veterans themselves.

Secondly, there is a tendency to summarize the march through South Carolina in a single passage.  Something like – “Sherman and his men treated South Carolina harshly as it was the first state to secede….”  I’m sure you can find a paragraph or maybe two that expands upon that.  But rarely do historians venture far from that notion. Certainly not disputing the “bummers did their worst” line here.  But there’s more to what occurred in South Carolina than that simple interpretation addresses.  From February 1 through early March, 1865, when Sherman’s force left the state, every day was marked by sharp skirmishing at some point.  There is more of a “fighting” history to the movements in South Carolina than those in Georgia (and I think there is a correlation between the “worst” and the “fighting”). But yet, it seems as if we historians prefer to keep the subject of the march in South Carolina at a distance.

All that said… I’ve wasted more words than I liked in a preface to this post without presenting the “stuff” that happened 150 years ago today.  As is practice here, let me start with a map showing the disposition of the forces:


Sherman’s plan was to have the Left Wing move across the Savannah River and take up its line of march while the Right Wing moved up from Pocotaligo.  But this was all disrupted by rains, Confederate obstacles, and logistics.  On February 1, the Left Wing occupied camps on both sides of the Savannah River at Sister’s Ferry.  The First and Third Divisions of the Twentieth Corps, having crossed the river at Savannah in January, occupied and advanced position at Robertsville.

But the rest of the wing – Second Division of the Twentieth Corps, the entire Fourteenth Corps – were stuck on the roads between Springfield, Georgia and Sister’s Ferry. In addition to that traffic, Fourth Division of the Fifteenth Corps, which could not move with its corps as originally planned, the Cavalry Division of Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick, and a portion of the Right Wing’s trains were all making their way to Sister’s Ferry.  In short, that crossing was very congested.

Some have placed blame on Major-General Henry Slocum for an inefficient and sluggish operation.  In defense of “Slow come” here, we must remember the situation.  In addition to the high river, Slocum faced a severe logistical problem.  Recall that Fourteenth Corps under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis had crossed through the same area in December on the way to Savannah.  They’d found the area poor foraging (and difficult to move through) then, and little remained in their wake.  A month later, the same lack of forage – particularly fodder – delayed Slocum.  The army moved by horsepower.  And horses run on fodder.  Yet, as mentioned earlier, there was a fodder crisis for the Federals operating on the Atlantic seaboard.

A simple example of this comes from the journal of Major-General Alpheus S. Williams, Twentieth Corps.   On January 17 he would note “Supplies, none.” Then on January 26, he would complain, “Supplies scarce.”  The status would improve as the army moved into South Carolina, with Williams noting “Supplies more plenty” on February 2; then improving to “Supplies abundant” by February 9-10.  In short, a solution to Slocum’s supply issues was in the untouched farms in South Carolina.

Another impediment to Slocum’s movements were obstacles laid by the Confederates.  Felled trees and burnt bridges were the sort of things the Federals could be resolved by allocation of manpower (which was in abundance in the form of details and the contraband pioneers now accompanying the army).  However, more difficult were the torpedoes sown in the way of the march.  The journal of Second Division, Fourteenth Corps for January 31 records one such incident:

January 31. – In camp.  One torpedo exploded while clearing the road on South Carolina [side], badly wounding two men of the Seventy-ninth Pennsylvania….

The tactical counter to torpedoes was slow and painstaking clearing practices.  At the operational level, the counter was to move fast enough that the Confederates did not have time to employ these devices.  Again, the sooner Slocum’s wing extracted themselves from the coastal flatwoods region and got onto the higher ground of the coastal plain, the better – better for forage, better for marching.

The key to extracting the Left Wing from the swamps was blazing a path out of the bottom lands at Sister’s Ferry.  That task fell to Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, 58th Indiana Infantry, in command of the Pontoon Train.  Moore’s work there began on January 28:

January 28, arrived at Sister’s Ferry, and during the night of the 29th laid a bridge across the Savannah River. On the South Carolina shore the road runs immediately up the river, and on this road, over deep sluices and water too deep to ford, we threw 250 feet of pontoon bridge, and also built 750 feet of wooden bridges. This road, for a distance of two miles and a half, was over very low, wet bottom till you reached the upland, and at the time of our arrival at the river the country from the ferry to the mainland was entirely overflowed, ranging in depth from one to six feet. This road was full of heavy timber which had been fallen by the enemy, and in consequence of high water it became a very laborious and tedious job for the men to make much progress. Besides obstacles just enumerated in impeding the clearing of the road, working parties were greatly annoyed by torpedoes secreted under the fallen timber, one of which being exploded wounded two men severely, after which fifty others were carefully dislocated without further damage. In clearing this road I had heavy details from the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps.

Not until February 3 was the road completed and fully serviceable.

Unfortunately, because Sherman was moving with the Right Wing, word of Slocum’s progress… or lack thereof … trickled through slowly and in many cases by second had reports.  Even with partial information, Sherman did reign in the movements of the Army of the Tennessee to avoid isolating part of his force.  I’ll turn to the Right Wing’s movements on February 1, 1865 in part two of this day’s entry.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 426, 488, and 592.)


One thought on “Sherman’s March, February 1, 1865 (Part 1): Turning “supplies scarce” to “supplies abundant” by crossing the Savannah River

  1. I’m glad you’re continuing on with the Federal march through the Carolinas. The detail you’re providing is excellent and gives a real feel beyond the 30,000-foot view of Sherman simply laying waste to South Carolina.

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