Sherman’s March, February 1, 1865 (Part 2): Advance of the Right Wing – “Our men made short work of clearing away these obstacles”

Continuing from the earlier post where I looked at the troubles moving the Left Wing over the Savannah River into South Carolina, let me turn to the movements of the Right Wing on February 1, 1865.  As the map indicates, Major-Oliver O. Howard had both the Fifteenth (Major-General John A. Logan) and Seventeenth Corps (Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr.) in motion that day:


The two columns were rather compact compared to some of the marching days in Georgia the previous fall.  The only combat formation from the Right Wing that remained behind was the Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps, under Brigadier-General John M. Corse, which had not gotten out of Savannah before the shipping debacle of mid-January.  Corse was waiting his turn at Sister’s Ferry and would catch up later.

The Confederate forces facing Howard’s men were cavalry patrols along their direct line of march and infantry posted on the left bank of the Salkehatchie-Combahee Rivers.  From the start, the Confederate cavalry worked to impede movement. For the day’s movements, Howard summarized:

The general-in-chief having become satisfied that the Left Wing was crossing the Savannah, permitted us to resume the march February 1. I moved General Blair to Whippy Swamp and General Logan to the vicinity of Hickory Hill Post-Office. The former encountered the enemy’s cavalry soon after leaving camp and skirmished all day. Whippy Swamp Creek was reached about 1 p.m. General Blair found the road obstructed with felled trees and five small bridges destroyed. The obstructions were quickly cleared away, bridges built, the causeway corduroyed in part, and one division (Mower’s) moved across to the other side. Lieut. William N. Taylor, assistant to my chief of artillery, was severely wounded in the skirmish at the creek. The enemy’s force was estimated at 600 cavalry, that took the direction of Whippy Swamp Post-Office, and some forty or fifty more who defended the crossing in General Blair’s front.

General Logan also met the enemy’s cavalry and cleared away considerable obstructions. At points his road was filled with trees continuously for five or six miles. Our men made short work of clearing away these obstacles, going at it joyously and declaring that they can remove them quicker than the rebels can make them.

Though small in scale, the skirmishing with the Confederates indicated marching through South Carolina would be different than Georgia.

The day’s march put the Right Wing in position to work a crossing of the Salkehatchie to advantage while avoiding the manned and prepared works down-river near the railroad crossing.  To keep the Confederates pinned to those works,Brigadier-General John Hatch, from the Department of the South, to make a presence at the river.  Writing at 1 p.m. that afternoon, Sherman ordered:

Keep feeling at the Salkehatchie bridge and the ferry, and if the enemy lets go follow up as far as Edisto.  Let’s coop him in Charleston close.  Foster will demonstrate about Edisto Island.

A provisional division with Hatch thus formed a flank guard force and diversion for Howard’s Right Wing.  The other diversion mentioned was that on Edisto Island, performed by a three regiment brigade under Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter.  With Hatch in place and hopeful the Left Wing moved up smartly, the Right Wing was once again in position to force a river crossing, against limited opposition, in order to flank a Confederate defense.

Though the February 1 movement was not the first march into South Carolina by Sherman’s forces, it was the first significant march away from the coastal areas of the state.  As such, the Federals were bringing the war into places which had gone untouched prior to that time.  Furthermore the Federals were coming into contact with South Carolinians for whom the war had been a distant thing on the coast or at Charleston.  In regard to the civilian population, Major George Ward Nichols, one of Sherman’s staff officers, later recalled some interesting observations that day:

During the march to this point we have had opportunities of observing a barren agricultural region, and a population of “poor whites” whose brain is as arid as the land they occupy.  The wealthy landholders, who formerly held this region by sort of feudal tenure, have all run away on the approach of our troops, leaving a contingent remainder of ignorant, half-civilized people, whose ideas are limited, and whose knowledge of the English tongue is, to say the least, extremely imperfect.  A family of this class I found in full and undisputed possession of the mansion of an escaped magnate (I came near writing the word convict). The head of this family was a weak creature, with pale face, light eyes, and bleached beard. His wife, a woman of about thirty years, was bowed, crooked, and yellow.  She carried in her arms a dirty boy about three years old. A frightened young girl of thirteen, the woman’s stepdaughter, completed the number of the household. The man entered freely into conversation on the subject of the war.  He seemed to understand but little of the great principles which were at stake in the conflict, and, in point of fact, it is an open question whether he knew what a principle meant; yet even his dull intellect took in two points, namely, that the success of the Rebels would certainly establish the bondage of his own class to the aristocrats of the South, and that our own victories would secure freedom to the slaves.  The emancipation of the blacks, he thought, “would be a derned shame;” but he immediately added: “I don’t pretend to understand these questions; I don’t know much anyhow!” To this remark I mentally gave my hearty assent.

He continued: “The poor whites aren’t allowed to live here in South Carolina; the rich folks allus charges us with sellin’ things to the niggers; so they won’t let us own land, but drives us about from place to place.  I never owned a foot of land in all my life, and I was born and raised in this state. It was only a little while ago they cau’t a man a sellin’ to the nigs, so they tarred and feathered him, and put him into Georgia across Sister’s Ferry.  They hate the sight of us poor whites.”

“And yet,” said I, “you are the class that are now furnishing the rank and file of their armies. How absurd that is!” The man answered with a vacant, listless stare, and the remark, “It mought be so.”

Nichols was a journalist by trade, and the type to seek out a story.  He later built a reputation on making larger-than-life characters out of Wild Bill Hickok.  So take the recollection with a grain of salt.  Still, I’d submit the observation was not simply confabulation.  Similar experiences come from other participants in the march.

For South Carolina, the war had always been at the “front” in Charleston, from the opening shots.  Now the war was marching into the homes and villages of the state…

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 193-4; Part II, Serial 99, page 203; George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March from the Diary of a Staff Officer, New York: harper & Brothers Publishers, 1865, pages 132-3.)


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