February 3, 1865: Confederate leaders plan to counter Sherman

On February 2, 1865, there was a meeting of the “chiefs” at Green’s Cut Station, south of Augusta, Georgia (where else would the greens be cut?).  General P.G.T. Beauregard, Lieutenant-General William Hardee, Major-General Daniel H. Hill, and Major-General Gustavus W. Smith attended.  These generals’ attention was focused on a single question – How to stop Major-General William T. Sherman’s force moving out of Savannah?  Results of this conference went out in a memorandum posted February 3.

The generals reviewed the forces available for the task, counting some 22,450 infantry, 8,200 cavalry, and 2,800 artillerists (they didn’t list the number of artillery pieces, but I’ve mentioned some of those in an earlier post).   But that aggregate number didn’t tell the whole story.  The details indicated an operational constraint:

  • Hardee’s department – 8,000 regulars and 3,000 militia or reserves.  2,000 artillerists.  1,500 men in Brigadier-General Matthew Butler’s division, of which only one half were on hand.
  • Smith’s Division of Georgia Militia numbered 1,450.
  • Arriving from the Army of Tennessee were three corps with 10,000 men.
  • Only a portion of the Army of Tennessee’s artillery was due to arrive, if at all.
  • Wheeler’s Cavalry numbered 6,700 and constituted the bulk of the mounted arm available.

The constraint felt was the arrival times of the Army of Tennessee’s troops.  Major-General S.D. Lee’s with 4,000 men were mostly in Augusta.  But 3,000 of Major-Generals Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps would not arrive until February 5.  And Major-General A.P. Stewart’s were not due until the 11th.  So from an aggregate of 33,450, almost a third were not on the board to move.  And what was on the board included a large number of militia or un-tested troops.

However, just to be fair to history, Sherman’s mobile force numbered right at 60,000.  The the divisions of the Department of the South working along the coast added another 10,000 or so.  But that 1:2 ratio was not deemed sufficient to defend against Sherman. Furthermore, reports filtering in through Richmond indicated the Twenty-third Corps and the Nineteenth Corps were joining Sherman (while in reality on division of the Nineteenth was in Savannah, it was not going to the field.  And the Twenty-third was heading to North Carolina).  Given that news, the Confederate generals opted for a safe course of action designed to preserve the fighting force on hand:

In view of Sherman’s present position, his manifest advance toward Branchville from Pocotaligo and Coosawhatchie, the weakness of our forces, and the expected arrival of the re enforcements above referred to, it was deemed inadvisable to concentrate our forces at Branchville, and there offer battle to Sherman. During the pending negotiations for peace, it was thought of the highest importance to hold Charleston and Augusta, as long as it was humanly possible. Moreover, it being in violation of all maxims of the military art to adopt a place as a point of concentration which it was possible that the enemy, with a largely superior force, could reach before our columns could arrive….

Yes, notice the “pending negotiations” as that also factored into the response to Sherman.  Imperative was keeping the Confederate army in being. In response, this “council of war” offered five points:

First. That the line of the Combahee should be held as long as practicable, resisting the enemy strongly at all points.

Second. Should the enemy penetrate this line, or turn it in force, General Hardee should retire with his forces, covering his rear with about 500 cavalry, toward Charleston, resisting the advance of the enemy in that direction vigorously behind every available creek, river, or swamp; whilst Wheeler, dividing his forces temporarily, should fall back with the main portion in the direction of Columbia, checking the enemy’s advance, should he follow, and hold the line of the Congaree until re-enforcements could arrive. The other portion of his cavalry was to fall back toward Augusta, covering that place.

Third. Should the enemy follow Hardee and indicate an attack on Charleston, whenever it should become evident that a longer defense was impracticable, General Hardee should abandon the place, removing all valuable stores, and hasten to form a junction in front of Columbia with the forces of General Beauregard, who would have to cover Columbia and take up the Congaree as a line of defense.

The fourth point called for the removal of Georgia troops then deployed at Brier Creek to displace back to a line closer to Augusta.  That line, anchored at Spirit Creek and Sandbar Ferry, where strong batteries and torpedoes defended the Savannah River, would be easier to maintain if Sherman turned on Augusta.

Lastly, the fifth point discussed the movement of the Army of Tennessee reinforcements and the defense of Charleston:

Fifth. It was held in contemplation to send Lee’s corps to Branchville, and in the event of the happening of the contingency alluded to in the second and third resolutions, Major-General Stevenson, commanding that corps, should retire toward the Congaree, protected by the cavalry, where he would watch and guard its crossings until the arrival of Generals Beauregard and Hardee. In the course of the conference General Hardee expressed the opinion that it would require at least 20,000 men to defend Charleston successfully, during about twenty days, being the extent of provisions there accumulated. … The troops arriving from the Army of Tennessee were still without artillery and wagons. Three batteries were expected to arrive at Augusta in two or three days, but the other six, and the wagon trains, could not be expected to commence arriving before eight or ten days. The enemy moving with a certain number of days’ rations for all his troops, with the hope of establishing a new base at Charleston after its fall, has in reality no lines of communication which can be threatened or cut. His overpowering force enables him to move into the interior of the country like an ordinary movable column.

Charleston, they felt, was necessary for Sherman’s plans simply because of logistics.  But at the same time, they felt no exposed line of supply existed which they might prey upon.  Simply put, the Confederate leaders predicted Sherman would move on Charleston because of the need to resupply his light marching columns…. and Charleston might hold out for twenty days if pressed.

This plan looked fine if two things were indeed true – that Sherman was moving on Charleston … and that the Combahee-Salkehatchie line, as mentioned in the first point, could hold just long enough for the Army of Tennessee reinforcements to arrive.

Reality has a way of disrupting good plans.  Sherman was not moving on Charleston.  And events on February 3, 1865 would serve to make the first point derived from the council of war “overtaken by events.”  The Battle of Rivers’ Bridge, though small in relation to other actions of the war, would have far reaching implications.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 1084-6.)

5 thoughts on “February 3, 1865: Confederate leaders plan to counter Sherman

  1. “Yes, notice the “pending negotiations” as that also factored into the response to Sherman.” It has been a growing fascination of mine how a good deal of civil war history is divorced from the political side of the strategic level. It is nice to see a concrete gem of how the the political situation is reflected in operational and tactical thought.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks. Yes, the appreciation of the linkage between political and military history is a problem with respect to the Civil War. I would actually submit the problem is, more often than not, from the perspective of those addressing the political aspects … avoiding the details of the military history. And I’m referring here to “military history” in the classical sense – as a study of military operations.

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