Sherman’s March, February 3, 1865: “It is the strongest position I have ever seen in my life” at Rivers’ Bridge

The map I’ll offer for movements on February 3, 1865 offers not much advancement over that of the previous day:

SCMarch_Feb3

In orders to Major-General Oliver O. Howard the previous day, Major-General William T. Sherman alluded to the slow movement of the Left Wing out of the Savannah River bottoms.  Blame it on Major-General Henry Slocum, the rains, the swamps, or logistics, … or a combination thereof.  Regardless, Sherman didn’t want to move too far out in advance with the Right Wing.

But there was some movement for the Left Wing that day.  The Cavalry Division under Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick managed to complete crossing.  However the Fourteenth Corps, one division each from the Fifteenth and Twentieth Corps, along with a substantial number of wagons for the Right Wing remained on the Georgia side.  But the bridges and roadways were finally setup to support movement. One Left Wing component that did move forward were the two divisions under Major-General Alpheus William’s direct control.  “On the 3d I marched in a drizzling rain to the Coosawhatchie Swamp, near Duck Branch Post-Office,” Williams recalled, “and reported in person to the major-general commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi.”  Sherman reflected, “If Slocum were up I would move him to Barnwell at once, but can use Williams to produce the same effect.”

The Fifteenth Corps, on the other side of Coosawhatchie Swamp did little movement themselves that day.  Under direct guidance from Sherman, Major-General John Logan sent one division to secure Angley’s Post-Office.  But due to  rains and concerns about the Left Wing, the corps remained relatively idle.

It was the Seventeenth Corps, under Major-General Frank P. Blair, which did the important work on February 3, 1865.  Major-General Joseph Mower’s division had first reached Rivers’ Bridge the day before, but found the way across the Salkehatchie River blocked by a Confederate force on the far side.  The river, itself, was a formidable obstacle, which greatly aided the Confederate defenders, as described by Blair:

The Salkehatchie River at this point is a dense swamp one mile and a half in width, where the river spreads out into thirty-five small streams varying from two to six feet in depth. The approach to the main bridge, about seventy feet in length, was along a narrow causeway, commanded almost its entire length by the enemy’s batteries. The main or largest stream ran very near the east side of the swamp, immediately beyond which the bank rises abruptly to the high table-land beyond. Upon this bank the enemy had built a very strong line of earth-works, with two strong redoubts and batteries commanding the main approaches. There were sixteen bridges, exclusive of the main bridge, varying from thirty to fifty feet in length on that portion of the causeway exposed to the enemy’s fire.

On the opposite side, mentioned in yesterday’s post, Colonel George P. Harrison concentrated most of the 2,000 men under his command.

The position was similar to those encountered on the march through Georgia.  And Federal tactics reflected the experience gained on the earlier march.  Blair maintained a demonstration downstream at Broxton’s Bridge.  He had Mower’s Division operate directly against Rivers’ Bridge.  And he also dispatched Major-General Giles Smith’s Forth Division to a point upstream (halfway between Rivers’ and Buford’s Bridges).

Smith’s movement was designed to flank the Confederate position entirely.  But such required passage through what Smith described as “apparently impassable swamp.” Scouts from the 32nd Ohio found a path through the swamp where the river “spread out into several channels, making a swamp about one miles and a half wide, could be forded, the water being from three to four feet deep.” The lead of Smith’s force started into the swamp at 2 p.m. and within ninety minutes cleared to the opposite side. With the entire division over by 5 p.m. Smith prepared to advance, but immediately sensed a strong Confederate skirmish line.  Without hesitating, Smith pushed his skirmish line out, driving in the Confederates.  However, “This, with the lateness of the hour, prevented my moving to Rivers’ Bridge to cooperate with General Mower….”  As events unfolded, Smith was not needed.

RiversBridgeSkirmish

At first light, Mower had his men at work looking to force some purchase from which to simply get at the Confederates:

February 3, I had my pioneers to work by daylight cutting timber to finish the road commenced the day before, and directed Colonel [Milton] Montgomery to detail one regiment to tear down houses and carry planks to cross the roads through the swamp. At the same time I directed General [John] Fuller to detail one regiment with axes to cut a road to the river above the one being worked by the pioneers, and Colonel Montgomery to also detail all his axmen and cut a road still above the one General Fuller was constructing, with a view of moving my three brigades on three different roads.

With First Brigade (Fuller) and Second Brigade (Montgomery) at work, Mower sent Third Brigade under Colonel John Tillson to the left of the line looking for another point to cross.  Tillson set his men to work on the difficult task:

After a wearisome file through the swamp of about half a mile I established the brigade on the banks of the first branch of the river, which appears to run in three channels, all unfordable. Here I deployed three companies of the Thirty-second Wisconsin as skirmishers, also placing a picked force of fifteen men, under Lieutenant Johnston, in a rifle-pit in the road, within 200 yards of the rebel battery, with instructions to keep down the enemy’s gunners. This last duty was handsomely executed by the trusty officer in command.

Tillson continued to build the line and soon three more companies joined the fray.  “Their progress was exceedingly difficult, through water sometimes waist-deep, and exposed to a close and accurate fire.” But the Federal skirmish line kept building and advancing.

They crossed the two branches of the river on logs without severe loss, and about 12 o’clock Lieutenant-Colonel [Joseph] Carleton reported that he had made a crossing of the third and last channel, about 800 yards above, and asked for additional men.  The remaining three companies of the regiment were sent to him….

Tillson then committed the 25th Indiana and, though having to move single file through the swamp, was able to replace the 32nd Wisconsin on the skirmish line.  Here Tillson halted under orders of Fuller, who was maneuvering his brigade to follow up this advance.

RiversBridgeMap

To aid Tillson, Mower ordered diversionary attacks at the bridge and points downstream.  On the far right of Mower’s line, the 10th Illinois had two companies well into the swamp, but was unable to press more due to the confined maneuver space.  At this point, Mower opted press a demonstration at the bridge once more:

Not being able to create the desired diversion at the right I directed Colonel Montgomery to order the Forty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Major Park commanding, forward. I instructed him to have fifty of his men get planks (which were close by) and put them in the rear of the leading company of his regiment, with some axmen. After he had complied with this I directed him to move his regiment forward one company at a time at double-quick, “by file,” off to the right and left of the road, and move up to the bridge and if possible cross the river, using the planks he had with him to repair the bridge. This movement had the desired effect, although he was not able to cross. The enemy at once concentrated most of his forces in the earth-works opposite the bridge.

With that effect, Mower withdrew the 43rd Ohio and put all the available weight of the division behind Tillson’s lodgement.  When Tillson’s men reached the crest of the bluff overlooking the swamp, they found the Confederates had fallen back.  They soon linked up with the companies from the 10th Illinois from the opposite wing, completing the capture of the works.  Mower advanced a short distance beyond, but halted for the night.  The crossing of the Salkehatchie was accomplished at a loss of 18 killed and 109 wounded.  Confederates reported just under 100 casualties (though Mower placed it at 200).

Reporting the success, Left Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard observed:

I visited the field this evening immediately after Mower had carried the works. It is the strongest position I have ever seen in my life, and I think was defended by 2,000 men.

A weighty assessment when one considers Howard’s resume by that point in the war.  Mower’s division had cracked the Combahee-Salkehatchie line.  More importantly, the victory at Rivers’ Bridge had upset the Confederates one-day-old plans to counter Sherman’s advances.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 376, 387-9, 400, 412, 582; Part II, Serial 99, pages 285.)

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