Sherman’s March, February 4, 1865: A missed opportunity for the Confederates?

The map showing Major-General William T. Sherman’s movements for February 4, 1865 does not offer a lot of “arrows”:

SCMarch_Feb4

As with the previous day, delays getting the Left Wing across the Savannah River caused the Right Wing to slow down on February 4.  But on the positive, Major-General Henry Slocum’s wing finally had a corduroyed, bridged path out of the Savannah River bottoms.  After crossing on the 3rd, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division moved past Robertsville to Lawtonville.  His mission was to feint towards Augusta.  Allendale and Barnwell were next on Kilpatrick’s agenda.

The Second Division, Twentieth Corps followed the Cavalry across Sisters’ Ferry and escorted Kilpatrick’s wagons. However, Major-General John Geary found “the road for nearly three miles through Black Swamp utterly impassable for trains….” and the division was only able to make nine miles that day.  Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps crossed the river that evening, and escorted a large number of Fifteenth and Twentieth Corps wagons.  The Fourteenth Corps waited their turn to cross the next day.

Major-General Alpheus Williams, with two of his Twentieth Corps divisions (minus one brigade), performed Sherman’s desired demonstration towards Barnwell.  “On the 4th, to avoid the deep water of Coosawhatchie Swamp, I diverged to the left by a settlement road through very swampy ground as far as Smyrna Post-Office, and then moved north on the Barnwell pike, encamping at Allendale Post-Office,” recalled Williams.

Major-General John A. Logan did have the Fifteenth Corps in motion that day.  With word of success at Rivers’ Bridge the day before, Logan received orders to move on Buford’s Bridge upstream:

In compliance with these orders I directed General [Charles] Woods to move forward from his advanced position at 6 o’clock, sending a brigade in light marching order, unencumbered with wagons, to Buford’s Bridge to secure the same and to follow on with the rest of his command as rapidly as possible.  General [John] Smith moved in rear of the First Division.  General [William] Hazen was ordered to Angley’s Post-Office…. On reaching the bridge General Woods found the works of the enemy deserted, but the bridge over the main stream had been destroyed and the lagoon bridges, some twenty-six in number, had been all broken down.  The roads were heavy and required a good deal of work from the pioneer corps.

There was a minor skirmish between Hazen’s men and Confederate cavalry near Angley’s.  But otherwise only the swamps and terrible roads contested the Federal advance.  The crossing at Rivers’ Bridge prompted most of the Confederate forces in the sector to fall back.  Major-General Lafayette McLaws began movement back from the Combahee-Salkehatchie to the Ashepoo and Little Salkehatchie Rivers.  Orders came for Major-General Joseph Wheeler to move portions of his command on the far side of the Salkehatchie to in front of Branchville.  These movements, while compliant with plans formulated on February 2nd, removed the Confederate forces from an opportunity which opened… very briefly… behind the Federal advance.

Consider the activity, or inactivity, of the Seventeenth Corps that day.  Major-General Frank Blair concentrated his corps on the far side of the Salkehatchie over the hard-won crossing points.  And Blair mentioned, “A train of thirty wagons and some ambulances was sent back to Pocotaligo with our sick and wounded, under escort of the Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry.”  Not that Blair had thirty wagons full of wounded.  Rather those wagons were going back to replenish supplies.  All the empty wagons from the Right Wing headed back to Pocotaligo that day.  Keep in mind Sherman’s report from late January which mentioned having four days of fodder on hand to start the campaign.  It was the fourth day of the march from Pocotaligo.

Fifty wagons and ambulances were but a portion of the vehicles supporting the Right Wing.  In a report posted February 3, the quartermaster of the Fifteenth Corps tallied 794 wagons and 144 ambulances.  Still that was fifty wagons to carry a vital supply.  And that supply line was lengthy and prone to interruption, had the Confederates desired.  However, just a day earlier, Confederate leaders had concluded, “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.”

In one way, the Confederate assessment was correct, in that Sherman moved with a limited supply with hopes of replenishing later in the march.  But the assessment assumed that would necessitate the capture of Charleston and not continued foraging along the march.  That same assessment pointed to the need to delay Sherman for a week to ten days in order to get reinforcements form the Army of Tennessee into play.

While a dash against the Right Wing’s supply lines would not have stopped the invasion of South Carolina, it might have caused pause and provided the Confederates the desired week to ten days.  Instead, the forces directly in front of the Federals were instructed to fall back to a new line of resistance.  The key point governing Confederate decisions was this:

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.

The Confederate commanders facing Sherman were not contesting every inch of ground in South Carolina.  Rather they were hoping to play out the clock.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 222-3, 377, 582, and 683;  Part II, Serial 99, page 1085.)

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