Sherman’s March, February 5, 1865: Three dead Federals and Mr. Trowell’s house in ashes

For the third day in a row, I’ll discuss the progress of Major-General William T. Sherman’s Great March and say there was not a lot of marching!  But for those at Sister’s Ferry 150 years ago today, the traffic jam was almost resolved:


The Seventeenth Corps did no major marching on February 5, 1865.  Though some of their patrols bumped up against Confederates operating in front of the Little Salkehatchie near Duncanville.  Just to the left of the Seventeenth Corps, the Fifteenth Corps wrestled to cross the Salkehatchie River at Buford’s Bridge.  Major-General John A. Logan recalled:

… the 5th of February, was consumed in crossing the Big Salkehatchie, and my command was encamped that night in the salients, as it were, of an equilateral triangle, the First Division on the direct Bamberg road, the Second Division on the road leading to Barn-well, and the Third Division on that leading to Rivers’ Bridge, the First and Second Divisions being intrenched.

The two divisions of the Twentieth Corps with Major-General Alpheus S. Williams moved from Allendale to a position behind the Fifteenth Corps.

To the far right, Brigadier-General John Hatch reported his probe towards Combahee Ferry skirmished with a Confederate rear guard.  But for the most part, the defenses along the river were abandoned.  Hatch received orders to prepare an advance for February 6.  No longer was the Charleston & Savannah Railroad an important target for the Federals.  Rather, Hatch was to keep pressure on McLaws to prevent shifting forces.

Once out of the swamps of the Savannah River bottoms, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick was free to move aggressively… just as desired by Sherman.  For the 5th, Kilpatrick turned away from the Augusta Road and moved to cover the flanks of the Right Wing. His objective was Barnwell. Kilpatrick would pass the trail of William’s column at Allendale, and proceed towards the Salkehatchie, camping short of that stream for the night.

But it was Sister’s Ferry where the significant progress developed over the day.  Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, Twentieth Corps shared the work with Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps to repair and improve the roadway up from the River to Robertsville.  As Corse related, the going was still difficult:

At daybreak on the 5th instant I threw forward three regiments to repair the road through Black Swamp, and at 3 p.m., with twenty-two days’ rations of hard bread and eighteen of sugar and coffee, and carrying four days’ rations on the person, I again took up my line of march, and pushing across the dense swamp just referred to (being three miles wide), moved via Robertsville to the right, crossing the Lawtonville and Lawtonville and Gillisonville roads and Coosawhatchie Swamp, making Hickory Hill at dark on the evening of the 7th of February.

Notice Corse indicated his division stepped off with 26 days’ rations for the soldiers.  But he did not mention details of the animal fodder at this stage of the operation.

Geary’s division did not move as far, but was able to clear Black Swamp.  Behind them, the Fourteenth Corps, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis commanding, cleared the crossing of the Savannah River.  The journal of the Second Division of that corps recorded:

February 5 – First Division commenced crossing at daylight; crossed by 8.30 a.m. Third consumed from then till 2.30 p.m. Reserve artillery and corps headquarters followed. Our division commenced at 4 p.m. Pontoons taken up twice to pass boats. General came into camp with the rear to the highlands at 10 p.m. Camped for the night; distance two miles and a half. Non-veterans of Tenth Michigan mustered out by Lieutenant Scroggs.

No mention of how the mustered out troops made their way home.  But by nightfall, the only a guard force of the Fourteenth Corps remained in Georgia, protecting the pontooniers as they recovered the bridge. Thus the day progressed relatively quietly for the Federals, save perhaps the cursing and swearing of the teamsters.

But that is not to say February 5 passed with no incidents.  Along Geary’s line of march, the Federals came across something which added to the “grudge” mentioned yesterday. Geary recorded the episode in his official report:

By noon the head of the train had crossed. At 1 p.m. I moved my command and encamped at a crossroad near Trowell’s farm, eight miles from Robertsville. Near Mr. Trowell’s house we found three soldiers of our army, who, according to the testimony of negroes, had been pointed out by Mr. Trowell to some of Wheeler’s cavalry and by them shot in cold blood. Their bodies were found in the bushes not far from the house, where they were thrown by the murderers. I had them buried and Trowell’s house and other property destroyed, and he was taken with us to be tried as accessory to the murder.

Mind you, this was John Geary who received praise from southerners a month earlier for his even-handed and fair approach to governing Savannah.  This was also the same John Geary who had strictly enforced foraging rules during the Savannah Campaign.  But there at Trowell’s Farm, Geary ordered – he mixes no words here – the destruction of the property.  Although Trowell was taken away for a trial, Geary had for all practical purposes already administered some punishment.

Since the opening of the Savannah Campaign, the issue of prisoner executions was simmering.  Kilpatrick and Major-General Joseph Wheeler had taken actions to cool the situation.  But as the army entered South Carolina, the issue returned to the fore.  And as witnessed in Geary’s response, there would be a correlation between acts taken against Federal prisoners and acts taken against civilians.  That grudge was a heavy thing to carry.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 223, 337, 489, and 683.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: