Sherman’s March, February 6, 1865: “Burnwell” South Carolina

On February 6, 1865, the arrangement of Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces looked more like a pair of waves as opposed to two wings advancing in parallel.  Ten divisions – the Seventeenth Corps, three divisions of the Fifteenth Corps, two divisions of the Twentieth Corps, and the Cavalry Division – were pressing forward past the Salkehatchie River.  Behind them, five divisions were not yet to Coosawhatchie Swamp.


In that “second wave,” Major-General Jefferson C. Davis completed resupplying two of his divisions – First Division under Brigadier-General William Carlin and Third under Major-General Absalom Baird.  Those two divisions made modest marches towards Brighton on February 6.  Major-General James Morgan’s Second Division remained at the depot, setup on the South Carolina side of Sister’s Ferry, to resupply.

Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps continued its march northward to rejoin the corps, making only a short march due to the swamps encountered.  Major-General John Geary’s division made better time following a path already used by earlier columns.  But the going was still difficult:

February 6, moved at 6 a.m., taking the road to Lawtonville, passing through which followed the road toward Beech Branch; encamped near Mears’ Store.  The roads to-day were bad; weather warm. Towards evening it began to rain. The country passed through yesterday and to-day had been quite a rich one.  The planters had fled to the upper country and the plantations now looked desolate. Most of the supplies had been carried off by the divisions preceding me.

These divisions in the rear of the march would need several more days to catch up.

On the far right of Sherman’s advance, Major-General John Foster had his forces along the coast in motion on February 6.  Brigadier-General John Hatch began pursuit of the Confederates over the Salkehatchie.  And at Charleston, Foster began preparing for demonstrations from Folly Island and Bull’s Bay.

On the front “wave” of the advance, the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps resumed marching that morning, setting a course for the Little Salkehatchie River.  Each would meet Confederate resistance at those crossings.  Major-General Frank P. Blair, Seventeenth Corps, noted only light resistance, easily pushed aside by his Third Division, at Cowpen Ford.  But the Federals had to rebuild seven bridges.  Two divisions of the Twentieth Corps under Major-General Alpheus Williams made a non-eventful march to the left of Fifteenth Corps that day.

Major-General John A. Logan’s Fifteenth Corps likewise encountered a Confederate force at Lane’s Bridge.  Logan employed the same techniques used at Rivers’ Bridge to gain the far side.  He deployed Major-General John Smith’s First Division against the swamps to put pressure on the Confederates.  Mounted infantry searched for crossing points up- and down-stream. As Logan described it, the Confederate position was formidable, even if held lightly:

The position occupied by the enemy was very defensible, his front being covered by a deep and tangled swamp extending for several miles below his position, while the stream above opened into a wide pond, yet our skirmish line pushed through the mud and water and developed his line, extending quite a distance above and below the bridge, covered by rifle-pits. The bank on the south side of the river appeared to be much higher than that on the opposite side, rising in quite a bold bluff, but the swamp was so dense that it was impossible to appreciate the character of the opposite bank or to avail ourselves of any advantage we might have in height of position.

But eventually it was enough to put weight upon the Confederates to undo this position:

General Smith’s dispositions having been made for an attack, and General Woods’ division being within supporting distance, I ordered him to push his Second Brigade through the swamp in line of battle, covered by a heavy line of skirmishers, and endeavor to take the works of the enemy. It affords me great pleasure to testify to the gallant manner in which my orders were executed by Colonel [Clark] Wever, who charged with his men through mud and water, across the stream and in face of the enemy’s fire, driving him from his line of works, all along the river. The rebels fell back to some open fields about a mile and a half from the stream, formed in line, as if preparing to receive our attack. General Smith, having crossed his First Brigade, pushed forward on the road to Duncansville. The rebel cavalry meanwhile moved from our front in the direction of Blackville and the railroad.

While the main reason for the Confederate cavalry to displace was such a strong force driving up from the river.  But events to the west, where Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick made a loud entrance on the stage, also prompted a quick withdrawal.  Sherman’s cavalry was on line and making its presence known.

In instructions sent to Kilpatrick on the evening of February 5, Sherman wrote:

…  I want you to-morrow to move rapidly on Barnwell, keeping up any feint you may please in the direction of Augusta. Next day strike the railroad where you please from Blackville to Lowry’s. If you can, get and destroy cars, locomotives, and depots, but don’t delay long, but effectually destroy some piece of the track, enough to cut communication, and then turn to us about Duncanville and Bamberg. You will find plenty of corn and bacon. I think Wheeler’s forces are scattered, and he has no idea where you are up to this moment, so you can act with a rush. …. I don’t care about your going into Barnwell, and only refer to it as the point where you will likely find cleared roads across the swamp. The bridges amount to nothing; the swamp is the worst, and you may cross it wherever you please. … On this side the Salkehatchie we find the roads fine, with farms and abundance of forage. None has been destroyed. The farmers west of Salkehatchie were ordered to move their forage and stock to the east of Salkehatchie, expecting to hold that line.

Sherman closed the instructions, “Mystify the enemy all you can, but break that road whilst I move straight on it about Lowry’s.”  Interesting insight as to what Sherman wanted his cavalry to do.

On this mission to “mystify,” Kilpatrick moved up the road to Barnwell, even if that city was not the chief objective.  The troopers did not encounter resistance until reaching the Salkehatchie River:

The enemy, about 300 strong, occupied a well-chosen position behind earth-works upon the opposite side, commanding the bridge. The bridge was already on fire, but the Ninth Ohio Cavalry, Colonel Hamilton, Ninety-second Illinois Mounted Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Van Buskirk (dismounted), gallantly dashed through the swamp, men wading in the water up to their armpits, crossed the stream on trees felled by our pioneers, and, under cover of a rapid fire of artillery, gallantly carried the works, driving the enemy in confusion toward the town of Barnwell. Only a portion of the bridge had been destroyed and was quickly repaired, and we entered the town of Barnwell at 4 p.m., having marched twenty-one miles.

Again, these accounts of river crossings under fire tend to blend together.  I would point out that critical to this crossing was the employment of pioneers… from a cavalry formation.

Crossing the river, Kilpatrick’s cavalry in Barnwell went to work as instructed to destroy government buildings and public property.  That endeavor soon got out of control.  The journal of the division indicates, “in spite of every effort of the general commanding to prevent it, was laid in ashes.” Kilpatrick would contend he restricted the damage where possible.  But Southern papers would circulate stories of Federal troopers bursting into homes, pillaging belongings, and then firing private dwellings.  And the town would suffer additional damage when the Fourteenth Corps passed days later.

Proper first hand accounts, written at the time of the incident, are hard to come by.  The truth was probably somewhere in between the stories.  Fact is, Barnwell was put to the torch.  Though I have often wondered if the town’s fate would have been different had there not been a skirmish on the Salkehatchie.  Many would quip later the town’s name should be changed to “Burnwell.”  However I would point out that a dozen anti-bellum structures still stand in “Burnwell.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 223-4, 683, and 858; Part II, Serial 99, pages 311-2.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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