Thus far into the narrative discussing Major-General William T. Sherman’s march into South Carolina, one major factor which played into the Savannah Campaign had not been much importance. That would be the railroads. Other than the Charleston & Savannah Railroad along the coast, the Federal advance encountered no lines. That is until February 7, 1865. On that day, Sherman directed his leading columns at the South Carolina Railroad. The aim was to cut the line providing direct connection between Charleston and Augusta.
Most of the laurels that day fell again to the Right Wing of Major-General Oliver O. Howard. Marching orders for the 7th had the Fifteenth moving to Bamberg and the Seventeenth towards Midway. Because he was traveling with Fifteenth Corps, Sherman gave direct instructions to Major-General John Logan. Other than suggesting leading the march with two divisions in light marching order, Sherman directed that once upon the railroad “every rail must be twisted.” Other than suggesting leading with two divisions in light marching order, he left the details to the corps commander:
I will be with you, but want you to fight your own battles, as I am a non-combatant. The enemy ought to fight us, but I don’t believe he will.
Sherman was correct. The Confederates did not contest the movement. Logan recorded for the march:
The advance was unopposed, and with the exception of felled timber in the crossing of Lemon Swamp, which delayed the column a short time, the march was made with ease and celerity, my mounted infantry striking the railroad at Bamberg, or Lowry’s Station, by 9.30 a.m., and by 12 m. I had two brigades at work tearing up the track and piling up ties and rails preparatory to burning and twisting the same.
That evening, Logan deployed the divisions in a strong perimeter around the town. On Logan’s right, Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps likewise met no formal resistance, but had a tough time crossing the creeks and swamps:
… the command moved forward through a drenching rain and over almost impassable roads toward Midway Station, on South Carolina Railroad. We rebuilt three bridges at Lemon’s Swamp, and succeeded in getting the Fourth Division and one brigade of the First Division into position covering the station.
To feel out the Confederate dispositions beyond to the Edisto River, mounted patrols fanned out to Holman’s Bridge, Binnaker’s Bridge, Cannon’s Bridge, the Edisto Railroad Bridge, and Walker’s Bridge (smaller blue dashed lines on my map). Most of the bridges were already destroyed. The patrols fought brief skirmishes at the Railroad Bridge and Cannon’s Bridge. But this confirmed no Confederate force waited on the east side of the Edisto.
To the left of the Fifteenth Corps, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams moved two divisions of Twentieth Corps towards Graham’s Station. At 2 p.m., Williams reported his progress:
My advance is within two miles of the railroad. My column is badly stretched out, owing to the swollen condition of the streams. I have three brigades in hand and shall move on the railroad at once, and shall bring up my whole command to that point to-night. I am satisfied from the report of prisoners that there is nothing but one brigade of cavalry (perhaps more) in my front. They are withdrawing.
By nightfall, Williams had the two divisions in camp along the railroad.
Further to the left of the advance, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry advanced on Blackville. After skirmishing with some of Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, the Federals gained the town and the railroad there. With that, nearly twenty-five miles of the railroad line were in Federal hands by nightfall.
Boasting of his success thus far, Kilpatrick wrote to Sherman, “At any moment you desire I can drive Wheeler into the Edisto, and think save any bridge you may name.” But Sherman was not concerned with the Edisto for the moment, and directed the cavalryman to focus on the railroad for the moment. Any crossing of the Edisto (technically the South Fork of the Edisto) would be further upstream. “Don’t risk much, but keep your horses and men well in hand.”
Further south, five divisions in the “second wave” were still struggling with the swamps. Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, Twentieth Corps had trouble crossing the Coosawhatchie Swamp. Spending most of the day cordurying and bridging, not until 4 p.m. could the men begin crossing. Behind them, the First Division, Fourteenth Corps made an equally difficult march, only gaining nine miles using the road up from Brighton. The other two divisions of the Fourteenth Corps did little movement on the 7th, as they replenished supplies and did improvements to the roads.
However Major-General John Corse did make significant progress in his march to rejoin the Fifteenth Corps. From his camp that evening at Hickory Hill, reporting to Sherman he wrote:
I know not how anxious you may be to have me with you, but I assure you not more so than I am. Our roads have proven execrable. I worked all one day on a swamp about three and a half miles long. If I can get this bridge done to-day I will move heaven and earth to join you day after to-morrow, if you are not too far from me. Please let me know of your whereabouts as soon as practicable after the reception of this. Slocum is to-day about Duck Branch Post-Office with Geary; Davis is–God knows where, for the roads are such I have no doubt he is nearer the infernal regions than he ever was before. I hope you have a few green leaves of all the fresh wreaths you are winning left for.
At least past the Coosawhatchie, Corse and the others could expect to find corduroyed roads and intact bridges in the wake of the earlier marches.
Along the coast, Brigadier-General John Hatch’s men advanced, somewhat tentatively, along the railroad. By day’s end they could report three miles gained. But knowing veteran troops opposed them, Hatch ordered his men to entrench for the night. Discretion was the better part of valor for a column engaged in a demonstration.
That evening, Sherman sent a note to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren indicating his progress and directing future movements. Sherman’s message indicated he was keeping a lot of options open:
We are on the South Carolina road, at Midway, and will break fifty miles, from Edisto toward Augusta, and then cross toward Columbia. Weather is bad and country full of water. This cause may force me to turn against Charleston. I have ordered Foster to move Hatch up to the Edisto, about Jacksonborough and Willstown. Also to make that lodgment about Bull’s Bay. Watch Charleston close. I think Davis will order it to be abandoned, lest he lose its garrison as well as guns. We are all well and the enemy retreats before us. Send word to New Berne that you have heard from me, and the probabilities are that high waters may force me to the coast before I reach North Carolina, but to keep Wilmington busy.
An interesting observation made by Dahglren with respect to Sherman was, “I notice that all these letters he writes himself.” And the message of February 7 was one asking for specific actions. Unfortunately, due to the distances involved, the message was not in Dahlgren’s hands until February 14. By that time, the situation had changed considerably. Instead, the operation at Bull’s Bay had assumed the higher priority.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 224 and 377 ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 321, 328, 336, and 338. )