Sherman’s March, February 8, 1865: Alabama vs. Alabama outside Williston; “Burn all Cotton”

For the men in Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies moving across South Carolina, February 8, 1865 was either a day of “close up” marching or railroad wrecking.  This is good because as the columns get closer to each other, I’ll be able to narrow down these maps to allow the readers better appreciate the detail!


The divisions of Major-Generals John Geary (First Division, Twentieth Corps) and John Corse (Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps) were above the Coosawhatchie and made good time to cross the Salkehatchie that day.  Geary, reaching Buford’s Bridge, described the crossing point and the positions previously held by the Confederates:

The stream is wide, deep, and swampy. On the northern side of it was a strong line of works, with four embrasures, which commanded the bridge or causeway so completely that any direct attack against a force holding those works would have been useless.

Recall that Fifteenth Corps had found the positions abandoned on February 4.

Behind those two divisions, the Fourteenth Corps finally broke up the depot on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. The day prior, Sherman sent orders to Major-General Jefferson C. Davis suggesting a movement through Barnwell to rejoin the main army.  Given that objective, Davis set his line of march to take roads previously unused by the columns moving earlier.  This selection meant the men of the Fourteenth Corps would need to repair roads and bridges along the way.   Davis had his first division (Brigadier-General William Carlin) remain at Lawtonville.  But the other two divisions proceeded up a road between that town and the Savannah River.  Third Division, under Major-General Absalom Baird covered twelve miles, while Second Division (Major-General James Morgan) reached Brighton.

Well to the front of Davis’ advance, the Cavalry Division of Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick carried out instructions to continue working up the railroad towards Aiken and Augusta.  In the vanguard of the cavalry thrust was Third Brigade under Colonel George Spencer, of the First Alabama (US) Cavalry.   Five miles out of Blackville, Spencer encountered a Confederate force.  This comprised of a brigade of Alabama troopers.  This was  Colonel James Hagan’s Alabama Brigade, Brigadier-General William Allen’s Division.  (Robert Moore, take note.)  Spencer felt out the Confederate positions and gradually developed the line as he fed in reinforcements, bringing up the 5th Kentucky Cavalry and a battery of artillery.  This force drove in the Confederates about two miles, beyond Williston to White Pond.  Again, Spencer developed the Confederate line, this time deploying the 5th Kentucky first:

I ordered Major [Francis] Cramer to deploy his men in a skirmish line and the Fifth Kentucky in line of battle and to charge, which was done by both commands in the most gallant manner, the enemy stopping to fire but one volley. Then commenced one of the most thorough and complete routs I ever witnessed. The ground was completely strewn with guns, haversacks, &c. Five battle-flags were captured, including the brigade and four regimental flags, and a large number of horses and over thirty prisoners. After a charge of about seven miles from this point the enemy dispersed and went in every direction through the woods and swamps. I then ordered the chase to be discontinued and brought the command back to camp at Williston. The force we had the encounter with proved to be the Alabama brigade, of Allen’s division, Wheeler’s cavalry corps, commanded by Colonel Hagan, and consisting of the First, Third, Fifth, Ninth, Twelfth, and Fifty-first Regiments Alabama Cavalry.

Later that evening, Allen simply reported, “the enemy came upon Colonel Hagen about 4 p.m. to-day about two miles west of Williston and made one general charge upon him and swept over him.”   No mention of lost colors. But the defeat, in the face of fellow Alabamians wearing blue, must have been an embarrassment.

For the remainder of the Federal force, the primary task of the day was destroying railroads.  Specifically to Major-General John Logan’s Fifteenth Corps, Sherman’s Chief Engineer, Colonel Orlando Poe, instructed:

In order that all our working forces may be directed to the best advantage in destroying railroads, I would respectfully request you to order as follows to the troops under your command, viz, that “the infantry details shall tear up the track and pile the superstructure after this manner: Three ties in the roadbed as they lie, one tie across these at each end, at right angles; six ties crosswise with these (right angles) with intervals to allow their being fired; then the iron laid on top, parallel with the railroad, and kindling wood and surplus ties on top of all. The piles to be fired by the infantry details, and the heated iron will then be twisted by the engineer troops. The piles should be about thirty-five feet apart.” By systematizing in this way the engineer regiment can twist all the iron that can be taken up by your corps.

The Right Wing, along with the two divisions of the Twentieth Corps under Major-General Alpheus Williams, worked over the rail line from the Edisto River to Blackville that day.  In addition, reconnaissance patrols again felt out the Edisto crossings at Cannon’s and Walker’s Bridges.

For Williams, a distraction from the railroad details was a matter of cotton.  When Williams arrived at Graham’s Station the previous day, he found a substantial quantity of cotton with a note from Major-General Joseph Wheeler for Major-General Oliver O. Howard (carried by a lady under flag of truce):

I have the honor to propose that if the troops of your army be required to discontinue burning the houses of our citizens I will discontinue burning cotton. As an earnest of the good faith in which my proposition is tendered I leave at this place about 300 bales cotton unburned, worth, in New York, over a quarter of a million, and in our currency one million and a half. I trust my having commenced will cause you to use your influence to insure the acceptance of the proposition by your whole army. I trust that you will not deem it improper for me to ask that you will require the troops under your command to discontinue the wanton destruction of property not necessary for their sustenance.

Williams forwarded the note to Sherman.  The commander responded, “Burn all cotton.”  Then Sherman elaborated, explaining his logic in destroying over a million (in Confederate dollars) worth of cotton – “The Confederate Congress has appropriated all cotton to its own use. It is the only cash article left to the enemy.”   To Wheeler, Sherman responded:

Yours addressed to General Howard is received by me. I hope you will burn all cotton and save us the trouble. We don’t want it, and it has proven a curse to our country. All you don’t burn I will. As to private houses occupied by peaceful families, my orders are not to molest or disturb them, and I think my orders are obeyed. Vacant houses being of no use to anybody, I care little about, as the owners have thought them of no use to themselves. I don’t want them destroyed, but do not take much care to preserve them.

So Wheeler’s cotton diplomacy failed outright.

Perhaps the most important development for the Federals on February 8 was the issuance of Special Fields Orders No. 25 from Sherman’s headquarters:

The next movement will be against the railroad at any point between Orangeburg and the Congaree, as near Orangeburg as possible.

The march was about to make a pivot to the right and cut the rail lines connecting Columbia with Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 683-4, 892; Part II, Serial 99, pages 330, 331, 342, 343, 349, and 1128.)