Sherman’s March, February 10, 1865: “No better opportunity ever offered to break Wheeler up”

February 10, 1865 was not a day of great advances for Major-General William T. Sherman’s command.  The armies closed up, completed destruction of a railroad, and positioned for the next phase of the march.  From the perspective of 150 years, the activities of this day well demonstrate against the myths of Sherman’s passage through the Palmetto State – it was not simply a string of destructive marches, but rather a series of smart operational movements that both gained objectives and avoided major engagements; and the march was not unopposed… rather, it was opposed with a decentralized, disorganized response.


The longest march for the day was by elements of the Fourteenth Corps as they caught up. Major-General Absalom Baird’s Third Division reached Barnwell that day.  After posting a guard “keeping order and guarding the families that remain,” Baird reported “All is very quiet and orderly.”  Baird also began reviewing the line of march for the next day, in the direction of Williston.  Behind Baird, Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division reached a point eight miles from Barnwell.  Traveling another road, Brigadier-General William Carlin’s First Division, along with most of the trains for the Corps, reached Fiddle Pond.  The Major-General Jefferson C. Davis could report the marches were easier, having finally left the swamps behind.  But Sherman was still governing the advance to allow the trailing corps to catch up.

Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps could say they re-joined the Fifteenth Corps on February 10.  That evening, the troops arrived at what had been Graham’s Turnout on the South Carolina Railroad. They prepared to cross the South Edisto as the rear guard of the corps on the 11th.

Both the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps spent the day completing their railroad destruction tasks and moving to new camps astride the Edisto.  Second Division, Fifteenth Corps (Brigadier-General William Hazen) completed crossing that day.  Third Division (Brigadier-General Manning Force) of the Seventeenth Corps joined First Division (Major-General Joseph Mower) across the river.  The other divisions of the Right Wing (except Corse’s) went into camps near the crossing points and prepared to march the next day.

The previous day, Sherman complained to Major-General Henry Slocum that the Twentieth Corps work on the railroad was insufficient.  “Tell Williams I have inspected his work [at Blackville], and the bars are not twisted; better do half the quantity, but do it thoroughly; unless there be a warp, the bar can be straightened.” So Major-General Alpheus S. Williams and his corps spent the morning focused on railroads.

At 1 p.m. orders came to move the Twentieth off to two crossing points of the Edisto.  Third Division, Major-General William T. Ward’s, marched towards Guignard’s Bridge, but found it undefended but burned.  Most of Ward’s division remained at Williston while engineers repaired the bridge.  Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, taking the lead for the first time in South Carolina, advanced on Duncan’s Bridge with the First Division following.  Geary started the eight mile march at 2 p.m.  He also found no Confederates but a damaged bridge:

With my infantry I crossed before dark and encamped on the north side, on the plantation of Mr. Winningham.  Neither my artillery nor any of our horses could be taken over until the bridge was repaired.  Duncan’s Bridge (better known among the inhabitants as New Bridge) comprises six bridges, with causeways connecting them, the entire crossing being about one mile in length.  Three of these bridges, including those across the two main channels of the South Edisto, had been burned by the enemy, and required much work to repair them.

Geary also noted, “The country along the Edisto is a rich one, and the resources for subsistence and forage were abundant.”

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division also focused on railroad wrecking that day… along with patrols to feel out the Confederate forces.  Around mid-day, Kilpatrick reported, from Johnson’s Turnout, his progress and described Confederate activity:

Have just driven out a brigade of rebel cavalry, and find that Wheeler has concentrated the majority of his troops at Aiken, and is now in line of battle, barricading his position two miles this side of Aiken. We have had considerable skirmishing, but nothing more. This is a splendid country; plenty of forage and supplies. The enemy now believe that we are marching on Augusta; such, at least, is the impression among the citizens. Anderson’s division crossed Cook’s Bridge last evening, and passed this point. Wheeler’s command is at this moment passing up from the direction of the river to my front and forming lines at a trot. I will not attack until I hear further from you.

To this, Kilpatrick offered a suggestion:

No better opportunity ever offered to break Wheeler up; but as he may have supports of infantry I do not consider it prudent to attack. Could he now be driven back and Aiken captured we could secure a large amount of provisions, needed by my command, and I think a wrong [impression] be produced upon the minds of the enemy which he could not correct until it would be entirely too late. If you will send me a brigade of infantry from the Twentieth Army Corps, which must now be this side of Blackville and consequently less than a day’s march from this point, I will render Wheeler powerless to even annoy your flank or wagon trains again during the campaign. … I hope, general, that the suggestion in this communication contained will meet with your approval, and that you will give me an opportunity of disposing of Wheeler’s command. I will break road until I am attacked, in which case you can rest easy as to the result.

Kilpatrick seemed perpetually placing himself upon a faltering pillar.  Insistent on setting up his own fall.  Sherman, however, could not afford some repeat of February-March 1864 in South Carolina:

I cannot change my plans now, as they are in progress. I don’t care about Aiken, unless you can take it by a dash, and as Wheeler’s attention is drawn to that quarter you can let it work. … t won’t pay to have infantry chasing Wheeler’s cavalry; it is always a bad plan, and is injurious to detach infantry, save for a day or a single occasion.

Aiken was a diversion, and not an objective.  And demonstrations don’t get more resources than absolutely needed.  (Keep this in mind for tomorrow’s post… and the battle of Aiken.)

The Confederate command made adjustments to Kilpatrick’s presence, threatening Aiken and thus the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia.  Fearing a Federal strike back into Georgia, Major-General Daniel H. Hill called for reinforcements.  Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps, just arriving from the west, was dispatched across the Savannah River.  Hill urged “The preservation of the factory at Graniteville” just west of Aiken, asking Cheatham to dispatch 500 men to that point on the railroad. The factory was a textile mill owned by William Gregg, engaged in making uniforms for the Confederate Army.

In response to the Federal cavalry, Major-General Joseph Wheeler began shifting his cavalry off the South Edisto towards Aiken, just as Kilpatrick reported. This uncovered the area between the forks of the Edisto, which caused Major-General Carter L. Stevenson no small worry.  To Major-General Lafayette McLaws, Stevenson urged, “Send some cavalry to guard the North Edisto. From Rowe’s Bridge to its mouth it is uncovered.” Exacerbating the situation, the forces Stevenson detailed to guard the approaches to the North Edisto, in front of the Federal bridgeheads, withdrew before orders pinned them to their posts. Slow dispatches and Wheeler’s shift worked to remove most opposition in the way of Sherman’s planned movements for February 11.

The problem for the Confederate commands here was lack of unity.  Matching Hill’s worries about Augusta’s safety, Lieutenant-General William Hardee was concerned about Charleston.  The Confederates were willing to give up the port, but were not quite ready to leave at that time.  Detachments from the Army of Tennessee (Stevenson and Cheatham) did not directly fit under either of those commands. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was responsible for coordinating these actions, was in Columbia that day.  But he might as well been on the moon, as he offered little clarity or guidance.  The situation was foggy at best.  Where was Sherman heading?

To be fair, Sherman himself was in a fog.  For several days he had acted in belief that only Wheeler and detachments from McLaws command opposed his movements.  The reports about troops from the Army of Tennessee were discounted as simply vanguard elements of small strength. That is until the 9th with prisoners brought in from Stevenson’s command (and other contact).  This caused a little pause from Sherman as he quickly recalculated the situation.  That evening, amended orders went out:

 I want to have the road broken up good from about Orangeburg up above the State road, Mathews’ Post-Office, but would prefer that one corps should do the work, leaving the Fifteenth to follow a course more to the west in support of the Left Wing, in the event of Dick Taylor having got to Augusta with Hood’s old army. Slocum’s orders will take him by the most direct road possible to Columbia, but making to his left about the Sand Hills in case he comes in contact with one of your columns.

Orangeburg and the railroad were still objectives.  But Sherman would proceed with a little more caution.  One can see some of this caution in the response to Kilpatrick, regarding Wheeler and Aiken.  There was as stark difference in the “active” response to Sherman as opposed to the “inactive” stance of Beauregard on the evening of February 10.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 684; Part II, Serial 99, pages 364, 373, 381, 382-3, 1144, and 1146.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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