As the middle of February 1865 came, Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns were well into South Carolina. The Federals were reaching out towards Columbia. To counter that reach, the Confederates needed time to concentrate forces. Two corps… in name at least… were at or nearing Augusta. Geography favored the Confederates in that regard. The roads from Augusta were good, with only a couple important river crossings. On the other hand, for Sherman’s troops to reach Columbia, they had two rivers to cross. The first of those, the North Fork of the Edisto River, offered a a chance to delay Sherman. Maybe one day. Maybe more. Sherman needed troops over that river on February 12.
On the left of Sherman’s advance, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick spent a relatively quiet “day after.” His troopers did some railroad wrecking. At night, the division pulled out of Johnson’s Station and proceeded towards Guignard’s Bridge.
Elements of the Fourteenth Corps did their turn on the South Carolina Railroad on February 12. But most of their columns continued up the road to Guignard’s Bridge, as they were nearly up with the lead of the advance.
For the other three corps of Sherman’s forces, the objective of the day lay on the north bank of the North Fork of the Edisto River.
Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, Twentieth Corps had the lead that morning. Having crossed Duncan’s Bridge the day before, Geary cut across to Jeffcoat’s Bridge on the North Fork:
Near the crossing of the Ninety-six road we met a small force of the enemy’s cavalry and exchanged shots with them. On reaching Jeffcoat’s Bridge we found it burned, and the enemy holding the north bank of the North Edisto. The only approach to the bridge, except on the road, was through swamp, covered with a dense tangled growth of bushes, vines, and briers. I deployed skirmishers on each flank, from the Fifth Ohio Veteran Volunteers and One hundred and forty-seventh Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, who made their way with great difficulty through these swampy thickets, and drove the enemy from the opposite bank. The main channel here was very deep and the bridge of heavy timbers was effectually destroyed. On the opposite side was another extensive swamp, through which the road was built in form of a causeway. The farther end of this causeway the enemy held and from their position swept the road and bridge with discharges of shell and canister from two pieces of artillery. On each side of the causeway the swamp was too deep to be waded. My troops held both ends of the bridge and a small earth-work was thrown up.
The descriptions of rivers and swamps are almost cliche in the Federal reports. I dare say no Federal discharged a musket in South Carolina unless he was chest deep in stagnant water and afforded only a dozen yards visibility. Kidding aside, Geary was able to isolate and turn out the Confederate position, thus gaining the far shore.
Major-General John Logan’s Fifteenth Corps had Major-General William Hazen’s Second Division in the lead that morning, marching towards Shilling’s Bridge. Reaching that point and finding a well entrenched Confederate force, Hazen deployed skirmishers to develop the line. Two regiments at the bridge kept the Confederates busy while Hazen sent troops to find alternate ways through the swamp. Logan reported:
A crossing below the bridge having been first effected General Hazen moved the First and Third Brigades of his division to that point and threw them across the river on a hastily constructed bridge of rafts fastened together, but found a dense and tangled swamp still in his front, through which he pushed his command, however, reaching the mainland without encountering resistance. In the meanwhile [Second Brigade] had been equally successful in effecting a crossing above the bridge, and, with the Thirty-seventh Ohio Infantry, pushed down on the left bank of the river, taking the enemy’s position at the bridge in flank and reverse. The moment the enemy discovered our forces on their side of the river they broke and ran from their works, throwing aside arms and accouterments in their flight. The enemy was driven from his works at 2.30 p.m.
Logan reported capturing eighty prisoners and finding three dead Confederates. His own casualties were one killed and five wounded. With that, Fifteenth Corps was across the river and soon had two divisions on the north side.
On the far right, the Seventeenth Corps had, thanks to the efforts of Brigadier-General Manning Force on the 11th, a secure crossing point and a foothold. Major-General Frank Blair, commanding the corps, sent a pontoon bridge to Force that morning.
On the morning of the 12th, being ordered to cross at the lowest point, the laying of pontoons was begun at 11 a.m. In three hours the division was on the farther side in lines; the front line advanced half a mile. The enemy shelled my skirmish line with one field piece and feeble musketry I advanced the First Brigade, Col. C. Fairchild, Sixteenth Wisconsin, upon the enemy’s position, and through Orangeburg to the railroad. The skirmish line fired upon a train of cars loaded with soldiers, and upon the rear of their columns, retreating toward Columbia.
Having crossed unopposed, Force rolled up the Confederate defenses. The division immediately went to work on the railroad. Meanwhile Fourth Division, with the withdrawal of the defenders, Major-General Giles Smith’s Fourth Division repaired the road bridge into Orangeburg that afternoon.
As the Seventeenth Corps entered Orangeburg, men noticed fires already burning in the town. Major-General Oliver O. Howard, in charge of the Right Wing, reported:
Soon after entering the town of Orangeburg a fire broke out in the upper story of a store building. The incendiary work was reported to have been done by a Jew, who was angry because the rebel cavalry had burned his cotton. The wind was high and the fire spread rapidly, consuming the poorer part of the town before its progress could be arrested. Sour soldiers finally got it under control and prevented its spreading farther. Some 200 bales of cotton that the rebels had spared were carefully burned by our troops.
Doesn’t really matter who started the fire. The end result was the same. Nobody’s cotton was safe in South Carolina that winter.
By the evening of February 12, the Federals had three bridgeheads, each at least two divisions in strength, over the North Fork of the Edisto River. The Columbia Branch Railroad was broken. The only natural obstacle between Sherman and Columbia was the Congaree River. And the only major Confederate formation in position, Major-General Carter Stevenson’s, was falling back from Orangeburg that evening.
Allow me to close today and belabor the main point from yesterday’s post. All three of these crossings were accomplished by infantry forces which probed and maneuvered against isolated guard forces. With very few mounted men to delay the Federal advance, report the progress, and picket the rivers outside of the main crossing points, the Confederate defenders were blind. Sherman’s three bridgeheads on the 12th were a direct result of the cavalry fight on the 11th.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 196, 225, 406, and 684-5.)