Sherman’s March, February 14, 1865: Hampton calls for “strong pickets” on Congaree Creek

Movements for Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces on February 14, 1865 were generally along the lines of the previous day.  While on the surface, to those looking back 150 years, this appears an inconsequential day, there were some important activities outside of the marching which framed the campaign.  But first let us look at those moving parts:


The Congaree River presented a tricky problem for Sherman’s movements.  Below Columbia, the river bottom was as wide as the Savannah River’s (a portion of that swamp is preserved today in Congaree National Park).  Furthermore, high ground overlooked the swamps.  The Congaree was not a river Sherman could simply bounce over.  To negotiate past this barrier, the Sherman’s wings would again pivot.  This time to the left.

For the Right Wing, the marching objective of the day was to concentrate near Sandy Run.  In addition to conforming to the required pivot, this allowed Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s wing to threaten points below Columbia and hopefully pin down some of the Confederate forces.  As a further precaution, Howard detached half of the Seventeenth Corps to complete destruction of the Columbia Branch Railroad and also feint towards Kingsville.  Brigadier-General Manning Force’s Third Division had the task of wrecking railroad that day and worked to a point just past Lewisville.  The Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry returned to the railroad bridge at the Congaree, with Brigadier-General Benjamin F. Potts’ Brigade from Fourth Division in support.  Upon arrival, the mounted infantrymen again skirmished with the pickets.  This time their force was sufficient that the Confederates withdrew and fired the bridge.

The First Division of the Seventeenth Corps, along with the other brigade from Fourth Division, marched westward to link up with the Fifteenth Corps near Sandy Run.

The Fifteenth’s split columns of the previous day converged above Caw Caw Swamp on the 14th.  Major-General Charles Woods First Division led the advance that day:

Leaving my camp at Rucker’s plantation the morning of February 14, I marched by a plantation road as far as Sandy Run. I here struck the State road, and, crossing the stream about 2 p.m., I continued for some four miles farther in the direction of Columbia, reaching with my head of column the camp-ground assigned me at Wolf’s plantation at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I met with the rebel cavalry outpost at this point, but soon drove them back with my skirmishers, four companies being deployed across the road for that purpose. Encamping my division on a range of hills well adapted to defense, I threw up good earth-works on my front line, extending the embankment across the road to protect my battery that had there been put in position. During the night the rebel cavalry made a dash on my picket vedettes, capturing three of them, as well as First Lieut. David Rorick, G Company, Thirty-first Iowa Infantry, picket officer of the Third Brigade, who was at that time out superintending his line.

Of note here is the established practice, by these veteran troops, of setting up earthworks and picket lines when going into camp.  By nightfall, the entire Fifteenth Corps was compact along a section of the State Road roughly five miles long.  Imagine such a large perimeter simply appearing in a matter of hours as the corps stopped for the evening.

The Left Wing’s part in this pivot was to reach the town of Lexington, due west of Columbia.  The main road between Augusta and Columbia passed through Lexington.  With concerns of reinforcements from the Army of Tennessee arriving to concentrate in front of the Federals, Lexington became a prime objective.   On February 14th, the Twentieth Corps covered about half the distance to Lexington and stopped at a place the dispatches called Columbia Cross-Roads.

Still bringing up the rear, the Fourteenth Corps reached Horsey’s Bridge on the North Edisto on the 14th.  To their left, the Cavalry Division screened the movement.

Perhaps more important on the 14th were the movements, lack of movement, and decisions made by Confederates.  For starters, the day marked the first direct influence on the campaign by Wade Hampton.  I should say, Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, as his promotion would take effect on February 15th.  Officially, Hampton’s command, according to orders on February 7th, was a formation including two divisions transferred from Major-General Joe Wheeler’s command.  But in practice, those troops fell under Lieutenant-General William Hardee’s control.  Effectively, Hampton was a commander without troops.  Then on February 13th with General P.G.T. Beauregard giving Hampton responsibility for defending Columbia.  That evening, Hampton began working to cover the state capital with the forces available (though still not directly under his command).  To Major-General Carter L. Stevenson, Hampton wrote on the night of the 13th:

I think the line of the Congaree Creek should be held by strong pickets at the fords, whilst we push on the work laid out to-day. If you will hold the bridge over Congaree Creek and the creek up to the mouth of the Six-Mile Creek, Butler will hold all the upper fords as long as he can. I have ordered pickets placed on this side of the river and scouts sent down the State road. If you will concentrate all the cavalry under Butler he will look out for your right flank. I shall have some guns placed on this side of the river, just above the mouth of the Congaree Creek, so as to protect your left, if you are forced from the creek.

Note that Congaree Creek is a tributary, running generally west to east, of the Congaree River.   Stevenson held the line of the Congaree River between Columbia and the Wateree River near Kingsville (and beyond the Wateree was Hardee’s problem).  Hampton organized troops to extend a defensive line along the Congaree Creek on the 14th.  And more importantly for the operations of the 15th, Hampton deployed an effective cavalry screen to cover that line.  Hampton might not have a substantial force on the creek, but at least he would know what was coming.

Thus far in the campaign, only Stevenson’s troops (Major-General Stephen D. Lee’s old corps) from the Army of Tennessee had seen any substantial action.   On the 13th, Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps remained around Augusta.  Major-General Daniel H. Hill didn’t wish to part with those men, noting “Two divisions of the Fourteenth Army Corps encamped last night near Johnson’s Turn-Out.”  Hill wanted to wait until Major-General A.P. Stewart’s Corps arrived in Augusta before releasing Cheatham.  However, late in the afternoon of the 13th, Hill’s objection was overtaken by events.  Cheatham began movement to Columbia under orders from Beauregard.  Following him was Major-General Edward Walthall’s Division of Stewart’s Corps.  Cheatham’s men had a sixty mile march, give or take, to reach Columbia.  At least three days, if not more.  And that march would take them through the town of Lexington, mentioned above.  In short, reinforcements for Columbia were already late and the fight had not yet begun.

The other source of reinforcements for Columbia, under Beauregard’s plan, were those holding Charleston.  With Sherman playing his hand by crossing the Edisto, some, if not all, of the Charleston garrison was needed.  But with the rail lines cut, those troops could not arrive in time to be of aid.  However, authorities in Richmond wanted to hold on to Charleston if possible.  President Jefferson Davis wrote directly to Hardee on the matter:

The enemy may, and probably does, intend to attack Charleston, but it is by no means manifested by present operations. It is proper under the view presented to remove whatever is not needful for defense of the place, and then to postpone evacuation as long as prudent. If General Beauregard can beat the enemy in the field, the cause herein indicated may preserve the city and harbor for future use, and save us the pain of seeing it pass into the hands of the enemy.

But, as he often did, Davis stopped short of ordering the city be held.  Instead he left the matter to the judgment of Hardee and Beauregard.  While Davis was dictating his message, Beauregard was already cutting movement orders for the evacuation of Charleston.  I’ll examine those instructions in detail in a separate post to follow. But Beauregard’s justification for evacuating Charleston was set forward in his conclusion:

In view of the facility the enemy has at Branchville and Orangeburg and in the direction of Columbia, to cut the line of retreat of the garrison of Charleston, as above referred to, it becomes necessary to commence the evacuation as soon as the necessary preparations can be made. The holding of Charleston is now reduced to only a question of a few days. Its loss does not jeopardize the safety of the State of South Carolina, but the loss of its garrison would greatly contribute to that end.

To provide for the safety of South Carolina, Beauregard drew a new line on the map at the Catawba River (go to a map, draw that line, and think about “safety” for a moment… ).  Running the numbers, Beauregard estimated it would take between 15 and 17 days to reposition the troops and their supplies from Charleston.  Two weeks!  The latter was very important, as the troops stationed at Charleston were largely garrisons which were not outfitted for field duty.

Again, let me belabor a point here… the reason Beauregard could not rush troops from Charleston to Columbia was because the railroad was cut.  The railroad was cut because the Federals had managed to push their way over the North Edisto outside Orangburg after finding unguarded crossing points.  The reason there were unguarded crossing points was because the Confederate cavalry was busy chasing Federal cavalry outside Aiken.

Sometimes a defeat can be a victory in disguise.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 242; Part II, Serial 99, pages 1172, 1178, and 1180.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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