As his forces closed on Columbia, South Carolina, Major-General William T. Sherman had to avoid becoming “fixed” or otherwise committed. The 60,000 man force, deep in enemy territory, had to keep moving in order to acquire provisions. Furthermore, delays would allow the Confederates to catch up with the highly mobile Federal columns. Nearing a large city, the trick was to maneuver about the Confederate defenses, not allow them an opening to exploit, and then offer compelling reason for the enemy to abandon the place. Sherman could not pause for a siege – not even a short, relatively bloodless one as at Savannah. For February 15, 1865, Sherman’s objectives were to flank around the Confederate defenses along Congaree Creek and isolate Columbia by cutting the road to Augusta.
Using Congaree Creek as a main line of resistance, a few thousand Confederates, mostly from Colonel George Dibrell’s cavalry brigade, were the first of Sherman’s objectives that day. Unlike previous Confederate lines, Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton ensured pickets were forward of the line. Hampton wanted to buy as much time possible. If Columbia could not be held, it could be evacuated and resources saved to rally elsewhere. Hampton was to make the 15th one of the “fightingest” days of the march through South Carolina.
The Federal advance that day followed three routes:
The Fifteenth Corps, with the Seventeenth in trail, would press forward along the State Road to Congaree Creek. Sherman cautioned his subordinates, later expressing in his memoirs, “…there was no need of exposing much life,” as to the left of that advance, the Left Wing advanced towards Lexington and would render the Congaree Creek line turned. The Twentieth Corps was moving to upper crossings of the Congaree Creek. Further to the left, the Fourteenth Corps and the Cavalry Division aimed for the Augusta-Columbia Road.
Leading Fifteenth Corps’ advance that day was First Division, under Major-General Charles Woods:
I met with stubborn opposition throughout the entire day, and, being obliged to march with a heavy skirmish line constantly covering my advance, it was not until the afternoon that I reached the neighborhood of the Little Congaree Creek, but five miles distant. The enemy was here developed on the river bank in considerable force, with three pieces of artillery protecting his position.
Woods deployed his Second Brigade, under Colonel Robert F. Catterson, to the right of the road. Likewise Third Brigade, under Colonel George Stone, to the left. Catterson’s probe downstream initially met little success. Within a bend of the creek, the Confederate position was well selected, “strong barricade of rails across the road near the bridge, and had two pieces of artillery in position on the road.” Catterson was unable to move directly against those works. But he was, further downstream, able to construct a crossing for skirmishers on logs.
Upstream, Stone’s men likewise attempted to create a crossing:
Immediately in front of the Fourth Iowa was a swamp about waist deep and about 200 yards wide. The regiment did not falter at this obstacle, but gallantly plunged in, led by its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Nichols. We were now about 500 yards above the position held by the rebels on Little Congaree Creek, and a branch of the same stream intervening between us and the creek itself. It was discovered our present position flanked an outpost of the enemy on the same side of the stream we were now on, and three companies of the Fourth Iowa and four companies of the Ninth Iowa were ordered to attack this outpost.
This cleared the Confederates off the first branch of the creek, and Stone pressed forward to the second branch. The 4th Iowa attempted to infiltrate this second line passing over logs. But that effort failed when the Confederates noticed the movement. However, by that time, Catterson’s skirmishers were working the downstream side. Aided by a gun from Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Upton’s 46th Ohio Infantry lead the way. Noticing the Confederates attempting to withdraw and destroy the main bridge over the creek, Upton ordered three companies under Captain John B. Neil to save the bridge:
He started immediately on the double-quick for the bridge, his men firing as they went, which confused the enemy’s movements so much that he did not fire his artillery until after the men had reached the bridge and a few had run on to it. He then opened his artillery, firing canister at the bridge. I now ordered the three companies under Captain Foster to move farther up the creek. After some slight firing I saw that the enemy was retiring from his line of works and immediately pushed these three companies across the creek on a foot log, and entered the enemy’s works, he still being in gunshot range but retiring slowly.
Upton’s men thus secured the burning bridge and went to work extinguishing the flames (aided much by a steady rain). Dibrell’s men contested the advance up from the creek bottom that afternoon. The crossing of Congaree Creek cost Woods six killed and eighteen wounded. Woods was able to secure high ground north of the creek, but halted for the evening. A Confederate line of works stood between him and the bridge to Columbia.
While Woods division was securing a crossing of Congree Creek, Third Division of the Fifteenth Corps, under Major-General John Smith, conducted a demonstration on the Congaree River. Delayed due to the passing columns of the Seventeenth Corps, Smith finally moved at 11 a.m. that morning, marching towards Bates’ Ferry. Finding a Confederate picket, Smith dutifully engaged the force with his skirmishers. “In the meantime I ordered one section of Battery B, First Michigan Artillery, in position and made such disposition of my command as would create the impression that I had a much larger force.” Artillery fire chased off the pickets. Smith observed, “The crossing at this point was practicable, had it been desirable.” But Sherman did not intend to use that route into Columbia. Furthermore, Smith’s diversion was of little effect on the Confederates.
To compel the Confederates back from their defenses on front of Woods, that evening Brigadier-General Manning Force’s Third Division, Seventeenth Corps made one of the rare night movements of the Civil War. “On the night of the 15th,” wrote Force, “the Second Brigade drove the rebel guard from Taylor’s Bridge over Congaree Creek and rebuilt the bridge.”
Meanwhile, the Left Wing also made good progress against Confederate resistance. Major-General John Geary’s Second Division was point for the Twentieth Corps on the 15th:
… my division, disencumbered, leading the corps; marched at 7 a.m., following the Lexington road. Near Congaree Creek we met a portion of the enemy’s cavalry and drove them rapidly across the creek, where we found the bridge burned and a dismounted force holding the crossing, being sheltered behind a log breast-work at the other end of the bridge. The sides of the creek were swampy, with dense thickets, and the stream was four or five feet deep. My skirmishers penetrated the thicket to the stream; a few of them waded it, and while they gained the enemy’s rear another portion charged directly on the bridge, which was thus gained without any loss on our part.
Geary’s troops quickly repaired the damaged bridge and pressed on. Confederate cavalry pestered them. But Geary would brag, “… my skirmishers meeting them at every ravine and hill and driving them on the run so rapidly that the main column could not keep up.” So rapid was the pursuit that the Confederates were unable to destroy a bridge at Red Bank Creek. Geary halted his main column two miles from Lexington. However, Brigadier-General Henry Barnum’s Brigade continued on to the intersection of the Lexington-Orangeburg and Augusta-Columbia roads.
Further to the left, the Fourteenth Corps and the Cavalry Division made good time on their movement. Brigadier-General William Carlin’s First Division, Fourteenth Corps, lead the approach to Lexington:
…. advance ran into about two regiments of rebel cavalry; slight skirmish; Lieutenant Channel and several men captured to-day; two rebel cavalrymen captured; reached camp at Two-Notch road about 4 p.m.; at 5 p.m. received orders to move on to Lexington, two miles and a half distant; reached the town at 7.30 p.m. and found Barnum’s brigade, of Twentieth Corps, just arrived and in possession of the place; camped on south side of town.
The cavalry went into camp about eight miles west of Lexington. Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick noticed, “Only some 1,500 of Wheeler’s cavalry had passed upon the road in the direction of Columbia. The majority of his command, together with Cheatham’s Corps, which had been marching for Columbia, was intercepted.”
Kilpatrick’s assessment was accurate. Writing to Major-General Joseph Wheeler on the morning, Major-General Daniel H. Hill encouraged, “I think your best movement wold be to get in front of the Yankees and delay their movement upon Columbia.” You see, 150 years ago today, Hill was belaboring my point about Aiken.
With the close of February 15, 1865, Sherman had broken the Confederate lines protecting the approaches to Columbia. A sizable force was in place to block any reinforcements to the city. Furthermore, if the need arose, Sherman could flank the defenders of Columbia out to the Cherokee Foot Hills, in relative safety. Columbia’s fate was sealed that day.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 242, 258, 262, 266, 316, 408, 685, and 859; Part II, Serial 99, page 1199.)