If you ask me, Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery should be among the most recognized artillery formations of the Civil War. The battery served in many important campaigns of the war and played critical roles in several major battles. Armed with 20-pdr Parrott guns, this volunteer battery saw action at Shiloh (those big guns in Grant’s Last Line), Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta (where the guns were lost and recaptured on July 22, 1864), and the march to the sea. Captain Francis DeGress was the battery commander from the summer of 1862 onward, so the unit was commonly referenced in reports by his name. And yes, the battery hauled the heavy 20-pdrs, which artillerists such as Brigadier-General Henry Hunt shunned, on light-order marches across Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. If we could ever determine a surviving example from those allotted to the battery, those Parrotts would be among the most storied cannons from the Civil war. Consider, those 20-pdrs fired on Vicksburg, Atlanta, Fort McAllister, Savannah, and, on February 16, 1865, Columbia, South Carolina. The State House still bears the scars from DeGress’ guns:
A map of Major-General William T. Sherman’s dispositions on February 16, 1865 might simply have a solid line from Granby to a point above Columbia on the Broad River, simply saying “Sherman.” At no time since early January were all the columns so contracted:
In brief, the Right Wing moved, Fifteenth Corps leading, from positions near Granby forward to find bridges over the Congaree burned. From there, Second Division of the corps leading, engineered a crossing of the Saluda and reached the Broad River before nightfall. The Seventeenth Corps trailed, but went into camp along the Congaree opposite Columbia. The Twentieth Corps concentrated behind the Right Wing. And the Fourteenth Corps moved in from Lexington and took position to cross the Saluda River near Mount Zion Church. The Cavalry Division moved to Lexington, with advances towards Wise’s Ferry.
Thus Sherman’s entire march force covered an area roughly eleven miles by six miles. This disposition allowed Sherman to threaten entry into Columbia at several points, and if need be even continue flanking to the north. Such compelled the Confederates to withdraw. That’s the macro-view of the movement for February 16. For the micro-view, let me focus on the advance of Major-General William Hazen’s Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, with the Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry, detached from the Seventeenth Corps, assisting.
Throughout the night prior, Hazen’s division suffered from considerable Confederate artillery firing from positions outside Columbia. Hazen reported the loss of one officer killed and two wounded from this firing (keep this in mind for later). On the morning of February 16, Hazen advanced his skirmish line to find the Confederate positions from the day before abandoned. Just after daylight, the skirmishers reached the Congaree Bridge, finding it burned by the retreating Confederates. By 8 a.m. Hazen had his division alined along the river, and was exchanging fire with Confederates on the opposite bank. At this time, DeGress’ battery deployed and began countering Confederate artillery and sharpshooter fire. (And I’ll return to DeGress in a moment.)
At 11 a.m., orders from Sherman, passed down through Logan, directed Hazen to move to a bridge over the Saluda near Saluda Factory. The lead of this advance was Colonel Theodore Jones’ First Brigade of the division, specifically the 13th Ohio and 57th Illinois. Reaching the Saluda, Jones found the bridge there also burned. But that did not stop the movement, as Jones later reported:
The Thirtieth Ohio and Fifty-fifth Illinois were crossed in pontoon-boats, and drove the enemy over the crest of the first ridge, where they remained, covering the working party until the bridge was completed. The rest of the brigade then crossed over the bridge.
Once again, the leading elements of a Federal advance had effected, engineered, a crossing and avoided delays. The advance continued, wheeling onto the Broad River and the bridges into Columbia from the west, as Jones continued:
The command “forward” was then given to the skirmishers, who advanced, driving the enemy with great rapidity across Broad River, the enemy burning the bridge. The brigade then went into camp; distance marched, eight miles.
With darkness, the Federals halted, with preparations to throw a pontoon bridge over the Broad River the next morning. Hazen reported three wounded in the day’s action.
Hazen’s aggressive advance put the Federals on two fronts against Columbia, but not yet in Columbia. Again, Sherman was not interested in storming the defenses to gain the city. Putting a premium on any loss of life, at least in the Federal ranks, Sherman was content to pressure the Confederates into conceding ground. And a Confederate high command focused more on keeping an army in being, over retaining any control over geographic points, was content to give Sherman the city.
But back to DeGress and his 20-pounders. Lieutenant-Colonel William H. Ross, Chief of Artillery for the Fifteenth Corps, described the deployment of DeGress’ guns that morning:
February 16, it was found necessary to put a battery in position on the extreme left in order to command rebel batteries, which were shelling the main road leading to the main bridge over Congaree River, and in order to accomplish this it was necessary to run the blockade of the rebel batteries, which I ordered and which was gallantly performed by this battery, Captain De Gress leading the column in sections. The position was gained without casualties; firing commenced and the rebel batteries silenced. Major-General Howard then ordered one section of this battery placed in the road at west end of bridgeway over Congaree River, commanding the main street in the city of Columbia in which the rebel cavalry were moving. The street was briskly shelled and made untenable.
The initial deployment of the guns, as indicated by both Hazen and Ross, was to counter Confederate batteries firing from the opposite shore. After silencing the Confederate artillery fire, DeGress turned on the depots and other military targets within range. Around that time, Sherman himself came up to take a look at Columbia from the same position occupied by DeGress:
Captain De Gress had a section of his twenty-pound Parrott guns unlimbered, firing into the town. I asked him what he was firing for; he said he could see some rebel cavalry occasionally at the intersections of the streets, and he had an idea that there was a large force of infantry concealed on the opposite bank, lying low, in case we should attempt to cross over directly into the town. I instructed him not to fire any more into the town, but consented to his bursting a few shells near the depot, to scare away the negroes who were appropriating the bags of corn and meal which we wanted, also to fire three shots at the unoccupied State-House. I stood by and saw these fired, and then all firing ceased. Although this matter of firing into Columbia has been the subject of much abuse and investigation, I have yet to hear of any single person having been killed in Columbia by our cannon. On the other hand, the night before, when Woods’s division was in camp in the open fields at Little Congaree, it was shelled all night by a rebel battery from the other aide of the river. This provoked me much at the time, for it was wanton mischief, as Generals Beauregard and Hampton must have been convinced that they could not prevent our entrance into Columbia. I have always contended that I would have been justified in retaliating for this unnecessary act of war, but did not, though I always characterized it as it deserved.
While DeGress’ firing on the city, specifically, ceased, the artillery fire in general continued against Confederate cavalry and sharpshooters, well into the afternoon. Major-General Frank Blair, who’s Seventeenth Corps moved up to the position, noted, “The enemy’s sharpshooters kept up an exceedingly annoying fire from the opposite bank of the river, which compelled us to open upon them and the city with artillery.” While DeGress’ guns relocated to Hazen’s sector, other Federal batteries arrived to continue firing against the Confederates in Columbia. The Twelfth Wisconsin Battery fired 31 rounds that day. Company H, First Missouri Light Artillery added 135 rounds. While there is no breakdown, DeGress fired 110 rounds from both positions occupied during the day. And batteries of the Seventeenth Corps no doubt added their weight.
It is said in some circles that DeGress fired upon the city with no justification. What is clear, even before we get to Sherman’s post-war memoirs, is that the Confederates made Columbia a military target starting the night before and continuing through the 16th. Quite the contrary, one would be hard pressed to explain why the Federals would not have fired on Columbia that day.
The final play for Columbia would wait until the next day. But Sherman had already posted orders in regard to the occupation of the city. A passage in Field Orders No. 26 read:
… occupy Columbia, destroy the public buildings, railroad property, manufacturing and machine shops, but will spare libraries and asylums and private dwellings.
That was the written intent.
(Citations OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 287, 372, 379; William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General Sherman, Volume 1, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889.)
(Photo credit: Bill Coughlin, August 9, 2013, Courtesy HMDB.)