Sherman’s March, February 18, 1865: Hampton – “we might concentrate on one of his corps and destroy it”

Just as the Federals spent time around Millegeville, Georgia, in November, 1864,  to complete the demolition of facilities of military value, Major-General William T. Sherman ordered his subordinates to focus on facilities around Columbia, South Carolina on February 18, 1865.    This work fell predominately to the Right Wing of Major-General Oliver O. Howard.  Meanwhile the Left Wing and the Cavalry Division continued a wide movement around Columbia.


But before any of this demolition work began, Howard established up front there would be no more unauthorized destruction in Columbia:

It having been brought to the attention of the commanding general that certain lawless and evil-disposed soldiers of this command have threatened to destroy the remainder of this city with fire, it is ordered that all commanding officers and provost-marshals use the utmost vigilance by establishing sufficient guards and patrols to prevent at all cost, even to the taking the life of any refractory soldier, a recurrence of the horrors of last night. …

Howard was serious about maintaining law and order in the city.

The Second and Fourth Divisions, Fifteenth Corps set to work destroying the Columbia Branch Railroad east of the city, with the aim of reaching a minimum of fifteen miles by the next day.  A detail of mounted troops rushed out to destroy the railroad bridge over Wateree River.    The three divisions of Seventeenth Corps worked on nine miles of the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad.  Orders called for details from both corps to enter Columbia and destroy selected public and military property.  One order called for “500 men, to report to Colonel [Thomas] Baylor, chief of ordnance at the Confederate arsenal….” along with 25 wagons, “… for the purpose of hauling ammunition to the river.”  Some of that ammunition emerged in the news recently, as much of it is still there at the dump.  However, ammunition handling was not exactly a safe detail, as Major-General John Logan related, “… during the destruction of some ammunition a sad explosion took place, killing and wounding 1 officer and 23 men.  Upon investigation it was found to have occurred from purely accidental causes, and that no one was chargeable with undue carelessness.”

For the Left Wing the 18th was best characterized as a “hurry up and wait” day.  Fourteenth Corps was supposed to cross the Broad River at Freshly’s Mills.  But there were problems placing a bridge there which delayed the march for a day.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis complained at dark, “Please inform the general that I am completely disappointed and thoroughly disgusted.” Major William Downy, in charge of a section of the pontoon train, could not lay the required bridge.  Davis later charged, “but owing to a want of proper management and energy on the part of the officers in charge of the pontooniers the bridge was not completed until daylight, the 19th….”  Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, in charge of the Left Wing’s pontoon train, had much of his boats in use on the Saluda River and others sent to support the Fifteenth Corps crossing into Columbia. Not until that evening did Moore have sufficient materials to lay the 640 foot bridge at Freshly’s Mills.   Meanwhile the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps stacked up on the road.

There was reason for Davis to be edgy.  During the day, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry Division made a wide turn out to Pomaria Station on the Greenville & Columbia Railroad.  He then turned to Alston along the Broad River, doing some damage to the railroad along the way.  Kilpatrick reported no significant contact with Confederate forces, but “Marched all day on the 18th parallel to Cheatham’s corps, rebel infantry, and at some points not over three miles distant. A bad stream alone prevented me from striking him in the flank.”  The Confederate reinforcements, while too late to save Columbia, were arriving belatedly in force.

I’ve depicted some of those Confederates on the map above.  Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s headquarters reached Frog Level Station, appearing on the map as Prosperity (can’t imagine why the locals changed the placename!).  Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, headquartered at Doko, north of Columbia.  Among the forces he had arrayed was Brigadier-General William Allen’s Division, fronted Cane Creek and Broad River, much like a wedge between the Federal wings.  Major-General Carter L. Stevenson’s Corps had withdrawn well north of Columbia (and I cannot plot them accurately).  General P.G.T. Beauregard kept his headquarters at Winnsborough.  Off my map, the forces withdrawing from Charleston were working their way northward.

Though these commands were widely separated, one Confederate leaders sensed opportunity.  To Beauregard, Wade Hampton wrote:

As Sherman marches in so extended a manner it has occurred to me that we might concentrate on one of his corps and destroy it. At present the Fifteenth Corps is on the Winnsborough road, the Seventeenth on the railroad, and the other two, I suppose, across the Broad River. The country between the two corps here is rough and inaccessible, so that if we could concentrate in front of the Seventeenth Corps we might defeat it before support could reach it. All the cavalry with the infantry could, I think, defeat one corps.

Aggressive, bold plan.  This was the sort of action that Hampton’s superior in Virginia might have done right up to the previous summer.  That was 1864.  And this was the winter of 1865.  The Confederate command had but few pieces on the chess board. And the focus was maintaining, concentrating what few pieces the Confederacy still had.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 228 and 430; Part II, Serial 99, pages 475, 480, and 1218-9.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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