At the three week mark in the march through South Carolina, Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns were well into South Carolina. Although contact skirmishing occurred each day during the march, after Columbia the Confederate forces were ill-arranged to pose serious impediments to Sherman’s movements. Thus, the Federal march orders and daily reports focused on waypoints and distances of railroad to destroy.
On the Right Wing, the Fifteenth Corps moved up to Longtown and Harrison’s Cross Roads, fronting Dutchman’s Creek. Their movements were designed to reach Poplar Springs the following day to setup the next phase of movements. The Seventeenth Corps continued its march towards Winnsborough, taking a direct route by road. Detached brigades remained along the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad turning rails into bow-ties.
The Left Wing closed up on the same railroad to the north. Major-General John Geary’s Second Division had the lead for the Twentieth Corps’ march that day. Leaving his trains behind, his men neared Winnsborough at 11 a.m.
When within two miles of the town, I saw heavy smoke arising from it, and double-quicked my two advance regiments in order to reach it in time to arrest the conflagration. This we effected with much labor, my troops performing the part of firemen with great efficiency. About one square was burned before the fire could be arrested.
Geary did not say what started the fire. However, he did find foragers from several corps in the town, which he immediately sent back to their respective commands. Geary’s men were assigned details on the railroad and took their turn twisting rails.
The Twentieth Corps met no resistance on the march up to the town, nor encountered Confederates beyond the town. But dispatches on the Confederate side indicate Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton departed that point earlier in the day. With insufficient force to oppose three converging Federal corps, Hampton opted to trade space for time.
Despite the fire, Geary was impressed with the town:
Winnsborough is a pretty town of about 2,500 population, the seat of justice for Fairfield District. Among its residents were many refugees from Charleston. The surrounding country is well farmed and furnished abundance of supplies….
The Fourteenth Corps skirted around to the north of Winnsborough and went to work on the railroad line there.
Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry moved on the left of, and parallel to, the Fourteenth Corps to arrive at Springfield Post-office. Major-General Joseph Wheeler had finally gotten in front of the Federal advance, and was in position to spar with his West Point classmate again. From the Confederate perspective, with cavalry fronting the advance along the railroad and three infantry corps behind, it appeared that Charlotte, North Carolina was the next destination.
In Chester (or Chesterville), just north of the Federal advance, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s attitude swung from alarmed to emboldened. Recall, the previous day he’d reported to Richmond that he lacked the forces to delay Sherman. That evening he even suggested removing all ordnance stores from Charlotte as a precaution. But on the morning of the 21st, Beauregard was suddenly feeling aggressive… and even had a plan! To Richmond he telegraphed:
Should enemy advance into North Carolina toward Charlotte and Salisbury, as is now almost certain, I earnestly urge a concentration in time of at least 35,000 infantry and artillery at the latter point, if possible, to give him battle there, and crush him, then to concentrate all forces against Grant, and then to march on Washington to dictate a peace. Hardee and myself can collect about 15,000, exclusive of Cheatham and Stewart, not likely to reach in time. If Lee and Bragg could furnish 20,000 more the fate of the Confederacy would be secure.
Beauregard was correct to not count Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s long delayed column. After spending two days at Newberry, the command marched twenty-one miles that day. But lacking pontoons or other means to repair bridges, the column would return the next day to march a different route. Yes, it was easier at that point in time to move troops from Virginia to Charlotte, than to move them across South Carolina. A lot of it had to do with those iron bow-ties.
Further reducing Beauregard’s forces at the time of most need, Governor Andrew MacGrath determined to keep most of the state militia. “This reduces my infantry to about 2,500 men,” reported Beauregard. MacGrath, with the column himself, preferred to move those men east of the Catawba-Wateree River instead of fleeing to North Carolina.
As things happened to be working out, Sherman was also looking east of the Catawba-Wateree Line. He would meet with Major-General Henry Slocum, commanding the Left Wing, in Winnsborough that day, and to Major-General Oliver O. Howard he instructed:
Slocum sends his pontoons and wagons to-morrow straight for the ferry at Rocky Mount Post-Office by Gladden’s Grove. He will keep four divisions breaking road up as far as the Chester District line, and aim to cross his whole command the day after to-morrow. Let Blair finish up the road good to this point, and then assemble at Poplar Springs and effect a crossing of the Wateree, prepared to get all across the day after to-morrow. Slocum will assemble his command at Gladden’s. Communicate with me there or at Rocky Mount. After crossing, Slocum and the cavalry will have the road from Lancaster to Chesterfield and you from your ferry straight for Cheraw, dipping a little south, to get on the Camden road. I will keep with the Twentieth Corps, which is Slocum’s right.
The Federals were about to pivot again. This time to the east and towards the coast. Three weeks on the march, and it was time to start seeking a base for resupply.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 687; Part II, Serial 99, pages 513 and 1238.)