By February 22, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces had crossed five large rivers in the march across South Carolina – Salkehatchie, South and North Forks of the Edisto, Saluda, and Broad Rivers. And this is not counting the smaller streams along the way. Thus far, only at the first, at Rivers’ Bridge, did the Confederates offer any lengthy delay to the march. Even at Congaree Creek, the defenders only slowed the march by hours. Turning eastward for the next leg of the march, Sherman’s men had to cross the Catawba-Wateree, Lynches, PeeDee, and Lumber Rivers before reaching the Cape Fear River. If the Confederates were going to buy any time in order to concentrate forces against Sherman, they needed to make those river crossings difficult for the Federals. By Sherman’s plans, the first of those rivers – the Catawba-Wateree – should be crossed on February 22. Would the Confederates contest that crossing?
Starting the day, three Federal Corps acted along the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad around Winnsborough. For Sherman’s east turn to be successful, his cavalry had the important task of keeping the Confederate cavalry at bay, while the infantry conducted the pivot. Sherman’s instructions to Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick were to take position and maneuver “so as to seem to be the advance of the whole army in the direction of Chesterville and Charlotte…,” and to cover the Fourteenth Corps as it turned east. Sherman also wanted all railroad bridges on the Broad River destroyed to delay any Confederate reinforcements from Georgia.
In short, Kilpatrick was charged with a covering mission, with deception. The only catch here, deviating from a classic covering force mission, Kilpatrick was not allowed to develop the situation to engage the enemy. Little margin for error in that regard. But working in Kilpatrick’s favor, the Confederate cavalry was not very active at this phase of the campaign. Discussing the period starting on the 22nd, Kilpatrick summarized:
Here it was found that Hampton’s and Wheeler’s combined forces were in my front. By demonstrations and feints, communications, and a well-timed interview with Major-General Wheeler, the enemy was not only deceived as to our real movements, but the deception was kept up for several days, and it was not until our army crossed [Lynches River] and the advance had actually reached Chesterfield and Cheraw that he discovered his mistake.
Reporting to Sherman on the 22nd, Kilpatrick indicated his troops had accomplished the secondary mission against the Broad River bridges and were watching the withdrawal of the rear elements of the Fourteenth Corps. (I’ve generally depicted the Cavalry forces arrayed on the map with dashed lines. I’d interpret those as small detachments and reconnaissance parties. Kilpatrick’s headquarters were at Black Stocks Station that day.) Though Kilpatrick’s report makes things sound as if he’d conducted some great deception, in reality the guard force deceived the Confederates for a day, as will be seen below. Kilpatrick also reported other, more disturbing, developments that day, which we will discuss below.
The Fourteenth Corps ground up the railroad from White Oak to Cornwall, then began movement towards Gladden’s Grove. The Twentieth Corps also spent time destroying the railroad in the morning before turning east. The corps camped on the Catawba River that evening at Rocky Mount. The Fourteenth Corps moved from just south of Winnsborough to Poplar Springs, putting them behind the Fifteenth Corps. One small incident is worth noting in regard to Winnsborough. As Major-General John Geary’s division left the “pretty town” he left behind a detail maintain order.
Lieut. Gen. Wade Hampton, commanding the enemy’s cavalry forces, had left with the mayor a note pledging his word that any men of our army who might be left in the town as safeguards after the departure of the main force should be protected from arrest or injury if overtaken by any of his troops.
Geary left behind two mounted men, around whom the citizens “organized themselves” to “drive out a few stragglers.” Confederate cavalry arrived the next day and honored Hampton’s word.
Major-General John Logan and the Fifteenth Corps had the task of getting over the Watree River at Peay’s Ferry (the Wateree was formed at the confluence of the Catawba River and Big Wateree Creek, just north of Peay’s Ferry, a location submerged today by Lake Wateree). Logan dispatched First Division of his corps to demonstrate at Nichols’ Ferry, while the remainder of the force marched on Peay’s Ferry. Reaching the river, the pontoon bridges went out across the river. Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard later recalled:
The work of laying the bridge across the Wateree commenced at 1 p.m. Our crossing at that point did not seem to be anticipated. Here we found the country high and rolling and the banks of the river quite steep. General Logan crossed two of his divisions after the completion of the bridge.
The divisions across were Second and Third Divisions of the corps. Once again, the Federals were across a river barrier with no opposition worth noting.
On the Confederate side, General P.G.T. Beauregard reported the disposition of his forces to Richmond that morning, indicating Sherman’s forces were in Winnsborough and advancing. Major-General Carter L. Stevenson’s infantry were at Land’s Ford on the Catawba. After evacuating Columbia on the 16th, Stevenson moved northeast escorting the various wagons and trains from the city. Those troops crossed to the east of the river at Land’s Ford and moved towards Charlotte, North Carolina. Remarkably, this cleared approaches to the Catawba just before the Federals reached the river.
Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s corps, along with much of the Army of Tennessee reinforcements, countermarched on the 22nd back to Newberry. The bridges destroyed by Kilpatrick’s troops prompted a series of marches just to get across the Broad River.
In front of Kilpatrick’s cavalry, Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton was not fooled. Reporting late that day to Beauregard, Hampton wrote:
Enemy are evidently moving eastward. The Fourteenth Corps on the railroad. Sherman has moved to his right. Kilpatrick is there also….
Thus all the designs to protect Charlotte were rendered invalid for the situation. Beauregard dutifully reported this to Richmond that evening.
But the big news from the Confederate side on the 22nd was a change in command at the top. With confidence in Beauregard reaching an all time low (… no comments…), General Robert E. Lee decided to bring General Joseph E. Johnston back to active service. Officially, Lee gave Johnston command of “the Army of Tennessee and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.” His primary task was to “Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” Beauregard would report to Johnston under this new arrangement.
However, in the midst of this day of railroad wrecking, marching, crossing rivers, and changing commanders, a problem left over from the Savannah Campaign re-emerged. In Kilpatrick’s report to Sherman, he noted:
An infantry lieutenant and seven men were murdered yesterday by the Eighth Texas Cavalry after they had surrendered. We found their bodies all together and mutilated, with paper on their breasts, saying, “Death to foragers.” Eighteen of my men were killed yesterday and some had their throats cut. There is no doubt about this, general, and I have sent Wheeler word that I intend to hang eighteen of his men, and if the cowardly act is repeated, will burn every house along my line of march, and that can be reached by my scouting parties. I have a number of prisoners, and shall take a fearful revenge. My people were deliberately murdered and by a scouting party of 300 men commanded by a lieutenant-colonel.
As indicated, Kilpatrick had already sent note to Wheeler, who responded the same day. Wheeler claimed the description of the troops did not match any Texas units under his command. While agreeing the murders were transgressions that should be investigated, Wheeler preferred any punishment be inflicted upon the guilty parties and not against “innocent persons.” Needless to say, Wheeler felt the threat of burning houses too brutal.
A cycle of claim and counter-claim was about to give way to retaliations.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 200, 687, and 859-60; Part II, Serial 99, pages 518-9, 533, 1247, and 1248.)