Sherman’s March, February 23, 1865: Crossing the Wateree-Catawba, “The day’s work was an excessively fatiguing one”

For most soldiers in the march column on Maj0r-General William T. Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign, February 23, 1865 was day spent crossing the Wateree-Catawba River.  Confederate resistance to the crossing was negligible to say the least… or really, that would be the most one might say!  In fact, the biggest problem the Federals faced at the two crossing points was due to rains and high water.


The Fifteenth Corps had half of its forces across the river at Peay’s Ferry on the 22nd.  Marching forward from the bridgehead, Major-General John Logan directed the Second Division to take a road south towards Camden, while the Third Division continued east towards Flat Rock Post-office. The force heading to Camden was a feint to raise concerns for Charleston’s safety.  Recall that Sherman’s forces were moving without benefit of outside communications.  Only the day before had escaped slaves mentioned the fall of Charleston.  Though somewhat negating the need to scare Camden, the movement of Major-General William Hazen’s division did hurry Confederate efforts to get the Charleston garrison into North Carolina.  The Fourth Division followed Hazen towards Camden.  And once across, the First Division, Fifteenth Corps, trailed the Third towards Flat Rock.

The Seventeenth Corps followed the Fifteenth, and began crossing Peay’s Ferry around 3 p.m. that afternoon.  Around that time, a rain started.  Through the night the Seventeenth continued crossing.  The last division, the Third Division under Brigadier-General Manning Force, began to cross around midnight.  At that time the river’s current damaged the pontoons.  The First Missouri Engineers recorded that two pontoons were swamped and damaged.  Manning recorded, “The breaking of the bridge produced such delay that it was 9 o’clock the next morning before the rear regiment crossed in rear of the pontoon trains.”

Upstream, the Left Wing began its crossing of the Catawba River that morning.  Backing up to the 22nd for a moment, when Third Division, Twentieth Corps arrived at Rocky Mount Ferry, Second Brigade under Brigadier-General Daniel Dustin made a crossing to establish the bridgehead.  On the far side, Dustin observed:

After a personal inspection of the labor to be performed the brigade was crossed in the middle of the night. The road to be repaired had not been in use to any extent for years and led up a very steep hill for the distance of three-quarters of a mile.

It became necessary first to cut an entire new road directly through a swamp, from the head of the pontoon bridge to the main road, for nearly 100 yards, and next the same piece of road had to be corduroyed the entire distance. Numerous other places had also to be corduroyed. On account of the scarcity of poles and other suitable timber for this work a great number of rails were packed for the distance of one mile or more to complete the road. A large amount of work was also done upon the west side of the river, repairing the approaches to the bridge, cutting down the bank, straightening the old road, and bridging a deep ravine which intersected the road; but by sunrise of the next morning the wagons commenced crossing….

This preparation was done in the worst conditions one might design.  The night was dark, the troops did not have tools, and they were working on no rest, “after having completed a march of sixteen miles.” Dustin was rightfully proud of his men, “The endurance of the men in this instance was heavily taxed, and they are deserving of especial commendation.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, in charge of the Wing’s pontoon train, began laying the bridge on the evening of the 22nd and by daylight had a 660 foot span over the river. “This bridge was laid just below the rapids,” reported Moore, “and at that time the river was low and the current not very rapid; but on the night of the 23d it commenced raining rapidly.”  Major-General Alpheus S. Williams had most of the Twentieth Corps, and the Cavalry Division trains entrusted to his care, across before the rains began and had most of his corps some five miles beyond in camp.  It was Major-General John Geary’s Second Division that had the rear that day:

At the end of the bridge the steep, narrow road wound up a very high hill, which the trains after crossing ascended with great difficulty and only by the assistance of the troops.  The soil everywhere was treacherous, and the roads were deep and miry.  At 5.45 p.m. my command began to cross.  A cold rain had set in, the night was very dark, and the roads became almost impassable, requiring continual repairs. All of my troops were distributed along the train to push the wagons through, which gave about twelve men to each wagon. By 10 p.m. my train had crossed, excepting eighty-five wagons, fifty-five of which were a portion of the cavalry train under my charge.  At that hour General Kilpatrick was ordered to cross his cavalry division…. Heavy rain continued during the night; distance to-day seventeen miles. The day’s work was an excessively fatiguing one.

The pause to allow Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry to pass interrupted Twentieth Corps for a bit.  But it was the Seventeenth Corps which would suffer the most.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis recorded his command had, in addition to destroying twelve miles of railroad, marched 38 miles during February 22-23.  But the weather and rising waters had Seventeenth Corps pause until morning.  Davis would have more ill-words to say about the pontooniers over the days to follow.

Before Kilpatrick crossed the pontoons, he did address a counter-response to Major-General Joseph Wheeler in regard to the retaliation for murders committed committed earlier in the week.  Kilpatrick conceded to Wheeler’s request to allow for an investigation.  But made it clear it was a Texas formation which had committed the acts, and that it seemed to represent a larger problem:

One of my scouts, a reliable man, was with this force all day, and testified to the fact that not only were these men referred to murdered, but that the general conversation of your men was that they would take no more prisoners. I hope you may be able to furnish some reason that may in a degree justify the course taken by your men.

Kilpatrick was also quick to assure Wheeler that he would indeed retaliate if the murders did not stop.  However, he was just as quick to assure the Confederate leader that he was taking efforts to police his own men, in particular to outrages against civilians:

If stragglers from my command are found in the houses of citizens committing any outrages whatever, my own people are directed to shoot them upon the spot, and of course I expect officers and soldiers of your command to do the same.

Kilpatrick concluded with a bitter summary of the situation:

I am alive to the fact that I am surrounded by citizens as well as soldiers, whose bitter hatred to the men I have the honor to command did not originate with this war, and I expect that some of my men will be killed elsewhere than on the battlefield, but I know and shall not hesitate to apply a sure remedy in each case.

Sherman, passed along Kilpatrick’s reports to his wing commanders.  Writing to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, Sherman referenced the “Death to all foragers” sign.

Now it is clearly our war right to subsist our army on the enemy.  Napoleon always did it, but could avail himself of the civil powers he found in existence to collect forage and provisions by regular impressments.  We cannot do that here, and I contend if the enemy fails to defend his country we may rightfully appropriate what we want.  If our foragers act under mine, yours, or other proper orders they must be protected. … I want the foragers, however, to be kept within reasonable bounds for the sake of discipline. I will not protect them when they enter dwellings and commit wanton waste, such as woman’s apparel, jewelry, and such things as are not needed by our army; but they may destroy cotton or tobacco, because these are assumed by the rebel Government to belong to it, and are used as a valuable source of revenue.  Nor will I consent to our enemy taking the lives of our men on their judgment.  They have lost all title to property, and can lose nothing not already forfeited; but we should punish for a departure from our orders, and if the people resist our foragers I will not deem it wrong, but the Confederate army must not be supposed the champion of any people.

Sherman expanded upon this in a note to Kilpatrick, in which he authorized the retaliations proposed.  But as Kilpatrick did not have any prisoners under his direct charge, the matter hung in the air for the moment.  In addition to Kilpatrick’s response to Wheeler, Sherman addressed an inquiry directly to Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton the next day… which I’ll examine tomorrow.  But before turning to that round of correspondence, I also need to discuss some plans being made on the Confederate side to counter Sherman and some ancillary operations the Federals mounted at this time 150 years ago.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 409, 427, 688, 805-6, and 860-1; Part II, Serial 99, page 537,


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Sherman’s March, February 23, 1865: Crossing the Wateree-Catawba, “The day’s work was an excessively fatiguing one”

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