Sherman’s March, February 25, 1865: “a broad, turbulent, and rising river, road without bottom, raining almost constantly”

During the last week of February 1865, the forces marching with Major-General William T. Sherman passed through the area between the Piedmont and Sandhills landform regions.  This was somewhat the reverse of the passage made only ten days earlier – from Sandhills to Piedmont – before reaching Columbia.

Parts of the Left Wing and the Cavalry Division were, on February 25, 1865, entering the area known as the Waxhaws.  Of course South Carolina being steeped in Revolutionary War history, many of the place names encountered along the march corresponded with actions from the previous century (such as Camden).  Perhaps just a quirk of fate, but as the march brought the combatants near the site of the Waxhaws Massacre, the topic of executing prisoners was at the fore of discussions.

Perhaps General Horatio Gates was able to complete passage across sixty miles of this terrain on August 16, 1780, during his flight from Camden. But on February 25, 1865, no-one was going anywhere quickly.  The rains made every stream a river and every road a quagmire.  Not only did Sherman’s march slow to a crawl, but the pursuit of Sherman’s forces likewise paused.  Brigadier-General William Allen’s cavalry, seeking to join with Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, who’d withdrawn to the area of Fort Mill, was stuck at Fishing Creek that day, far behind the Federal rear guard.  Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s column from the Army of Tennessee was still near Newberry, due to bad roads, lack of bridges, and general confusion.  The Confederates would miss an opportunity to isolate and possibly destroy a corps.


That corps was Major-General Jefferson C. Davis’ Fourteenth Corps.  Still attempting to cross the Catawba at Rocky Mount Ferry, the swollen river stood in their way.  Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the Left Wing’s pontoon trains, wrote:

 February 25, river still rising and the current becoming so rapid that I had to place heavy timbers on the lower end of the boats to prevent them from sinking or filling with water. During the 25th about two-thirds of the train of the [Fourteenth] Army Corps crossed and stopped at dark on account of the hill on the opposite bank. It commenced raining at 7 p.m., and I accordingly sent word to the quartermaster in charge of the remainder of the train that had not crossed that he had better cross it immediately; and consequently the teams were soon ready at the bridge, but made slow speed. At 12 p.m. the same night some 400 feet, midway the span, broke loose and washed violently away.

Those wagons that were across found the ascent up the bank nearly impossible.  The Second Division of the corps reported, “Three miles of corduroy road made by the division,” on that day.  Brigadier-General James Morgan, of the Second Division, summarized the difficulties of February 24th to 27th, “At this point was met the greatest detention and difficulties encountered during the campaign – a broad, turbulent, and rising river, road without bottom, raining almost constantly.”   Against this, the Fourteenth Corps made no progress on the map that day.

Considering the difficulty crossing the Catawba, Sherman prodded Left Wing Commander, Major-General Henry Slocum, that,

It is plain that we must reduce our trains. If you will order General Davis to burn his trains beyond the river and double his teams I can make up 100 or 200 wagons out of the headquarters trains and from Howard when we meet at Cheraw.  He could discriminate as to contents, giving the preference to those containing salt, sugar, coffee, and bread.  Of course the pontoon train must be carried along.

Slocum passed the suggestion on to Davis.  What I find remarkable is the number of wagons for this “light column” and that Sherman assessed he had ample replacements.  Again, the logistical arrangements of this march are an under-appreciated facet.

Further down the road, for the Twentieth Corps, it was the “road without bottom” that resisted movement.  Remaining in camps for the day, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams sent out detachments to repair and corduroy the roads in a “Cold; heavy rain….”

To the north of the Left Wing, the Cavalry Division moved into Lancaster.  Although briefly skirmishing with a Confederate detachment, the town fell without incident.  The important detail that day was holding a flag of truce to relay Sherman’s message to Hampton.  The Federal cavalry would stay a few days in Lancaster.

The Right Wing was able to move on the 25th, but with great difficulty.  The Seventeenth Corps took a direct road to Hough’s Bridge over Little Lynch’s Creek (today just Lynches Creek).  Major-General Frank Blair reported,

The advance division (Fourth) crossed and encamped about two miles east of the creek, the First Division on the west side of the creek, and the Third Division at Copeland’s.  While the Fourth Division was crossing the water rose very rapidly, rendering it impossible to cross the First Division before daylight.  During the night the First Michigan Engineers built a bridge about 250 yards in length across the creek.

Let me pause here to say that my depiction of the Seventeenth Corps’ movements for this day on the map above is a less than authoritative than I strive for. I have found no maps that match all the road network and placenames mentioned by Blair.  So the line is rather general, based on a consolidation of map sources.  If anyone can clarify the particulars of the route, I’ll be happy to give you a post!

The Fifteenth Corps closed up their columns near Pine Tree Church.  Brigadier-General William Hazen’s Division covered McCaskill’s Crossroads, enabling direct communication between all divisions.  Hazen also detached a brigade to follow the 29th Missouri Mounted Infantry in a dash towards the bridges on Lynches River (again, Lynch’s in the wartime dispatches).  Major Charles Burkhardt of the 29th reported around mid-day:

… I broke camp at daybreak this a.m. and marched to [Tiller’s Bridge], at which I arrived at 9 a.m., meeting up with no opposition and finding the bridge safe.  We captured 10 guns, 7 kegs of powder, and 20 prisoners.  There is another bridge four miles below.  The road is good to both bridges on this side.  On the opposite side the roads are swampy for about a quarter of a mile. I have picketed the road at both bridges and await orders.  My vedettes have just brought in a company of State militia, seventeen strong.

Using rapid mounted forces to infiltrate the road network, the Fifteenth Corps had secured another bridgehead over another important river in South Carolina.  This, you see, is what “shock troops” do.  However, that bridgehead was a fleeting hold.  It was not the Confederates who would cause issues the next day, but rather “a broad, turbulent, and rising river” again.  The two points were Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges.  And please note the base map used above has incorrectly labeled those. Tiller’s is the bridge immediately downstream from the mouth of Little Lynches Creek.  Kelly’s is downstream from there.

Major-General Oliver O. Howard reported that day he’d used the crossing of the Wateree to reduce his column somewhat.  “At the last crossing about 2,000 horses and mules were taken from men not authorized to use them. The unserviceable were killed. The artillery and mounted men and pontoon trains were refitted.”  In addition, Howard would issue a circular to his command in regard to the forager security:

The general believes that it is the enemy’s intention to kill our foragers after capture. Two were found murdered the other day and labeled “Death to foragers.” Two were killed this morning near General John E. Smith’s camp. General Sherman’s directions with regard to retaliation will be strictly carried out by corps and division commanders; yet it is enjoined again upon all officers to prohibit individual foraging.

Howard instructed that all parties would henceforth be strong enough to resist attacks by Confederate cavalry patrols.  Reinforcing earlier orders, each brigade would have an officer in command of foragers, with his name registered with Howard’s headquarters. This was a “positive” control measure by which the command could quickly determine the status of foraging parties. But with this circular came the instructions that retaliations were authorized and would be carried out.  The box was open and there would be consequences to this circular.

Incidentally, Howard assigned his signal officer, Captain P.A. Taylor, the forager duties for headquarters, Army of the Tennessee.   The signal officers always seem to get the additional duties – then and now.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 426, 483, 491, and 688; Part II, Serial 99, pages 565, 566, 571, and 572.)