“Such is the case wherever they go.”: The lawless situation in the wake of Sherman’s march

Colonel George G. Dibrell commanded a brigade of cavalry in Brigadier-General William Humes’ Division, Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry.  Humes’ command had faced some of the initial Federal movements in the South Carolina march.  For much of February 1865, Dibrell’s men dogged the Federal columns.  But like much of Wheeler’s force, they were scattered too thin to impede Major-General William T. Sherman’s advances.   February 26, 1865 found Dibrell just south of Gladden’s Grove, at Wateree Creek, caught up like others with the rains and floods. So like a good officer will, he reported his status to higher headquarters:

We wrote you yesterday by a scouting party from the Eighth Confederate that the enemy had all crossed the river and that we would move down toward Peay’s Ferry and Camden and try to cross, and sent out scouts night before last to ascertain the condition of things, when they found every boat destroyed and no means of crossing the river. Wateree Creek was past fording, and we moved up it and got upon this road and are moving this morning to Landsford and will cross the Catawba first chance.

In perspective to Federal dispositions that day, Dibrell was about ten miles west of the Fourteenth Corps position at Rocky Mount Ferry.   Though, based on details offered by Dibrell, the Confederates were not appreciative of the Fourteenth Corps problems crossing the Catawba River.  Though Dibrell did know the Right Wing had crossed at Peay’s Ferry. But Dibrell was stuck just like the Federals to his front, and unable to pursue.  He was, however, looking for a crossing further upstream on the Catawba.

Dibrell went on to describe the state of his command and opportunities – both missed and contemplated:

Our men ran out of rations yesterday and every mill on this side has been burned by the enemy, consequently we will move as rapidly as possible until we can get out of this section and to where we can get rations, and will overtake you as soon as possible. If we had been one day sooner could have got 100 stragglers. It would be of great service to people to have a force in the rear all the while to prevent these stragglers committing so many depredations. If we can cross at Landsford will do so; aim to reach that vicinity to-night, and would be glad to receive orders as to what to do there. Unless otherwise ordered shall move up to the command, unless I can see an opportunity of accomplishing something in the rear.

Dibrell described the Federal activity on the march:

The enemy have large droves of cattle and very large wagon trains, all guarded by infantry. Sometimes large guards and at others small. Negroes report they hung eighteen Confederate soldiers in retaliation for killing theirs, but I can’t find out certainly. They say it was done between Wateree Meeting-House and Rocky Mount. I have sent a scout down this side the creek to learn certainly.

We see here the “rumor mill” at work during war.  The forager murders and threatened reprisals, which were a topic being discussed at the highest levels, left fertile ground for all sorts of stories.

But what I find most informative is Dibrell’s description of the wake of Sherman’s march through Fairfield County:

They burned a great many houses through the country, robbed every one, have caused negroes to take everything they wanted out of houses, and defied the owners to molest them. We yesterday saw a Mrs. Mobly (whose husband is in Second South Carolina Cavalry), an intelligent lady, living in a negro cabin, and her negroes in possession of her clothing, bedding, bacon, &c. I sent a detail and had it all gathered up and returned and her moved to another house. Such is the case wherever they go. A small party could accomplish much for citizens in regulating negroes. I am more than willing to bring up the rear if I can so arrange it as to feed the men, and hope not to be bothered by high waters again. It has rained incessantly and every creek is overflown. The Yankees cleaned out every horse, mule, and cow in their line. Their infantry treat citizens much worse than cavalry. All express the greatest horror at the idea of falling into the hands of Wheeler’s cavalry.

What Dibrell brings light to, and which is corroborated by civilian reports written during the war, is the stripping away of law enforcement as the Federals moved through.  Let me make sure this is phrased so the point is made – as the Federal columns moved through, the local officials – police, sheriffs, constables, judges, and such –  were noticeably absent from many communities.  While the Federals were in an area, there was some enforcement by military authorities.    But that was usually focused on military-to-civil affairs. If the provost marshal was not handy, the soldiers were ill-equipped or motivated to deal with civilian-to-civilian matters of law and order.

Keep in mind, with the very arrival of the Federal columns, something dramatic changed with respect to just WHO was a civilian.  Emancipation marched forward with the men in blue coats.  Thus creating a very interesting – to say the least – situation in regard to… for instance … property rights.  Consider well the word choice offered by Dibrell here: “[The Yankees] have caused the negroes to take everything they wanted out of houses….”

But, there’s another layer to this problem.  Many of these communities had long been heavily “policed.”  With large numbers of slaves held in bondage, enforcement of rules was vital to the society.  War exacerbated that condition – fewer able-bodied men at home, competition for resources, more threats to civilian well-being, and other encounters (say like escaped prisoners or deserters) brought in directly by the war.  As the war neared, in January 1865, call-ups of militia further depleted manpower and reduced law enforcement forces. Many parts of South Carolina were already, for all practical purposes, police-states.   And some sectors had only military authorities as a practical law enforcement force.  The arrival of the Federals pealed away what was left (as I mentioned was the case with Columbia).  After that there was nothing in place, save some passing troops like Dibrell’s, to restore any semblance of order.  In time, officials returned and some order restored.  But even then, the restoration was not evenly or completely accomplished for many months.

And again, the fine point I’m calling out here is not so much “just enforcement” but simply having “any enforcement” of law and order…. the former would lead us into a discussion of Reconstruction and stuff of the post-war decades.

When we consider the state of South Carolina in April 1865, we must recognize the forces which contributed to the destruction and desolation.  The Federals, the Confederates, and even the South Carolinians themselves all had a hand in creating the rubble.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 1283.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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