Sherman’s March, February 26, 1865: “I cannot cross this stream…until the water subsides”

Since the start of the march into South Carolina in February 1865, Confederate leaders from Augusta to Richmond had cast plans which depended upon some delay imposed upon Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance.  Through most of February, the Federals maneuvered around and through military obstacles thrown in their way.  And the Confederate forces moved slowly, at times clumsily, towards a concentration.  But at the close of February, nature imposed a four day delay on Sherman’s march.  February 26, 1865 started with more saturating rains and rising flood waters.


At Rocky Mount Ferry, the Fourteenth Corps remained isolated on the west side of the Catawba River.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis countermanded the the attempt and everyone waited for the river to fall.  That morning, Davis reported to Major-General Henry Slocum, Left Wing commander:

Misfortunes never come single. The work of crossing the trains was continued last night until about 12.30 o’clock, when the bridge gave way in the center. All the boats but two have been recovered. The balking and planking were lost. The river is still rising, and it is doubtful if the anchors will hold the boats in their places against the heavy current. Material to reconstruct the bridge is being gathered from houses, and an attempt to relay it will be made as soon as possible.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, in charge of the pontoons, attempted to build another bridge that day in the face of a raging flood.  “… we took out the remainder of the pontoons and made hasty preparations to span the river some 500 yards below.” But Davis countermanded the the attempt and everyone waited for the river to fall.

On the east side of the river, the Cavalry Division remained in camp around Lancaster that day.  Aside from the flag of truce to pass messages between Sherman and Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, little transpired.  Although, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick did send a somewhat absent-minded note to Davis back at the river crossing, warning,  “The roads are very bad, and the streams much swollen.  Please inform me where you will encamp to-night, that I may protect your left flank.”  No doubt Davis spent some foul words contemplating a response.

Having been the object of Kilpatrick’s accusations two days before, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams defended the Twentieth Corps from those charges in a response written on the 26th.  In brief, Williams explained his provost-marshal had disciplined come cavalrymen for vandalizing a home.  Furthermore, any confusion about the right of way at the bridge on the 23rd was due to the cavalry wagons that Williams was entrusted with.  Nor had Williams intentionally destroyed horse fodder.   Williams brought his defense to a point:

General Kilpatrick speaks of his ability to “retaliate,” as though I had sent out men to harass his column, or had personally endeavored to affront him in some way. It would be puerile in me to disavow any such intention, and I really must protest against being held responsible for the conduct of bummers and stragglers.

Williams then closed, reminding that the Twentieth Corps was trusted with the safety of Kilpatrick’s 250 wagons, somewhat a trump card in the event “retaliations” would play out.  Sherman simply passed the message along, “There is no need of rejoinder.”

On serious matters, Williams was able to move the Twentieth Corps to Hanging Rock that day, over the roads corduroyed the day before.  Major-General John Geary provided another vivid entry for the day:

February 26, my division in the center marched at 7 a.m., following the Third Division, and having in my charge the trains of that division and my own. For three miles, to Russell Hill, we moved on the road taken yesterday by the Seventeenth Corps. At that point we diverged to the left, and at 1.30 p.m. reached Hanging Rock Post-Office, where we encamped. The weather to-day was warm and clear. Two-thirds of the road had to be corduroyed for our trains. In most places fence rails were abundant, and were quickly brought into requisition. The surface of the country since leaving Catawba River is crust with quicksand underneath. Wagons and animals everywhere except on the corduroy broke through the crust to the depth of three feet or more. Hanging Rock Post Office is near a creek of the same name. Near the ford where the main road crosses is a large projecting rock on the hill-side overhanging the stream, and giving it its designation. The place is noted as the scene of one of the minor conflicts of the Revolution, with which this State abounded in the days of Marion, Sumter, Cornwallis, and Tarleton; distance to-day, nine miles.


Geary, as was most of Sherman’s force, was finding the very ground of South Carolina more difficult than the enemy.

The Right Wing did make progress on the 26th.  The goal was to cross Lynches River that day.  Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps started in the morning with Fourth Division over Lynches Creek, and the remainder of the corps on the west side of that body of water.  With the rise of the creek overnight, Fourth Division had to take the lead again while the rest of the corps struggled over the creek.  Lead elements of the corps found Young’s Bridge over Lynches River intact (Confederate cavalry had used it earlier in the day).  However, as Blair reported:

Here, however, we found the road [and] bottom lands adjoining overflowed for a considerable distance on each side, the water being from two to six feet in depth for a distance of about 200 yards on west and 1,500 yards on east side. One regiment of Fourth Division waded along the road and through the swamp to the high ground beyond, where they intrenched a strong position for the purpose of covering the crossing.

With a small force over the river, Blair set his engineers to work building a foot-bridge to support them as needed.  All hopes were the river would fall during the night.

Major-General John Logan had the Fifteenth Corps split onto two axis of advance.  The Fourth and First Divisions moved against Tiler’s Bridge.  The Second and Third moved to Kelly’s Bridge.  A mounted column had secured these bridges the day before.  So orders that day called for the corps to reach Black Creek beyond.  But, again, the rains and mud upset the plans.  Logan described the situation his men encountered at Lynches River:

The rains of the previous week had so swollen this stream that, although the bridge remained, the water on each side was deep enough to swim a horse, and presented in its then condition an almost insurmountable obstacle to the crossing of our trains.

On his copy of the orders for the day, Logan wrote:

It is impossible to comply with this order…. If that is desirable I can swim my men and animals and cross with a destruction of ammunition and supplies. It is an easy matter to put an order on paper that cannot be obeyed, and then place the responsibility on those who fail to comply. I only have to say that I cannot cross this stream with my command under all the circumstances until the water subsides, and hereby protest against the order as being impossible to be obeyed.

However, the Fifteenth Corps did manage to get some troops across Lynches River that day.  At Tiller’s Bridge, Major-General John Corse had troops wade and swim to the far shore:

In order to secure the bridge and occupy the position designated in orders from corps headquarters, I succeeded in crossing one brigade of infantry and my battery, although the men were compelled to wade in the water to their waists, making a lodgment on the opposite bank at 12 m. Prior to the crossing of this force the foraging details from my own command, and others of the corps, had encountered the enemy’s cavalry and been driven in toward Tiiler’s Bridge, but were checked by the appearance of my infantry and the addition of a few mounted men of the Seventh Illinois Veteran Volunteers and orderlies attached to these headquarters.

Corse described “promiscuous skirmishing” with what turned out to be Major-General Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry.  Corse managed to cross all but a handful of companies from his division, but had to leave his trains behind for the moment.  He also singled out one soldier in particular:

In the skirmishing which took place I am pleased to mention the name of Corpl. Elijah G. Davis, Company I, Eighty-first Ohio Volunteers, with forage detail, who distinguished himself by refusing to surrender when attacked by four rebels, and fought hand to hand with them until he received seven wounds, and finally escaped death on the spot by the assistance of a comrade. His wounds, it is thought, will not prove fatal, and consist mainly of saber cuts.

Elijah G. Davis would indeed survive those wounds. Later moving to Colorado, he died in 1915.

At Kelly’s Bridge, further downstream, Major-General William Hazen reported getting two brigades and a battery over the river.  But as the case at Tiller’s Bridge, Hazen left his trains behind and started building foot-bridges over the river while waiting for the flood waters to ease.

One other column pushed out from the Right Wing that day.  Having word of Charleston’s fall, Major-General Oliver O. Howard dispatched Captain William Duncan and Lieutenant John McQueen, escorted by sixty mounted troops, with a message for the Federal commander in Charleston.  Duncan departed Federal lines late that evening.  They crossed Lynches River the next morning. But this force soon ran into a detachment of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry.  Though able to push aside the Confederates, Duncan was concerned after encountering such a large force, so he fell back.  So no updates from Sherman’s force would go out that day.  In the action Colonel Hugh K. Aiken, commanding a brigade in Butler’s division, was mortally wounded.

The skirmishing was slight on February 26th.  Instead what resisted and delayed the Federals most, and what was granting the Confederates a much desired time to concentrate, was the weather.  Perhaps a small consolation for the soldiers – at least it was not snow and ice.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 99, pages 380, 427, ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 583, 586, 589, 591, and 1288.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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