Sherman’s March, February 27, 1865: “I cannot dry up the river…” as floods continue to delay the march

Most days, as I draw the maps showing the route of march, I’ll have long blue lines running from point to point.  Today, you see none of that.  On February 27, 1865, all of Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns slowed and waited for the flood waters to fall.

SCMarch_Feb27

For the day, Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders to the Right Wing were:

Owing to the freshet, the orders of march for to-day are so modified to make the first stage, to get everything across the Lynch as soon as it can be done, and then begin the march on Cheraw, for which three days will be designated.

The Fifteenth Corps built footbridges and laid some pontoons at their two separate crossing points.  Troops were across the river, but wagons could not cross.  So resupply was only accomplished by hand. The trouble faced at each crossing point was the river was not a single channel due to the flood.  In addition to the normal river width, the Federals faced overflows, often up to 1,000 yards, on each side. At Tiller’s Bridge, the 1st Missouri Engineers struggled against the overflows, and further worked to ease the concentration of forces at the crossing site:

The bridge of the first section over [Lynches River] was in good order, but the overflow on the west side was 700 feet wide and from three to four and a half feet deep; on the east side it was a half or three quarters of a mile wide.  We laid the ponton and built trestles on the west side fording the east side. The second section at 6:30 took out four boats and corduroyed the road across the creek in rear of the Third Division; then took up the bridge, went to [Lynches River] and worked the train until 10 p.m., when they were ordered to cross, which owing to the darkness, too until 4 a.m.

A long day for the engineers. At Kelly’s Bridge, Major-General William Hazen reported the positive news that, “The river at this point has fallen about three inches….”  Imagine, Sherman’s entire campaign was down to a measure of vertical inches of floodwater.

Seventeenth Corps likewise worked on bridging, and waited for the waters to fall.  Major-General Frank Blair described the area around Young’s Bridge:

… 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.

By afternoon of the 27th, the Corps had some bridging done. “About 2,500 men were engaged upon the work, and comleted 850 feet of bridging and 7,000 feet of corduroyed road on stringers before 5 p.m….”  At the fore of the advance, Brigadier-General Manning Force reported some progress:

… my command in camp about three-quarters of a mile from the bridge.  I propose, it meeting your approbation, to cross all my train to-night and let the troops remain on this side until morning. In the event of heavy rain and the water rising will move at once.

The Right Wing would at least have passage over the river for the next day.

The Twentieth Corps made a movement of just a few miles on the 27th.  The main effort was to consolidate the trains on the east side of Hanging Rock Creek. Major-General John Geary reported the ford used had a “smooth, rocky bottom.”  Geary further observed, “The soil continues treacherous and full of quicksands….”

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry remained at Lancaster for the day, continuing the missions of guarding the left flank of the advance while putting up appearances of an advance on Charlotte.  In a note to Sherman, Kilpatrick proposed remaining on the flanks until the Fourteenth Corps was clear of the river crossings.  The cavalryman wanted to move from there through the headwaters of Lynches River instead of following the infantry.  As for his command and the Confederates he faced:

The country here is good; forage plenty. My command has been resting for two days, and is in better condition than at any time during the march. We have captured a large number of mules and some horses, and have mounted all my dismounted men, save 300. I think Hampton’s and Wheeler’s forces combined amount to about 6,000 fighting men. Notwithstanding this superiority of numbers, I shall attack if a favorable opportunity offers. The road upon which I shall march is the best in the country. I will keep you advised daily as to my operations and position.

Kilpatrick always seemed ready for a fight – one way or the other.  Sherman approved Kilpatrick’s plan of movement, though he reiterated the importance of maintaining communication.

It was at Rocky Mount Ferry where the anxious hours continued to burn away.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis still had the Fourteenth Corps astride the Catawba River. Davis shook things up a bit to cure what he felt was an inefficiency with the pontoons.  Davis was fed up with the work of the engineers to that point.  Brigadier-General George Buell, Second Brigade, First Division, assumed overall control of the bridge-laying operations.  With the change made, Davis reported to Major-General Henry Slocum, adjusting his itinerary, hoping to cross that afternoon.  Davis added:

This is the best that can possibly be hoped for under the circumstances.  I am doing everything that man can do, but I cannot dry up the river that separates my command; it has fallen about eighteen inches and is still falling.  I do not know what the emergency is in the front, but presume it must be very great, judging by the general’s dispatches, and am working accordingly.

Slocum retraced the route back to the crossing that day to personally ensure no more time was lost.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the pontoons, then following Buell’s instructions, laid a 680 foot long bridge about a half mile downstream from the original point.  Moore observed, “Here the current was not so rapid, and by 11 p.m. we completed the bridge….”  The first troops crossed over at midnight.  However, there was some difference of opinion which lingered after the war – was it Buell, persistence of Moore, or falling waters that enabled the crossing?  Perhaps all of the above.

While the bridging operations were going on, a foraging party met Confederate cavalry near Rocky Mount Creek.  The 104th Illinois had lost nine men from a foraging detail the day before, and on the 27th, a better armed party met an equally reinforced Confederate cavalry force.  The skirmish served to underscore the vulnerability of the Fourteenth Corps, as it struggled to catch up with the rest of the column.

The extended dispositions, with several columns outside range of mutual support due to the flood waters, did not go unnoticed on the Confederate side.  Major-General Matthew C. Butler reported to Lieutenant-General William Hardee, then in Cheraw with the forces withdrawn from Charleston, about an opportunity he noticed to his front.  “I think that if our troops were concentrated now and thrown rapidly upon the Fifteenth Corps very serious damage may be inflicted.”  Indeed, the opportunity appeared clear on any map one might draw.  The problem was that Hardee’s force was even less mobile than the Federals.  If the flooded rivers had isolated some of the Federal commands, it had likewise pinned the Confederate forces in place.  Butler went on to add his observations of Sherman’s supplies:

Prisoners taken on the 23d report Sherman’s army to have only five days’ rations, and were moving toward Wilmington or Georgetown. He has been foraging very extensively along his line of march, no house within reach of his main column has been passed by, and all supplies have been taken from the inhabitants by foraging parties of infantry mounted on captured horses.

As designed, Sherman’s command was living off the land as it moved.  But at some point, just as Butler and other Confederate commanders speculated, Sherman had to turn towards the sea for military supplies.  Though Sherman did not know at the time, Federal efforts along the South Carolina coast anticipated a move to a port facility.  Somewhat contrary to orders sent from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant, Major-General Quincy Gillmore pushed out from Charleston to the Santee River railroad bridge.  And Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren occupied Georgetown, South Carolina on February 25th.   While none of this changed Sherman’s agenda, it did leave question marks in the minds of many Confederate leaders.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 380, 427, and 689; Part II, Serial 99, pages 597, 598, 599, 600, 603, and 1288; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 170.)

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