Sherman’s March, February 28, 1865: “I received this morning twenty of my prisoners in exchange”

High water continued to delay Major-General William T. Sherman’s march through South Carolina on February 28, 1865.  But through the efforts of the troops, bridging and corduroying, and the abating flood waters, the Federals made some progress.


The Fifteenth Corps continued to build approaches to the bridges on Lynches River.  But none of the columns made significant progress out of that flooded bottom land.  Major-General John Logan reported enough progress to be hopeful of a move the next day, if the waters cooperated.  Each day the trains moved forward, jumping from “island” to “island” in the flooded bottom. This brought on a traffic control problem for the wagons, as the First Missouri Engineers observed:

There was a good deal of rivalry among the teamsters in order to secure position and early start, thereby getting into camp early in the evening.  So for many days, owing to the wearing out of the roads, camp was reached late – at 10, 12, and sometimes after 1 o’clock at night, and the next morning the call was frequently at 3 or 4 a.m., oftentimes giving but three or four hours in camp to eat and sleep, and nineteen and twenty hours on the march; so the temper was frequently tired, especially in bad weather, and hence the struggle for a place in advance.

In the rear of the column, Major-General John Smith, Third Division, took this opportunity to trim his trains a bit.  On this day, “… about 3,000 pounds of tobacco and sundries, which had gathered since a similar inspection was made at West’s Cross Roads, was thrown out.”  Why would I mention such a “mundane” activity?  Well first off, the division reached West’s Cross-roads only four days earlier.  Mark that as the time in which the troops gathered 3,000 pounds of “tobacco and sundries.”  Secondly, these sort of inspections and purges were made at frequent intervals during the march.  The commanders were very mindful of the fact their trains could easily be encumbered and weighty.  We often read about the bummers stealing all sorts of things – particularly furniture, paintings, and other large items that would tax the transportation means of the average bummer on foot.  While some of the furniture no doubt went to the campfires, General Smith and his peers simply had no room for things like grand pianos, chafing dishes, or candelabras.  I would contend that much of the “sundries” acquired by the bummers suffered this fate under the mindful inspections.  Left by the road side or redistributed to other eager hands, those items remained in South Carolina for the time being.  (Perhaps I should elaborate further on this and explore the bummers’ load and the mobility of the army?)

The Seventeenth Corps made outstanding progress, in comparison, on February 28th.  After completing the corduroy and additional bridging, the corps moved before dawn on the 28th.  The march from there was relatively smooth.  Reaching a point beyond Black Creek, the corps went into camp and erected fortifications, some thirteen miles short of Cheraw.

Reports indicated a strong Confederate force, comprised of the troops withdrawn from Charleston and Wilmington, gathering at Cheraw.  And throughout the day, the Seventeenth Corps encountered Major-General Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry.  In reality, besides Butler, Lieutenant-General William Hardee’s force, evacuated from Charleston, was the only element in front of the Right Wing.  And Hardee was only going to hold Cheraw long enough for the last of his troops to arrive by train.  The Confederates prepared to contest Cheraw, but preferred to abandon the place quickly.  Still, as a precaution, Major-General Oliver O. Howard ordered the corps to hold up and wait until the Fifteenth Corps moved up to support.

The Twentieth Corps made a modest march of eight miles, “… over a very heavy, spongy road, making a corduroy necessary for every rod,” according to Major-General Apheus Williams, commanding.  But despite this, the corps gained a bridge at Lynches Creek and gained road beyond. A foraging detail from Major-General John Geary’s division reached a mill on the creek, “and furnished the command with several days’ supply of meal by collecting the corn and grinding it in these mills.”

The Fourteenth Corps finally won it’s battle against the Catawba River on February 28.  After completing a new pontoon bridge on the afternoon of the previous day, the corps resumed crossing.  In his orders for the day, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis urged:

The delay caused by the breaking of the bridge, and the consequent wide separation of the corps from the remainder of the army, makes it imperative upon all to push the advance now with the utmost energy and rapidity.

The rear guard of the corps again skirmished with Confederates on the west side of the river that day.  Otherwise the crossing was unmolested. The lead elements of the corps took up the same road used by the Twentieth some days earlier.  At least the path was well blazed.

Still guarding the left flank of the march, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick remained in Lancaster for one more day.  Reporting to Sherman, Kilpatrick complained, “I have eaten out the country about Lancaster, and here it is mighty poor.”  Kilpatrick was ready to move on and hoped the Fourteenth Corps’ movement would allow him the freedom to slip east.  Still, he was going to keep the appearance of moving towards Charlotte, as instructed.

Along with his report, Kilpatrick forwarded Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton’s counter to the threat of retaliation for murdered foragers. With that message, one might presume the issue was about to erupt into a round of executions.  However, Kilpatrick had worked out something with his old classmate Major-General Joseph Wheeler:

I received this morning twenty of my prisoners in exchange for an equal number sent General Wheeler yesterday; in all, he has taken from me but one officer and thirty men since entering upon the present campaign.  I have, over and above that number, seventy of his men and four commissioned officers.  As I feel confident that I can keep even with him or Hampton in prisoners, if you will give permission, and any of the corps commanders desire it, for infantry officers and soldiers now in Wheeler’s hands I will exchange the prisoners I now have on hand.

This had the effect of defusing the entire prisoner-murdered forager issue.  Can’t threaten to execute prisoners if there are no prisoners.  And, on a broader scale, we must also remember that Federal prisoners were still considered a bargaining chip to top Confederate leaders.  The nature of this exchange, set in context, undermines all the boisterous protests from Hampton.  The Confederates might be upset about the foragers, but it was far more important to entice the Federals into these cartels to exchange prisoners.  Such fit into the “army in being” strategy.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 319, 583, and 689; Part II, Serial 99, pages 613, and 615; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 170.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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