In the afternoon of March 3, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman wrote to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Right Wing, expressing both intent and concerns with the march. After relating the status of the Left Wing, Sherman urged Howard on to Cheraw and to effect a crossing of the PeeDee River. After that, Sherman would bring the Left Wing across.
Of course I am a little impatient to get across Pedee before Beauregard can swing around from Charlotte and Salidbury and oppose our crossing. Once across the Pedee, I don’t fear the whole Confederate army, for if need be we can swing in against the right bank of Cape Fear and work down till we meet our people, but I shall aim to reach Fayetteville and Goldsborough, where I know Schofield must now be.
Of course, Major-General John Schofield’s forces were not yet to those points. Nor would Schofield reach Goldsborough before the middle of March. Still we have an interesting view of Sherman’s intent at this stage of the march. The Carolinas Campaign was not the “cake walk” which is often portrayed. There was still a risk that a concentrated Confederate force might injure Sherman’s force and perhaps even roll back some of the gains made.
At the time Sherman wrote his message to Howard, the Federals already had possession of Cheraw. This was but one important movement by several columns that day as the armies “closed up” from a week of difficult marches. To the far left of the line, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatick’s cavalry moved to maintain a screen between the Confederates and the Fourteenth Corps. The troopers skirmished at several points and crossed some columns over the state line into North Carolina. “My scouts have felt the enemy all day on the left,” reported Kilpatrick. Sherman responded, “I want you to interpose between Charlotte and Cheraw til we are across” the PeeDee.
The infantry of the Fourteenth Corps made over twenty miles on the 3rd, clearing Lynches River and Black Creek. The column was understandably stretched out at day’s end, and somewhat vulnerable. But to the credit of the cavalry screen, only some annoyances of the rear guard were reported. That evening, lead elements of the Fourteenth Corps camped a few miles south of the state line.
Initially Twentieth Corps prepared to move on Cheraw that morning. However, “but a few miles on the march before the order was countermanded from information that the place was occupied by our troops.” as Major-General Alpheus S. Williams recalled. Instead the lead division of the corps moved only a few miles towards Sneedsborough, allowing the trailing divisions to close up from the Black Creek crossing.
“Catching up” was the theme of the day for the Fifteenth Corps also. Marching on the Camden-Cheraw Road, the leading division reached Thompson’s Creek outside Cheraw, with the others halting between that point and Juniper Creek. That morning, while completing the crossing of Black Creek, Major-General John Smith’s Third Division briefly skirmished with a party of 30 Confederate cavalry. The Confederates captured Lieutenant-Colonel James Isaminger, 63rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, commanding the pioneer corps. What made this incident of particular note was dress of the Confederates. “It was supposed, until too late, that they were our own men, being dressed in complete suites of Federal uniform.” Smith, himself, lead a party to recapture Isaminger, to no avail.
The Seventeenth Corps, however, was not “catching up” to anyone that day, save the rear guard of the Confederates evacuating Cheraw. During the night, Lieutenant-General William Hardee withdrew all but a rear guard to the east side of the PeeDee. Major-General Frank Blair pushed out for Cheraw early that morning. After brushing aside a picket at Juniper Creek, the 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry was sent to the left to explore for crossing points upstream on Thompson’s Creek. No practical crossing was found. Instead, Blair would force a crossing on the Camden-Cheraw Road at Thomspon’s Creek, with Major-General Joseph Mower’s veteran division in the lead:
The enemy was first met in light force at an admirably selected position on the west side of Thompson’s Creek, where they had built a strong and extensive line of earthworks. Our skirmishers quickly drove them from this position and across Thompson’s Creek, saving the bridge, which they had already fired. In consequence of the abandonment of this strong line we were convinced that the main body of the army was retreating. We skirmished heavily, and drove them rapidly through Cheraw, using artillery upon them with effect, to and across the Pedee River, but were unable to save the bridge, it having been previously prepared for burning by covering it with resin, turpentine, &c., and was already in flames when our advance reached it.
Confederate troops under Major-General Matthew Butler and Colonel John Fiser did a good job of delaying the Federal advance. But they were simply overwhelmed by the wave. Lieutenant William Hyzer’s Battery C, 1st Michigan Light Artillery moved up with the Federal skirmishers and went into battery directly across from the bridge. Though inflicting considerable casualties on the Confederate rear guard, Hyser was unable to prevent the firing of the bridge. The loss of the bridge incensed Mower considerably. He would attempt to rally two different regiments into mounting a charge over the burning bridge before it collapsed. Cooler subordinates advised the division commander to simply wait for the pontoons. Still, the advance into Cheraw occurred with all the speed which Sherman had required.
In Cheraw, the Federals found the train depot on fire, but considerable stores and equipment intact.
Our captures at this point consisted of 25 pieces of field artillery, 16 limbers complete, 16 caissons complete, 5,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, 20,000 rounds of infantry ammunition, 2,000 stand small.arms, 1,000 sabers, and a large amount of material for the manufacture of fixed ammunition. Also an immense amount of tools belonging to the ordnance and machine shops; 1 locomotive, 12 to 15 cars, and thousands of bales of cotton, nearly all of which was destroyed before leaving the town.
That evening, Blair issued orders for “details to examine every house in the town and take therefrom all breadstuffs, rice, potatoes, meat, sugar, &c., except sufficient to last the families in the houses from which the stores are taken ten days.” To reduce abuses and pillaging, Blair further directed that “a commissioned officer will accompany each detail, and he will be held responsible for the conduct of his men.” Men were not allowed to enter houses “except in presence of the officers.” So while certainly foraging hard on the people of Cheraw, Blair was adamant about keeping the soldiers within the prescribed guidelines.
Among the cannons captured at Cheraw was one Blakely gun of note. A plaque over the breech read something to the effect, “Presented to the Sovereign State of South Carolina by one of her citizens residing abroad, in commemoration of the 20th of December 1860.” That particular rifle had been on Morris Island during the first bombardment of Fort Sumter. So this was a prize worth showing off. And that the Federals did to good effect, firing the gun across the PeeDee.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 381 and 584; Part II, Serial 99, pages 661, 665, 667, and 670-1.)