Sherman’s March, March 5, 1865: It “rained…shells very promiscuously” in Cheraw; Federals turned back at Florence

On March 5, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman gave marching instructions for his wing commanders for movements beyond the PeeDee River to the next major objective – Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Writing from Cheraw, Sherman outlined the scheme of maneuver to Major-General Henry Slocum of the Left Wing:

Let General [Jefferson C.] Davis lead into Fayetteville, holding the Twentieth in support with the cavalry on his left rear.  I will hold General Howard back, but close enough to come up if Joe Johnston wants to fight.  I will now fight him if he dares, and therefore wish to act on that idea, keeping each corps ready to hold the enemy if he appears in force on your left, but his strength must be developed before other corps are called from their roads.

Orders to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, with the Right Wing, sent the previous day, were similar, except the two commanders agreed to implement slow marches instead of halting at any one particular place (to allow for easier foraging in the sparse pine barrens).  Sherman described the scheme of maneuver as such “that the columns may assume an echelon towards the north.”  This arrangement, leading with the left while holding the right back for the punch, was the framework for a grand movement to contact.  But the disadvantage to the order of march was one corps would always be exposed to the possibility of being isolated and destroyed.

SCMarch_Mar5

Movements on March 5, 1865 were not great marches, but rather constrained by the need to get across the PeeDee in good order.  On the Left Wing, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis expended more curse words and condemnations towards the pontoon train’s leadership.  Work constructing a bridge at Haile’s (or Pegues’) Ferry progressed.  But lack of boats forced the engineers to improvise.  Wagons, wrapped in canvas, became makeshift pontoons.  The Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps remained in camp.

The Right Wing expanded the bridgehead across the PeeDee on the 5th. The remainder of the Seventeenth Corps crossed and moved to the right.  Most of the Fifteenth Corps, save a rear guard in Cheraw, crossed.  The “big” event in Cheraw, however, was not the crossing, but rather a large explosion.  The Confederates had left Cheraw in such haste that large quantities of munitions (much of it from Charleston, originally) were left behind.  With orders to destroy what could not be used or carried, Federal details began stacking powder kegs and other ordnance in a ravine.  The hope was exposure to water in the creek there would render the powder inert.  This proved a tragic decision, as recorded by the 1st Missouri Engineers:

In camp at Cheraw, waiting the passage of the troops across the Great Peedee River.  Details were employed fitting artillery wagon wheels to the boat wagons.  A great many of these wheels were found here, left by the enemy, as well as a large amount of ordnance stores, powder, shells, etc. This was all dumpted in a ravine through which a creek flowed. The ravine was filled and piled up ten or twelve feet deep until even with the banks – thirty-six thousand pounds of it.  There was not water enough in the creek to dampen all the mass of powder and shells, and our infantry soldiers were amusing themselves with taking the dry powder some two hundred yards to their cook fire and exploding it, carrying it in their hands.  The ravine was visited so often and the powder carried so loosely that after a time a train was formed reaching back to the ravine, and as a pile was exploded the fire ran back in the trail to the mass and it all went off with a terrible noise, and it rained around there for a half-mile shells and pieces of shells very promiscuously for a minute or so.

Though the explosion had enough force to damage houses all around Cheraw, only a handful of men were killed.  Still, this was a sad repetition of events seen at Charleston and Columbia.  Loose powder and fire never mix well.

Further south, Colonel Reuben Williams had his detail up early on the morning of the 5th on their way to Darlington and eventually Florence.

SCMarch_Mar5Williams

Between Dove’s Station and Darlington, the mounted infantry burned several trestle bridges.  On arrival in Darlington, the Federals destroyed the depot, 250 bales of cotton, and a printing office.  Proceeding south out of Darlington, scouts reported a train heading north from Florence.  Williams took up dispositions to ambush the train.

The Twenty-ninth Missouri being in the advance immediately deployed on the side of the track for the purpose of capturing it as soon as it came up. The engineer, however, must have discovered us, as the train was turned back to Florence.

Opportunity missed, Williams pressed forward on the appointed task, burning trestles along the way to Florence.  Two miles outside of their destination, the Federals met skirmishers.

I immediately formed the command in line, with a proper reserve, and ordered a charge, which was made in good style, some of the men gaining the depot building, but were unable either to hold or fire it. About this time the enemy re-enforced his left with infantry and drove back our right in some disorder. I had in the meantime thrown the Seventh Illinois on the left of the line to prevent a flank movement which I discovered was being made by the enemy. I here received notice from an officer who was on picket on the railroad to my rear that a train was coming from the direction of Kingsville, and a few minutes later I was informed that a party of about 400 men, with artillery, were getting off the train. Finding that I was outflanked and outnumbered by the enemy, and with a force of 400 moving in my rear, I concluded to withdraw the command and at once proceeded to do so. I fell back in good order, leaving the Ninth Illinois to cover the rear and proceeded in the direction of Darlington.

The Confederate commander of the forces defending Florence was Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson.  This was part of a brigade, which at the first of the month had been facing the Federals in the John’s Island sector.  Withdrawn north with the rest of the Charleston garrison, Robertson’s men were cut off from the main body when the Federals occupied Cheraw.  With the reinforcements, the defenders likely numbered around 1,400, and included a battery (Williams said ten pieces) of artillery and a cavalry detachment.  Recall that Williams’ force numbered only 546 men.

Robertson pressed Williams very hard, hitting the rear guard “two or three times between Florence and Darlington.” The pressure was so great that Williams opted to move over Black Creek in order to set a defensive line for the evening.  But Robertson continued to threaten the Federals even after dark.

About 8 p.m. the pickets informed me that the enemy was moving across Black Creek, on my left, in force, and the report was confirmed by negroes who came into our lines. The evident object of this move was to reach Society Hill before us and cut us off at that point, which, if successful, would necessitate a long march to the left before I could return. I therefore concluded to at once move to Society Hill, which I did, arriving there at 12 m. on the night of the 5th.

From Society Hill, Williams moved back to Cheraw on the 6th without incident.  Summarizing the raid, Williams counted the damage inflicted and losses suffered:

The results of the expedition may be summed up as follows: The destruction of 500 yards of trestle-work, 2 depots, 11 freight and 4 passenger cars, 4,000 pounds bacon, 80 bushels wheat, 50 sacks corn, 250 bales of cotton, 1 printing office, 1 caisson and battery wagon, 30 stand of small-arms, and the capture of 31 prisoners. Our casualties are 7 wounded and 8 missing. A lieutenant and one man are reported to have been captured at Society Hill on our return.

Not bad for such a small force.  But Florence remained an open railroad junction for use by the Confederates.  However the rail lines there were somewhat amputated with no endpoints of strategic value.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 255-6; Part II, Serial 99, pages 676, 691; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 171.)

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