Sherman’s March, March 9, 1865: “… this and the day following were two of the most tedious of the campaign.”

Considering this day – March 9 – as things occurred 150 years ago, Major-General Oliver O. Howard wrote:

March 9, excepting the three days at Lynch’s Creek, this and the day following were two of the most tedious of the campaign.  The rain continued, and the roads grew worse and worse.  The soil seemed to be sandy, and the roads would have answered for light wagons, but after a few wagons had passed over the whole bottom seemed to give out, and in places, if wagons left the roadway, they sank to the wagon body in the quicksand; and what was particularly discouraging, our corduroy of rails or poles would itself sink down and necessitate a reconstruction.

This is an important detail – fine grained history, if I may – about the campaign which is often passed over quickly (ironically, maybe?) in the history books as the North Carolina phase of the campaign is summarized with Bentonville.   Keep in mind that at this point of the campaign, Major-General William T. Sherman’s objective was not North Carolina.  Rather it was Petersburg.  Sherman had already written off anything General Joseph E. Johnston might muster.  Sherman was focused on his last orders from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant – join with the armies in Virginia to defeat General Robert E. Lee.  There were several enabling objectives to gain along that route – Fayetteville and Goldsboro (I’m dropping the archaic spelling of that place….). So a day… or two… spent crossing the Lumber River was not acceptable to Sherman.

Howard’s point being, when he wrote that passage for a report of the campaign on April 1, was that the delays at Lynches and Lumber Rivers factored heavily in the events later in the campaign.  If we view the movement to Fayetteville as a race won by Lieutenant-General William Hardee, with the result of setting up the next round of moves and enabling the Confederates to gain position from which to attack Sherman’s left flank, then … we must hear Howard’s words that the race was lost at the Lumber River.


The two corps of the Right Wing advanced in parallel against the Lumber… with no appreciable Confederate resistance.  In turn, each corps divided the march across generally parallel roads.   The Seventeenth Corps moved forward at 8 a.m. on the 9th, with “Fourth Division on the upper and First and Third on the lower Fayetteville roads.”  The corps reached Raft Creek with the column spread on each side of a large swamp.  “The bridge at Raft Swamp had been partially destroyed by the enemy but was easily repaired.”  Blair’s men were closing on Fayetteville, with only Rockfish Creek and Hardee’s men between them and the Cape Fear River.

In addition to the infantry division movement, Major-General Frank Blair dispatched his “cavalry” – the 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry – to Lumberton.  There, the 9th Illinois destroyed six train cars, a mile of railroad track, and several bridges.  The intent was to isolate any force, such as Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson’s, attempting to rejoin the main Confederate force at Fayetteville.

The Fifteenth Corps’ progress on the 9th suffered greatly from the flooding. Major-General John Logan sent his Second and Fourth Divisions on the direct road to Gilchrist’s Bridge.  The First and Third Divisions moved on a branch road to the left reach the same point.  The latter column had a longer march, but bypassed much of the creeks.  Yet, even with that, the columns found the ground soft and requiring much corduroying.  By the end of the day, Second Division reached the Lumber and had bridges across.  But the going was slow:

… the whole corps worked night and day as pioneers until the treacherous country was passed.  No sooner had the Second Division fairly commenced crossing Lumber River than the rain set in with great violence, completely washing the bottom out of the roads.

This stranded Major-General William B. Hazen’s division astride the river.  Two brigade setup a two mile deep bridgehead, while the remainder of the division, including the trains, remained on the west side. Second Brigade from the Third Division also crossed the Lumber.  But the rest of the “left column” did not get closer than four miles of the river.  All of the Fifteen Corps worked through the night to pull out the mired wagons and prepare the road for the next day.  And in the midst of this effort, Logan received orders from Howard calling for an advance to Rockfish Creek the next day.  Logan was, by all accounts, getting his own hands dirty, working with the men in the mire.  His adjutant, Major Max Woodhull, responded to the order, “I think it will take all day to-morrow to close the corps up on the line of Randalsville.”  No doubt Logan’s response to the orders would have been much less restrained.

The Left Wing’s progress mirrored that of the Right.  As result of the previous day’s difficulties, the Twentieth Corps was badly strung out.  Work commenced at first light to corduroy roads leading to McFarland’s Bridge and make repairs to allow crossing the Lumber at that point. Major-General Alpheus S. Williams recalled:

In the morning I found that Mill Creek had swollen into a large stream, and Lumber Creek, with its overflow, into a formidable river, requiring a substantial bridge over 150 feet in length.  By 3 p.m. the bridges and long corduroys were finished and Jackson’s division, with its train, crossed.  At 5 p.m. the rain began to fall in torrents, submerging everything, floating away the corduroy, and turning the roads into creeks and quagmires. The field were so saturated that trains could not be parked.

However, to the left of this, Fourteenth Corps covered over twenty miles as they had the advantage of a well established plank road leading to Fayetteville.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis entered:

March 9, with Baird’s division in the advance, the whole corps moved on the plank road and went into camp between the Fifteen and Twenty Mile Posts.  Heavy rains fell during the afternoon, and the roads became very heavy. During the day’s march prisoners captured from Hardee’s command gave information that the enemy was evidently making an effort to concentrate in our front at Fayetteville.

Indeed, in front of Davis, Hardee’s command had reached Fayetteville.  Johnston himself had arrived at that point to assume direction of the concentration of forces.  The situation facing Johnston was still not good.  Hardee was the only force holding Fayetteville and two Federal corps were within striking distance.  And Johnston was not quite ready to give battle.  At 3:30 p.m. he issued a memorandum to Hardee:

To prepare a crossing for Lieutenant-General Hampton and send him information. To remain here as long as practicable without compromising the safety of his command, in order to delay the enemy. When he leaves to move by the Raleigh road on the east bank of Cape Fear. If it is not practicable to destroy a portion of the bridge merely to burn it. To keep a few picked scouts to observe the enemy’s movements between the Fayetteville railroad and river. His object will be to keep between the enemy and Raleigh, and his movements directed accordingly. To do all he can to delay the enemy’s passage of the river in order that our forces may be concentrated as near it as possible. Remove all able-bodied negroes, saddle and draft animals, and means of transportation.

Thus Johnston would, for the moment, continue trading space for time.  Please keep the requirement of selecting scouts from Hardee’s command in mind, as it points to something we must consider later in this situational discussion. The last line from the memorandum is of note.  The Confederates were at this time in the campaign foraging just as hard on the population as the Federals.  And more so, the Confederates were drawing upon the local population for its transportation needs and … labor force.  The logistics of the Confederate armies at this stage were a tangle of priorities.

One last important element to the campaign operations of March 9, which I don’t have satisfactorily depicted on the map, is the covering force actions to the left of the main Federal advance.  Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick had the dual tasks of pursuing Hardee while at the same time keeping the Confederate cavalry off the Fourteenth Corps.  Sherman had specifically asked Kilpatrick to “keep your command well in hand, and the horses and men in the best possible order as to food and forage.” Sherman added, “Keep your horses in the best order for the day when we must have a big fight – not, however, on this turn.”

Up until this time in the campaign, Kilpatrick had minded his leash.  I, for one, would argue that Kilpatrick did the best management of cavalry of his career (some will snicker) through February.  And I would further belabor my point about the results of Aiken also adding that Confederate cavalry were constantly kept out of position, and had little impact, during the march through South Carolina.  Kilpatrick must be given some credit for that… maybe not all, but at least a good portion.  However, come March of that year, Kilpatrick seemed to forget that leash.  I read Sherman’s message and see the intent to avoid major actions.  Kilpatrick must not have.  Instead, he went looking for a fight.  And, as events often turn in these cases, the fight came looking for him!

Kilpatrick’s cavalry sparred briefly with Hardee’s rear guard while heading east.  But by mid-day he sensed an opportunity.  A gap appeared between Hardee and the Confederate cavalry.  Kilpatrick thought he might intercept the Confederate troopers before Fayetteville and give them a good twist.  However, among the many things Kilpatrick had not done through those early days of March was to account for all the various elements of his opposition.  Instead of facing Major-General Matthew Butler and other parts of Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s command, now, perhaps for the first time in the campaign, Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton had concentrated the Confederate cavalry.  Kilpatrick was outnumbered and out of support range of the infantry.

I’ll hold off a detailed discussion of the dispositions at this point.  (UPDATE: And… for a better, more detailed view of the dispositions, I refer you to Eric’s post on Emerging Civil War.) In short, Kilpatrick put his headquarters near Monroe’s Crossroads that evening with Third and Fourth Brigades of his command in a very lax perimeter.  First and Second Brigades camped at points west of there, respectively four and ten miles away.  Half of Kilpatrick’s command, along with his headquarters, were exposed and ripe for the picking.  Hampton could not ask for a more favorable disposition.

Kilpatrick and Hampton were engaged in a covering force battle, somewhat detached from the main force, at this stage of the campaign.  We should also consider what Hampton was trying to achieve with his command in that fight.  And the South Carolinian was focused, very narrowly, on Kilpatrick.

Looking at the larger picture, and considering the context, Hampton’s focus had an effect on the developing situation in front of Fayetteville.  For a week, Butler’s cavalry had maintained a position in front of the Federals and done good work scouting and delaying.  Now Butler was on the flanks, and not in position to cover the front.  At the same time, there were plenty of isolated Federal camps in the advance of that force which would advance the next day with little molestation to seal the fate of Fayetteville.  Hardee, as mentioned in Johnston’s memorandum above, was reduced improvised pickets to track the Federal advance.  If you ask me, the cavalry of both sides was out of position, and improperly focused, at this phase of the campaign.

Again, Howard’s words come to mind here – the rains did more than the Confederates to delay Sherman.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 203, 232, 382, 432, and 584-5; Part II, Serial 99, pages 721, 738, and 1356. )

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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