If Major-General William T. Sherman’s troops had a newsletter during the Carolinas Campaign, the headlines for March 10, 1865 might have read: “Half the army stuck in the mud” and “Cavalry chief caught snuggling,” along with “Mail just a day away at Fayetteville” and “Johnston expected to fight for town.” Maybe, if outside news slipped through, a story about “Bragg delays Cox outside Kinston” with a sidebar “Couch coming to the rescue!” Just some of the actions and activities occurring concurrently on that day in North Carolina.
Let me break from the “Left Wing” and “Right Wing” habit and instead discuss the two corps in the center – and toiling over bad roads and difficult streams. For the men of the Fifteenth Corps, top to bottom, March 8 through 11 must have been a blur. Normally I like to use the lines to depict a start point for the rear most unit’s daily march. And the arrow point to indicate where the lead element halted for the day. I don’t think an accurate depiction is possible for the Fifteenth Corps’ march on this day. At least not without a small-scale map.
An example of the trials that day was the march of Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division. The lead brigade of the division was near Gilchrist’s Bridge that morning. But far behind them, “the bridge across Juniper Creek had sunk, cutting off my supply and ordnance trains and two brigades infantry,” as Corse reported. Repairs made on the night of the 9th enabled some movement on the 10th. Even with that, the going was rough. At around midnight, Corse’s trains pulled into a camp near Raft Swamp. In front of them Second Division of Major-General William B. Hazen were moving up the road. Hazen had spent most of the morning on repairs, and not been able to move until 3 p.m. Major-General Charles Woods’ First Division took to the Stage Road, running parallel to the main road, but didn’t make much better progress. In the vanguard, Major-General John Smith’s Third Division passed Randallsville. Sherman, who accompanied the Fifteenth Corps through this, knew well the effort required for even a short movement that day.
Although across the Lumber River, the Twentieth Corps faced their own trials on lesser streams that day. Major-General Alpheus S. Williams observed for the day’s movement:
March 10, Buffalo Creek, ordinarily a mere rivulet, was so swollen by the heavy rain of last night that the head of the column was detained for hours to construct a crossing. After great labor by the whole command in corduroying the entire way (ten miles), the head of the column reached Rockfish Creek at 3:30 p.m. and found a stream with its overflow requiring a bridge of 330 feet in length. The pontoon train was brought up and by the use of its material and the lumber of an unoccupied building the bridge was completed during the night.
However the Twentieth Corps went into a far more compact camp than the Fifteenth that evening.
However, the outer corps advancing toward Fayetteville made good time on the 10th to keep pressure on the Confederate forces. South of the city, the Seventeenth Corps moved on a planked road and quickly closed on Big Rockfish Creek. Retreating Confederates burned the bridge, but due to the rains, the wood did not burn well. Within a few hours, Major-General Frank Blair could report crossing that stream. Blair sent one column of mounted men to Little Rockfish Creek, where another bridge was destroyed. But, after securing the site, repairs could be made to facilitate movement planned for the next day. While that was going on, Blair dispatched the 9th Illinois Cavalry to nearby Rockfish Factory and destroyed that facility. “This factory was one of the largest in the State having 318 looms.”
To the west of Fayetteville, the Fourteenth Corps continued its unmolested advance. Major-General Jefferson C. Davis had his lead brigade at the Six-Mile Post on the Plank Road. Davis exercised caution, knowing Lieutenant-General William Hardee had a sizable force in the city. Not knowing the progress of the Seventeenth Corps that day, Davis was content with his foothold at the outskirts of town.
Did I mention Davis and Blair advanced with little to no resistance? Yes. How is that? After all Hardee had a sizable force in Fayetteville. Well, Hardee had infantry, some artillery, but not much cavalry. And it was cavalry he sorely needed at this stage. And where was the Confederate cavalry? At the same place the Federal Cavalry was … Monroe’s Crossroads. Again, Eric Wittenberg is
planning has posted some detailed posts on this action, so I’ll not repeat those here. Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick was surprised and nearly captured there. Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton came close to destroying the Federal mounted arm and depriving Sherman of an important element in his formation. But for several reasons, which I’m sure Eric will cover in detail, the Confederates were unable to close the deal.
For me looking at the campaign overall, Monroe’s Crossroads is a point to consider both sides of the coin. Kilpatrick’s most important mission that day was to keep the Confederates away from the main infantry formations. The Second Division of Fifteenth Corps did dispatch one brigade to aid the cavalry. They arrived too late to do any fighting, but did cover the regrouping cavalry. Other than the redirection of one brigade, the Federal infantry was unmolested. However, success on that line was short lived. Starting the next day and continuing on for most of the campaign, the Confederate cavalry was in position to act against the Federal infantry. After a month of being in the “right place” and dictating the pace of the covering force battle, Kilpatrick would spend the remainder of March and into April a step behind the Confederates. Initiative, on the covering force battle, went to Hampton after March 10.
But there is the other side of the coin. Hampton looked to inflict a stinging defeat on the Federals, then allow his command to break free from his opposite number. In terms of a covering force battle, Hampton wanted to create an opening, from which his troopers could maneuver to advantage. In this case, Hampton needed to get back in front of the Federal infantry to better support the concentration east of the Cape Fear River. This he accomplished on March 10. And for the rest of the campaign, Hampton would dictate the tempo of the covering force battle. But the cost for that accomplishment may be measured in road miles gained by Federal infantry towards Fayetteville.
In the afternoon of March 10, Sherman wrote to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, expressing his plans:
… I will come on in the morning as fast as possible, but you may go on in the morning ready to support Slocum, who reports that he will be ready to go into Fayetteville to-morrow. I have no doubt Johnston will try and get some troops to oppose, and it is well for us to anticipate his preparations, and, therefore, you may push so as to threaten the town on the southwest. Let Blair take the plank road to the river; the two divisions of the Fifteenth on the direct road, communicating with Williams on the left, but let Slocum break into town. I will send a staff officer to him at daylight with orders to shove right in and push for the bridge. I think if the enemy fights us with a bridge to his rear he commits a mistake of which we must take immediate advantage. If any cause delays me, have preparations made at once to cross over to the east bank of the Cape Fear below the town, but we will pause thereabouts till we can get some real news from Wilmington….
One part caution from Sherman’s note. He was concerned Johnston would put up a fight for Fayetteville. One part opportunistic, as he hoped such a stand would prove a mistake on General Joseph E. Johnston’s part. But what Sherman wanted most for the 11th was communication with Wilmington. A bridge over the Cape Fear, to allow pursuit of Johnston, was secondary in that regard. Sherman wanted to link up with Wilmington right away. And keep in mind, Sherman did not know, on March 10th, that his supply line would need to be out of New Bern. He was operating on dated information (from early February).
Sherman planned to make a stop in Fayetteville, to refit his army and do damage to the infrastructure there. What he worried is that Johnston would make him pay dearly for that luxury.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 382 and 585; Part II, Serial 99, pages 754 and 758.)