Sherman’s March, March 11, 1865: The Federals drive into Fayetteville

After spending weeks spread out across the Carolina countryside, on March 11, 1865, Sherman’s columns converged on Fayetteville, North Carolina.  In military terms, particularly in regard to logistics and control measures, the movement into Fayetteville was much like the descent upon Savannah.  Let me expand upon that in my “closing statement” after explaining the movements of the day.


The “point” formations on March 11 were the Fourteenth and Seventeenth Corps.  As cited yesterday, Sherman wanted the Fourteenth Corps to capture Fayetteville with support from the Seventeenth Corps.  Perhaps, Sherman did this to give the Fourteenth the honors for the day (as they were all too often the last on the march).  However, the move made military sense.  The Confederates were largely to the north and east of Fayetteville.  By advancing Fourteenth from the west on the Plank Road, Sherman was sealing off the objective.  So, that was the plan, but not how it worked out when applied.

On point for the Fourteenth’s advance that day was Major-General Absalom Baird’s Third Division.  And Baird’s account was to the point:

Moving at 6 a.m…. 11th, struck the rebel pickets at Beaver Creek, six miles from Fayetteville; drove them from their barricades, pushed on and entered the city at 9 a.m., recapturing and placing guards over the old U.S. Arsenal, basely surrendered by the traitor, Samuel S. Anderson, at the beginning of the rebellion.  It contained a number of cannon and small-arms, together with valuable machinery for their manufacture.

Only slight resistance in front of Baird that morning.  As for Samuel Anderson, Baird was writing this report on March 24, from the field and definitely not working from references.  Interesting that even the minor details pertaining to secession remained in the minds of men like Baird.

Despite Sherman’s intent, it was the Seventeenth Corps which first broke into Fayetteville.  To “hedge” a bit, Major-General Oliver O. Howard organized a flying column to rush into town.  Once again, Howard turned to his able staff officer, Captain William Duncan:

Early the next morning, March 11, I directed him to take all the available mounted men at my headquarters and scout toward Fayetteville. He encountered the enemy’s pickets just outside of the town, which he drove before him easily, but on entering the town he met a large force of the enemy’s cavlary.  The scouts were driven back, and Captain Duncan was captured.  He afterward escaped, and reports that he was stripped of everything valuable and in the presence of Hampton and Butler.

Duncan’s initial success, with a force cobbled together for the task, is another indicator of the poor Confederate dispositions.  The rear guard was porous at best.  And the Confederate cavalry, which had arrived late the day before, was not disposed to confront these Federal advances.  Reports and later accounts point to some confusion as to which command assumed the rear guard in Fayetteville.  Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton himself was nearly captured (which would have been an interesting turn considering the near capture of Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick the day before).

Behind Duncan’s rush, Major-General Giles Smith advanced the Fourth Division, with a mounted force of foragers leading the way.  At Little Rockfish Creek, the main body of the division paused while the bridge was repaired.  But the foragers pressed on to gain possession of Arsenal Hill.  The mounted men from Fourth Division were unable, however, to secure the bridge before the retreating Confederates set fire to the wooden structure.  Shortly afterward, the infantry arrived to secure the rest of the city.  The mayor of Fayetteville surrendered the city to Lieutenant-Colonel W.E. Strong of Howard’s staff.

In his report, Howard mentioned Confederate artillery firing into the city in an attempt to delay the Federal advance, “the shot passing through the houses of Fayetteville.”  And he also incriminated Hampton directly in regard to a violation of wartime convention:

We found several of our men lying dead in the streets.  Captain Duncan reports to me that one of the men was badly wounded and endeavoring to walk away without arms, when the “chivalrous” Lieutenant-General Hampton rode after him and hacked him down with his own saber, thus adding another to his boasted victims.

For what it was worth, Hampton’s post-war account differed greatly.  Personally, I’m inclined to criticize Hampton for the lax security of Fayetteville that morning.  Duncan later mentioned a heated discussion between Hampton and Lieutenant-General William Hardee.  One has to wonder if the two Confederate chiefs were assessing (arguing?) the failure of the picket line, which under normal circumstances would have been Hampton’s charge.  But again, there is no direct indication that Hampton had been given that responsibility.

The other Federal formations, the Fifteenth Corps, Twentieth Corps, and Cavalry Division, all converged on Fayetteville that afternoon.  The Fifteenth Corps remained badly strung out along the roads, with much of the trains remaining west of Rockfish Creek.  The rear of Twentieth Corps, Major-General John Geary’s division, went into camp that evening some thirteen miles outside Fayetteville, after an “unusually laborious” march.  The Cavalry followed the Fourteenth Corps, with a somewhat leisurely pace. (And let me mention the last installment of Eric’s series on Monroe’s Crossroads is up.)

The ease at which the Federals gained Fayetteville is often contrasted with the failure to take the bridge over the Cape Fear River.  There is no doubt the Federals wanted – would have preferred – to have that bridge intact.  But the destruction of the bridge was not a major setback.  The Right Wing’s pontoon train was held up on the 11th supporting Fifteenth Corps movements.  They camped that night one mile outside Fayetteville.  But by 7 p.m. the next day, the 1st Missouri Engineers had a seventeen-boat bridge across the Cape Fear River. Making better time, the Left Wing’s pontoon train had a 400 foot span over the river by 2 p.m., laid just below the original bridge.  Thus the destruction of the bridge delayed Sherman by a day at most.  Sherman chose to delay his march at Fayetteville for reasons other than the bridges.

That’s where I circle back to the comparison of Savannah and Fayetteville.  Much like the end of the March to the Sea in December 1864, Sherman arrived outside Fayetteville with the need to replenish supplies and refit the army.  After five weeks marching through the Carolinas, the army was running short on items it could not acquire from foraging – bullets, shoes, uniforms, weapons, repair parts, and other “military” supplies.  Just the same as outside Savannah the previous December.  And recall that Sherman and subordinates expressed much anxiety over the opening of a supply line at Savannah.  This prompted the attack on Fort McAllister – somewhat “rushed” we might say.

At Fayetteville, the Confederates didn’t offer significant resistance to Sherman’s advance.  Instead, Hampton and Hardee never planned to put up a delay, much less a fight.  We might debate IF the Confederates could have put up a fight (and I’d lean towards the “not really” side). But we also have to consider Sherman’s dispositions – two corps up and two corps stuck in the mud.  Sherman was being deliberate in the approach to Fayetteville.  A deliberate opposition to that approach might have better served Confederate interests.

Call it my “revisionist” moment for the day, but I don’t think we can say the burnt bridge at Fayetteville caused any additional delays for Sherman’s march.  Sherman planned to loiter at Fayetteville for a few days regardless of the condition of bridges over the Cape Fear River.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 203-4, 551.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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