Sherman’s March, March 12, 1865: A day of “partial rest” at Fayetteville

The arrival of Major-General William T. Sherman’s in Fayetteville earned the soldiers a well-earned break from days of hard marching and difficult work on the muddy roads.  But saying “break” is not to say the soldiers would lounge around doing nothing.  Sherman had tasks to complete while in Fayetteville. Many of which would setup the next moves on his campaign.  These tasks included closing up the army, establishing contact with Wilmington, destroying facilities in and around Fayetteville, preparing the armies for the next leg of the march, and gaining bridgeheads on the east side of the Cape Fear River.


Some of Sherman’s forces had to complete movement to Fayetteville on March 12th.  Major-General John Logan recorded:

On the 12th of March the corps moved to position around Fayetteville, where the troops were granted a few days partial rest after the arduous work of the past week.  At this point a thorough inspection of the corps was ordered in compliance with instructions from superior headquarters, directing the reduction of the mounted foragers…. The crossing of the pontoon was chosen as the most fit place for the execution of the order, and the corps underwent a thorough cleansing as to unauthorized animals.

Once again, the Federals would cull out unfit animals and put them down.  Archeologists looking to pinpoint Sherman’s river crossing sites would do well to look for horse bones.

The other formation catching up that day was Major-General John Geary’s division of Twentieth Corps.  Moving on the Plank Road, Geary’s men closed the dozen miles needed by 1 p.m.

The previous day an Army tug and the gunboat USS Eolus arrived at Wilmington to establish contact with Sherman.

For once, the flooding worked in favor of the Federals.  High waters on the Cape Fear River carried away obstructions left by the Confederates.  This contact allowed a flurry of dispatches from Sherman, reporting to Washington and several subordinate commanders.  Aside from brief details of the march and damaged inflicted upon the Confederacy, Sherman reported, “The army is in splendid health, condition, and spirit.”  Beyond that, to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman forecast, “If I can now add Goldsborough without too much cost, I will be in position to aid you materially in the spring campaign.”  Regarding Confederate forces under General Joseph Johnston, Sherman only expressed a concern about a flank attack on isolated corps.  To thwart that, Sherman planned to keep his columns tight (and we shall see how that worked later).

Sherman also took the time to brag about the materials captured from the Confederates:

Forty-three guns at Columbia, 25 guns at Cheraw, 17 guns at Fayetteville, total, 85, of which four-fifths were field guns, and all were serviceable; 50 field and siege gun carriages, 30 caissons, 5 battery wagons, 3 traveling forges.

I have not mentioned Major-General William F. Barry, Chief of Artillery, or Colonel Thomas G. Baylor, Chief Ordnance Officer, at any length in my narrative, as the artillery was not employed heavily above the division level.  But I will call attention to the detailed reports offered by those officers.  For Fayetteville, Baylor gave these particulars (which differed from Sherman’s report in aggregate number):

Cannon.–Two 10-inch columbiads, four 8-inch columbiads, two 42-pounder smooth-bores, two 4.6-inch rifle guns, two 8-inch siege howitzers, one 5.7. inch smooth-bore, four 6-pounder smooth-bores, one 12-pounder field howitzer, two 12-pounder smooth-bores (iron), one 12-pounder (brass), one 20-pounder Parrott, one 10-pounder Parrott, one Eprouvette mortar, two boat howitzers (navy); total cannon, twenty-six.

A nice cross section of weapons used by the Confederacy.  And useful for those of us who track down the history of some of the guns.  Of note, several heavy cannon were at Fayetteville.  One should wonder why a couple of 10-inch Columbiads were there instead of in battery along the coast.  Most of these weapons were destroyed or dumped into the river.  Only a handful were retained as trophies or passed to the batteries.

In addition to all those cannons, Sherman’s men found 2,000 serviceable muskets in Fayetteville.  As with the cannon, what was not useful for the Federals was destroyed.  Meanwhile, Johnston’s officers would report several hundred men in the Confederate ranks without arms.  One has to wonder exactly what bureaucratic snarls prevented the issue of those weapons before the fall of Fayetteville.

As for the Fayetteville Arsenal, Sherman reasoned,

We cannot afford to leave detachments, and I shall, therefore, destroy this valuable arsenal, for the enemy shall not have its use, and the United States should never again confide such valuable property to the people who have betrayed a trust.

Captain (Brevet Brigadier-General) Orlando Poe supervised this task:

At Fayetteville it was found that the enemy had greatly enlarged the capacity of the old U.S. Arsenal. The major-general assigned to me the special duty of destroying it. The Michigan Engineers were at once set at work to batter down all masonry walls, and to break to pieces all machinery of whatever kind, and to prepare the two large magazines for explosion. The immense machine-shops, foundries, timber sheds, &c., were soon reduced to a heap of rubbish, and at a concerted signal fire was applied to these heaps, and to all wooden buildings and piles of lumber; also to the powder trains leading to the magazines. A couple of hours sufficed to reduce to ashes everything that would burn, and the high wind prevailing at the time scattered these ashes, so that only a few piles of broken bricks remained of that repossessed arsenal. Much of the machinery here destroyed had been brought at the beginning of the war from the old arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

In addition to the arsenal and other public facilities, Sherman had portions of the Fourteenth Corps and the Cavalry wreck the railroad running north out of the city.

At Fayetteville, the army needed clothing above all else.  Sherman complained that the men had been in the water practically every day since the first of February.  The uniforms and shoes were worn out.  “My command will need an entire equipment of clothing,” Sherman wrote to his quartermasters.

Another task to refit the army was to trim the column down somewhat.  Some reduction was accomplished by sending sick and wounded personnel to Wilmington.  But the largest reduction was to send the vast contraband and refugee column to that port.  Sherman hoped that enough steamers were on hand to handle all.  But this proved far short.  In addition to the tug, the Right Wing had captured a steamer.  The Left Wing eventually tracked down a couple more.  But these could only handle a few dozen passengers at a time.  A drop, comparatively speaking, to the number of civilians needing transportation.  “There were 4,500, mostly negroes, from my wing alone,” indicated Major-General Oliver O. Howard.  Estimates varied up to 20,000 in total.

To move these refugees to the coast, Sherman ordered each division to provide fifty men, preferably recently released prisoners or men due to be discharged.  With a detail of officers, this detail would escort the civilians to Wilmington.  (If you ask me, there’s a research project that might turn into a fascinating story.)  This slimmed Sherman’s column, eliminating the need to protect and feed the refugees during the movements ahead.

At the same time, Sherman was looking for reinforcements.  He sent orders to Major-Generals John Schofield, Alfred Terry, and Jacob Cox in regard to concentrating the force.  Specifically to Schofield, Sherman directed “On making junction with you, I want you to make your command 25,000, and will call it the Center, thus restoring our old Atlanta organization.”  Terry was directed to move overland to New Bern.  And Cox would work to establish a base of supply as far forward as possible – Goldsboro preferably, but Kinston if necessary.

One odd letter from Sherman went out addressed to Major-General John Foster, commanding “Department of the South.”  In the letter, Sherman noted,

The enemy still has much railroad stock and munitions on the track about Sumterville and Florence, and if you can make up a force of 2,500 men out of your Charleston and Savannah garrisons I want you to reach that road and destroy everything possible and exhaust the country of supplies.

Sherman asked him to call upon the Navy for support of a movement out of Georgetown, “but the distance from Georgetown does not exceed sixty miles, and we look on sixty miles as a pleasant excursion.”  Aside from that suggestion, Sherman wanted all troops from the garrisons that could be spared sent to New Bern.

This message indicates just how much had changed since Sherman left the coast.  Foster, as we know, had been on convalescent leave for a month.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore was in command.  Georgetown was already in Federal hands.  However, Gillmore had for the last month been pestered by orders to reduce his garrisons.  The movement of any troops from Georgia or South Carolina was frustrated by the lack of transports.  On March 11th, Gillmore had in fact written Sherman to announce, “There are about 7,000 men here belonging to your army that I wish to forward to North Carolina… but I am not able to commence yet for the reasons that my transports are all engaged moving part of my own command to Wilmington.”  The men Gillmore referenced were new recruits and returning convalescents.   But for the want of a few transport hulls….

But Sherman’s directive to Gillmore would spawn one more military operation in South Carolina, to start in the weeks to follow.

As night fell on the 12th, Sherman’s subordinates worked on the last important task of the day – establishing a bridgehead over the Cape Fear River.  As mentioned yesterday, the engineers went to work the day before to locate the best crossing points.  The pontoon bridges were set that evening.  Under the protection of the Eolus, Second Division of the Fourteenth Corps crossed starting at 7 p.m.  The Right Wing crossed a brigade from Fourth Division, Seventeenth Corps, at a point opposite Lock Creek.  On the far side, the Federals skirmished briefly with Confederate cavalry but were otherwise unmolested.

All in all a lot of activity for a day of “partial rest.”  With communications sent, bridges established, and reduced columns, Sherman was ready to launch the next stage of his campaign.  But first, he would give the men one more “partial rest” day.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 172-1-2, 183,  and 233; Part II, Serial 99, pages 792, 794-795, 800, and 804. )

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Sherman’s March, March 12, 1865: A day of “partial rest” at Fayetteville

  1. Fayetteville was home to the largest industrial community in North Carolina. This was the day that Sherman’s forces burned all but one of the 8 textile and woodworking factories around the town.

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