Before leaving Fayetteville on March 15, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman sent one last round of messages. Among those was a letter to Major-General Quincy Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South. Sherman opened the letter apologizing for addressing a letter days earlier assuming Major-General John Foster was still in command of that department. Rather embarrassing, Sherman was not fully aware of the replacement of a key subordinate until after the fact. Confirmation of Gillmore’s appointment replacing Foster was found in newspapers.
The purpose of Sherman’s letter was to reiterate the need for an expedition to Florence, South Carolina:
When at Columbia I had the railroad broken down to Kingsville and the Wateree bridge. Subsequently from Cheraw I aimed to strike Florence, but sent too weak a party, but the enemy himself has destroyed the Pedee bridge, and has on the railroad at Sumterville, and between it and Florence, a vast amount of rolling-stock, the destruction of which is all important, and it should be done before any repairs can be made whereby they can be removed. I want it done at once, and leave you to devise the way.
Of course, Sherman knew when he left the coast in February that the Department of the South was down to a bare minimum force, sufficient to hold the line but little else. Sherman went on to suggest how a force might be drawn to accomplish this:
I think 2,500 men lightly equipped with pack mules only, could reach the road either from Georgetown or the Santee bridge. I think also that you can easily make up that force from Savannah and Charleston, As to the garrisons of those cities, I don’t feel disposed to be over generous, and should not hesitate to burn Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, or either of them If the garrisons were needed. Savannah and Wilmington are the only really useful ports, because of their inland rivers.
There you have it. Always willing to spread some fires, Sherman was ready to put another city to the torch if it advanced the campaign objectives… even a secondary objective such as the railroad out of Florence. But, such drastic measures shouldn’t be needed, as Sherman felt Gillmore could “get garrisons of sick, disabled, or indifferent troops.” And thus free up the healthy troops for other purposes:
All real good soldiers must now be marching. Do not let your command rest on its oars, but keep them going all the time, even if for no other purpose than to exhaust the enemy’s country, or compel him to defend it. The simple fact that a man’s home has been visited by an enemy makes a soldier in Lee’s and Johnston’s army very anxious to get home to look after his family and property·
An extension – considerable – of Grant’s 1864 approach to press the Confederate army on all fronts. Sherman added the home front.
Sherman offered his suggestion for how this expedition to Florence might be conducted:
But the expedition I have indicated to Sumterville and Florence has even higher aims. Those cars and locomotives should be destroyed, if to do it costs you 500 men. I know you can get there all the bacon, beef, meat, &c., your command may want, and a good deal of corn meal. The men could march without knapsacks, with a single blanket, and carry eight days’ provisions, which, with what is in the country, will feed the command two weeks. Let it be done at once, and select your own point of departure. After destroying those cars and engines (not merely damaging them, but an absolute destruction of boilers, steam chambers, connecting rods, flanges, &c.–powder can be used to good advantage in blowing up boilers and engines, but we use cold chisels and crowbars)–you may reduce your garrisons to the minimum, and send every man to New Berne and Goldsborough. I want to collect an army that can whip Lee in open fight if he lets go Richmond, which I think he will soon be forced to do.
I should remind that the troops in the Department of the South, many veterans of hard work on Morris Island and other points along the coast, were not experienced in the sort of open marching that Sherman proposed – marching without knapsacks and living off the land. But this section of Sherman’s letter was a short premier on “marching by bumming.”
Gillmore was able to collect a force numbering 2,700, placed under Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter, to put towards this task. But Potter was not able to immediately start the proposed march. That would wait until April 1. The last slash through South Carolina, aimed to destroy the last bits of infrastructure remaining, would strike just as the major Confederates armies in the east were surrendering.
(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 856-7.)