Sherman’s March, May 1-5, 1865: Leaving North Carolina and entering Virginia on the way to Washington

At the end of last month, I offered a summary of the orders issued by Major-General William T. Sherman upon the final-final surrender agreement with General Joseph E. Johnston.  Considering the “Great March,” as the veterans called it, in phases, this was the last phase of the movement of the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia.  Their transit across the northern part of North Carolina and through Virginia to Washington was far less of a tactical movement, and more so an administrative march.  No need for skirmishers.  Foraging was prohibited.  But the march was still a military affair with the daily rhythm of an army on the move.

And move they did.  Let me “steal” a section of the Plate CXVI from the Official Records Atlas:


One of these days I might trace the march in a day-by-day format, looking to the various places the troops marched.  But for now allow me to to wave the hand over the map, and say they moved up from Raleigh in the typical formation seen since Atlanta – Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps on the left, Seventeenth and Fifteenth Corps on the right.  Absent, of course, was the cavalry which was left behind with Major-General John Schofield.

Even though the march was unopposed, the Federals still had to survey and repair roads.  And where needed, the engineers had to lay pontoon bridges to cross rivers.  Brigadier-General Orlando Poe estimated some 3,000 feet of pontoons were laid to support the movement from Raleigh to Washington.  That figure, though similar in magnitude to the amount laid in the Atlanta and Savannah Campaigns, was over a greater distance.   After all, the Confederates were no longer burning bridges behind them to slow the Federal march.  Likewise, Poe recorded only 20 miles of corduroy laid to facilitate this last march.  In summary, Poe wrote, “Of course there was no especial merit in anything done by the engineers during this march any more than there would be during any other march in a time of profound peace.”

More concerned with the bridges was Major-General John Geary, commanding Second Division, Twentieth Corps.  On April 30, Geary encountered issues crossing the Neuse River, “on a rickety bridge at falls of Neuse Paper Mills.”  Geary complained, “The bridge, which had been repaired by the division preceding me, broke down before all my trains had crossed.  The remaining wagons forded the river below, and reached camp during the night….”  Although Geary found “an excellent bridge” over Cedar Creek the next day, he had to cross the Tar River on a pontoon bridge, finding the original washed away.  On May 3, Geary’s division would cross the Roanoke River at Taylor’s Ferry on a set of pontoon bridges measuring 385 yards.  Thus about 1,000 feet of Poe’s estimated 3,000 feet of bridging allowed Geary’s division to pass that barrier.

Once over the Roanoke River, the Armies approached Petersburg:


This line of march brought them close to many familiar place names associated with the long siege of that city and the Appomattox Campaign of a month earlier.  The Fourteenth Corps approached Nottoway Court-house; the Twentieth Corps reached Blacks and Whites Station; the Army of the Tennessee passed through Dinwiddie and used the Boyton Plank Road.  Some elements of the Fifteenth Corps reached Reams’ Station.

Now the urgency of the war was past so marches were supposed to be “easy”… as if any fifteen mile march with pack and provisions would be “easy.”  But there was still the urge to “get there first” and turn the march into a race against other formations.  Corps commanders had to govern the march to prevent this.  On the evening of May 5, Major-General Frank Blair, from Spain’s Plantation,  issued instructions for the next day’s march:

The command will move forward to-morrow at daylight in the same order as to-day. If the day is clear and hot the command will halt at 11 a.m., and starting again at 2 p.m. Will march until sundown.

Look a bit behind the words here.  Sure, Blair is prescribing a break (that refreshes) in the middle of the day.  But more important are the times prescribed here.  Only a month earlier, a similar movement order would have given a specific time of day.  For the military planner, “daylight” is ambiguous.  It would be like saying “Oh, sometime once you get up.”  Normally, field orders were issued with the reliance on synchronized watches from the corps down to the regimental level.  Given tables issued from the Naval Observatory, the staff could accurately determine sunrise, sunset, and other times based on astrological observations.  In short, there was a “standard” time that commanders used as a reference in their orders. It was not the “atomic clock” stuff we have today, but was within tolerances and effective.

However, that evening Blair was not concerned with the exact time to start the march or even end the march of May 6.  He was concerned about ensuring his troops had a three hour rest period during the day.  And I would expect somewhere a junior staff officer had the task of riding the line of march between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. that day to determine who, if any, were violating the commander’s order. A far bit removed from the days of struggling through the swamps of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Priorities changed, you might say.

As the Armies neared Richmond, a question was in the air.  Would Sherman’s men be allowed to march through Richmond?  I’ll look to that in the next installment.

Also…. Let me also mention, looking further down the route of march, that Noel Harrison, at Mysteries and Conundrums, has an excellent post up touching upon the passage of Sherman’s Armies through Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg.  Good read!

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 175 and 700-1; Part II, Serial 100, page 403.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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