Author Archives: Craig Swain

Sherman’s March, February 28, 1865: “I received this morning twenty of my prisoners in exchange”

High water continued to delay Major-General William T. Sherman’s march through South Carolina on February 28, 1865.  But through the efforts of the troops, bridging and corduroying, and the abating flood waters, the Federals made some progress.


The Fifteenth Corps continued to build approaches to the bridges on Lynches River.  But none of the columns made significant progress out of that flooded bottom land.  Major-General John Logan reported enough progress to be hopeful of a move the next day, if the waters cooperated.  Each day the trains moved forward, jumping from “island” to “island” in the flooded bottom. This brought on a traffic control problem for the wagons, as the First Missouri Engineers observed:

There was a good deal of rivalry among the teamsters in order to secure position and early start, thereby getting into camp early in the evening.  So for many days, owing to the wearing out of the roads, camp was reached late – at 10, 12, and sometimes after 1 o’clock at night, and the next morning the call was frequently at 3 or 4 a.m., oftentimes giving but three or four hours in camp to eat and sleep, and nineteen and twenty hours on the march; so the temper was frequently tired, especially in bad weather, and hence the struggle for a place in advance.

In the rear of the column, Major-General John Smith, Third Division, took this opportunity to trim his trains a bit.  On this day, “… about 3,000 pounds of tobacco and sundries, which had gathered since a similar inspection was made at West’s Cross Roads, was thrown out.”  Why would I mention such a “mundane” activity?  Well first off, the division reached West’s Cross-roads only four days earlier.  Mark that as the time in which the troops gathered 3,000 pounds of “tobacco and sundries.”  Secondly, these sort of inspections and purges were made at frequent intervals during the march.  The commanders were very mindful of the fact their trains could easily be encumbered and weighty.  We often read about the bummers stealing all sorts of things – particularly furniture, paintings, and other large items that would tax the transportation means of the average bummer on foot.  While some of the furniture no doubt went to the campfires, General Smith and his peers simply had no room for things like grand pianos, chafing dishes, or candelabras.  I would contend that much of the “sundries” acquired by the bummers suffered this fate under the mindful inspections.  Left by the road side or redistributed to other eager hands, those items remained in South Carolina for the time being.  (Perhaps I should elaborate further on this and explore the bummers’ load and the mobility of the army?)

The Seventeenth Corps made outstanding progress, in comparison, on February 28th.  After completing the corduroy and additional bridging, the corps moved before dawn on the 28th.  The march from there was relatively smooth.  Reaching a point beyond Black Creek, the corps went into camp and erected fortifications, some thirteen miles short of Cheraw.

Reports indicated a strong Confederate force, comprised of the troops withdrawn from Charleston and Wilmington, gathering at Cheraw.  And throughout the day, the Seventeenth Corps encountered Major-General Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry.  In reality, besides Butler, Lieutenant-General William Hardee’s force, evacuated from Charleston, was the only element in front of the Right Wing.  And Hardee was only going to hold Cheraw long enough for the last of his troops to arrive by train.  The Confederates prepared to contest Cheraw, but preferred to abandon the place quickly.  Still, as a precaution, Major-General Oliver O. Howard ordered the corps to hold up and wait until the Fifteenth Corps moved up to support.

The Twentieth Corps made a modest march of eight miles, “… over a very heavy, spongy road, making a corduroy necessary for every rod,” according to Major-General Apheus Williams, commanding.  But despite this, the corps gained a bridge at Lynches Creek and gained road beyond. A foraging detail from Major-General John Geary’s division reached a mill on the creek, “and furnished the command with several days’ supply of meal by collecting the corn and grinding it in these mills.”

The Fourteenth Corps finally won it’s battle against the Catawba River on February 28.  After completing a new pontoon bridge on the afternoon of the previous day, the corps resumed crossing.  In his orders for the day, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis urged:

The delay caused by the breaking of the bridge, and the consequent wide separation of the corps from the remainder of the army, makes it imperative upon all to push the advance now with the utmost energy and rapidity.

The rear guard of the corps again skirmished with Confederates on the west side of the river that day.  Otherwise the crossing was unmolested. The lead elements of the corps took up the same road used by the Twentieth some days earlier.  At least the path was well blazed.

Still guarding the left flank of the march, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick remained in Lancaster for one more day.  Reporting to Sherman, Kilpatrick complained, “I have eaten out the country about Lancaster, and here it is mighty poor.”  Kilpatrick was ready to move on and hoped the Fourteenth Corps’ movement would allow him the freedom to slip east.  Still, he was going to keep the appearance of moving towards Charlotte, as instructed.

Along with his report, Kilpatrick forwarded Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton’s counter to the threat of retaliation for murdered foragers. With that message, one might presume the issue was about to erupt into a round of executions.  However, Kilpatrick had worked out something with his old classmate Major-General Joseph Wheeler:

I received this morning twenty of my prisoners in exchange for an equal number sent General Wheeler yesterday; in all, he has taken from me but one officer and thirty men since entering upon the present campaign.  I have, over and above that number, seventy of his men and four commissioned officers.  As I feel confident that I can keep even with him or Hampton in prisoners, if you will give permission, and any of the corps commanders desire it, for infantry officers and soldiers now in Wheeler’s hands I will exchange the prisoners I now have on hand.

This had the effect of defusing the entire prisoner-murdered forager issue.  Can’t threaten to execute prisoners if there are no prisoners.  And, on a broader scale, we must also remember that Federal prisoners were still considered a bargaining chip to top Confederate leaders.  The nature of this exchange, set in context, undermines all the boisterous protests from Hampton.  The Confederates might be upset about the foragers, but it was far more important to entice the Federals into these cartels to exchange prisoners.  Such fit into the “army in being” strategy.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 319, 583, and 689; Part II, Serial 99, pages 613, and 615; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 170.)

“I shall have executed at once two of yours…”: Hampton escalates the prisoner issue

Major-General William T. Sherman sent a message across the lines on February 24, 1865, addressed to Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, complaining about the execution of Federal foragers and relating a threat to retaliate in kind.  This message required a few days to transit the lines.  So on February 27, Hampton responded:

General: Your communication of the 24th instant reached me to-day. In it you state that it has been officially reported that your foraging parties are “murdered” after capture. You go on to say that you have “ordered a similar number of prisoners in our hands to be disposed of in like manner; that is to say, you have ordered a number of Confederate soldiers to be “murdered.” You characterize your order in proper terms, for the public voice, even in your own country, where it seldom dares to express itself in vindication of truth, honor, or justice, will surely agree with you in pronouncing you guilty of murder if your order is carried out. Before dismissing this portion of your letter, I beg to assure you that for every soldier of mine “murdered” by you, I shall have executed at once two of yours, giving in all cases preference to any officers who may be in my hands.

This introduction certainly set the tone for the rest of the letter.  Hampton went on to deny any knowledge of the alleged incidents, or at least insisting that any forager deaths were attributable to the defense of the state, civilians, and property:

In reference to the statement you make regarding the death of your foragers, I have only to say that I know nothing of it; that no orders given by me authorize the killing of prisoners after capture, and that do not believe my men killed any of yours, except under circumstances in which it was perfectly legitimate and proper that they should kill them. It is a part of the system of the thieves whom you designate as your foragers to fire the dwellings of those citizens whom they have robbed. To check this inhuman system, which is justly execrated by every civilized nation, I have directed my men to shoot down all of your men who are caught burning houses. This order shall remain in force so long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings.

Hampton spent two paragraphs debating Sherman over the claim of “war right” to forage:

You say that I cannot, of course, question your right to forage on the country–“It is a right as old as history.” I do not sir, question this right. But there is a right older, even, than this, and one more inalienable–the right that every man has to defend his home and to protect those who are dependent on him; and from my heart I wish that every old man and boy in my country who can fire a gun would shoot down, as he would a wild beast, the men who are desolating their land, burning their homes, and insulting their women.

So Hampton did agree that Sherman had the “war right” to forage.  Hampton himself had exercised such earlier in the war.  Where Hampton departed was insisting the Federals had exceeded that bounds.  Furthermore, Hampton insisted the citizens of South Carolina had the right to defend their property, and resist foraging.  Not addressed here is the problem noted by Colonel George G. Dibrell the day before, where “former property” was committing the transgressions.

Hampton drew several ready examples where he felt Sherman had exceeded this threshold of the “war rights.”

You are particular in defining and claiming “war rights.” May I ask if you enumerate among these the right to fire upon a defenseless city without notice; to burn that city to the ground after it had been surrendered by the inhabitants who claimed, though in vain, that protection which is always accorded in civilized warfare to non-combatants; to fire the dwelling houses of citizens after robbing them; and to perpetrate even darker crimes than these crimes too black to be mentioned?

You have permitted, if you have not ordered, the commission of these offenses against humanity and the rules of war; you fired into the city of Columbia without a word of warning; after its surrender by the mayor, who demanded protection to private property, you laid the whole city in ashes, leaving amidst its ruins thousands of old men and helpless women and children, who are likely to perish of starvation and exposure. Your line of march can be traced by the lurid light of burning houses, and in more than one household there is now an agony far more bitter than that of death. The Indian scalped his victim regardless of age or sex, but with all his barbarity he always respected the persons of his female captives. Your soldiers, more savage than the lndian, insult those whose natural protectors are absent.

I’ve seen some later-day discussions over this matter cite Hampton’s letter as the gospel truth on these facts.  We must remember the circumstances behind Captain Francis DeGress’ shots fired at Columbia on the morning of February 16, 1865. And not to belabor, or repeat, a post about the burning of Columbia, but there was a lot more at play than just Sherman’s bummers and matches. But in Hampton’s defense, we can look at both sides of the issue today with (hopefully) some impartiality.  He was, unfortunately, not aware of all the facts.

To close, Hampton reiterated his counter-threat:

In conclusion, I have only to request that whenever you have any of my men “murdered” or “disposed of,” for the terms appear to be synonymous with you, you will let me hear of it, that I may know what action to take in the matter. In the meantime I shall hold fifty-six of your men as hostages for those whom you have ordered to be executed.

The prisoner issue had reached an impasse… a very horrific impasse.   Neither commander was showing signs of backing down.

Hampton’s response went to the Federal lines by way of Major-General Joseph Wheeler.   That evening, Wheeler and Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick carried on an exchange of their own… an exchange of words and other things.  That exchange, carried out by a couple of “hot-natured” individuals, served to defuse the potentially explosive situation.  By the time Sherman would receive  Hampton’s counter, the entire matter seemed to be clearing.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 596-7.)

Sherman’s March, February 27, 1865: “I cannot dry up the river…” as floods continue to delay the march

Most days, as I draw the maps showing the route of march, I’ll have long blue lines running from point to point.  Today, you see none of that.  On February 27, 1865, all of Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns slowed and waited for the flood waters to fall.


For the day, Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders to the Right Wing were:

Owing to the freshet, the orders of march for to-day are so modified to make the first stage, to get everything across the Lynch as soon as it can be done, and then begin the march on Cheraw, for which three days will be designated.

The Fifteenth Corps built footbridges and laid some pontoons at their two separate crossing points.  Troops were across the river, but wagons could not cross.  So resupply was only accomplished by hand. The trouble faced at each crossing point was the river was not a single channel due to the flood.  In addition to the normal river width, the Federals faced overflows, often up to 1,000 yards, on each side. At Tiller’s Bridge, the 1st Missouri Engineers struggled against the overflows, and further worked to ease the concentration of forces at the crossing site:

The bridge of the first section over [Lynches River] was in good order, but the overflow on the west side was 700 feet wide and from three to four and a half feet deep; on the east side it was a half or three quarters of a mile wide.  We laid the ponton and built trestles on the west side fording the east side. The second section at 6:30 took out four boats and corduroyed the road across the creek in rear of the Third Division; then took up the bridge, went to [Lynches River] and worked the train until 10 p.m., when they were ordered to cross, which owing to the darkness, too until 4 a.m.

A long day for the engineers. At Kelly’s Bridge, Major-General William Hazen reported the positive news that, “The river at this point has fallen about three inches….”  Imagine, Sherman’s entire campaign was down to a measure of vertical inches of floodwater.

Seventeenth Corps likewise worked on bridging, and waited for the waters to fall.  Major-General Frank Blair described the area around Young’s Bridge:

… we found the road [and] bottom lands adjoining overflowed for a considerable distance on each side, the water being from two to six feet in depth for a distance of about 200 yards on west and 1,500 yards on east side.

By afternoon of the 27th, the Corps had some bridging done. “About 2,500 men were engaged upon the work, and comleted 850 feet of bridging and 7,000 feet of corduroyed road on stringers before 5 p.m….”  At the fore of the advance, Brigadier-General Manning Force reported some progress:

… my command in camp about three-quarters of a mile from the bridge.  I propose, it meeting your approbation, to cross all my train to-night and let the troops remain on this side until morning. In the event of heavy rain and the water rising will move at once.

The Right Wing would at least have passage over the river for the next day.

The Twentieth Corps made a movement of just a few miles on the 27th.  The main effort was to consolidate the trains on the east side of Hanging Rock Creek. Major-General John Geary reported the ford used had a “smooth, rocky bottom.”  Geary further observed, “The soil continues treacherous and full of quicksands….”

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry remained at Lancaster for the day, continuing the missions of guarding the left flank of the advance while putting up appearances of an advance on Charlotte.  In a note to Sherman, Kilpatrick proposed remaining on the flanks until the Fourteenth Corps was clear of the river crossings.  The cavalryman wanted to move from there through the headwaters of Lynches River instead of following the infantry.  As for his command and the Confederates he faced:

The country here is good; forage plenty. My command has been resting for two days, and is in better condition than at any time during the march. We have captured a large number of mules and some horses, and have mounted all my dismounted men, save 300. I think Hampton’s and Wheeler’s forces combined amount to about 6,000 fighting men. Notwithstanding this superiority of numbers, I shall attack if a favorable opportunity offers. The road upon which I shall march is the best in the country. I will keep you advised daily as to my operations and position.

Kilpatrick always seemed ready for a fight – one way or the other.  Sherman approved Kilpatrick’s plan of movement, though he reiterated the importance of maintaining communication.

It was at Rocky Mount Ferry where the anxious hours continued to burn away.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis still had the Fourteenth Corps astride the Catawba River. Davis shook things up a bit to cure what he felt was an inefficiency with the pontoons.  Davis was fed up with the work of the engineers to that point.  Brigadier-General George Buell, Second Brigade, First Division, assumed overall control of the bridge-laying operations.  With the change made, Davis reported to Major-General Henry Slocum, adjusting his itinerary, hoping to cross that afternoon.  Davis added:

This is the best that can possibly be hoped for under the circumstances.  I am doing everything that man can do, but I cannot dry up the river that separates my command; it has fallen about eighteen inches and is still falling.  I do not know what the emergency is in the front, but presume it must be very great, judging by the general’s dispatches, and am working accordingly.

Slocum retraced the route back to the crossing that day to personally ensure no more time was lost.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the pontoons, then following Buell’s instructions, laid a 680 foot long bridge about a half mile downstream from the original point.  Moore observed, “Here the current was not so rapid, and by 11 p.m. we completed the bridge….”  The first troops crossed over at midnight.  However, there was some difference of opinion which lingered after the war – was it Buell, persistence of Moore, or falling waters that enabled the crossing?  Perhaps all of the above.

While the bridging operations were going on, a foraging party met Confederate cavalry near Rocky Mount Creek.  The 104th Illinois had lost nine men from a foraging detail the day before, and on the 27th, a better armed party met an equally reinforced Confederate cavalry force.  The skirmish served to underscore the vulnerability of the Fourteenth Corps, as it struggled to catch up with the rest of the column.

The extended dispositions, with several columns outside range of mutual support due to the flood waters, did not go unnoticed on the Confederate side.  Major-General Matthew C. Butler reported to Lieutenant-General William Hardee, then in Cheraw with the forces withdrawn from Charleston, about an opportunity he noticed to his front.  “I think that if our troops were concentrated now and thrown rapidly upon the Fifteenth Corps very serious damage may be inflicted.”  Indeed, the opportunity appeared clear on any map one might draw.  The problem was that Hardee’s force was even less mobile than the Federals.  If the flooded rivers had isolated some of the Federal commands, it had likewise pinned the Confederate forces in place.  Butler went on to add his observations of Sherman’s supplies:

Prisoners taken on the 23d report Sherman’s army to have only five days’ rations, and were moving toward Wilmington or Georgetown. He has been foraging very extensively along his line of march, no house within reach of his main column has been passed by, and all supplies have been taken from the inhabitants by foraging parties of infantry mounted on captured horses.

As designed, Sherman’s command was living off the land as it moved.  But at some point, just as Butler and other Confederate commanders speculated, Sherman had to turn towards the sea for military supplies.  Though Sherman did not know at the time, Federal efforts along the South Carolina coast anticipated a move to a port facility.  Somewhat contrary to orders sent from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant, Major-General Quincy Gillmore pushed out from Charleston to the Santee River railroad bridge.  And Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren occupied Georgetown, South Carolina on February 25th.   While none of this changed Sherman’s agenda, it did leave question marks in the minds of many Confederate leaders.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 380, 427, and 689; Part II, Serial 99, pages 597, 598, 599, 600, 603, and 1288; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 170.)