Author Archives: Craig Swain

“I merely assert our war right to forage and my resolve to protect my foragers”: Sherman and Hampton discuss prisoner murders

In the evening of February 24, 1865, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick sent the second status report of the day to Major-General William T. Sherman.  Where as the earlier report had focused on Kilpatrick’s issues with his fellow commanders, the second report provided more details of the forager, prisoner murders mentioned days earlier.

I have the honor to report that Private Charles Wright, Ninth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, General Atkins’ headquarters, came in last evening from scout near Feasterville, below and west of Chesterville. He reports having found twenty-one of our infantrymen in a ravine, about eighty rods from the main road and about three miles from Feasterville, with their throats cut and stripped of their clothing. The evidence that the enemy has resolved upon murdering our men is fast accumulating. Another report has just come in that a soldier belonging to the Ninety-second Illinois mounted Infantry was found hung to the limb of a tree near the roadside. I shall retaliate as far as my own people are concerned, as you have directed. Major-General Wade Hampton is now at Lancaster. I can forward for you any communication to or through him to any higher rebel authorities you may desire regarding the facts mentioned.

One of the hardest things to assess, from the historian’s chair, is how information like this stands up as “evidence” in light of the accusation of a crime or, in this case, a transgression of the rules of war.  We might say Kilpatrick, as he didn’t see the bodies himself, and therefore his statement is hearsay.  After all, this all came from PRIVATE Wright.  In the second instance offered as “evidence,” from the 92nd Illinois, Kilpatrick did not give a name.  So we might say “hearsay” again with less constraints.

On the other hand, there is a practical matter of the context and situation here.  Kilpatrick’s job was to report detailed, accurate information to Sherman on all matters.  While all officers in Sherman’s command had that charge, as the cavalry chief, Kilpatrick was more so required to ensure all information passed was dependable.  It would be out of character for the situation for Kilpatrick to pass along information which he did not verify, validate, and confirm himself.  Kilpatrick had to believe the information from Wright and the 92nd Illinois was accurate.  I feel we must establish such in the discussion of this issue, as in some forums you might hear that Kilpatrick “invented” much of this controversy. Though, I would caution that to say Kilpatrick believed the reports were accurate is not to say it was accurate.

Sherman acted on this report without delay.  Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton was close by and he was the authority in command of the forces accused of these murders.  So Sherman addressed Hampton that evening:

It is officially reported to me that our foraging parties are murdered after capture and labeled “Death to all foragers.” One instance of a lieutenant and seven men near Chesterville; and another of twenty “near a ravine eighty rods from the main road” about three miles from Feasterville. I have ordered a similar number of prisoners in our hands to be disposed of in like manner. I hold about 1,000 prisoners captured in various ways, and can stand it as long as you; but I hardly think these murders are committed with your knowledge, and would suggest that you give notice to the people at large that every life taken by them simply results in the death of one of your Confederates. Of course you cannot question my right to “forage on the country.” It is a war right as old as history. The manner of exercising it varies with circumstances, and if the civil authorities will supply my requisitions I will forbid all foraging. But I find no civil authorities who can respond to calls for forage or provisions, therefore must collect directly of the people. I have no doubt this is the occasion of much misbehavior on the part of our men, but I cannot permit an enemy to judge or punish with wholesale murder. Personally I regret the bitter feelings engendered by this war, but they were to be expected, and I simply allege that those who struck the first blow and made war inevitable ought not, in fairness, to reproach us for the natural consequences. I merely assert our war right to forage and my resolve to protect my foragers to the extent of life for life.

With his assertion of the “war right” to forage, offered the same logic Sherman voiced to his key subordinates earlier.  Interesting, as here Sherman pointed to the lack of civil authorities to process his demands as the basis for directly gathering supplies by force.

Sherman’s play was to threaten an escalation unless the murders ceased.  It would take three days for the message to reach Hampton.  And true to form, Hampton was not one to back down in the face of a threat.  I’ll turn to his response in a few days… as it happened 150 years ago.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 547, 554.)

Sherman’s March, February 24, 1865: “The rain and bad roads had prevented the complete accomplishment of each order of march”

On February 24, 1865, General Mud came to the aid of the Confederacy.  What had been a relatively incident free crossing of the Wateree-Catawba Rivers became the most difficult maneuver of Major-General William T. Sherman’s march through South Carolina.


Major-General Oliver O. Howard summarized the difficulty for the Right Wing that day:

Before General Blair completed his crossing of the Wateree a heavy rain commenced and continued all the following night and the next day. The soil which was hard during fair weather, became slippery and muddy, so that it was with extreme difficulty that the teams were worked up the steep hills. … The rain and bad roads had prevented the complete accomplishment of each order of march, so that the troops were somewhat scattered. The country, after passing Flat Rock, was for the most part sandy, with pine forests, filled with numerous roads and cross-roads.

In addition to these natural impediments, Howard noted, “The rebel cavalry here annoyed us considerably, capturing some of our foragers and a few wagons from General John E. Smith’s division.”

The Fifteenth Corps remained split into two columns, with the aim to secure the road network between Camden and Cheraw.  The Second and Fourth Divisions marched around Camden to reach the Camden-Cheraw Road.  Three regiments entered Camden to destroy public property and military stores.  The troops encountered a Confederate cavalry detachment, but drove that back, wounding two and capturing seven.  Major-General John Corse reported:

The expedition burned 1,000 bales of cotton, the depot buildings, and a large building filled with flour and meal (sacked), several hogsheads of sugar and rice, besides a flouring mill filled with corn and wheat; also cut the telegraph wires, recaptured and released seven men of the Second Division who were picked up by the enemy while foraging.

Course also reported capturing the entire Confederate commissary office, some sixteen men.  On the other line of march, the First and Third Divisions continued marching towards Lynches River (called Lynch’s Creek in many wartime accounts).  The main element only reached Pine Tree Church with trains back at West’s Cross Roads.

The Seventeenth Corps moved with great difficulty on the 24th.  In addition to delays getting the last division across the bridges on the Wateree, the corps faced roads made terrible by the rains (mentioned above in Howard’s report).  “… General [Frank] Blair continued his march via Russell Place, and, finding a straight road from Russell Place to Flat Rock, he undertook that route, but getting into an impassable quicksand was obliged to turn back and move farther south.” Blair had his First and Fourth Divisions camp near Patterson’s Mill that night, and the Third, trailing from the bridge crossing, at Russel Place.   Overall, the Right Wing’s advance was delayed by mud and quicksand.  Quicksand and mud!

(Worth noting here, the placenames and maps come into place again at this point in the march.  I believe the Seventeenth Corps camped near Patterson’s Mills at a fork in the road running between Red Hill and Russell Place, on Beaver Creek.  Taking the fork to the west, there was a “Patterson’s Crossroads” further north near Cedar Creek, where there was a Patterson home. I should denote such on my maps… but you would protest at the clutter!)

The Left Wing’s advance, also contesting the mud and a few Confederates along the way, was most delayed due to the river crossing. That morning, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, Major-General John Geary had to pull over the last eight-five wagons following the Twentieth Corps (the majority of which belonged to the cavalry division).  Not until 10 a.m. was the bridge clear for the Fourteenth Corps to cross.  And it was time for Major-General Jefferson C. Davis to complain again about the work of the pontooniers,

The rainy season, which so seriously impeded our progress for the succeeding few days, had already set in, and caused the river to rise to such an extent as to threaten the security of the bridge, which at the first had been located in a very injudicious place, and to render the passage of wagons very unsafe and slow. Nevertheless the crossing was continued….

As to the charge the bridge was poorly placed, the wing commander, Major-General Henry Slocum and Sherman himself had been at the crossing point the day before.  Slocum might have avoided mention of such details, but Sherman would have corrected such, and recorded the change.  Neither described the bridge placement as improper.  Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the pontoon trains, only mentioned the steep bank on the far shore in regard to placement issues.  The real problem seemed to be the rising waters.  Though Davis was able to push over part of his command that day, most remained on the west side of the Catawba.  (At a site which just downstream from the modern Rocky Creek Dam.)

Leading the Twentieth Corps, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams reported marching only three miles on the very bad roads before running into a column of the Seventeenth Corps.  He stopped there, at what he called Patterson’s Crossroads, for the night, preparing to corduroy the roads the next day.  Three miles advance against General Mud!

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick reached camp near… aptly… Camp Creek that evening.  Reporting to Sherman, he noted that Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton had established his headquarters in Lancaster, South Carolina, to the north.  But several issues troubled Kilpatrick.  First was the nature of the river crossing.  The top-trooper in Sherman’s command felt he’d been delayed needlessly by the infantry commanders:

I did not get the bridge last night till 10.30 p.m. General Williams must have known that I was to have the bridge at 7 p.m., when he ordered General Geary (who had already gone into camp) forward at 6 p.m. I are sorry to trouble you with such matters, but I know of no other way of preventing a similar occurrence in the future.

But that was not Kilpatrick’s only grievance with the Twentieth Corps:

Yesterday five of my people, detailed to forage for my wounded in ambulances with Twentieth Corps were arrested by a provost-marshal of that corps and strapped to a tree and there kept till the corps marched by, with inscriptions on their breasts “House-breakers.” I do not recognize General. Williams’ right to punish my people or disgrace them. I can and will do all the punishment myself. If I liked, I could retaliate every hour. Stragglers and foraging parties of the Twentieth Corps were here yesterday, eight miles from their command, committing acts most disgraceful.  …  I shall now allow no foraging parties to pass through or out of my lines, and I shall dismount and seize all horses ridden by infantrymen who enter my column. …. I also most respectfully call your attention to the fact that foraging parties and stragglers from Twentieth Army Corps burned sufficient forage on this road to have fed my entire command.

Not content to open retaliation against the Confederate cavalry, Kilpatrick was now ready to confront his own infantry!

In another note to Sherman that evening, Kilpatrick reported details of more foragers found murdered and hung.  To best relate that situation, which deserves more attention than this already lengthy post will allow, let us look at the details and Sherman’s response in the next installment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 200 and 431; Part II, Serial 99, pages 554 and 549.)

Lee to Johnston: Calling attention to the “vital importance of checking General Sherman”

On February 23, 1864, General Joseph E. Johnston was one day into his command of the “southern army.”Note 1  He had yet to join the force.  Orienting Johnston to his new command, General Robert E. Lee wrote on the 23rd to offer his views as to the situation and how to deal with the threats which seemed poised to rip the Confederacy apart.  Lee began with an assessment of things – both internal and external:

General Beauregard, upon whose cheerful and zealous support I need not say you can fully rely, will apprise you of the present condition of affairs. Leaving the adoption of the best measures of defense to your skill and judgment, I will only suggest what has occurred to me from the information I have received. I have doubted whether it was General Sherman’s intention to move by way of Charlotte, Greensborough, and Danville, toward Richmond, as the difficulties attending that course would be very great. I thought that after a demonstration in [that] direction, laying waste the country and destroying the railroads, he would turn toward the coast and reopen his communications and endeavor to unite with the army of General Schofield, operating on the Cape Fear River. The latest intelligence from General Hampton would indicate that General Sherman is moving eastwardly toward Camden. Should such be his purpose the troops that withdrew from Charleston toward Monk’s Corner would be in some danger of falling between General Sherman and General Schofield, and I think it would be best to move them as rapidly as possible to Fayetteville, or any other convenient point whence they can proceed to General Beauregard’s army, or be otherwise used as you see fit.

Lee’s forecast for Sherman’s next movement was accurate.  So we can confirm that Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s attempt to mislead the Confederates, to think the next march was toward Charlotte, had fooled nobody save perhaps Kilpatrick himself and Beauregard.

Mentioning the need to move the former Charleston garrison to prevent being isolated touched upon the foundation of Confederate strategy during the winter of 1865 – keeping an army in “being” above all else.

Lee continued, turning to what might be done with the remaining elements of the Army of Tennessee:

The movement of General Sherman above suggested would also intercept the march of Stewart’s and Cheatham’s corps, which, as I understand, are advancing east of Columbia to join the forces under Beauregard in front of Sherman. If a junction of these troops cannot be effected at once with the rest of the army they should be kept upon the enemy’s flank so as to embarrass his movements until such time as they can be united with the others.

From there, Lee touched upon some points which were, for the most part, were more abstract than concrete:

I need not say that the first thing to be done is to concentrate all our forces and bring out every available man. If this can be accomplished in time to strike General Sherman before he reaches the coast or unites with Schofield, I hope for favorable results. His progress can be embarrassed and retarded by removing or destroying all kinds of supplies on his route, and I hope you will spare no effort to accomplish this object. You will have to depend upon marching, to a great extent, for the movement of your troops, and upon wagons for transporting supplies.

Somewhat apparent the goal should be to concentrate.  And space had to be traded for time for such concentration.  Any measurable delay in Sherman’s progress was important.

As for Bragg’s forces retreating from Wilmington, Lee made it clear who was senior, “Should your operations bring you within reach of the troops under General Bragg, and you find that they can be used to advantage, of course you will direct their movements.”  Working from the mention of Bragg, Lee made light of other Federal threats which might work with Sherman:

In this connection I call your attention to the fact that a column of the enemy is reported as preparing to move by Kinston toward Goldsborough, to oppose which there is only a small force under General Baker. If, on the other hand, General Sherman should advance northwardly toward Greensborough and Danville and we cannot check him, it will become necessary for this army to change its position. I am endeavoring to hold General Grant in check as long as possible and resist any attempt he may make to co-operate with the Federal forces in North Carolina.

And what assistance could Lee offer?

At this time nothing can be sent from here to your assistance, but should the enemy reach the Roanoke, I should endeavor to unite with you to strike him, or if opportunity occurred, to attack General Grant if he follows me rapidly.

But Lee would not manage the situation for Johnston, though he wished to press the seriousness of the situation (if Johnston was not sufficiently aware):

This outline will explain generally time posture of affairs. It is needless for me to call your attention to the vital importance of checking General Sherman and preserving our railroad communications as far as practicable. I rely confidently upon you to do all that the means at your disposal will permit, and hope for the most favorable issue. You can depend upon receiving all the assistance I can render. Please keep me advised of the enemy’s movements, and of your own, that I may be able to co-operate as far as practicable. It will be well to call upon the State authorities to set to work at once to repair the roads as they are left open by the advance of the enemy.

Responding to Lee, Johnston wrote the same day, providing dispositions and troop strengths for his subordinate commands:

General Beauregard has given orders for the concentration of all his forces. Lieutenant-General Hardee is moving by Florence and Cheraw, and Major-General Cheatham and Lieutenant-General Stewart by Newberry. In front of the Federal army are the cavalry and S. D. Lee’s corps, 3,000; Stewart and Cheatham. 3,200; Lieutenant-General Hardee’s, about 11,000; cavalry, about 6,000. I suggest that General Bragg’s troops join these. Can Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, assistant adjutant general, join me? I have no staff, that of the Army of Tennessee being dispersed.

As of the evening of February 23, 1865, Johnston had no staff.  He had very few troops.  And what he had were widely dispersed.  What he had plenty of were problems.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 1256-7.)

Note 1 - I’m borrowing the title “southern army” all lowercase from a message Beauregard sent to Lee on February 22, acknowledging Johnston’s appointment and effectively replacing Beauregard. I think it a good “loose” term that both defines Johnston’s authority and the task at hand.