Category Archives: American Civil War

The Execution of James Miller and an end of “Death to all Foragers”?

As I mentioned in closing for the post earlier today, the execution of James Miller stands as one of the prominent events in the march through South Carolina.  As I thumb through the many histories of the campaign at my disposal, the only ones which fail to mention the execution are those works which only cover the activities up to the burning of Columbia.  And doing a little historiography shuffle here, we find that most historians reference the account given in the 30th Illinois regimental history.  This makes good sense, as the 30th was the unit from which the dead forager, Private Robert M. Woodruff, came and was the unit detailed to carry out the execution.  Let me be lengthy here and quote that passage almost in its entirety (The whole of the regimental history is on line should you wish to browse):

They would kill our foragers and pin a piece of paper on their uniforms with this notice: “Death to all Foragers”. General Sherman issued an order which was sent to the Confederate commander that he would take life for life. It was not very long until a member of Co. “H” of our regiment by the name of Woodrough was found dead.

We had a lot of prisoners in the corrall and arrangements were made for them to cast lots to determine who should be taken. Slips of paper were put in a hat and a drawing was conducted by an officer appointed for that purpose. One slip of paper had a black mark on it, and the man drawing it was to be shot. The slips of paper were put in a hat and held up so the men could not see it.

A man by the name of Small drew the slip with the black mark on it. He drew two, and was told to drop one back. He kept the one that was his death warrant. A detail of twelve men was made from the dead man’s company to do the shooting. They were furnished guns loaded for the occasion, six with blank and six with ball. The man was given in charge of Chaplain Cole of the 31 regiment. He talked and prayed with the man, and brought him to the place of execution and asked him if he had anything to say. He said: “I was forced into the army, never was in a battle, never wished the Yankees any harm. I have a large family, all girls. I have been a local Methodist preacher”. His home was about 40 miles from there. There was much feeling for the man, and tears were shed. The firing squad had taken their places, and after the man made his talk the Chaplain blindfolded him and placed him against a tree where he was to be shot. The man requested that he be allowed to lean against the tree without being tied. The request was granted. Major Rhoads, ex Captain of Co. “H”, commanded firing squad, and cautioned the men to take good aim so the man would not suffer from a wound. At the command of “Fire!”, the guns all cracked at once. The man stiffened and quivered a little, and fell dead. Five balls struck the body and one in the thigh. Co. “A” of the 30th, commanded by Capt. Candor was detailed to take charge of the grounds and see that the execution was properly conducted. The man of Co. “H” that was killed, was not well thought of and many regrets were heard that a good man was killed for him, but that put a stop to the kiling (sic) of our foragers. Still bear in mind Sherman’s saying.

When Maj. Rhoads received the order to execute the man he refused to obey. Gen. Sherman told him he would obey the order or be courtmarshaled. Maj. Rhoads was a good man and a good officer, and this act bore on his mind as long as he lived. …The man was buried where he was killed, and board was put at the head of his grave, on which was written how he came to his death. Soldiers become hardened to seeing men killed, but a scene like the killing of this man will be on their minds as long as they live. This execution toop (sic) place near Cherew, S. C. ….

First things first, we must excuse the regimental historian, G. B. McDonald, for getting two principal names wrong – Robert M. Woodruff’s name appears in the Official Records from Maj0r-General Frank Blair’s orders.  And the executed soldier was Private James M. Miller, Company C, 5th (Brown’s) Battalion South Carolina Reserves.  But to confirm, we have this receipt from the 3rd Division, Seventeenth Corps’ provost, listing James Miller by name:

James Miller Page 7

I would also call out another particular mentioned by McDonald.  Lieutenant-Colonel William Rhoades, whom I’m pretty sure was at least breveted by this time, and not a Major, was not threatened with “courtmarshaled” by Major-General William T. Sherman.  Rather, Sherman was miles away at that time with Twentieth Corps near Chesterfield (Blair may have wished he’d been there that day, but another “what if” perhaps).  Perhaps it was Brigadier-General Manning Force, commanding Third Division at that time, who threatened Rhodes.

But, that is not to say we throw out the entire story due to three inaccurate points.  Miller was killed by the firing squad.  And enough men later wrote about how the episode shook them up, that I have no doubt of the emotional impact.

However, in our historiography we link the execution of Miller to the threats of reprisal exchanged between the cavalrymen starting on February 22 and leading up to threats of escalation between Sherman and Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton. But let us look at the details here.

First off, the death of Woodruff does not match the mode and manner of the earlier forager executions.  Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick alleged those men had their throats cut, bodies mutilated, or were shot in the back.  In the case of Woodruff, he was bludgeoned to death.

The location of Woodruff’s death was far away from the Texas cavalry units that Kilpatrick fingered in his allegations.  Blakeny’s Bridge was practically in the middle of the Federal concentration at that time.  Reports of the earlier forager executions had indicated those incidents occurred on the fringes of the Federal columns.  And recall that Blair had ordered only a day earlier that all foragers be constrained to the flanks of the column – as opposed to fore and rear.  Woodruff might have been where he shouldn’t have, if that made any difference.  But the location points to Woodruff’s killer being an irregular or person(s) detached from the formal Confederate forces.  ( I would not rule out a civilian defending property… but if the Federals who found Woodruff had suspected such, there would have been reprisals on suspected parties, or at least mention of such in reports to Blair.)

I think we should consider that in the context of the Woodruff-Miller incident.  There is, I’d argue, a separation from the earlier incidents.  If nothing else, we should recognize that Woodruff was probably not killed by the same hands as those who left “death to forager” notes.  After exchanging prisoners with Kilpatrick, Major-General Joseph Wheeler, and for that matter Hampton, seemed to let the matter drop.

Given the tone of Hampton’s last message to Sherman, one would think Miller’s death would prompt a recorded execution. But it didn’t.  Was that because Hampton cooled down?  I doubt it, as that was not the man’s nature.  Rather I think, if he was made fully aware of the incident, Hampton found it necessary to put Woodruff’s death in context – not willing to condone the death of that particular forager and possibly promote some lawless element in South Carolina.  But I’m speculating… and that’s not good.

The point remains, however, that Woodruff-Miller differed in particulars from the Kilpatrick-Wheeler affair over foragers and retaliation.  So to say that Miller’s execution somehow “chilled” the threats of retaliation is not well founded. Rather it seems the Kilpatrick-Wheeler prisoner exchange was the action that reduced pressures on that line.

Nor, for what it is worth, would the claim that Sherman gave verbal orders to restrain his foragers after Hampton’s threats.  Federal commanders had issued reminders in regard to foragers, and reformed their foraging policies almost from the start of marching out of Atlanta.  Sherman did, and would not have hesitated, issuing one more directive to clarify the practice.  On the other hand, one might well say that the “bummers” ceased pillaging so much as there was simply not much in that part of South Carolina to pillage.  From Camden to Chesterfield were some of the poorer districts of South Carolina (and the portion of North Carolina to which they passed over the next week was not that much richer).

At any rate, the short military career of James Miller came to a close on this day 150 years ago.  He’d enlisted on October 10, 1864 at Cheraw in Brown’s Battalion, which became the 5th Battalion South Carolina Reserves.  His unit was detailed to guard prisoners in Florence and picket various places west of Cheraw.  On February 28, 1865, Miller was captured by the Seventeenth Corps.  And as transcribed to his card, he was “Sent to the 3rd Division by orders.”

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James Miller was simply a man who happened to be at the wrong place and was caught up in the greater atrocity that was the Civil War.

Sherman’s March, March 2, 1865: “To be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff”

During the first days of March, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman expressed some concern about Confederate concentrations in front of his force.  During the last days of February, Sherman’s columns were at a standstill as they dealt with flooded rivers. Orders to the Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, during that time were to wait until the Left Wing, particularly the Fourteenth Corps, caught up.  But the situation changed with the flip of the calendar page.  Reports, which were accurate reports, had a Confederate force under Lieutenant-General William Hardee in Cheraw.  Writing to Howard on March 1, 1865, Sherman dismissed any serious threat from those forces, but necessary objectives:

The enemy cannot hold Cheraw against us, because it is on a branch road and we can insulate it.  [General Joseph E.] Johnston, if there, will not fight with a bridge behind him.  We may have to cross the Peedee with a serious enemy in front, but we must not allow the Confederates time to fortify Cheraw.

So for March 2, Sherman wanted his columns to push on to Cheraw and thence over the PeeDee.

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The Fourteenth Corps, which perpetually seemed to be behind on the march through South Carolina, continued to catch up on the 1st.  In the lead that day, Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division reached Lynches River.  Morgan reported:

The roads to-day very heavy.  Long hard hills to pull up, but on the whole the roads were better than yesterday.  My command has made a first-rate march of twelve miles to-day.  Will cross the bridge with my command as soon as the road is completed and await further orders.

To this, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis replied that “no doubt you have made a good march t0-day, but would have preferred you had pushed on for or five miles beyond the bridge.”  Davis ordered Morgan to be on the road again at daylight.   Screening the left of the Fourteenth Corps, the Cavalry Division made a modest march of only a dozen miles.

To the front of the Left Wing, the Twentieth Corps pressed on to Chesterfield and had one of its few engagements of the South Carolina march.  The troops had to look sharp, as Sherman himself accompanied them on the march that day.  Major-General Alpheus S. Williams had Brigadier-General Nathaniel Jackson’s First Division on point.  As the column neared Chesterfield, scouts reported Confederate cavalry on the road ahead.  Jackson deployed skirmishers from the 5th Connecticut and 141st New York, part of Brigadier-General James Selfridge’s Brigade.  “We drove the enemy, after exchanging many shots, and captured the town of Chesterfield without the loss of a man,”  recalled Selfridge.

The infantry followed up the cavalry to bridges over Thompson Creek beyond. Selfridge’s men kept effective fire on the bridges and prevented any attempt to destroy them.  The Confederates countered with artillery fire from the opposite side of the creek.  Escalating the action, Major John A. Reynolds, Twentieth Corps artillery chief, brought up a section of Battery I, First New York Artillery and Battery C, 1st Ohio Artillery.  The New Yorkers fired thirteen rounds.  The Buckeye artillerists added twelve solid shot and eight spherical case.  A first rate artillery duel, with the Federals gaining the upper hand before nightfall.

On the 2nd, Howard was increasingly anxious to move the Fifteenth Corps forward on the right side of the march. Though unavoidable, problems with the bridges over the Lynches River the day before had greatly delayed Major-General John Logan’s advance.  With repairs made overnight, the last of the Fifteenth Corps crossed Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges.   Thus a river crossing which had started on February 25 was finally complete – the longest delay in Sherman’s movements since leaving Savannah.

Three Divisions of Fifteenth Corps managed to reach Black Creek that evening.  A pontoon over that creek allowed lead elements to occupy New Market.  While Logan directed that traffic, Howard directed Major-General John Corse to move Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps forward to close the gap with Seventeenth Corps.  Receiving orders mid-morning, Corse broke camp at 1 p.m. and reported making six miles towards Cheraw that day.

Howard had Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps to hold position on the 2nd.  While not marching, Blair had two issues to deal with.  The first concerned the need to press forward and confusion between Sherman and Howard.  Late on March 1, Sherman addressed Blair directly:

The Twentieth Corps will be to-morrow night at or near Chesterfield. I want the Right Wing to move straight on Cheraw vigorously and secure if possible the bridge across PeeDee.  You need not suppose the enemy to be there in heavy force.  Big generals may be there but not a large force. At all events get across Thompson’s [Creek] on to-morrow and in Cheraw if possible. I will have men across the same stream about Chesterfield.  Communicate with me there to-morrow night.

Blair received this order around 10:00 a.m. on March 2.  But, “I was making preparation to move forward at once… when I received General Howard’s directions to wait,” Blair reported.  Not until late afternoon did Howard respond to clarify the orders.  “The general directs that in accordance with General Sherman’s instructions you move forward on Cheraw as early an hour as possible to-morrow morning.”  Not the time table that Sherman wanted, but the corps would move.

While waiting on the orders to be worked out, Blair dealt with another, more sensitive issue – that of retaliation for the execution of a forager.  Word came in the previous afternoon that a soldier from the 30th Illinois was found beaten to death.  The soldier was found at Blakeny’s Bridge, marked on the map above.  This was well to the rear of the Corps march, considering Blair’s instructions issued the previous day.  Satisfied from reports this was a murder of the manner described in Sherman’s message issued on February 23. Blair was thus compelled to issue, as the first paragraph for Special Orders No. 56, this response:

In accordance with instructions from the major-general commanding the army, directing that for each of our men murdered by the enemy a life of one of the prisoners in our hands should be taken, Mar. J.C. Marven, provost-marshal, Seventeenth Army Corps, will select from the prisoners in his charge one man and deliver him to Brig. Gen. M.F. Force, commanding Third Division, to be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff, Company H, Thirtieth Illinois Volunteers, a regularly detailed forager, who was beaten to death by the enemy near Blakney’s Bridge on or about the 1st day of March, 1865.

The prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps drew lots.  James Miller, a South Carolinian, drew the lot from among the prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps.

Miller’s execution is one of the most mentioned incidents of Sherman’s march through South Carolina.  Second only to the burning of Columbia, perhaps.  As such, that warrants a separate post with a look at some of the details.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 610 ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 628, 649, 650-1.)

Sherman’s March, March 1, 1865: “making a march of full twenty miles” out of the flooded sand hills

For the better part of five days at the end of February 1865, heavy rains, mud, and flooded rivers stalled Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance.  Aside from the defenses of Savannah, nothing had delayed Sherman’s progress as the Catawba and Lynches Rivers.  And for one additional day, the situation at Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges would resist movement… only for part of the day.

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With any flood comes a crest and eventual retreat of the waters.  Based on accounts, it appears the flooding of the Lynches River crested on February 26, 1865, but required several days to subside.  Behind the flood, the ground remained soft and difficult to traverse.  In spite of bridging and corduroying, passage through the bottoms was difficult.  With heavy traffic, the bridges, which had taken so much labor to construct, failed. Commander of the Right Wing, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, accompanied First Division, Fifteenth Corps, under Major-General William B. Hazen, that day, crossing at Kelly’s Bridge.  Howard recalled:

March 1 the water had subsided so much that a roadway completely practicable was finished by noon at Tiller’s Bridge, while at Kelly’s General Hazen finished his plank bridge about 3.30 p.m.,of nearly a half mile in extent. But owing to the want of sufficient breadth of the trestles, and their resting upon a quicksand, the bridge racked over under the weight of heavy wagons, and part of it had to be reconstructed.

Hazen did get two brigades across to secure Kellytown.  But at the bridge, Third Division, under Major-General John Smith, repaired the bridge and waited to cross.

At Tiller’s Bridge, Major-General John Logan supervised the other two divisions of Fifteenth Corps:

The water having fallen sufficiently to warrant an attempt at crossing our trains, on the 1st of March the crossing was attempted, and by raising our hard bread and ammunition five or six inches in the beds of the wagons the Fourth Division train and a portion of the First Division passed with little or no damage, but before General [Charles] Woods could pass the whole of his train it was necessary to build another bridge of considerable length, so that it was not until the morning of the 2nd of March that he succeeded in crossing the last of his wagons.

As Logan stated, Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division had crossed all but its trains.  Corse reported reaching Black Creek at 8:30 p.m. that evening, “where I placed my command in a defensible position with reference to my rear and flanks, the front being protected by the creek and swamp…. No enemy has been developed in my front just far.”

Being far in the advance, the Seventeenth Corps held position on March 1, only closing up the trailing wagon trains.  However, Major-General Frank Blair sent out a brigade, under the direct command of Major-General Joseph Mower, to probe for Confederates in the direction of Cheraw. “They encountered the enemy in strong force at the crossing of the Chesterfield and Society Hill road, developed their position, and withdrew.”  The Confederate forces were at that time busy evacuating Cheraw, and this only added to the haste.

In his spare time that day, Blair wrote Special Orders No. 55.  The order addressed the need, again, to reduce the number of excess animals accumulated with the column and procedures for foragers.  Of note, Blair insisted, “the great number of mounted men that are exploring the country in advance of not only the infantry but the cavalry renders any effort of the latter to obtain information concerning the enemy’s movements perfectly futile.”  Blair went on to say:

Foragers are captured every day, and every one captured is a source of information to the enemy.  The most stringent measures must be taken to prevent foraging in front of the columns. The operations of foraging parties can be extended to the flank as far as the commanding officer may see proper to go.

From this point on, Blair’s officers would arrest any foragers found in front of the column.  But it didn’t stop the practice.

For the Left Wing on March 1, the pieces finally moved at once.  Finally free of the Catawba River, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis made good time catching up with the rest of the army.  That evening, Brigadier-General James Morgan, Second Division, reported reaching Clyburn’s Store, “making a march of full twenty miles….” The other two divisions of the corps were near Hanging Rock that evening.

The Twentieth Corps also made a respectable march that day, crossing Lynches River and camping on the road to Chesterfield.  Major-General John Geary recorded:

March 1, my division in rear, moved at 11:40 a.m.; crossed Big Buffalo Creek, and further on, Lynch’s [River], where we found a good bridge at Miller’s Mill.  Slight rain all day. The roads, generally, were good. At the hills bordering on the creeks we had considerable corduroying to make. The country was poor, with sandy soil, and thinly settled by “poor whites;” distance, twelve miles.

On the far left flank of these movements, the Cavalry Division proceeded out of Lancaster on the roads to Chesterfield.  Behind them, later that afternoon, Confederates under Major-General Joseph Wheeler entered Lancaster.  Wheeler reported,

I think Kilpatrick is camped to-day about six miles from here, where he is throwing up breast-works.  The Fourteenth Corps only left the river this morning.  We captured a few of their foragers, who were in advance.  The opinion of citizens who conversed with officers is that the enemy will leave Charlotte to the left.  There is talk among the officers that they are going to Goldsborough.

General Joseph E. Johnston voiced a similar opinion earlier in the day, when describing the situation to General Robert E. Lee in Richmond.  “Our cavalry on their right think them moving toward Florence or Cheraw.”  Johnston went on to say, in a lengthier message later in the  day, “The route by Charlotte, Greensborough, and Danville is very difficult now, as you remark…. It seems to me, therefore, that he, General Sherman, ought not to take it.  His junction with General Schofield is also an object important enough, I should think, to induce him to keep more to the east.”

So much for all those efforts by Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick to deceive the Confederates as to Sherman’s intentions.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 201, 229-30, and 1123; Part II, Serial 99, pages 630, 635, and 1297.)