Category Archives: American Civil War

Sherman’s March, May 14-17, 1865: Passing through old battlefields and crossing the Rappahannock

The last important river barrier for the armies of Major-General William T. Sherman in their march to Alexandria, Virgina was the Rappahannock River.  To gain crossing, the armies would cross through Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties, with one column traversing Orange and Culpeper Counties.  That area of Virginia was the stage for so much of the war in the east, with numerous battles fought.  For some members of Sherman’s command, this was a return to fields contested just a couple years earlier.  For most, however, this was a chance for the “Westerners” to see where the “Easterners” had fought.

The four corps fanned out in their march north, each taking a separate line for the most part:


The Right Wing used the direct route to Fredericksburg.  The Fifteenth Corps remained east of the Richmond & Potomac Railroad, generally using the Stage Road (the officers in Sherman’s command referred to this as the “Fredericksburg Road”).  Meanwhile, the Seventeenth Corps marched on the west side using the Telegraph Road.  Major-General Mortimer Leggett was in temporary command of the Seventeenth Corps, with Major-General Frank Blair at the time in Washington. Of these administrative marches, the commanders filed mundane reports of movement.  Typical was that of Major-General William B. Hazen, commanding Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, for May 16, 1865:

I have the honor to report that this division broke camp at 7 a.m., moving in the center of the column, the First Division being in advance and the Fourth Division in the rear, and went into camp about five miles from Fredericksburg at 4:30 p.m., having made a distance of twenty-two miles.

Yes, somewhat more distance than Sherman had preferred.  But the march was made over terrain familiar to military movements and where roads were well prepared.  While Hazen camped outside Fredericksburg that evening, Major-General Charles Woods’ First Division held a camp on the north bank of the Rappahannock River.   I believe the camp location used by Woods’ men was in proximity to the “Slaughter Pen” of the December 1862 battlefield.  But the records I have defy exact positioning.

The following day, Major-General John Logan officially assumed command of the Right Wing.  The Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps crossed the Rappahannock using a pontoon bridge left by the Army of the Potomac at Franklin’s Crossing… yet another place name harkening back three years.  But only wagon traffic delayed the progress of the men as the Army of the Tennessee bounded the Rappahannock with relative ease, compared to crossings by Federal forces earlier in the war.

The Left Wing had a wider line of march.  To avoid congesting the roads through the Wilderness, the Fourteenth Corps took a route through Orange County to Raccoon Ford and thence into Culpeper County.  This route took the Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, through one of the most heavily contested areas of the Civil War.  But the soldiers were not sight-seeing.  For them, a camp outside Stevensburg on May 15 was just one of over a hundred camps they made during the long war.   But it was the last made during the war in Culpeper County…  which had seen hundreds of such camps.

The following morning, the troops marched north to Kelly’s Ford to cross the Rappahannock.  Again, lost on the soldiers on the march was the significance of that point on the map.  Armies had fought over and crossed that ford repeatedly over the four previous years.  The Fourteenth Corps was the last military command to splash through.  Just another river crossing for the soldiers, but a significant mark in the passing of the war.  The corps continued its march through places named Bristoe Station, Manassas Junction, Centreville, and Fairfax Court-house.  All of which were simply waymarks of the march home for these men.

Either by design or by serendipity, the men of the Twentieth Corps – formerly the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps – marched through Spotsylvania.  Major-General Alpheus Williams, commanding First Division, Twentieth Corps, recorded the progress:

May 14, the division having the advance marched, the same hour as yesterday, crossed the North Anna on pontoon bridge, and took a circuitous route toward Spotsylvania Court-House.  The Mat, Ta, and Po, and several other smaller creeks were crossed during the day’s march; encamped south of Spotsylvania Court-House after a march of sixteen miles.  Many officers and men embraced the opportunity to visit the famous battle-fields in this vicinity.

Yes, the Twentieth Corps’ men had reason, by connection, to be sight-seeing.  The next day’s march traversed Chancellorsville. Williams, who’d commanded a division of Twelfth Corps during the fighting there in May 1863, noted more “sight-seeing.”

May 15, the division moved out at 5 a.m. toward Chancellorsville.  The route was a portion of the section known as the Wilderness.  At Chancellorsville the division was halted for three hours upon the battle-ground to enable the officers and men of the division to visit the scenes of that memorable contest in which most of the regiments took part.  The division encamped for the night at United States Ford; marched fifteen miles.

Sherman himself traveled over to visit the Twentieth Corps that day, with Major-General Henry Slocum providing some orientation.

The next day, the Twentieth Corps crossed the Rappahannock at United States Ford… in different circumstances from the last time those men had crossed at that point.  The remainder of the march toward Alexandria took the Twentieth Corps through places such as Hartwood Church, Brentsville, and Fairfax Station. In more ways than one, the Twentieth Corps was going home.

On May 19 the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia reached their designated camps outside Alexandria.  There, near the banks of the Potomac, the Great March which had started in Atlanta came to its last pause.  The last short march required of these soldiers was a Grand Review in the nation’s capital – a formal closure to the march… and the war.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 605; Part III, Serial 100, page 509.)

Confederate collapse and mirage of guerrilla warfare

There is a long, enduring myth that Confederate military leaders, namely General Robert E. Lee, eschewed the notion of continuing the war past April 1865 by transforming the Confederate army into a guerrilla force, simply because it was ungentlemanly or contrary to their nature.  We point to the account of Brigadier-General E. Porter Alexander as the primary evidence in regard to Lee’s thoughts. But truth be known, Alexander did not mention “guerrilla” in his recollections.  Nor was there any indication on Alexander’s or Lee’s part that somehow the military forces would wage an unconventional… or to throw in a 21st century term that is all the rage of late… asymmetrical campaign.   Rather, Alexander’s account points more to personal escape, at which time he would “send for my wife & children.”  From that narrative and others I gather that most references to continuing the war were more so to elude potential retaliation and the specter of humiliation in defeat.

Still, this comes up as a common counter-factual in Civil War debating circles.   Could the Confederacy have waged an asymmetrical campaign?  And how effective would that have been?

There’s a whole bunch of discriptives that get wrapped up here with “guerrilla.”  From the start, the rebellion was an insurgency, simply by definition.  What makes “guerrilla” a subset within that genera of combat is the use of non-traditional forces and tactics.  The name derives from Spanish for “little war.” In a guerrilla warfare campaign, the rebellion uses small units, typically not organized to the high degree seen in conventional warfare, to perform actions that are local in scale.  Traditional military forces, possessing better organization and usually access to more resources, would normally crush the insurgent forces in a stand-up fight.  Instead the guerrillas pick situations where to best negate the weight of the conventional force and make the biggest impact for their numbers.  Thus the asymmetry noted in more recent discussions about this type of warfare.

The long-game objective in a guerrilla war is for the forces in rebellion to continually strain the resources of the conventional force to the point where either a wider rebellion emerges or the suppressing force seeks a compromise.  With this (and I’m working quickly here to fit a B-I-G topic into a self-imposed small blog post form), we see the need for the guerrilla force to gain sanction and support from the population.  As Mao Zedong said, “the people are the sea that the revolutionary swims through.”… or similar translation.  For a guerrilla strategy to work, the population would be pre-disposed to the political goal of the insurgency AND be willing to endure suffering to support the guerrilla force… to say the least.

So, how about the ex-Confederacy as it stood in April-May-June 1865?  Was it populated by a people willing to support such an effort?

No doubt, this will raise the ire of some partisan readers, but let me put this bluntly – no, the Southern States were not ready to support such an effort.  Consider last campaigns conducted by Sherman, Wilson, Stoneman, Potter and others.  Those operations ranged far and wide across the Confederacy.  And instead of inspiring more men to join the ranks of the army, those operations had the opposite effect.  Instead of running into “Francis Marions” behind every creek in South Carolina, Sherman and Potter found quite the opposite.  Deserters were encountered almost as often as Confederate regulars.  Thus, I would offer, had Zogby or other pollsters posed the question to southerners in mid-1865, the numbers would have leaned towards “end the war.”  The “sea” was rather shallow for the fish to swim through.  Indeed, there were some guerrilla-like operators that emerged in the immediate post-war era.  There were armed forces opposing the military governors and later the reconstruction governments.  But these ultimately failed to achieve any result in the field, falling far short of perpetuating the Confederacy.

But let us also consider the other facets to the “population.”  There were two major war aims imposed by the surrender of Confederate arms – preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery within the rebellious states.  This changed the status of more than a third of the population of the Confederate states to the positive.  If not guaranteeing complete citizenship and rights, emancipation did secure some means of self-determination.  So as we further consider the “sea” for which any guerrilla “fish” would operate, the water becomes shallower still.

The next point to consider would be the opposition force to any Confederate guerrilla effort.  I would submit that in 1861, the United States Army had already acquitted itself well to counter-insurgency operations against guerrilla forces.  Almost every line officer had experienced some action – be that Seminole Wars or other actions on the western frontier.  And the operations during the Civil War brought more experience for both regulars and volunteers.  Indeed, if we look to the decades that followed the Civil War, the U.S. Army continued to operate, for the most part, as a counter-insurgency force on the frontier.  Arguably, the Army of that period was among the most successful, historically speaking, in that mode of warfare – a legacy that, unfortunately, was not appreciated by leaders a century later, I think.  But the point I would make in regard to any Confederate guerrilla movement, circa 1865, the right type of force, with a doctrine already established, would be draining what little water the “fish” had left to swim through.

All that said, where this counter-factual really falls apart for me, demonstrating that a Confederate guerrilla warfare option was simply not plausible, is how the Confederate leadership ultimately adapted to the situation.  Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton III is a good example.  Nearing the end of the war, Hampton openly suggested guerrilla warfare as an option.  But just over a decade later, Hampton was the 77th governor of South Carolina.   Simply put, the former Confederates found it easier to work within the political and social constructs to impose a “compromise” than to continue to wage war.  That’s not to say there was no violence in play.  Far from it.  But the violence in play was not a guerrilla war… under the conventional definition of that unconventional style of war.

Sherman’s March, May 10-13, 1865: The Bummers march through Richmond

Just as my blogging pace has eased as the Civil War Sesquicentennial winds down, Major-General William T. Sherman’s troops moved at a relaxed pace as they proceeded towards Washington, D.C. in the month of May 1865.  Imagine, if you will,  being a soldier in the ranks.  These were warm days and the marches were still very much physical exertions.  At the same time, there must have been a great sense of anticipation just to have the journey end.  Perhaps somewhat like present-day soldiers returning from deployment… though for the present, that anticipation is spent in airport terminals and processing stations.  For the men of Sherman’s armies, every footstep on the road was that much closer to Washington, a big parade, and muster out.

On May 10, 1865, the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia were camped around Manchester, Virginia.  The force spent several days resupplying in preparation for the last leg of the march, which would move through Richmond, over the Rappahannock River, and thence into camps near Alexandria.  The quartermaster supplied forage, ten days’ full rations, and “400 head of fine beef-cattle for each corps, or about eight days’ rations of fresh beef.” Plenty of protein for those marching.

Special Field Orders No. 69, issued on May 10, placed the Left Wing, under Major-General Henry Slocum, in the lead, crossing over the James on pontoon bridges to Hanover Court-house.  Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing would “follow at leisure.”  Sherman himself would accompany the Left Wing through Richmond.  He further specified that “The troops must be marched slowly, not to exceed fifteen miles a day, unless specially ordered by a corps commander.”  Additional orders specified that any sick or lame solders would get a boat ride to Alexandria.

While waiting for the movement, soldier were allowed, on official business, to visit Richmond:

In consideration of the necessity of procuring clothing, mess supplies, &c., for officers, the complete prohibition to enter Richmond by officers and men of this army is removed. Officers and soldiers with their side arms on, and with a pass for each, approved by direction of the corps commander, may visit the city between sunrise and sunset until further orders.

With respect to “sightseeing” in Richmond, Sherman’s troops received allowances not too dissimilar to those afforded the Army of the Potomac a few days earlier.  Speaking of which, another reason for the delay moving Sherman’s force was the wait for Major-General Philip Sheridan’s cavlary to cross the same pontoons.  Around Richmond was a concentration of Federal troops of the likes never seen before.  Yet… it being an administrative movement, we don’t get the sense of the grandness of the passing.

Let me again pull from the Official Atlas to demonstrate the movements of Sherman’s command.  And in this case, I’ll use the “color” version:


The key here is – Fourteenth Corps in green; Twentieth Corps in purple; Seventeenth Corps in red; and Fifteenth Corps in orange.

The Left Wing (Army of Georgia) moved out of Manchester at 7 a.m. on May 11.  In the lead was Fourteenth Corps.  The Twentieth Corps followed at 10 a.m. that morning.  Commanding First Division of that corps, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams recorded:

May 11, the corps marched at 10 a.m. toward Richmond, this division leading. In the village of Manchester the command was received with military honors by General Devens’ division, of the Twenty-fourth Corps, drawn up in line. Crossed over the pontoon bridge at 12 m. and marched through the city in column, with colors displayed and bands playing. The line of march passed the Libby Prison, Castle Thunder, the State capitol, and through the principle streets. The division encamped in a heavy thunder-storm near Brook Creek on the Hanover pike; marched ten miles.

Both corps (and those of the Right Wing to follow) used the same road immediately north of Richmond to reach Hanover Court-house.  Beyond there, the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps split up to use separate routes.  To cross the Pamunkey River, the Fourteenth Corps brought up the Left Wing’s pontoon bridge on the night of May 11.  The rains mentioned by Williams brought cooler temperatures, but also left the roads muddy.  Although not too terribly difficult, compared to some of those roads of the Carolinas traversed only a few months before.

The Seventeenth Corps passed through Richmond on May 12 without incident, following the path taken by the Left Wing the day before.  That left the road clear for the Fifteenth Corps to march out of Manchester and through Richmond on May 13.  Sherman’s bummers thus crossed the James River and marched past Richmond.  The Right Wing initially followed the route used by the Fourteenth Corps until across the Pamunkey.  North of that river, the corps used separate lines of march towards Fredericksburg.

While this movement transpired, a command change took place. Under special instructions, Howard visited Washington while the armies were camped around Manchester.  On May 12, news of Howard’s next assignment came down – “assigned to duty in the War Department as commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.”  In Howard’s place, Major-General John Logan assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee.  Logan had gone from being a volunteer with a musket at First Manassas to commanding a victorious corps marching north in just under four years.

The march of Sherman’s troops through the middle of May traversed many of the battlefields contested by the Eastern Armies during the previous three years.  For some, particularly those of the Twentieth Corps, this was a return to troublesome fields.  For those who’d fought in the west, they had an opportunity to visit some places only read about in the newspapers.  So some sight-seeing was in order.  Among those early “battlefield stompers” was Sherman himself.  As he wrote to Logan on May 12, “I feel anxious to see the ground about Spotsylvania Court-House and Chancellorsville….”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 605; Part II, Serial 100, pages 455, 456, and 477. )