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:

VAMarch_May14_17

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 also 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.)

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:

VAMarch_May11_15

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. )

Sherman’s March, April 13, 1865: Federals enter Raleigh; Johnston urges negotiations

We entered Raleigh this morning.  Johnston has retreated westward. I shall move to [Ashborough] and Aslisbury or Charlotte. I hope Sheridan is coming this way with his cavalry. If I can bring Johnston to a stand I will soon fix him. The people here had not heard of the surrender of Lee, and hardly credit it. All well.

I might leave my daily summary of Major-General William T. Sherman’s movements to just that message, sent to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on April 13, 1865.  Raleigh was the third state capital visited by Sherman on the Great March.  Though he alluded to further movements to the west that would head off and box-in General Joseph E. Johnston’s force, the march in to Raleigh was for all practical purposes the end of the shortest leg of the Great March, lasting but four days.  After April 13, Sherman would make no grand movements as “talking” became the weapon of choice.

NCMarch_Apr13

The lead of the Federal advance that day was Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry.  Through agreement with Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton and Major-General Joseph Wheeler, Kilpatrick’s forces moved unopposed into the city.  However, at several points stragglers and others operating on their own took shots at the Federals.  Kilpatrick noted, “my staff was fired upon from the state-house yard and corners of the street.”

By 8:30 a.m., Kilpatrick reported, “My advance is two miles beyond the town on the Hillsborough road, heavily engaged with Wheeler and Hampton’s combined forces.”  The fighting with the Confederate rear guard continued through the afternoon.  At 3 p.m., Kilpatrick added, “We have taken barricade after barricade of the strongest character and with but little loss…. I have been scattering Wheeler’s cavalry all day, driving it off upon the side roads.”  The Federal cavalry captured three trains along the railroad and almost netted a fourth.  The closing action of the day was a severe skirmish at Morrisville.

Behind the Cavalry, the Left Wing marched into Raleigh and took up camp beyond. Any delays encountered were more so due to line of march traffic control.  Major-General Alpheus Williams recorded,

April 13, the division moved in advance at daylight. At the railroad crossing found our road in possession of Fourteenth Corps. After some delay a road was made to the left and the division moved to its camp near the insane asylum two miles south of Raleigh.  The day was very unpleasant; estimated march, fifteen miles.

Behind the Left Wing, the Center Wing marched to close on Raleigh.  Major-General Adelbert Ames, commanding Second Division, Tenth Corps, recorded camping near Swift Creek that evening.

On the east side of the Neuse River, the Right Wing marched towards a couple of bridges.  Major-General Oliver O. Howard noted a rare occurrence on the march – capture of an intact Hinton’s Bridge by the Fifteenth Corps.  “We found the bridge a new one, recently constructed.  Only a few planks  were taken up.”  The Seventeenth Corps closed on Battle’s Bridge where that crossing point required more substantial repairs and supplement of a pontoon bridge.

Other than Kilpatrick’s troopers at the fore of the advance, the Federal marches seemed more against terrain and nature than the Confederates.  The main part of what remained of the Confederate forces in North Carolina was well west of Raleigh.  Johnston could count about 25,000 troops counting all infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  The presumption was that Sherman’s force would soon be joined by those moving south from Virginia (though at that time only minor movements were made in that regard).   To the west of Johnston, Major-General George Stoneman had descended out of Virginia to turn against the railroads of North Carolina.  The military situation seemed to collapse all around Johnston.

On April 13, Johnston attended a conference with members of the Confederate government in Greensboro.  Johnston felt the Confederate President, Jefferson F. Davis, did not have a full appreciation of the situation.  To address that, Johnston laid estimates of the Federal strengths in front of the cabinet:

I represented that under such circumstances it would be the greatest of human crimes for us to attempt to continue the war; for, having neither money nor credit, nor arms but those in the hands of our soldiers, nor ammunition but that in their cartridge boxes, nor shops for repairing arms or fixing ammunition, the effect of keeping in the field would be, not to harm the enemy, but to complete the devastation of our country and ruin of its people.  I therefore urged that the President should exercise at once the only function of government still in his possession, and open negotiations for peace.

Though winning over most of the cabinet, Davis and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin were unswayed.  And we must place ourselves in that moment – the only bargaining chip left in the hands of Davis was Johnston’s army.  If it stood, and where it stood, was the physical embodiment of what remained of the Confederacy.  So to hear that the senior military commander’s assessment was an admission even that last card was trumped.  Yet, even a trumped card was still a card in hand. Thus Davis continued to refuse any military surrender, hoping for a political settlement.

Johnston went further to suggest a military armistice while the political leaders offered terms to end hostilities.  This was accepted as the course of action, and Johnston had a letter dictated for dispatch to Sherman, requesting a suspension of active operations, to be delivered the following day.

The guns were not yet silenced, but the pen and paper would be the preferred weapons after April 13.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 604; Part III, Serial 100, pages 191-2, 197, 198; Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of military operations directed, during the late war between the states, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874, pages 398-9. )