Sherman’s March, March 5, 1865: It “rained…shells very promiscuously” in Cheraw; Federals turned back at Florence

On March 5, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman gave marching instructions for his wing commanders for movements beyond the PeeDee River to the next major objective – Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Writing from Cheraw, Sherman outlined the scheme of maneuver to Major-General Henry Slocum of the Left Wing:

Let General [Jefferson C.] Davis lead into Fayetteville, holding the Twentieth in support with the cavalry on his left rear.  I will hold General Howard back, but close enough to come up if Joe Johnston wants to fight.  I will now fight him if he dares, and therefore wish to act on that idea, keeping each corps ready to hold the enemy if he appears in force on your left, but his strength must be developed before other corps are called from their roads.

Orders to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, with the Right Wing, sent the previous day, were similar, except the two commanders agreed to implement slow marches instead of halting at any one particular place (to allow for easier foraging in the sparse pine barrens).  Sherman described the scheme of maneuver as such “that the columns may assume an echelon towards the north.”  This arrangement, leading with the left while holding the right back for the punch, was the framework for a grand movement to contact.  But the disadvantage to the order of march was one corps would always be exposed to the possibility of being isolated and destroyed.

SCMarch_Mar5

Movements on March 5, 1865 were not great marches, but rather constrained by the need to get across the PeeDee in good order.  On the Left Wing, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis expended more curse words and condemnations towards the pontoon train’s leadership.  Work constructing a bridge at Haile’s (or Pegues’) Ferry progressed.  But lack of boats forced the engineers to improvise.  Wagons, wrapped in canvas, became makeshift pontoons.  The Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps remained in camp.

The Right Wing expanded the bridgehead across the PeeDee on the 5th. The remainder of the Seventeenth Corps crossed and moved to the right.  Most of the Fifteenth Corps, save a rear guard in Cheraw, crossed.  The “big” event in Cheraw, however, was not the crossing, but rather a large explosion.  The Confederates had left Cheraw in such haste that large quantities of munitions (much of it from Charleston, originally) were left behind.  With orders to destroy what could not be used or carried, Federal details began stacking powder kegs and other ordnance in a ravine.  The hope was exposure to water in the creek there would render the powder inert.  This proved a tragic decision, as recorded by the 1st Missouri Engineers:

In camp at Cheraw, waiting the passage of the troops across the Great Peedee River.  Details were employed fitting artillery wagon wheels to the boat wagons.  A great many of these wheels were found here, left by the enemy, as well as a large amount of ordnance stores, powder, shells, etc. This was all dumpted in a ravine through which a creek flowed. The ravine was filled and piled up ten or twelve feet deep until even with the banks – thirty-six thousand pounds of it.  There was not water enough in the creek to dampen all the mass of powder and shells, and our infantry soldiers were amusing themselves with taking the dry powder some two hundred yards to their cook fire and exploding it, carrying it in their hands.  The ravine was visited so often and the powder carried so loosely that after a time a train was formed reaching back to the ravine, and as a pile was exploded the fire ran back in the trail to the mass and it all went off with a terrible noise, and it rained around there for a half-mile shells and pieces of shells very promiscuously for a minute or so.

Though the explosion had enough force to damage houses all around Cheraw, only a handful of men were killed.  Still, this was a sad repetition of events seen at Charleston and Columbia.  Loose powder and fire never mix well.

Further south, Colonel Reuben Williams had his detail up early on the morning of the 5th on their way to Darlington and eventually Florence.

SCMarch_Mar5Williams

Between Dove’s Station and Darlington, the mounted infantry burned several trestle bridges.  On arrival in Darlington, the Federals destroyed the depot, 250 bales of cotton, and a printing office.  Proceeding south out of Darlington, scouts reported a train heading north from Florence.  Williams took up dispositions to ambush the train.

The Twenty-ninth Missouri being in the advance immediately deployed on the side of the track for the purpose of capturing it as soon as it came up. The engineer, however, must have discovered us, as the train was turned back to Florence.

Opportunity missed, Williams pressed forward on the appointed task, burning trestles along the way to Florence.  Two miles outside of their destination, the Federals met skirmishers.

I immediately formed the command in line, with a proper reserve, and ordered a charge, which was made in good style, some of the men gaining the depot building, but were unable either to hold or fire it. About this time the enemy re-enforced his left with infantry and drove back our right in some disorder. I had in the meantime thrown the Seventh Illinois on the left of the line to prevent a flank movement which I discovered was being made by the enemy. I here received notice from an officer who was on picket on the railroad to my rear that a train was coming from the direction of Kingsville, and a few minutes later I was informed that a party of about 400 men, with artillery, were getting off the train. Finding that I was outflanked and outnumbered by the enemy, and with a force of 400 moving in my rear, I concluded to withdraw the command and at once proceeded to do so. I fell back in good order, leaving the Ninth Illinois to cover the rear and proceeded in the direction of Darlington.

The Confederate commander of the forces defending Florence was Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson.  This was part of a brigade, which at the first of the month had been facing the Federals in the John’s Island sector.  Withdrawn north with the rest of the Charleston garrison, Robertson’s men were cut off from the main body when the Federals occupied Cheraw.  With the reinforcements, the defenders likely numbered around 1,400, and included a battery (Williams said ten pieces) of artillery and a cavalry detachment.  Recall that Williams’ force numbered only 546 men.

Robertson pressed Williams very hard, hitting the rear guard “two or three times between Florence and Darlington.” The pressure was so great that Williams opted to move over Black Creek in order to set a defensive line for the evening.  But Robertson continued to threaten the Federals even after dark.

About 8 p.m. the pickets informed me that the enemy was moving across Black Creek, on my left, in force, and the report was confirmed by negroes who came into our lines. The evident object of this move was to reach Society Hill before us and cut us off at that point, which, if successful, would necessitate a long march to the left before I could return. I therefore concluded to at once move to Society Hill, which I did, arriving there at 12 m. on the night of the 5th.

From Society Hill, Williams moved back to Cheraw on the 6th without incident.  Summarizing the raid, Williams counted the damage inflicted and losses suffered:

The results of the expedition may be summed up as follows: The destruction of 500 yards of trestle-work, 2 depots, 11 freight and 4 passenger cars, 4,000 pounds bacon, 80 bushels wheat, 50 sacks corn, 250 bales of cotton, 1 printing office, 1 caisson and battery wagon, 30 stand of small-arms, and the capture of 31 prisoners. Our casualties are 7 wounded and 8 missing. A lieutenant and one man are reported to have been captured at Society Hill on our return.

Not bad for such a small force.  But Florence remained an open railroad junction for use by the Confederates.  However the rail lines there were somewhat amputated with no endpoints of strategic value.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 255-6; Part II, Serial 99, pages 676, 691; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 171.)

December 9, 1864: Another attempt at the Charleston & Savannah Railroad falls yards short

Earlier I mentioned the operation launched by Major-General John Foster to gain the Charleston & Savannah Railroad by an attack near Coosawhatchie, South Carolina.  Again, this was an effort to support Major-General William T. Sherman’s march to the sea by cutting the rail link between Savannah and Charleston.  Earlier efforts failed to break the rail line due to Confederate defenses at Honey Hill.  But not throwing in the towel, Foster launched several expeditions, leading up to a landing on the peninsula between Coosawhatchie River and Tulifinny Creek.  By December 7, Foster could report a lodgement three-quarters of a mile from the railroad (the closest of any of the various attempts over the last three years had reached to this railroad, mind you!).

On December 9, word passed down from Foster to Brigadier-General Edward Potter (commanding the troops on the ground) that one more “go” at the railroad was required.  For this, Potter ordered a “skirmish brigade” formed that would advance toward the railroad and feel out the Confederate defenses.  The hope was that would find an unguarded point, at which the break could be achieved.  Colonel William Silliman, detached from his regiment, the 26th USCT, commanded an ad-hoc formation consisting of the US Marine Battalion, the 127th New York and 157th New York.  The formation had the Marines on the right, with the 157th in the center and the 127th on the left.  Of the movement, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Woodford, of the 127th New York reported:

We formed in front of the rifle-pits in the open field, at 9.10 a.m., in one rank–the marines having the right, the One hundred and fifty-seventh New York Volunteers the center, and the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers the left. The men were deployed at a distance of two places from each other, and one company of the One hundred and twenty-seventh was formed as flankers on the left. The line covered a front of near three-quarters of a mile, reaching from a point 100 yards to the left of the dirt road that runs into the Coosawhatchie turnpike. We advanced under cover of a heavy artillery fire, moving almost due north. The line was maintained with great regularity, and struck the rebel pickets about 350 yards from the railroad. These, after a few shots, fell rapidly back upon their reserves. These reserves, opposite our center and right, retired upon their main line, which immediately opened a heavy fire, both with musketry, grape, and canister. The rebel pickets upon our left appeared to rally upon their reserves, which were near their line, and these being sheltered by a heavy growth of young pines, main-rained for some time a sharp and well-directed fire, which enfiladed our left.

With the initial success, the Federals rolled back the Confederate line to within a couple hundred yards of the railroad.  Robert Sneden later penned this depiction (oh, you know I hesitate to say “map”) of the action from descriptions:

TilifinnyCr2

Notice the position designations listed for the 127th New York.  He didn’t show the 157th or Marines on the map.  But the gist of the movement is there, with the Federals crossing some low ground in front of the railroad to press the defenses on the railroad.

Just as the skirmish line reached the Confederate entrenchments, Silliman was hit in the leg.  For the second time in four days, Woodford assumed tactical command of an operation under such circumstances.  And he continued to press the advance:

The skirmish line pushed steadily forward, pressing the place occupied by the rebel pickets, and took up position within about 200 yards of the railroad. The marines upon the right, under command of First Lieutenant [George] Stoddard, U.S. Marine Corps, approached quite close to the rebel battery and made a gallant attempt to flank and charge it. They were exposed to a very severe fire; became entangled in a dense thicket between the forks of a creek upon the right, and were compelled to fall back. They retired upon the reserves, where they reformed and again moved to the front.

The Marines had hit a portion of the line held by the cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, the Citadel.  The entire student body was in the field that morning, manning the works (the only time an entire college body has fought as a unit).  So this brings a bit of notability to this otherwise small action – one of the few times the US Marine Corps operated at more than a company strength during the Civil War, and they happen to run against the Citadel cadets.  And as Woodford indicates, the Marines got the worst end of the deal.  At that point, the attack began to break up.

The two New York regiments remained in their advance positions for much of the day.  Around 2:30 that afternoon, the regiments began to retire.  As they did, the Confederates sortied and attempted a flank attack on the left.  This was repulsed.  Both sides finally retired completely at dark.

In the action, the Marines suffered eleven casualties.  The 157th reported the same number of wounded from their rolls.  The 127th suffered much worse with 8 killed and 51 wounded.  Brigadier-General Beverly H. Robertson, Confederate commander in the sector, reported 52 casualties.  However those numbers do not include any mention of casualties the cadets may have suffered.

Assessing this action, if at all, most sources draw attention to Foster’s failure, again, to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. This is cited as the reason the Confederates were able to resupply Savannah and later retreat. So the failure is reflected as a strategic blunder to close those last few hundred yards on December 9, 1864.

But let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of reality here.  Consider the “big map” again (for simplicity, I’ve left out the Federal coastal garrisons and the Confederate defensive positions confronting Hilton Head, but factor those in.)

Dec9Situation

Sherman’s left most columns were but twenty-five miles or so from the site of Woodford’s skirmish. Likely they even heard some of the firing.  As the sun sat on December 9, the Twentieth Corps had leading regiments within an easy morning march from the railroad, just outside Savannah.  So close were the Federals at that point, General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was visiting Savannah to consult with Lieutenant-General William Hardee, opted to take a ferry over the Savannah River that afternoon instead of risking the train.  For all practical purposes, the railroad was cut even while Woodford pulled his men back.  From that, there are some grand points to consider… but I’ll save that for the moment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 441-2.)

Confederates start work on Fort Trenholm, the last important addition to Charleston’s defenses

On September 13, 1864, Major-General Samuel Jones sent, by way of his Assistant Adjutant-General, an order to Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson, commanding the Second and Sixth Military Districts of South Carolina:

General: The engineers are just about commencing the erection of a work on John’s Island opposite Battery Pringle. The force on James Island has been very much reduced, and if the enemy attempt to drive away the working parties, as they probably will, they may succeed, unless assistance is given by you.

The major-general commanding, therefore, directs you to send to this point as large a cavalry force as you can to protect the working parties and keep up a picket-line as near Legareville as practicable to guard against any sudden advance of the enemy, and prevent the escape of the negroes employed. If you can do so, send also a section of artillery with orders to retire into the new works; if forced back the cavalry to retire by the river road on John’s Island.

The fortification mentioned in this order would eventually receive the name “Fort Trenholm.”  If you’ve been following my descriptions of the Charleston defenses, as they evolved 150 years ago, you are familiar maps such as this:

Fort Trenholm

You see Fort Trenholm on the far left and on the west side of the Stono River. In the past, I’ve displayed these maps with the caveat that the maps depicted the final state of works around Charleston.  Well, this was the last major fortification added to the Confederate lines defending Charleston.  Now I can say, the map depicts what was there 150 years ago as we’ve caught up!

As described in the order, Fort Trenholm complemented Battery Pringle.  During all the activity in July 1864, the Confederates realized just what Rear-Admiral Dahlgren observed – if the Federals had the forces to occupy John’s Island, they could make Battery Pringle untenable. So this addition to the far right of the Confederate line secured a vulnerable flank.  When completed, any Federal warships attempting to move up the Stono River would have a crossfire to contend with.  Not unlike that which caused the capture of the USS Isaac Smith in January 1863.

Robertson’s orders required him to secure John’s Island with a picket line down to Legareville during the construction of the works.  In part, that was to keep the Federals from interfering, but also to prevent the escape of laborers employed in the work.  But for the most part, the Federals, with limited resources, were not in a position to contest this addition to the line.

Being the last major fort built outside Charleston, Fort Trenholm never received a full complement of guns.  But despite being built so late in the war, the works survived and is still there today, just north of the Charleston Airport:

While protected within the boundaries of the airport, unfortunately its location makes close inspection rather difficult.  But it is there, as a mark of war.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 622-3.)