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.


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.


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:


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.)


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.)

“The troops behaved very handsomely”: John’s Island Operations – July 3-11, 1864

At this time 150 years ago, as I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, Major-General John Foster’s July operations in the field fizzled as he refocused his attention on Fort Sumter in the form of a heavy bombardment.  One might say Foster’s offensive was a flat failure.  But on the other hand, his stated objective – at least the one he related to his superiors – was simply to demonstrate in front of Charleston.  Before I discuss and assess Foster’s offensive, I must briefly summarize the operations on John’s Island, having neglected those somewhat.  Brigadier-General John Hatch’s command there operated on the west side of the Stono River with the original objective of the railroad bridge at Rantowles.  Generally the advance would have looked something like this:


But from the start, Hatch ran into delays just getting men ashore.  Then his advance slowed due to the heat and rains.  With reinforcements, Hatch’s command now numbered over 5,000 men.  On July 5, Hatch’s lead elements moved up from Huntscum’s corner (where a roads connected Legareville with the main part of John’s Island) and advanced in the direction of the Stono River.  Opposing this advance was Major John Jenkins, 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, with small force of cavalry and a battery of artillery.   At first Jenkins attempted to cut behind Hatch.  But seeing that as futile, he then moved on a parallel road, moving some eleven miles, to get in front of the Federals.  (The map below generally summarizes the movements from July 5 to 9, 1864)


Jenkins was unable to prevent Hatch from securing passage to a plantation home known as Waterloo Place, owned by J. Grimball, but he had prevented any further movement towards Rantowles.

On July 6, both sides skirmished around Waterloo Place.  The Federals attempted to gain ground to fire in flank on Battery Pringle, but found no suitable location for artillery.  Foster, who had moved onto John’s Island to direct operations, put Hatch temporarily in overall command of operations against Charleston on that day.  In turn Hatch elevated Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton to command the operations on John’s Island.

Saxton, now charged with finding some means to flank Battery Pringle, looked down the road for a good artillery position.  Although north of Waterloo Place the ground was predominately marsh, just past, on the Grevias’ plantation was a spot of high ground which might serve the purpose.  To reach that position, the Federals had to pass a causeway leading to the Burden plantation.  On July 7th, Saxton pushed out to occupy that ground, as reported later by Hatch:

General Saxton this day attacked the enemy’s line of rifle-pits with the Twenty-sixth U.S. Colored Troops.  The troops behaved very handsomely, advancing steadily in open ground, under a heavy fire, and driving the enemy from the line.  Had the advance been supported, the enemy’s artillery would have been captured; as it was, both artillery and infantry were driven from the field.

The 26th USCT captured several buildings on the Grevais’ plantation that morning, but were driven back.  Later that day, the Federals again pressed forward, gaining some ground.  But the steady work of Confederate field artillery kept them in check.  Fire from Battery Pringle’s heavy guns seemed to have drawn Federal attention away from the action at Grevais’ and, as Hatch mentioned, left the USCT unsupported in their advance.

Showing that the Federals were not alone with respect to slow advances, Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson moved from Adams’ Run on the afternoon of July 7 with the intent of driving back Hatch’s force.  Robertson intended to attack at Grevais’ by morning of July 8, but miss routed supply wagons prevented an attack that day.  Not until the morning of July 9 was Robertson in position.  The force consisted of the 1st Georgia Regulars Battalion, a dismounted detachment from the 4th Georgia Cavalry, and three companies of the 32nd Georgia Infantry.  An attack at 5:45 a.m. succeeded in driving in Federal pickets, but little else.  A second attack roughly an hour later gained more ground.  But six well placed Federal Napoleon guns blocked any further advance.  Roberston was able to report, however, “Our occupation of his front line completely thwarted the enemy’s plans, as it secured to us the elevated ground between Burden’s Causeway and Grevais’ house….”  From the open ground there, the Federals could have enfiladed Battery Pringle (though there is little indication that was a properly developed scheme on the part of the Federals).

That evening, sensing little else could be accomplished on John’s Island without applying more resources than Foster was willing to commit, preparations began for a withdrawal.  The Federals left John’s Island by way of Legareville.  Thus ended Hatch’s portion of Foster’s July opertions.  The actions at Waterloo Place and Burden’s Causeway (Grevias’ Plantation) were but small skirmishes in context of other major battles occurring in other theaters.  Hatch reported the loss of 11 killed and 71 wounded during the entire time on John’s Island (but alluded to a small number of missing, presumed captured).  Robertson reported 37 killed and 91 wounded.

Perhaps, with a bit more drive and support, the Federals might have gained a significant lodgement on John’s Island.  At the same time, the Confederates demonstrated the ability to hamper any advance up the narrow corridors in the marshes and swamps of John’s Island.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 85 and 142-3.)

July 2, 1864: Birney and Hatch stall, Foster’s plan stumbles

At dawn on July 2, 1864, Major-General John Foster’s July offensive was well under way.  A force of 5,000 infantry, 100 cavalry, and two sections of artillery afloat on transports, personally directed by Foster, entered the North Edisto River as the sun rose over the South Carolina coast.  Foster first saw to putting Brigadier-General John Hatch’s forces ashore at Seabrook Island.  With the transports secure and the landings beginning, Foster proceeded further up the river with Brigadier-General William Birney’s column.  Originally Foster intended to land Birney on the Ashepoo River, further down the coast.  But modifications to his plan had Birney leading 1,200 men landing at White Point on the North Edisto.

Birney’s infantry consisted of 532 men of the 7th USCT, 370 men from the 34th USCT, 241 men from the 35th USCT, and 35 men from the 75th Ohio.  A supporting detachment of thirty marines with two boat howitzers accompanied the column.  In addition a company of engineers were attached.

Birney’s were to march inland towards Jacksonboro, destroy the railroad bridge there, and, if the situation allowed, continue down the railroad to Ashepoo Ferry, likewise destroying the railroad bridge there.


Plan looked fairly sound on the map until considering the Confederate defenses.  Birney’s march took his column directly into the Sixth Military District of South Carolina, under the command of Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson.  Earlier that winter, Robertson’s predecessor, Brigadier-General Henry Wise, had voiced concern about Federal approaches on that particular line of march.  In January, Wise proposed to construct a line of works:

… north of the Wadmalaw and Edisto from Meggett’s to Young’s Island; thence,to Torgoodoo Neck; thence to forks of Torgoodoo; thence to Ashe’s; thence to Little Brittain, to Tom’s Point, to Slann’s Island Creek defile, to Pineberry, at the house point and in the marshes, and thence to Willstown, where I would recommend strong combined field and heavy works.

Generally (very, generally due to the map scale), those lines appear in dashed red, with key points as red boxes, on the map.  The terrain in that area features several natural causeways, and Wise recognized if well positioned even a small force could block a major advance.  Wise was able to construct some of the proposed works, in particular a work near the Slann’s (sometimes Slan’s) Island Creek defile.

Marching up from White Point, Birney’s column had to cross Slann’s Island and run up against the Confederate defenses mentioned in Wise’s plans.

At 5.15 a.m., we began our march.  We had gone about half a mile when our scouts were fired upon by the rebel skirmishers. Our skirmishers advanced steadily, supported by the column, and drove before them the small rebel force for about 3 miles, when it passed over a creek, taking up the bridge behind it.  A rebel battery opened immediately.  Knowing they would shell the main road, I moved my command to the right and continued my advance under cover of the woods. The road we had  left was shelled with great precision.

At around that time, Robertson reported the Federal advance. Down the telegraph from Charleston came the reply:

No troops can be sent to re-enforce you, as the enemy is making a heavy demonstration on James Island.  Must drive them off first.

Foster’s scheme to press the Confederates at several points appeared to be working.  But confronted by a creek, well positioned artillery, and Confederate skirmishers, Birney’s part in the plan stalled.

I reconnoitered the creek and swamp on both sides of the bridge and found them impassable. The swamp was miry and deep, and swept by the guns of a rebel fort near the Dawho, and also by the guns of the battery and earth-works. The creek was a salt-water one, deep, and bordered by a miry marsh on each side. The narrowest water I could find, except at the bridge, was about 37 yards, running between marshy borders, each about 50 yards wide. The place where the bridge had been was narrower, but was swept by both a raking and flanking fire of the enemy’s cannon.

Foster brought up two gunboats up to provide flanking fire on the Confederate position and ordered Birney to attempt crossing in a boat.  But Birney reported he was unable to make the crossing.  With that, Birney withdrew, putting a good spin on the failure, recording “The affair was an excellent drill for them preparatory to real fighting.”   He recorded six wounded in the “drill.”

On Seabrook Island, Hatch was likewise having problems. His command consisted of three regiments Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton’s brigade of three regiments, Colonel W. W. H. Davis’ brigade also with three regiments, and two companies of the 4th Massachusetts.  Since their area of operations was the same as the February 1864 demonstration, I’ll reuse a map depicting the key places:


The lead regiment in the landing was Colonel W.J. Slidell’s 144th New York, of Davis’ brigade.  Although Slidell managed to cross Seabrook Island and gain Haulover Cut, the rest of Hatch’s force was slow to follow.  Hatch explained:

Owing to the shallowness of water at the dock and unexpected difficulties in landing, we were unable to complete the disembarkation until the morning of the 3d instant…. The remainder of Davis’ brigade, with a few cavalry, were sent to [Slidell’s] support as soon as possible, and a good bridge over the cut, capable of passing artillery, completed before night.  As soon as landed Saxton’s command and the cavalry were pushed forward to Haulover Cut, where the last of the command arrived about 10 a.m. on the 3d.

So Hatch’s movements would be a full day behind schedule.

With those two setbacks, both the primary and secondary aims of Foster’s offensive were stymied.  Any hope of reaching the railroad was gone.  And with the railroad secure, Confederates retained the ability to shift troops from Savannah to reinforce threatened points.  Success of the operation now fell to Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig and the forces operating in front of James Island.  His morning movements had actually produced meager results… for a demonstration.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 84, 408-9, 528; Part II, Serial 66, page 551.)

“Two-thirds of my brigade are dismounted….”: The South Carolina cavalry swap

Continuing a thread – looking at Confederate reenlistment, recruitment, and conscription in the winter of 1864.  General Robert E. Lee pointed out issues with the system as applied in South Carolina, and to some extent Georgia, in January 1864.  Perhaps the best demonstration of the problem comes from the cavalry, where both men and mounts were required to replenish the ranks of South Carolina regiments (recall, the Confederate troopers supplied their own mounts for the most part).  On this day (February 10) in 1864, Brigadier-General Pierce M.B. Young, commanding Butler’s Cavalry Brigade, wrote to Major H.B. McClellan, Major-General J.E.B. Stuart’s adjutant, to press this problem and propose a solution:

Major: I have the honor, very respectfully, to ask that this brigade be relieved with four full regiments from the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. It is impossible to recruit the brigade unless this is done. I cannot see how General Beauregard’s department would be loser by this exchange. In less than a month after the exchange, this brigade, being on the coast and near their homes, would be as full as the new regiments. Two-thirds of my brigade are dismounted, and it is impossible to mount them in Virginia. Many of the companies have become depleted by casualties in action to such a degree that they have fallen below the minimum, and these companies would be able in a short time to recruit up to the requisite number. Something must be done, and done soon, or at the beginning of the spring campaign this brigade will not put as many men in the field for duty as ought to constitute one regiment. The authorities are already too well aware that our capital has more than once been endangered and exposed to the raids of the enemy, and all for the reason that our cavalry force was too small to cope with the enemy, and scarcely sufficient to keep up the picket-line. If portions of our country are laid waste and our capital exposed for the want of cavalry, why not have it when so much is lying idle and actually in need of exercise? I respectfully propose that one full regiment be ordered on at once and permit me to send back two in its place. At the expiration of a month let three others be ordered up, and send back my remaining three. This will be giving General Beauregard five regiments for four.

Some of the back-story here is apparent to even the cursory examination of the situation that winter.  The Army of Northern Virginia came off a very active campaign season.  Attrition took a toll.  And through the first months of the winter, replacements were trickling in at an uncomfortable rate.  No matter how veteran a unit might be, it cannot perform the mission if under-manned.  The problem was, as mentioned above, more acute with the cavalry due to the re-mount cycle in the Confederacy.

On the other hand, cavalry regiments in South Carolina were operating in… well lets just call it a less stressful environment.  Being “local” with prospects of remaining in South Carolina, those regiments attracted volunteers.  With the term of service complete on six month “emergency” state regiments, the South Carolina-based units received another boost.  Not to mention the ease of remounting, or even rotating horses as needed, for even the lowest ranking trooper.  And let me make one further point about the cavalry stationed in South Carolina in regards to workload – these regiments were not hard pressed compared to those in Virginia.  (The case can be made that as a whole, the cavalry operating on the South Carolina coast was ineffective, as it was by practice road-bound.  The Federal “scouts” on the other hand, dismounted for the most part, operated with good effect.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

Eventually Young’s request found traction.  While not exactly as he proposed, there was a rotation of cavalry from South Carolina. On March 17, orders came from Richmond for General P.G.T. Beauregard:

The First South Carolina Cavalry and Second South Carolina Cavalry have been ordered to South Carolina. The Fourth South Carolina Cavalry, Colonel Rutledge, the Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, Colonel Dunovant, the Sixth South Carolina Cavalry, Colonel Aiken, the Seventh Georgia Cavalry, Colonel White, the remaining companies of Colonel Millen’s (Georgia) battalion, and the cavalry companies of Captains Tucker, Wallace, Boykin, Trenholm, and Magee have been ordered to Virginia. Prepare them for movement without delay in light marching order with their wagon trains; the heavy baggage will come by railroad. Orders sent by mail. General Hampton will superintend the movement.

I would bow to cavalry experts opinions about the quality of those units.  But at a minimum, those were fresh troops and mounts funneled into Virginia.  Though late in the season.

But with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The transfer of troopers came down officially as part of Special Orders No. 65.  On March 26, a complaint came from the Second Military District of South Carolina (recall, this was a “slice” of the coastal country between the Edisto and Combahee Rivers).  The letter read in part:

The execution of paragraph 29, Special Orders, No. 65, from Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, leaves me in a most deplorably destitute condition. I telegraphed yesterday to you for instructions. As a military necessity, I have determined to retain 2 couriers from Davis’ company, Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, at my headquarters until some arrangement can be made by which I can communicate with my command. These will be the only mounted men I have in the entire district. [emphasis added] I also consider it vitally important to keep Saunders (my scout), as he is the only man I have acquainted with the neighboring islands.

So by pulling much needed cavalry to Virginia, a section of the South Carolina coast was left short of mounted troops (just two men if we read the complaint literally).  And there is again, a story for another day about the only man acquainted with the islands.

Oh, and who was the commander of the Second Military District?

Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson.

Some readers will contend this situation was of benefit to the Confederacy.  Would you want that general commanding mounted troops?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 1153; Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 362, 375.)

The Military Districts of South Carolina

Call this a resource post – the boring administrative details behind the other stories and threads.  For the Federals operating in the Department of the South, organization is relatively straight forward.  Both the Army and the Navy forces operated, generally speaking, across the same set of boundaries.  A close relation exists for the main elements of the Tenth Corps and South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  While divisions operated in front of Charleston, supported by major fleet elements, brigades garrisoned other locations supported by gunboats.

General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida matched that of the Federal department, for the most part, in terms of geography. But let’s just say the organization of Confederate forces in the department continually required adjustment.  Particularly within South Carolina.  In April 1863, when the ironclads first attacked Fort Sumter, Beauregard had three military districts within South Carolina:

  • First Military District under Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley covering from the Stono River, at Rantowles Creek, north to North Carolina.
  • Second Military District under Brigadier-General Johnson Hagood, with the land between the Stono and Ashepoo River under charge.
  • Third Military District under Brigadier-General W.S. Walker with everything between the Ashepoo and Savannah Rivers.

Earlier in February, Beauregard consolidated the Fourth Military District, which had covered the coast between the Santee River and North Carolina, including the small port of Georgetown, into the First Military District.  As such, the defense of South Carolina’s coast, from an administrative standpoint, looked liked this:


The largest of these districts, the first, included several subordinate commands (dashed lines) including James Island and St. Andrew’s Parish, Sullivan’s Island and Christ Church Parish, Morris Island, Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney and Fort Ripley, Georgetown and vicinity, and the City of Charleston itself.  While the First District contained about a division’s strength of troops, the other two districts were at best reinforced brigades.

This arrangement remained in place through July. At that point, the Federal operations necessitated some changes. The Second and Third Military Districts remained unchanged in terms of geographic coverage, but with with much reduced troop strength.  With much of the infantry reallocated to defend the outer Charleston defenses, neither district retained more than a regiment strength overall, and most of that was cavalry and artillery.  Beauregard reconstituted the Fourth Military District.  The Fourth, likewise, was assigned mostly cavalry and artillery.


The First Military District reorganized to include five sub-divisions. On July 30 the organization was:

  • First Sub-Division on James Island and including St. Andrew’s Parrish.
  • Second Sub-Division on Sullivan’s Island and including Christ Church Parrish.
  • Third Sub-Division on Morris Island.
  • Fourth Sub-Division at Fort Sumter and including Castle Pinckney and Fort Ripley.
  • Fifth Sub-Division garrisoning the inner defenses of Charleston itself and including the upper reaches of Charleston Neck.

The fall of Batteries Wagner and Gregg brought on the need to re-arrange this organization.  Special Orders No. 218, issued on October 22, reduced Ripley’s First Military Division in size, though not in importance.  The orders carved out three new districts from the old First:

1. Fort Sumter, Sullivan’s and Long Island, and the parishes of Christ Church and Saint Thomas, under Brigadier-General Ripley, will be designated as the First Military District.

2. The city, to include the lines on the Neck, Fort Ripley, and Castle Pinckney, under Colonel [Alfred] Rhett, will be designated as the Fifth Military District.

3. The parish of Saint Andrew’s will be divided into two districts; the first, commanded by Brigadier-General [Henry] Wise, to embrace all that part south of the Ashley River and west of Wappoo Cut, and to include the têtes-de-pont at Rantowles Station and the work at Church Flats, will be designated as the Sixth Military District; the second, to include James Island, under Brigadier-General [William] Taliaferro, will be designated as the Seventh Military District.

The new arrangements looked as thus on the map:


The orders stipulated that the commanders of those three new districts would report directly to the department headquarters.  Thus for the first time in the year a significant portion of the defense of Charleston lay outside the command of Ripley.

Threats to the Charleston and Savannah Railroad prompted another change in early December.  Under Special Orders No. 257, the boundaries of the Second, Third, and Sixth Military Districts were adjusted to provide better defense of that valuable line:

1. The Sixth Military District, Brigadier-General Wise commanding, will extend to embrace all the country to the east bank of the North Edisto, from the mouth to Gioham’s Ferry.  The headquarters of this district will be at or near Adams Run.

2. The Second Military District, brigadier-General [Beverly] Robinson commanding, will include all of the country between the western limit of the Sixth Military District and the Combahee and the Little Salkehatchie Rivers, and the southern boundary of Barnwell district to the Edisto River.  Headquarters at or near the Ashepoo Railroad Bridge.

3. The Third Military District will include all between the western limits of the Second Military District an the Savannah River.  Brigadier-General Walker will transfer, if necessary, his headquarters to such a point in his district as he may find best suited for the discharge of his duties.

As depicted on the map, this new arrangement, spread responsibilities for the defense of the railroad more equitably between the three districts:


An organizational report posted for December 31, 1863 indicated the following strengths within the districts:

  • First – 4,541 man effective strength, with fourteen field artillery pieces, and heavy artillery in the forts.
  • Second – 1,799 man effective strength and four pieces of artillery.
  • Third – 4,140 man effective strength and twenty-one artillery pieces.
  • Fourth – 1,186 man effective strength and six artillery pieces.
  • Fifth – 1,611 man effective strength with heavy guns posted in the batteries along Charleston’s waterfront.
  • Sixth – 2,842  man effective strength and sixteen artillery pieces.
  • Seventh – 6,007  man effective strength, eight field pieces, plus heavy guns in Fort Johnson and other fortifications on James Island.

The arrangement of December 2nd put Legareville within the zone controlled by the Sixth Military District.  Thus the orders issued to General Wise on December 17, instead of to General Hagood, who commanded troops on nearby James Island.  Importantly, Ripley, who had played a very prominent role in operations up to this time, was excluded from the activities in that critical sector.

The evolution of organization within the forces defending South Carolina begs for a more detailed treatment, down to the individual regiments, battalion, company, and battery.  That should also include examination of the command assignments.  But with so many changes through the year, I struggle to find a good method depicting such on a web-based platform.  A challenge!

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 441 and 538-9.)