Sherman’s March, February 3, 1865: “It is the strongest position I have ever seen in my life” at Rivers’ Bridge

The map I’ll offer for movements on February 3, 1865 offers not much advancement over that of the previous day:


In orders to Major-General Oliver O. Howard the previous day, Major-General William T. Sherman alluded to the slow movement of the Left Wing out of the Savannah River bottoms.  Blame it on Major-General Henry Slocum, the rains, the swamps, or logistics, … or a combination thereof.  Regardless, Sherman didn’t want to move too far out in advance with the Right Wing.

But there was some movement for the Left Wing that day.  The Cavalry Division under Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick managed to complete crossing.  However the Fourteenth Corps, one division each from the Fifteenth and Twentieth Corps, along with a substantial number of wagons for the Right Wing remained on the Georgia side.  But the bridges and roadways were finally setup to support movement. One Left Wing component that did move forward were the two divisions under Major-General Alpheus William’s direct control.  “On the 3d I marched in a drizzling rain to the Coosawhatchie Swamp, near Duck Branch Post-Office,” Williams recalled, “and reported in person to the major-general commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi.”  Sherman reflected, “If Slocum were up I would move him to Barnwell at once, but can use Williams to produce the same effect.”

The Fifteenth Corps, on the other side of Coosawhatchie Swamp did little movement themselves that day.  Under direct guidance from Sherman, Major-General John Logan sent one division to secure Angley’s Post-Office.  But due to  rains and concerns about the Left Wing, the corps remained relatively idle.

It was the Seventeenth Corps, under Major-General Frank P. Blair, which did the important work on February 3, 1865.  Major-General Joseph Mower’s division had first reached Rivers’ Bridge the day before, but found the way across the Salkehatchie River blocked by a Confederate force on the far side.  The river, itself, was a formidable obstacle, which greatly aided the Confederate defenders, as described by Blair:

The Salkehatchie River at this point is a dense swamp one mile and a half in width, where the river spreads out into thirty-five small streams varying from two to six feet in depth. The approach to the main bridge, about seventy feet in length, was along a narrow causeway, commanded almost its entire length by the enemy’s batteries. The main or largest stream ran very near the east side of the swamp, immediately beyond which the bank rises abruptly to the high table-land beyond. Upon this bank the enemy had built a very strong line of earth-works, with two strong redoubts and batteries commanding the main approaches. There were sixteen bridges, exclusive of the main bridge, varying from thirty to fifty feet in length on that portion of the causeway exposed to the enemy’s fire.

On the opposite side, mentioned in yesterday’s post, Colonel George P. Harrison concentrated most of the 2,000 men under his command.

The position was similar to those encountered on the march through Georgia.  And Federal tactics reflected the experience gained on the earlier march.  Blair maintained a demonstration downstream at Broxton’s Bridge.  He had Mower’s Division operate directly against Rivers’ Bridge.  And he also dispatched Major-General Giles Smith’s Forth Division to a point upstream (halfway between Rivers’ and Buford’s Bridges).

Smith’s movement was designed to flank the Confederate position entirely.  But such required passage through what Smith described as “apparently impassable swamp.” Scouts from the 32nd Ohio found a path through the swamp where the river “spread out into several channels, making a swamp about one miles and a half wide, could be forded, the water being from three to four feet deep.” The lead of Smith’s force started into the swamp at 2 p.m. and within ninety minutes cleared to the opposite side. With the entire division over by 5 p.m. Smith prepared to advance, but immediately sensed a strong Confederate skirmish line.  Without hesitating, Smith pushed his skirmish line out, driving in the Confederates.  However, “This, with the lateness of the hour, prevented my moving to Rivers’ Bridge to cooperate with General Mower….”  As events unfolded, Smith was not needed.


At first light, Mower had his men at work looking to force some purchase from which to simply get at the Confederates:

February 3, I had my pioneers to work by daylight cutting timber to finish the road commenced the day before, and directed Colonel [Milton] Montgomery to detail one regiment to tear down houses and carry planks to cross the roads through the swamp. At the same time I directed General [John] Fuller to detail one regiment with axes to cut a road to the river above the one being worked by the pioneers, and Colonel Montgomery to also detail all his axmen and cut a road still above the one General Fuller was constructing, with a view of moving my three brigades on three different roads.

With First Brigade (Fuller) and Second Brigade (Montgomery) at work, Mower sent Third Brigade under Colonel John Tillson to the left of the line looking for another point to cross.  Tillson set his men to work on the difficult task:

After a wearisome file through the swamp of about half a mile I established the brigade on the banks of the first branch of the river, which appears to run in three channels, all unfordable. Here I deployed three companies of the Thirty-second Wisconsin as skirmishers, also placing a picked force of fifteen men, under Lieutenant Johnston, in a rifle-pit in the road, within 200 yards of the rebel battery, with instructions to keep down the enemy’s gunners. This last duty was handsomely executed by the trusty officer in command.

Tillson continued to build the line and soon three more companies joined the fray.  “Their progress was exceedingly difficult, through water sometimes waist-deep, and exposed to a close and accurate fire.” But the Federal skirmish line kept building and advancing.

They crossed the two branches of the river on logs without severe loss, and about 12 o’clock Lieutenant-Colonel [Joseph] Carleton reported that he had made a crossing of the third and last channel, about 800 yards above, and asked for additional men.  The remaining three companies of the regiment were sent to him….

Tillson then committed the 25th Indiana and, though having to move single file through the swamp, was able to replace the 32nd Wisconsin on the skirmish line.  Here Tillson halted under orders of Fuller, who was maneuvering his brigade to follow up this advance.


To aid Tillson, Mower ordered diversionary attacks at the bridge and points downstream.  On the far right of Mower’s line, the 10th Illinois had two companies well into the swamp, but was unable to press more due to the confined maneuver space.  At this point, Mower opted press a demonstration at the bridge once more:

Not being able to create the desired diversion at the right I directed Colonel Montgomery to order the Forty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Major Park commanding, forward. I instructed him to have fifty of his men get planks (which were close by) and put them in the rear of the leading company of his regiment, with some axmen. After he had complied with this I directed him to move his regiment forward one company at a time at double-quick, “by file,” off to the right and left of the road, and move up to the bridge and if possible cross the river, using the planks he had with him to repair the bridge. This movement had the desired effect, although he was not able to cross. The enemy at once concentrated most of his forces in the earth-works opposite the bridge.

With that effect, Mower withdrew the 43rd Ohio and put all the available weight of the division behind Tillson’s lodgement.  When Tillson’s men reached the crest of the bluff overlooking the swamp, they found the Confederates had fallen back.  They soon linked up with the companies from the 10th Illinois from the opposite wing, completing the capture of the works.  Mower advanced a short distance beyond, but halted for the night.  The crossing of the Salkehatchie was accomplished at a loss of 18 killed and 109 wounded.  Confederates reported just under 100 casualties (though Mower placed it at 200).

Reporting the success, Left Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard observed:

I visited the field this evening immediately after Mower had carried the works. It is the strongest position I have ever seen in my life, and I think was defended by 2,000 men.

A weighty assessment when one considers Howard’s resume by that point in the war.  Mower’s division had cracked the Combahee-Salkehatchie line.  More importantly, the victory at Rivers’ Bridge had upset the Confederates one-day-old plans to counter Sherman’s advances.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 376, 387-9, 400, 412, 582; Part II, Serial 99, pages 285.)

Sherman’s March, February 1, 1865 (Part 2): Advance of the Right Wing – “Our men made short work of clearing away these obstacles”

Continuing from the earlier post where I looked at the troubles moving the Left Wing over the Savannah River into South Carolina, let me turn to the movements of the Right Wing on February 1, 1865.  As the map indicates, Major-Oliver O. Howard had both the Fifteenth (Major-General John A. Logan) and Seventeenth Corps (Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr.) in motion that day:


The two columns were rather compact compared to some of the marching days in Georgia the previous fall.  The only combat formation from the Right Wing that remained behind was the Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps, under Brigadier-General John M. Corse, which had not gotten out of Savannah before the shipping debacle of mid-January.  Corse was waiting his turn at Sister’s Ferry and would catch up later.

The Confederate forces facing Howard’s men were cavalry patrols along their direct line of march and infantry posted on the left bank of the Salkehatchie-Combahee Rivers.  From the start, the Confederate cavalry worked to impede movement. For the day’s movements, Howard summarized:

The general-in-chief having become satisfied that the Left Wing was crossing the Savannah, permitted us to resume the march February 1. I moved General Blair to Whippy Swamp and General Logan to the vicinity of Hickory Hill Post-Office. The former encountered the enemy’s cavalry soon after leaving camp and skirmished all day. Whippy Swamp Creek was reached about 1 p.m. General Blair found the road obstructed with felled trees and five small bridges destroyed. The obstructions were quickly cleared away, bridges built, the causeway corduroyed in part, and one division (Mower’s) moved across to the other side. Lieut. William N. Taylor, assistant to my chief of artillery, was severely wounded in the skirmish at the creek. The enemy’s force was estimated at 600 cavalry, that took the direction of Whippy Swamp Post-Office, and some forty or fifty more who defended the crossing in General Blair’s front.

General Logan also met the enemy’s cavalry and cleared away considerable obstructions. At points his road was filled with trees continuously for five or six miles. Our men made short work of clearing away these obstacles, going at it joyously and declaring that they can remove them quicker than the rebels can make them.

Though small in scale, the skirmishing with the Confederates indicated marching through South Carolina would be different than Georgia.

The day’s march put the Right Wing in position to work a crossing of the Salkehatchie to advantage while avoiding the manned and prepared works down-river near the railroad crossing.  To keep the Confederates pinned to those works,Brigadier-General John Hatch, from the Department of the South, to make a presence at the river.  Writing at 1 p.m. that afternoon, Sherman ordered:

Keep feeling at the Salkehatchie bridge and the ferry, and if the enemy lets go follow up as far as Edisto.  Let’s coop him in Charleston close.  Foster will demonstrate about Edisto Island.

A provisional division with Hatch thus formed a flank guard force and diversion for Howard’s Right Wing.  The other diversion mentioned was that on Edisto Island, performed by a three regiment brigade under Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter.  With Hatch in place and hopeful the Left Wing moved up smartly, the Right Wing was once again in position to force a river crossing, against limited opposition, in order to flank a Confederate defense.

Though the February 1 movement was not the first march into South Carolina by Sherman’s forces, it was the first significant march away from the coastal areas of the state.  As such, the Federals were bringing the war into places which had gone untouched prior to that time.  Furthermore the Federals were coming into contact with South Carolinians for whom the war had been a distant thing on the coast or at Charleston.  In regard to the civilian population, Major George Ward Nichols, one of Sherman’s staff officers, later recalled some interesting observations that day:

During the march to this point we have had opportunities of observing a barren agricultural region, and a population of “poor whites” whose brain is as arid as the land they occupy.  The wealthy landholders, who formerly held this region by sort of feudal tenure, have all run away on the approach of our troops, leaving a contingent remainder of ignorant, half-civilized people, whose ideas are limited, and whose knowledge of the English tongue is, to say the least, extremely imperfect.  A family of this class I found in full and undisputed possession of the mansion of an escaped magnate (I came near writing the word convict). The head of this family was a weak creature, with pale face, light eyes, and bleached beard. His wife, a woman of about thirty years, was bowed, crooked, and yellow.  She carried in her arms a dirty boy about three years old. A frightened young girl of thirteen, the woman’s stepdaughter, completed the number of the household. The man entered freely into conversation on the subject of the war.  He seemed to understand but little of the great principles which were at stake in the conflict, and, in point of fact, it is an open question whether he knew what a principle meant; yet even his dull intellect took in two points, namely, that the success of the Rebels would certainly establish the bondage of his own class to the aristocrats of the South, and that our own victories would secure freedom to the slaves.  The emancipation of the blacks, he thought, “would be a derned shame;” but he immediately added: “I don’t pretend to understand these questions; I don’t know much anyhow!” To this remark I mentally gave my hearty assent.

He continued: “The poor whites aren’t allowed to live here in South Carolina; the rich folks allus charges us with sellin’ things to the niggers; so they won’t let us own land, but drives us about from place to place.  I never owned a foot of land in all my life, and I was born and raised in this state. It was only a little while ago they cau’t a man a sellin’ to the nigs, so they tarred and feathered him, and put him into Georgia across Sister’s Ferry.  They hate the sight of us poor whites.”

“And yet,” said I, “you are the class that are now furnishing the rank and file of their armies. How absurd that is!” The man answered with a vacant, listless stare, and the remark, “It mought be so.”

Nichols was a journalist by trade, and the type to seek out a story.  He later built a reputation on making larger-than-life characters out of Wild Bill Hickok.  So take the recollection with a grain of salt.  Still, I’d submit the observation was not simply confabulation.  Similar experiences come from other participants in the march.

For South Carolina, the war had always been at the “front” in Charleston, from the opening shots.  Now the war was marching into the homes and villages of the state…

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 193-4; Part II, Serial 99, page 203; George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March from the Diary of a Staff Officer, New York: harper & Brothers Publishers, 1865, pages 132-3.)

January 14, 1865: Blair’s move on Pocotaligo forces a Confederate withdrawal

For Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, or Right Wing of Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies, the march through South Carolina started on the wrong foot on January 13-14, 1865.  Sherman’s plans called for both corps of the army – the Fifteenth and Seventeenth – to move by water to Port Royal Sound, with the Seventeenth taking the lead.  From there, the Right Wing would move up from the established Federal bases to move inland.  Sherman’s intent was to have the two wings drive into South Carolina from separate points, and thus spread the Confederates thin in their defense.


Within days of putting that plan to paper, Sherman made some small modifications.  One of which had the Right Wing moving to Beaufort, where port facilities were better, across Port Royal Island, and thence onto the mainland by way of Port Royal Ferry.   Keeping to the proposed start date for the offensive, the Seventeenth Corps, under Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr., began movement from the docks at Thunderbolt to Beaufort on January 4.

But that movement was slow due to the lack of suitable transport vessels.  Yet, on January 11, Howard issued orders for Seventeenth Corps to “make every preparation to cross the Whale Branch of Coosaw River at Port Royal Ferry at daylight on Friday morning, the 13th instant.”  Howard’s orders called for a pontoon bridge spanning to the mainland, from which the corps would build a bridgehead.  From that purchase, Blair would “push on and secure Pocotaligo.”  The Fifteenth Corps would follow as it arrived.

At that time, the troops of the Seventeenth Corps were on Port Royal Island.  But their trains, artillery, and horses were delayed in transit.  On January 12, Lieutenant-Colonel Greensbury L. Fort, Chief Quartermaster of the Fifteenth Corps, reporting the delays at Thunderbolt.  He counted a total of 103 wagons and 1,745 animals remaining from the Seventeenth Corps awaiting transport.

I am advised by officers of the Seventeenth Army Corps, now here, that at the average rate of shipment they will not all embark before to-morrow night or next day morning, after which we can commence on the transportation of the First Division of our corps….  Hardly any of these vessels but would carry a brigade of men after all transportation is on board.  The great trouble is to store the animals on these little boats.

Fort was sure he could get the First Division (Major-General Charles Woods) out on the 13th.  But the Second Division (Major-General William Hazen) could not move until the 15th at the earliest.

Due to the delays, Blair held the movements of his lead divisions – Third and Fourth Divisions under Brigadier-Generals Mortimer Leggett and Giles Smith, respectively – until the afternoon of January 13.  First Division, under Major-General Joseph Mower remained in camp until the bridgehead was established.  At the tactical level, Blair’s plan was for a small force under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis T. Kirby, Blair’s Chief Picket Officer, to cross Whale Branch on small boats that evening.  Once across, a portion of Leggett’s division would follow to secure a bridgehead.  If all went well, “The bridge will then be laid and the command crossed over and placed in camp until daylight… when the forward movement on Pocotaligo will be commenced.”


At the prescribed time, Kirby led the first boats to effect a landing.  Shortly after that, details from Third Division followed.  But the bridging would have to wait.

Whale Branch, unlike some of the inland rivers that the engineers crossed in Georgia, was a tidal feeder.  It featured a long flat on either bank.  Its channel was about 100 yards at low tide.  While a bit more difficult than a normal river crossing, still within the capabilities of the engineers.  However that task was made more difficult by the number of pontoon boats with rotted canvas.  While enough serviceable boats were on hand to make one span, Howard had to draw additional pontoons from Major-General John Foster’s command at Hilton Head.


Leggett’s command finally moved across Port Royal Ferry (Point A on the map above) at daylight, followed shortly after by Smith’s division and Mower’s.  According to Blair’s report, “The enemy, consisting of one regiment of cavalry and three pieces of artillery, was first encountered at a small stream about five miles from the ferry, in a strongly intrenched position.”  Colonel Charles Colcock commanded the Confederate cavalry, numbering only 150, contesting Blair’s advance.  Leggett easily outflanked Colcock’s first positions, just outside Garden’s Corners.  Then Colcock fell back the bridge over Horspa Creek (Point B on the map).  At 9:30 a.m., Colcock reported:

We have checked thus far skirmishing.  Now his advance has appeared in front of the bridge.  Take care of our rear and we will try to hold the position as long as the general wishes.

At other times during the war, a small force such as Colcock’s had stopped large forces attempting to move out of the narrow corridors through the marshes.  However, in this case Leggett had two roads to use and did not delay.  Sending one of his brigades on the Sheldon Road (Point C) towards Pocotaligo, Leggett had rendered Colcock’s position untenable.  Using his full force, he pressed the Confederates at all points.  At 3:15 p.m., Colcock reported:

The enemy having flanked me by the Sheldon road and driven in my cavalry there, I am falling back to Old Pocotaligo.  I could not hold the position at Stony Creek because the enemy were on the other road also.

Leggett’s skirmishers pursued Colcock right up to the works at Pocotaligo (Point D).  Blair summarized the closing actions on the 14th:

The skirmishers moved forward through an almost impassable swamp or flooded rice-field to within musket-range of his works.  About this time it became so dark that further movements were impossible.

These movements prompted a flurry of activity on the Confederate side.  At first, Major-General Lafayette McLaws, commanding the sector, called upon Major-General Joseph Wheeler to reinforce Colcock.  But later that evening, as the situation became clear, McLaws countermanded his earlier request.  “The enemy are immediately in front here at Pocotaligo.  I will try and withdraw to-night, the movement commencing from the right.”  This triggered the contingency plan laid out by Lieutenant-General William Hardee (and approved by no less than President Jefferson Davis himself) to fall back on the Combahee-Salkehatchie River line.

Though the Seventeenth Corps’ start was delayed by transportation problems and delays, as the sun sat on January 14 they were well into South Carolina.  The next phase of Sherman’s march was on.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 374-5; Part II, Serial 99, pages 35, 43, 48, 1011, and 1013.)