Sherman’s March, March 2, 1865: “To be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff”

During the first days of March, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman expressed some concern about Confederate concentrations in front of his force.  During the last days of February, Sherman’s columns were at a standstill as they dealt with flooded rivers. Orders to the Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, during that time were to wait until the Left Wing, particularly the Fourteenth Corps, caught up.  But the situation changed with the flip of the calendar page.  Reports, which were accurate reports, had a Confederate force under Lieutenant-General William Hardee in Cheraw.  Writing to Howard on March 1, 1865, Sherman dismissed any serious threat from those forces, but necessary objectives:

The enemy cannot hold Cheraw against us, because it is on a branch road and we can insulate it.  [General Joseph E.] Johnston, if there, will not fight with a bridge behind him.  We may have to cross the Peedee with a serious enemy in front, but we must not allow the Confederates time to fortify Cheraw.

So for March 2, Sherman wanted his columns to push on to Cheraw and thence over the PeeDee.

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The Fourteenth Corps, which perpetually seemed to be behind on the march through South Carolina, continued to catch up on the 1st.  In the lead that day, Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division reached Lynches River.  Morgan reported:

The roads to-day very heavy.  Long hard hills to pull up, but on the whole the roads were better than yesterday.  My command has made a first-rate march of twelve miles to-day.  Will cross the bridge with my command as soon as the road is completed and await further orders.

To this, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis replied that “no doubt you have made a good march to-day, but would have preferred you had pushed on for or five miles beyond the bridge.”  Davis ordered Morgan to be on the road again at daylight.   Screening the left of the Fourteenth Corps, the Cavalry Division made a modest march of only a dozen miles.

To the front of the Left Wing, the Twentieth Corps pressed on to Chesterfield and had one of its few engagements of the South Carolina march.  The troops had to look sharp, as Sherman himself accompanied them on the march that day.  Major-General Alpheus S. Williams had Brigadier-General Nathaniel Jackson’s First Division on point.  As the column neared Chesterfield, scouts reported Confederate cavalry on the road ahead.  Jackson deployed skirmishers from the 5th Connecticut and 141st New York, part of Brigadier-General James Selfridge’s Brigade.  “We drove the enemy, after exchanging many shots, and captured the town of Chesterfield without the loss of a man,”  recalled Selfridge.

The infantry followed up the cavalry to bridges over Thompson Creek beyond. Selfridge’s men kept effective fire on the bridges and prevented any attempt to destroy them.  The Confederates countered with artillery fire from the opposite side of the creek.  Escalating the action, Major John A. Reynolds, Twentieth Corps artillery chief, brought up a section of Battery I, First New York Artillery and Battery C, 1st Ohio Artillery.  The New Yorkers fired thirteen rounds.  The Buckeye artillerists added twelve solid shot and eight spherical case.  A first rate artillery duel, with the Federals gaining the upper hand before nightfall.

On the 2nd, Howard was increasingly anxious to move the Fifteenth Corps forward on the right side of the march. Though unavoidable, problems with the bridges over the Lynches River the day before had greatly delayed Major-General John Logan’s advance.  With repairs made overnight, the last of the Fifteenth Corps crossed Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges.   Thus a river crossing which had started on February 25 was finally complete – the longest delay in Sherman’s movements since leaving Savannah.

Three Divisions of Fifteenth Corps managed to reach Black Creek that evening.  A pontoon over that creek allowed lead elements to occupy New Market.  While Logan directed that traffic, Howard directed Major-General John Corse to move Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps forward to close the gap with Seventeenth Corps.  Receiving orders mid-morning, Corse broke camp at 1 p.m. and reported making six miles towards Cheraw that day.

Howard had Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps to hold position on the 2nd.  While not marching, Blair had two issues to deal with.  The first concerned the need to press forward and confusion between Sherman and Howard.  Late on March 1, Sherman addressed Blair directly:

The Twentieth Corps will be to-morrow night at or near Chesterfield. I want the Right Wing to move straight on Cheraw vigorously and secure if possible the bridge across PeeDee.  You need not suppose the enemy to be there in heavy force.  Big generals may be there but not a large force. At all events get across Thompson’s [Creek] on to-morrow and in Cheraw if possible. I will have men across the same stream about Chesterfield.  Communicate with me there to-morrow night.

Blair received this order around 10:00 a.m. on March 2.  But, “I was making preparation to move forward at once… when I received General Howard’s directions to wait,” Blair reported.  Not until late afternoon did Howard respond to clarify the orders.  “The general directs that in accordance with General Sherman’s instructions you move forward on Cheraw as early an hour as possible to-morrow morning.”  Not the time table that Sherman wanted, but the corps would move.

While waiting on the orders to be worked out, Blair dealt with another, more sensitive issue – that of retaliation for the execution of a forager.  Word came in the previous afternoon that a soldier from the 30th Illinois was found beaten to death.  The soldier was found at Blakeny’s Bridge, marked on the map above.  This was well to the rear of the Corps march, considering Blair’s instructions issued the previous day.  Satisfied from reports this was a murder of the manner described in Sherman’s message issued on February 23. Blair was thus compelled to issue, as the first paragraph for Special Orders No. 56, this response:

In accordance with instructions from the major-general commanding the army, directing that for each of our men murdered by the enemy a life of one of the prisoners in our hands should be taken, Mar. J.C. Marven, provost-marshal, Seventeenth Army Corps, will select from the prisoners in his charge one man and deliver him to Brig. Gen. M.F. Force, commanding Third Division, to be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff, Company H, Thirtieth Illinois Volunteers, a regularly detailed forager, who was beaten to death by the enemy near Blakney’s Bridge on or about the 1st day of March, 1865.

The prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps drew lots.  James Miller, a South Carolinian, drew the lot from among the prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps.

Miller’s execution is one of the most mentioned incidents of Sherman’s march through South Carolina.  Second only to the burning of Columbia, perhaps.  As such, that warrants a separate post with a look at some of the details.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 610 ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 628, 649, 650-1.)

Christmas Morning ambush at Legareville, Part 2

In part one of this set, I discussed the lead-up to the Christmas Day ambush on the Stono River, December 25, 1863.  With the guns in place, and the USS Marblehead in their sights, the Confederates planned to start the action at dawn.

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Shortly after 6 a.m. in the gathering light of Christmas morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Del Kemper opened the engagement with shots from Lieutenant Ralph Nesbit’s howitzers, in what I earlier identified as the Upper Battery (2) position.  The guns of the Lower Battery soon joined in.  But their fires were ineffective.  The range reported at the time was around 1,200 yards.  Nesbit reported starting with 8-second fuses then moving to 5-second fuses.  He claimed to have hit the Marblehead on several occasions, but without effect.  Confederate observers at the time contended the gunners failed to hit their target.

On the Marblehead, Lieutenant-Commander Richard W. Meade came on deck wearing his night clothes, ordering his men to respond.

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At the time the Confederates opened fire, the Marblehead had steam in one of two boilers.  However, with a falling tide, Meade ordered the anchor slipped so the gunboat could maneuver downstream.  While the ship turned, Meade – still in his robe – ordered his gunners to return fire on the Confederate batteries.  Despite the Confederate fire and casualties among the gun crew, Boatswain’s Mate William Farley, captain of the XI-inch pivot gun, got off the Marblehead‘s response.  Acting Ensign George F. Winslow rallied the ship’s crew to the to her guns.

Meade’s servant, Robert Blake, rushed on deck to offer his commander a coat and uniform more befitting the action.  But when he saw one of the crew struck down, Blake began running powder between the magazine and the guns.

One Confederate shell burst and threw fragments hitting landsman Charles Moore.  Though bleeding profusely, Moore resumed his duties until forced below to see the surgeon.  Yet, Moore slipped back on deck and again resumed his duties until growing faint from the loss of blood.

While the ship maneuvered, Quartermaster James Miller stepped up to the foredeck and cast the lead to determine the depth of the channel.  Miller sat at an exposed position, but was performing a task more vital as the gunners.  Had the Marblehead run aground at that time, the situation might have turned in favor of the Confederates.  However, with room to maneuver, the Marblehead closed the range to the Confederate batteries and began firing shell, grape and canister.

When the howitzers and field guns opened fire on the Marblehead, the remaining guns in the Upper Battery and those of Charles’ Battery opened on Legareville.  Colonel P.R. Page did not advance his infantry, and instead waited to see the gunboat disabled.  He intended to advance a couple of 12-pdr howitzers to induce the Federal detachment to surrender.  But with the Marblehead remaining in action, Page suspended all movements.

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Meanwhile, further downstream Commander George Balch brought the USS Pawnee into action.  By 6:35 a.m. that sloop was in position to fire across the marshes and enfilade the Confederate batteries.  By 7 a.m. Acting Master S.N. Freeman skippered the USS C.P. Williams, under sail, up the Stono to a position to engage.  The weight of this fire completely disrupted the Confederate gunners.  Kemper decided to withdraw just as the Williams opened fire.  Likewise, Page ordered a general withdrawal of the force.  Around 7:30 a.m., the Confederates ceased all firing.  The Federals likewise stopped shortly afterwards.

In the action, the Confederates suffered three killed and eight wounded.  They also had a dozen horses killed and lost five sets of harnesses.  This lost mobility forced Kemper to leave behind two 8-inch howitzers and an ammunition chest.  After withdrawing behind Abbapoola Creek, running north of Legareville, the Confederates setup a defensive position and waited for an opportunity to recover the lost material.  However, through the remainder of the morning, the C.P. Williams fired some twenty 13-inch mortar shells in that direction to keep the Confederates at bay.

Assessing the failure, Page cited the poor gunnery and execution by the siege howitzers.  Defending his men, Kemper countered that the howitzers were ill-suited for work at the range the Marblehead was engaged. He also voiced concern the infantry never advanced, and his guns thus received all the Federal attention.  General P.G.T. Beauregard took into account both accounts within his endorsement of reports:

The failure to destroy or drive away the Marblehead is due to the inefficiency of the artillery through bad ammunition, fuzes, and primers, and bad service of the guns.  The 8-inch howitzers, objected to by Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper, were intended to be employed in case the enemy’s gunboats took position to throw grape and to shoot our gunners with Enfield rifles.

Yes, those 30-pdr Parrotts were supposed to fire upon the gunboat, supported by the howitzers.  Not the other way around.  Beauregard went on to say the enfilading fire from the Pawnee should not have had a great effect on the Confederate gunners.

Unknown to the Confederates at the time, their gunners had fired with some degree of accuracy.  The Marblehead recorded 30 hits. “We have one 30-pounder shell which lodged in the steerage and did not explode….”  Meade recorded two other unexploded shells lodged in the ship.  Overall Meade reported extensive, but largely superficial, damage. The Marblehead suffered three killed and four wounded.

Charleston 4 May 10 264
Stono River, near the site of the engagement, in 2010

Closing his report of the action, Meade lauded the behavior of Winslow, Farley, Miller, and Blake – going as far to recommend Farley for the Medal of Honor. Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren responded:

It is not in my power to promote Acting Ensign Winslow… but if you consider Farley and Miller suitable for appointments as master’s mates, I will transmit them.  Blake may be rated as seaman.

Dahlgren would go on to recommend to the Department of the Navy that Winslow and Acting Ensign George Harriman be promoted to acting masters for their conduct.   Eventually, Farley, Miller, Blake, and Moore (who was not mentioned in Meade’s recommendations) received the Medal of Honor for their actions on Christmas Day 1863.

(Sources:  Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 100-102; Walter F. Beyer, Volume 2 of Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Detroit: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1902, pages 50-52; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 747-50; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 188-209.)