There is no “curse of Confederate gold”… because there is no Confederate gold!

Back in 2018, the History [Channel] debuted a series titled “The Curse of Civil War Gold,” billed as a reality show following investigators on the trail of lost Confederate gold. (Why it is not titled “Curse of Confederate Gold” would be a good study in how our contemporary discussions have altered the framing of the past… but that’s grist for some other writer to grind.) The premise of this chase is one oft repeated in fiction… and unfortunately far too often by treasure hunters.

Basically, the show contends at the end of the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled Richmond with the “vast” holdings of the Confederate treasury. After managing to hustle this pile of gold and silver down through the Carolinas, Davis and his treasure were captured near Irwinville, Georgia. But, the show contends, instead of turning this valuable cargo over to Federal authorities, the officers and men who captured Davis proceeded to secret all away to Michigan in a caper matching the fictional Kelly’s Heroes. Then somehow our heroes managed to lose this all when a boxcar full of the loot slipped off into Lake Michigan on one of those proverbial “dark and stormy nights.”

The History web page summarizes this story in more detail. Suffice to say, like so much that appears on History now days, it is more entertainment than actual history. I’ll forgo a line by line debunking of the premise. Years ago, when the “players” involved with this version of the story came to the fore, my friend Eric Whittenburg laid out many of the faults of the premise (here and here). In particular, Eric discussed the role of Colonel Robert H. G. Minty in the Confederate gold story, at length. The “smoking gun” that puts away Minty’s alleged involvement is the fact, as Eric and historian Rand Bitter point out, that the former cavalry commander experienced a great deal of financial difficulty after the war. One might think if Minty had pocketed some of Jeff Davis’ gold, fortunes would have been different.

Back in 2008, Hans Kuenzi wrote an excellent article for the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable on the story of lost Confederate gold. The article is a good starting point, with a summary of the facts pertaining to the Confederate treasury and the end of the war. Kuenzi casts full light on a lot of alleged shadowy circumstances regarding the gold and other riches claimed to be “out there” for the finding. His summary is there is nothing “lost” per say, but just an interesting story about the accounting for the treasury as the Confederacy met its end.

However, if you have watched any of the show, you know there are many open ended speculations that allow the proponents to keep the dream alive. The problem is speculations distract from the facts. And here is one key fact, which I think the TV show conveniently overlooks, that kills the myth:

HDQRS. CAVALRY CORPS, MIL. DIV. OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
Macon, Ga., June 4, 1865.
Hon. E. M. STANTON,
Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:
Your dispatch of June 3 is received. I have already had this country from Florida to Charlotte, N. C., searched for the thirteen millions of treasure previously reported by General Halleck and other fabulous amounts reported by various parties. I am convinced from all the information I can gather that the entire amount of gold and silver with which Davis left Richmond did not exceed one million and a half; that the most of this was paid to his officers and men between Charlotte and Washington, Ga., and the balance scattered amongst people who were regarded trustworthy. Of this, $6,000 was delivered to one of my officers by Robert Toombs. I suspect the remainder was stolen from the people’s homes by disbanded rebel cavalry, assisted by our own men. Every house where rebels have been in Georgia has been searched. It is also reported that the small sums in the possession of Davis’ party were pillaged by the captors. I will send to Irwin County to ascertain if they overlooked any, and will set a watch for the colored man Jones.
J. H. WILSON,
Brevet Major-General.

Official Records, Series I, Volume XLIX, Part 2, Serial 104, page 955

Consider the correspondent and the recipient of this dispatch. Major-General James Wilson commanded the Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi, which at the end of the war conducted a massive raid through Alabama and Georgia to finish off what Sherman had started. As result of being the senior military officer in the sector, Wilson was the “man on the spot” to deal with Jefferson Davis. So we must treat this as a bona fide report from the field. Stanton, of course, was the Secretary of War at the time. In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton exercised more influence on the military situation than any other civilian.

Those endpoints defined, this sort of correspondence (from a senior officer in the field directly to the Secretary of War) was commonplace during the Civil War. In this particular case, Wilson is responding directly to inquiries and requests from the Secretary’s office. If handled as similar correspondence during the war, and we have no evidence it was not, the messages past through normal military channels – meaning everyone in the chain of command at least knew the correspondence was taking place, if not completely informed of the content.

The preface of the dispatch, citing Stanton’s message of June 3 indicates not only was the inquiry sent by telegraph, but the response was also sent that way. Very likely, as standard practice by late war, the message was encrypted by cypher when sent. Furthermore the telegraph operators were trusted men employed by the War Department, and “cleared” as we would call it today. Thus we might consider this equal of a classified dispatch in the 20th century sense… or classified email in the 21st century parlance.

What that means is this dispatch is not some under-cover or covert communication. Nor was it some prop in a cover-up to distract from a caper pulled off in the waning days of the Civil War. It is an official report, through official channels, within view of all those who needed to know about the situation. Nor was there any secret or covert message system which would be used in lieu of this official system.

Furthermore, consider the provenance of this dispatch, historically speaking. It was, after the war was deemed at an end, filed just like thousands (hundreds of thousands if not millions) of dispatches and reports from the war. Then near the end of the 19th century, a team of appointed men went through those papers with instructions to compile them into what we know as “The Official Records.” In short, this dispatch was seen, by men who’s business was to know, as military correspondence worth preserving as part of the record of events. Basically, an artifact. Er… A FACT!

The next layer of this context is the time at which the dispatch was written. June 4, 1865. Just over two months from Davis’ flight, with gold in tow, from Richmond. Less than two months since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In the weeks since those climatic events in Virginia, Lincoln fell to an assassin’s bullet, Johnston surrendered in North Carolina, and Davis himself captured in Georgia. By the first of June, all major Confederate military forces were non-existent. What remained was the job of cleaning up the aftermath, ensuring a transition from war to peace. And with that existed a strong desire to tie up any and all loose ends. After all, Congress was now reluctant to keep military funding at wartime levels… time to close the books. So we can read into Stanton’s inquiry and Wilson’s response the need to “settle up” all activities associated with suppressing the Confederacy.

That framing set, what did Wilson tell Stanton… and us today?

First, there were wild claims of fantastic amounts of money up for grabs as the Confederacy collapsed. Wilson, at the point of contact of these claims, debunks them with authority. “I am convinced from all the information I can gather that the entire amount of gold and silver with which Davis left Richmond did not exceed one million and a half …”

Second, Wilson gave us two numbers to work with here. Citing Major-General Henry Halleck, an officer known to be excitable in the moment, there’s a claim of $13 million. Then there’s Wilson’s assessment of $1.5 million. A lot of variance. But maybe BOTH are accurate. Hear me out here. Neither number is identified as US dollars or Confederate dollars. During the winter months of 1865, inflation crippled the Confederate economy. Reports out of Richmond had one US dollar of gold selling for between $66 and $107 Confederate dollars. So if Halleck were citing reports documenting the value in Confederate dollars, depending on the moment in time and exchange rate, $13 million in Confederate might translate to $1.5 million in US.

And that exchange rate must be factored into not only the military reports, but also in the claims, myths, and legends that followed the war. Most authoritative accounts of the Confederate treasury’s demise indicate just over $1 million (in US dollars) left Richmond with Davis. And of that, around half was “secured” (being kind… “seized” might be more accurate) from the Richmond banks. Thus the actual Confederate treasury holdings were likely valued around $500,000 to $600,000, again in US dollars, as it departed Richmond. Subtract from that sums paid out to Confederate troops at Danville and other points as the Confederate government fled, and the sum drops to around $150,000 or so. Do the math on the exchange rate, and suddenly the same paltry pile is $10 million or more Confederate dollars!

Third, we have Wilson’s assertion that most of the Confederate treasury had been dispersed to pay off the men providing that last fleeting bit of security for the Confederate government. What remained, Davis (and the cabinet) had assigned to trusted officials for safe keeping. He even named a name – Robert Toombs – with $6,000. (Not to belabor a point, but that sum would be over half a million Confederate dollars!) Thus instead of a neat ledger and precise accounting, Wilson could only point generally to how the Confederate treasury faded away.

But there is no doubt that in the process of paying its way from Virginia to Georgia the Confederate treasury diminished to a very small quantity in short order. The sad part, as Wilson pointed out in the dispatch, is that much of that money, paid out to cover costs as the Confederate officials fled, was later stolen by ex-Confederates in the aftermath of war, or by his own (Federal) soldiers sent out to search homes for traces of this Confederate money. Still, none of it reaches up to the totals that would fill a railroad box car (as is claimed by proponents of this myth).

Fourth, Wilson gave what is perhaps the “kernel of truth” that is used by the speculations, saying, “It is also reported that the small sums in the possession of Davis’ party were pillaged by the captors.” In that sentence, some harbor the notion that indeed Minty’s men got their hands on millions of dollars of gold. But Wilson clearly states “small sums” only. I submit that if he put a dollar figure to that obtained from Toombs, the value from Davis’ party must have been even less. Otherwise, the ever vigilant Wilson would have called it out. Just the change in Jeff Davis’ pocket.

Lastly, Wilson acknowledged instructions to look out for a “colored man James.” Sounds mysterious and possibly leading to a cache of gold, right? Not really. Again, context is important. Wilson is replying here indirectly to an earlier report referenced by Stanton, making rounds separately (see OR, Series I, Volume XLVII, Part 3, Serial 100, page 617). Halleck had, warned to be looking for “a colored servant of Jeff. Davis, named James Jones….” Specifically, this person was purported to be sent back to obtain “two bags of money concealed near the place where Davis was captured.” And that’s why Wilson sent troops back to the Irwinville area. Two bags? Again, a far cry short of a railroad car load. And not something necessitating a grand conspiracy to conceal after the war.

So we have, as of June 3, an official report that indicates the Confederate treasury had ceased to exist. It was scattered about, in small quantities, having been spent or dispersed. Jeff Davis himself didn’t have enough on hand to be called a treasure. If I may, it was “Gone with the Wind.”

We must again go back to the context of the closing months of the Civil War. The most accurate figures we have on the Confederate finances indicate from February 1861 through October 1864 (after which records become spotty), the Confederacy spent around $2.1 billion. Balanced against that was a revenue intake, in the same period, of $2.3 billion. But, as these things are apt to require, the real story is in the numbers behind the numbers. Revenues peaked in 1863, then fell off into 1864. Yet expenditures increased for every monthly period through the war. By the last year of the war, the Confederacy was spending more on debt servicing than it was on its army. From April 1, 1864 to October 1, 1864, $246 million went to the Confederate War Department, compared to $342.5 million on debt servicing. Basically, that sucking sound you’d have heard around Richmond was all the money leaving the Confederacy. What was left in the Confederate treasury in April 1865 wasn’t much… and what was there was being mortgaged to pay for a mountain of debt!

So you see, if we go to the “court of history” and put the “lost Confederate gold” on trial, Wilson’s dispatch becomes an important piece of evidence. The five points I’ve drawn from that dispatch must be assailed by anyone making this particular case for lost gold. Otherwise, claims have no basis in fact.

The problem I have with shows like “The Curse of Lost Civil War Gold” is that it takes on the patina of historical discussion while not actually promoting or presenting historical methods. At best, the show has opened up a discussion featuring relatively overlooked Civil War figures like Minty. Such is a small step in broadening the understanding of the war. But even then, I suspect just as “Killer Angels” launched forth hundreds in search of Buster Kilrain’s grave at Gettysburg, likewise we’ll see those on the trail of Minty’s mint!

The more likely, and more dangerous, reality is that “The Curse of Lost Civil War Gold” represents a corruption of history. Instead of good sound historical method, we have a premise that suggest we dismiss “what historians have long held” to be replaced with suppositions. We are being told to assume broad, vast conspiracies have shaped the past and gone unknown to our understanding of history. It purports that dark, sinister and maniacal forces have hidden history from us. If history is presented as human experience to be learned from, then the experience offered by this quest for lost gold is that we should, without just reason, reject everything solid and factual for fanciful versions of reality. Such is damaging not only to our understanding of history, but also to our comprehension of current events. And that, I submit, is the true nature of any “curse” from this alleged lost Civil War gold.

If you ask me, the most important treasure left at the fall of the Confederacy was secured in 1865. It wasn’t gold or silver. It wasn’t even paper money. It was a collection of records, remanded to the charge of General Samuel Cooper in Charlotte, North Carolina in April 1865. Ten tons of documents and records of the Confederacy. Without which so much more of the history of the Confederacy, and thus the Civil War as a whole, would be speculative. It’s that treasure from which we learn enough to know there is no lost Confederate gold.

Sherman’s March, May 24, 1865: The Grand Review and the end of the Great March

At 9 a.m., 150 years ago this morning, a signal gun and triggered the procession of Major-General William T. Sherman’s command on their Grand Review in front of cheering crowds in Washington D.C.

Sherman and Major-General Oliver O. Howard lead the procession with their staffs.  Behind them came Major-General John Logan and the Fifteenth Corps.

Behind them, Major-General Frank Blair and the Seventeenth Corps.

After the Right Wing passed, Major-General Henry Slocum lead the Left Wing on review:

The Twentieth Corps, led by Major-General Joseph Mower, came next in the line.

As I like to mention, the Twentieth Corps had its roots in the east – formed of the Army of the Potomac’s Eleventh and Twelfth Corps.  As such it provided the link between the Armies of the Tennessee and the Potomac.

The next formation in the review also offered a link – however to an army not present on parade that day. Major-General (a brevet that was soon to be disallowed) Jefferson C. Davis led the Fourteenth Corps.   And, you should know that the Fourteenth Corps had its roots as the Army of the Cumberland.

I’ve always felt their presence was somewhat representative of that “other” great Federal army of the western theater.

You may want to click over to Seven Score and Ten, Civil War Daily Gazette, and General Sherman’s Blog for more on the Grand Review’s second day.

For the photos above, I’ve relied upon the Library of Congress captions to identify the units.  As we well know, those captions have their errors.  So please take the identification with a grain of salt.  If the captions are correct, the troops of the Twentieth Corps received a good bit of attention from the photographers:

Remarkable that all four of the corps which conducted the Great March were photographed on this day 150 years ago.  We have scant few photographs from the Great March (Altanta to Savannah to Columbia to Goldsboro to Raleigh to Washington).  Aside from a number of photos taken at Fort McAllister in December 1864, the majority of the photos of the Great March come on the last day of the movement.

And just as the Great March’s conclusion was captured in photos, the veterans cemented the memory of the Grand Review in their minds and … even 150 years later … in the public’s mind.  This shaped our impression of the event to the point it becomes the “victory parade” after which similar festivities are modeled to celebrate the end of more recent wars.  Keeping with that notion, allow me to close with the somewhat definitive “lore” of the Great March by George W. Nichols:

On the 24th of May, Sherman’s Army passed in review before the President of the United States in Washington.  It was the last act in the rapid and wonderful Drama of the four gallant corps. With banners proudly flying, ranks in close and magnificent array, under the eye of their beloved Chief, and amid the thundering plaudits of countless thousands of enthusiastic spectators, the noble army of seventy thousand veterans paid their marching salute to the President of the Nation they had helped to preserve in its integrity – and then broke ranks, and set their faces toward Home.  This was the farewell of Sherman’s Army! So, too, ends the Story of the Great March.

(Citation from George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March from the Diary of a Staff Officer, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1865, page 322.)

Sherman’s March, May 14-17, 1865: Passing through old battlefields and crossing the Rappahannock

The last important river barrier for the armies of Major-General William T. Sherman in their march to Alexandria, Virgina was the Rappahannock River.  To gain crossing, the armies would cross through Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties, with one column traversing Orange and Culpeper Counties.  That area of Virginia was the stage for so much of the war in the east, with numerous battles fought.  For some members of Sherman’s command, this was a return to fields contested just a couple years earlier.  For most, however, this was a chance for the “Westerners” to see where the “Easterners” had fought.

The four corps fanned out in their march north, each taking a separate line for the most part:

VAMarch_May14_17

The Right Wing used the direct route to Fredericksburg.  The Fifteenth Corps remained east of the Richmond & Potomac Railroad, generally using the Stage Road (the officers in Sherman’s command referred to this as the “Fredericksburg Road”).  Meanwhile, the Seventeenth Corps marched on the west side using the Telegraph Road.  Major-General Mortimer Leggett was in temporary command of the Seventeenth Corps, with Major-General Frank Blair at the time in Washington. Of these administrative marches, the commanders filed mundane reports of movement.  Typical was that of Major-General William B. Hazen, commanding Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, for May 16, 1865:

I have the honor to report that this division broke camp at 7 a.m., moving in the center of the column, the First Division being in advance and the Fourth Division in the rear, and went into camp about five miles from Fredericksburg at 4:30 p.m., having made a distance of twenty-two miles.

Yes, somewhat more distance than Sherman had preferred.  But the march was made over terrain familiar to military movements and where roads were well prepared.  While Hazen camped outside Fredericksburg that evening, Major-General Charles Woods’ First Division held a camp on the north bank of the Rappahannock River.   I believe the camp location used by Woods’ men was in proximity to the “Slaughter Pen” of the December 1862 battlefield.  But the records I have defy exact positioning.

The following day, Major-General John Logan officially assumed command of the Right Wing.  The Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps crossed the Rappahannock using a pontoon bridge left by the Army of the Potomac at Franklin’s Crossing… yet another place name harkening back three years.  But only wagon traffic delayed the progress of the men as the Army of the Tennessee bounded the Rappahannock with relative ease, compared to crossings by Federal forces earlier in the war.

The Left Wing had a wider line of march.  To avoid congesting the roads through the Wilderness, the Fourteenth Corps took a route through Orange County to Raccoon Ford and thence into Culpeper County.  This route took the Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, through one of the most heavily contested areas of the Civil War.  But the soldiers were not sight-seeing.  For them, a camp outside Stevensburg on May 15 was just one of over a hundred camps they made during the long war.   But it was the last made during the war in Culpeper County…  which had also seen hundreds of such camps.

The following morning, the troops marched north to Kelly’s Ford to cross the Rappahannock.  Again, lost on the soldiers on the march was the significance of that point on the map.  Armies had fought over and crossed that ford repeatedly over the four previous years.  The Fourteenth Corps was the last military command to splash through.  Just another river crossing for the soldiers, but a significant mark in the passing of the war.  The corps continued its march through places named Bristoe Station, Manassas Junction, Centreville, and Fairfax Court-house.  All of which were simply waymarks of the march home for these men.

Either by design or by serendipity, the men of the Twentieth Corps – formerly the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps – marched through Spotsylvania.  Major-General Alpheus Williams, commanding First Division, Twentieth Corps, recorded the progress:

May 14, the division having the advance marched, the same hour as yesterday, crossed the North Anna on pontoon bridge, and took a circuitous route toward Spotsylvania Court-House.  The Mat, Ta, and Po, and several other smaller creeks were crossed during the day’s march; encamped south of Spotsylvania Court-House after a march of sixteen miles.  Many officers and men embraced the opportunity to visit the famous battle-fields in this vicinity.

Yes, the Twentieth Corps’ men had reason, by connection, to be sight-seeing.  The next day’s march traversed Chancellorsville. Williams, who’d commanded a division of Twelfth Corps during the fighting there in May 1863, noted more “sight-seeing.”

May 15, the division moved out at 5 a.m. toward Chancellorsville.  The route was a portion of the section known as the Wilderness.  At Chancellorsville the division was halted for three hours upon the battle-ground to enable the officers and men of the division to visit the scenes of that memorable contest in which most of the regiments took part.  The division encamped for the night at United States Ford; marched fifteen miles.

Sherman himself traveled over to visit the Twentieth Corps that day, with Major-General Henry Slocum providing some orientation.

The next day, the Twentieth Corps crossed the Rappahannock at United States Ford… in different circumstances from the last time those men had crossed at that point.  The remainder of the march toward Alexandria took the Twentieth Corps through places such as Hartwood Church, Brentsville, and Fairfax Station. In more ways than one, the Twentieth Corps was going home.

On May 19 the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia reached their designated camps outside Alexandria.  There, near the banks of the Potomac, the Great March which had started in Atlanta came to its last pause.  The last short march required of these soldiers was a Grand Review in the nation’s capital – a formal closure to the march… and the war.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 605; Part III, Serial 100, page 509.)

May 8, 1865: “I… march with my troops, and prefer we should not meet” No love lost between Sherman and Halleck

As the Armies of the Military Division of the Mississippi (the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia) neared Richmond in May 1865, they were ordered into camps at Manchester, south of the James River.  The ultimate destination for these troops was Alexandria, Virginia.  And to reach that point, the troops would need to cross the James River at some point.  Richmond was the best place to accomplish that.

The Army of the Potomac was itself just leaving Richmond, also on their way north to Alexandria.  The commander of the Military Division of the James, Major-General Henry Halleck, had kept the Army of the Potomac on a tight leash during their passing.  The last thing Halleck wanted was some uncontrolled mob running loose in Richmond.  So soldiers were restricted to camps, unless issued passes.  And when the Army of the Potomac moved, it did so along defined routes.

On May 8, 1865, Halleck had issued similar instructions to the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia.  But as Major-General William T. Sherman was somewhat a peer, based on the level of command, Halleck offered a personal invite:

General Slocum’s army will leave Richmond on the morning of the 10th and General Howard’s will soon follow.  Can’t you meet them as they pass through?

Then later:

When you arrive here come directly to my headquarters. I have a room for you, and will have rooms elsewhere for your staff.

But Sherman was not having any of this.  He was, to say the least, holding a grudge against Halleck for the events which transpired in April:

After your dispatch to the Secretary of War of April 26 I cannot have any friendly intercourse with you.  I will come to City Point to-morrow and march with my troops, and prefer we should not meet.

No love lost there.

Sherman played things cool, and strictly by the book.  He inquired to Lieutenant-General Grant on the next day in regards to changes of his command, and specifically about orders for the march to Alexandria.   Sherman was looking for that official piece of paper so as to have in hand when dealing with Halleck.  Sort of a “I’ve got my orders, so please leave me and my men alone” sort of stance.  In the meantime, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis had planned to review the Fourteenth Corps in Richmond as part of the move north.  This put Sherman in a bit of a bind, as that could escalate things with Halleck.  So he called that review off.  Writing to Halleck on May 9, from Manchester:

I have the honor to report my arrival and that I have assumed immediate command of this army and await General Grant’s orders. If you have any general orders, relating to the march of the armies northward, I will be obliged for a copy.  The review ordered by Major-General Davis in Richmond will not take place.

So Halleck responded with a strict “facts only” message, relating that no orders from Grant had arrived, but instructions were to move Sherman’s forces (with or without him) through Richmond as soon as resupply had been completed.  Nothing but dry conversation, without frivolous cordiality. In a later message (sent on May 9, or at least early on May 10), Halleck attempted to break the ice:

You have not had during this war nor have you now a warmer friend and admirer than myself. If in carrying out what I knew to be the wishes of the War Department in regard to your armistice I used language which has given you offense it was unintentional, and I deeply regret it. If fully aware of the circumstances under which I acted I am certain you would not attribute to me any improper motives. It is my wish to continue to regard and receive you as a personal friend. With this statement I leave the matter in your hands.

Well… with that, Sherman had enough.  So he responded in kind… and then some:

I received your cipher dispatch last evening, and have revolved it in my mind all night in connection with that telegraphic message of April 26 to Secretary Stanton, and by him rushed with such indecent haste before an excited public. I cannot possibly reconcile the friendly expressions of the former with the deadly malignity of the latter, and cannot consent to the renewal of a friendship I had prized so highly till I can see deeper into the diabolical plot than I now do. When you advised me of the assassin Clark being on my track I little dreamed he would turn up in the direction and guise he did, but thank God I have become so blasé to the dangers to life and reputation by the many vicissitudes of this cruel war, which some people are resolved shall never be over, that nothing surprises me. I will march my army through Richmond quietly and in good order, without attracting attention, and I beg you to keep slightly perdu, for if noticed by some of my old command I cannot undertake to maintain a model behavior, for their feelings have become aroused by what the world adjudges an insult to at least an honest commander. If loss of life or violence result from this you must attribute it to the true cause–a public insult to a brother officer when he was far away on public service, perfectly innocent of the malignant purpose and design.

Sherman was acting somewhat in a bubble.  He sensed insult and slight from many quarters.  And his reaction to Halleck was, while disturbing, somewhat understandable in that light.  Fortunately this affair did not cause any serious change in the marches or other inconvenience upon the troops.  The generals kept this between them.  Although, Halleck did, on the same day, withdraw his support for Major-General John Schofield in regard to the post of military governor of North Carolina.  In his statement to the War Department, Halleck cited Schofield’s involvement with Sherman’s surrender talks with General Joseph Johnston.  Clearly Halleck was linking Sherman’s subordinates to Sherman’s actions.

The bullets were no longer flying. But the verbal war had not ceased. Now among the leaders of the Federal Armies, “honor” was deemed more precious than all else.  Nobody wanted a tarnish, left over from the last days of the war, following them into the peace.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 435, 446, and 454-5.)

 

Sherman’s March, April 12, 1865: “A little more labor, a little more toil on our part, the great race is won”

On April 12, 1865, a telegram from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant arrived to inform Major-General William T. Sherman about General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Sherman congratulated Grant and added, “The terms you have given Lee are magnanimous and liberal.  Should Johnston follow Lee’s example I shall of course grant the same.”

As Sherman’s army group advanced on Raleigh, North Carolina, that city was not his primary objective.  It was a waypoint to be met, for sure.  But his real objective was General Joseph E. Johnston’s army.  Sherman wanted to corner Johnston, much as had been done to Lee three days earlier.  Sherman stressed that objective in instructions to Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick, sent late-night on April 11. After warning Kilpatrick to use standard map references (for location reporting), Sherman went on to describe the location of Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton’s force:

I don’t think Hampton has 2,000 cavalry with him, and this is your chance. I will push all the column straight on Raleigh. I don’t care about Raleigh now, but want to defeat and destroy the Confederate army; therefore you may run any risk. Of course, don’t break the railroad except to the rear (west) of Johnston, as we want the rails up to Raleigh. General Wilson has taken Selma and is threatening Montgomery. He has whipped Red Jackson twenty-seven miles from Selma, and at Selma knocked Forrest all to pieces. Rebel papers report Forrest wounded in three places; Abe Buford to defend Montgomery with citizens; Dick Taylor ran westward from Selma; many cooped up in Mobile.

All of this designed to prod the cavalry commander to bold action!

Sherman’s plan for April 12 was to advance the Left Wing, Major-General Henry Slocum, on the direct roads to Raleigh.  The Right Wing, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, would advance on the east side of the Neuse River but prepare crossing points to flank any Confederate position.  And the Center Wing, Major-General John Schofield, would actually advance to the left and behind the Left Wing, prepared to flank any opposition.  Kilpatrick was instructed to fall upon the retreating Confederates and disrupt their withdrawal.  A very typical marching arrangement for Sherman, matching patterns seen from Georgia all the way to North Carolina.

NCMarch_Apr12

To make this advance possible, five of Sherman’s corps had to cross the Neuse River.  Only the Tenth Corps and the Cavalry Division, on the far left, were over that watercourse.  One more river to cross.

The Left Wing had two pontoon bridges across at Smithfield by morning.  Major-General Joseph Mower advanced the Twentieth Corps on the lower bridge, while Major-General Jefferson C. Davis crossed the Fourteenth Corps on the upper bridge.  The Left Wing met only fleeting rear guards during the advance of the day.   Sherman accompanied the Twentieth Corps to setup headquarters at Gully’s Store.

The Right Wing had more trouble with maps than Confederates on April 12.  Scouting the lead of the advance, the 29th Missouri (Mounted) Infantry reached Battle’s Bridge. Colonel Joseph Gage reported the bridge there destroyed but, “The river at that point is about thirty yards wide,” and the roads were good for the advance.  The problem for the advance lay in an inaccuracy of the Federal maps.  Howard reported to Sherman around mid-day, “The roads are different from map. Watson’s Mill is at Pineville, and General Logan reports but one road from Folk’s Bridge across.” To ease the congestion of two corps passing through Pinveville, Major-General John Logan doubled up the Fifteenth Corps and chose a fork of the road to the right.  Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps would manage with side roads where possible.

The Twenty-third Corps of the Center Wing advanced to Turner’s Bridge on April 12.  The march was more administrative than tactical.  On the far side, the Tenth Corps reported encountering some Confederate cavalry, but otherwise the advance was conducted at an easy pace.  The Center Wing then reformed south of, and to the rear of, the Left Wing.

Perhaps the most interesting note of the day from the Center Wing was a circular issued by Major-General Jacob Cox, Twenty-third Corps:

Since we left Goldsborough there has been a constant succession of house burning in rear of this command. This has never before been the case since the corps was organized, and the prospect of speedy peace makes this more than ever reprehensible. Division commanders will take the most vigorous measures to put a stop to these outrages, whether committed by men of this command or by stragglers from other corps. Any one found firing a dwelling-house, or any building in close proximity to one, should be summarily shot. A sentinel may be left by the advance division at each inhabited house along the road, to be relieved in succession from the other divisions as they come up, those left by the rear division reporting to the train guard and rejoining after the next halt.

To the left of the Federal advance, Kilpatrick’s cavalry swept forward, but not quite as Sherman desired.  Kilpatrick reported,

I have had some hard fighting t0-day, from Swift Creek to this point on the railroad, six miles from Raleigh. I have intercepted Hampton and am now driving him in toward the river.  I hope to either capture or force him across the river.

Kilpatrick noted the Confederate force was in full retreat.  He asked permission to advance into Raleigh, but “I can do no better than drive directly in his rear as he marches nearly as fast as I do.”  Sherman would give Kilpatrick permission to press into Raleigh, but preferred Johnston “go toward Greensborough” and thus asked Kilpatrick to “cut across the rear of his column, right and left.”  The potential of the situation seemed to elude Kilpatrick.  At the same time, reports from the Confederate cavalry do not indicate any great “pressing” as Kilpatrick described.

Instead, the main worry of Hampton’s was the passage of a delegation from the North Carolina Governor, Zebulon Vance.  Early in the day, Vance informed Lieutenant-General William Hardee that he planned to send emissaries to Sherman proposing a suspension of hostilities.  Vance was playing with several loose ends. While proposing a truce “touching the final termination of the existing war,” to the Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, Vance assured his intentions were note “to do anything subversive.”

Vance’s delegation went by train out of Raleigh that afternoon.  It was first intercepted by Hampton’s cavalry.  And then overtaken by Kilpatrick’s cavalry.  From there, the train rolled on to Sherman’s headquarters.  Sherman’s conversation with the delegation ran late into the evening, and he detained them overnight.  They would depart the next morning, under flag of truce, to Raleigh with Sherman’s counter-proposal.

Vance’s aim in all this was to preserve the safety of Raleigh, lest it be treated as Milledgeville or Columbia.  But his efforts were largely overtaken by events.  As the Confederates withdrew, looting and lawlessness broke out in the city.  The number of provost troops detailed were insufficient.  Vance himself fled west, leaving the state capitol to be ransacked.  So Sherman’s response to him arrived the next morning to find no recipient.

In the Federal camps that evening, Special Field Orders No. 54 was read.  This was the official announcement of Lee’s surrender on April 9th.  Sherman closed that with encouragement to his troops, “A little more labor, a little more toil on our part, the great race is won, and our Government stands regenerated after four long years of bloody war.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page …; Part III, Serial 100, pages 172, 178, 180, 183, 186-7, 188-9, 792.)

Sherman’s March, April 11, 1865: “I will push Joe Johnston to the death”; Sherman advances on Smithfield

In the second week of April, 1865, for the third time in seven months Major-General William T. Sherman started his army group out of camp into a marching campaign.  The movement out from the Goldsboro, North Carolina area differed somewhat from that of the movements out of Atlanta and Savannah.  This time, instead of aiming for a point on the map, the soldiers were marching directly against a Confederate foe.  The aim of the next leg of Sherman’s March was General Joseph E. Johnston’s force… the last major Confederate field formation east of Alabama.

The order of movement evolved somewhat between April 5 and the time of execution.  When Special Field Orders No. 48 was issued on April 5, few details of the victory at Petersburg and the fall of Richmond were in Sherman’s hands.  So the objective of movement at that time was described as “to place this army with its full equipment north of Roanoke River, facing west, with a base for supplies at Norfolk, and at Winton or Murfreesborough on the Chorwan, and in full communication with the Army of the Potomac….”  The scheme of maneuver had the armies advancing to skirt around Raleigh and march almost due north to concentrate around Warrenton, North Carolina.

NCMarch_APR10_origPlan

This arrangement was overtaken by the news from Virginia.

On April 7, Sherman refined the orders.  Instead of a general northward movement, the army wings would focus on Smithfield as the initial march objective, then Raleigh. The movement would be typical of those made by Sherman during the marches, and arranged to allow supporting columns to flank any opposition encountered:

The Left Wing, of Major-General Henry Slocum, had the center of the advance, and would march up the roads on the left bank of the Neuse River. Sherman asked Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing to move initially to Pikeville, then sweep west to support the Left Wing in front of Smithfield. The Center Wing, under Major-General John Schofield, would advance on the right bank of the Neuse River, through the old Bentonville battlefield, in position to make a flanking movement at Smithfield, if necessary.  Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavarly Division was to move on the left of Schofield, but reach out to the railroad behind Smithfield.  To Kilpatrick, Sherman added, “… you may act boldly and even rashly now, for this is the time to strike quick and strong.”

Above all, Sherman felt the need, as expressed to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on April 8, to keep the pressure on Johnston’s Confederates, knowing his superior was doing the same to Lee’s army:

I will follow Johnston, presuming that you are after Lee, or all that you have left to him, and if they come together we will also.  I think I will be at Raleigh on Thursday, the 13th, and shall pursue Johnston toward Greensborough unless it be manifest that he has gone toward Danville.  I shall encourage him to come to bay on or to move toward Danville, as I don’t want to race all the way back through South Carolina and Georgia.  It is to our interest to let Lee and Johnston come together, just as a billiard layer would nurse the balls when he has them in a nice place.

On the same day, in a message to Major-General Montgomery Meigs, Sherman added, “I will push Joe Johnston to the death.” Of course, Sherman’s assessment was again overtaken by events the next day.  But his objective, Johnston’s army, remained the same regardless of events on April 9 in Virginia.

Preliminary movements began on April 10, as depicted on the map below:

NCMarch_Apr10

The main effort of the first leg of this movement lay with the Left Wing.  All others oriented off Slocum’s advance on Smithfield.  Slocum placed the Twentieth Corps,by then commanded by Major-General Joseph Mower, with Major-General Alpheus S. Williams returning to command First Division in that corps, on the River Road.  The Fourteenth Corps advanced on a road near the North Carolina Railroad.

Mower met some opposition on the 10th at Moccasin Swamp.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis’ Fourteenth Corps briefly fought with Confederate cavalry near Boon Hill. Major-General James Morgan’s Division (Second Division, Fourteenth Corps) lost two killed and five wounded.  Otherwise the advance made good time and covered between ten to fifteen miles.

Supporting the Left Wing, the 23rd Corps of the Center Wing concentrated at Goldsboro to wait for the roads to clear.  The Tenth Corps, south of the Neuse moved up to a point opposite Cox’s Bridge, on the road to Bentonville.  Kilpatrick’s cavalry reached Mill Creek that evening with no incident.

The Right Wing’s movements were much delayed on the morning of the 10th, as the Left Wing had the right of way on roads in Goldsboro.  Still the corps made good time.  The Seventeenth Corps reached Whitley’s Mill by nightfall.  The bridge over Little River there was partly destroyed by Confederates.  But, as at so many other river crossings along the march, the Federals were quick to repair the bridge.

The Fifteenth Corps reached Lowell Factory on the Little River and found a bridge there.  Major-General John Logan, under orders, had detached the 1st Division of the corps, under Major-General Charles Woods, to conduct a feint march through Nahunta Station on the Weldon Railroad.  Woods encountered Confederate cavalry just south of that point, but drove them out without much pause.  Skirmishing continued west of Nahunta but Woods again cleared the road.  By day’s end, Woods reported the Confederate force which had camped around the station numbered 1,500, but had posed no significant delay or inflicted any casualties upon the Federals.

On the Confederate side, these advances were expected but at the same time overwhelming.  Confronting such wide ranging lines of march, the Confederates could not make a meaningful stand at Smithfield.  So Johnston withdrew on the 10th.  Cavalry would contest the Federal advance, but the infantry was husbanded for a hopeful stand elsewhere.

In possession of Lowell Factory, Logan inquired as to its disposition that evening.  Howard related that inquiry to Sherman, who responded on the morning of the 11th:

You need not have the Lowell Factory destroyed.  I will wait our reception at Raleigh to shape our general policy.  You may instruct General Logan to exact bonds that the factory shall not be used for the Confederacy.  Of course the bond is not worth a cent, but if the factory owners do not abide by the conditions they cannot expect any mercy the next time.

The march for the 11th continued with the concentration around Smithfield:

NCMarch_Apr11

Continuing with the feint on the right of the advance, Woods’ division moved toward Beulah that morning.  At the causeway over Great Swamp, the Federals met Confederate cavalry.  The Rebels attempted to burn the bridge, “and they would have succeeded had it not been for Colonel [Joseph] Gage’s command; his men, after driving the rebels off, soon cleared the bridge of the burning rails….” Woods continued to spar with the Confederates up to Beulah and beyond.  Reaching Folk’s Bridge at 11 p.m., Woods found 1,500 Confederates on the other side and the bridge destroyed.  The Confederates were uncovered by other elements of the Fifteenth Corps, but Woods was not able to cross until 4 p.m. due to the need to rebuild the bridge.

The rest of the Fifteenth Corps had another delayed march. The bridge at Lowell Factory proved to0 weak to hold up the military traffic.  So Logan ended the day with his corps astride the Little River until alternatives were found.  As for the rest of the Right Wing, the Seventeenth Corps reached Pine Level on the 11th without major incident.

The Left Wing reached Smithfield around noon on the 11th.  First elements entering the town were Third Division, Fourteenth Corps.  They fought through several barricades setup by Confederate rear guards, but were able to secure the town by mid-afternoon.  The bridges over the Neuse were destroyed, so the Federals went to work laying pontoons to facilitate the next day’s march.

For the Center Wing, the 23rd Corps stopped about eight miles short of Smithfield that evening, following the Left Wing’s advance.  The Tenth Corps faced terrible roads, but reached a point just beyond Bentonville by nightfall.

Further to the right of the advance, Kilpatrick reported camping on Middle Creek that evening.  His march was somewhat delayed by Confederate actions, though no fighting was reported.  Due to burned bridges over Black Creek, Kilpatrick made a wide advance around, nearly to Elevation, to reach a point opposite Smithfield.  “My command is not sufficiently well up, owing to the long march and bad roads, to make a successful dash on the enemy’s columns, even if I was within striking distance.”  So much for bold and rash action.

While Federal troops were entering Smithfield that day, to the west in Raleigh Johnston received word of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Sherman would not receive word until the next morning.  April 12 would see the continuation of military operations.  But both commanders saw the writing on the wall.  Though marching and fighting would continue, it was not at the pace seen a year, or even a month, earlier between these two armies.  There was an exit ramp somewhere beyond Raleigh that everyone wanted to take.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 249; Part III, Serial 100, pages 102, 123, 129, 165, and 171.)

Sherman’s March, March 22, 1865: Johnston withdraws and Sherman beings refitting his army

While the last charge and counter-charge of the Battle of Bentonville played out on March 21, the other two columns in Major-General William T. Sherman’s army group made march progress.

NCMarch_March21

Going with commander’s names on the map to simplify the annotations today.

Most important for Sherman’s plans, Major-General John Schofield moved forward to secure Goldsboro.  Schofield reported that afternoon, “I have the honor to report that I occupied Goldsborough this afternoon with only slight opposition.”  Schofield was ready to move to support Sherman at Bentonville, and was preparing to lay a pontoon bridge over the Neuse River, but the reason given for waiting was the need to decipher Sherman’s orders.  It seems the cipher clerk was in the rear of the advance.

One “sidebar” I should mention here in the discussion of Twenty-Third Corps’ advance on Goldsboro.  Major-General Jacob Cox’s column consisted of two divisions of the corps, plus a division formed of replacements and soldiers returning from leave.  These were all bound for the four corps moving with Sherman.  Instead of having those soldiers wait at some holding area, Cox organized them into provisional battalions.  For the advance on Goldsboro, those were grouped into a division under the command of Brigadier-General George S. Greene… yes Mr. Culp’s Hill, himself.  Greene was seriously wounded in the Battle of Wauhatchie in October 1863.  After a long recovery, Greene arrived just in time to serve as a volunteer staff officer during the fighting at Wyse Fork. Cox then put Greene in command of the provisional troops for the advance on Goldsboro.  In his journal for March 20, Cox noted, “He is an old West Point officer, having graduated in 1828 (the year I was born), and having been out of service for a long time until the beginning of the war.”  The age difference was actually larger than Cox reported, as Greene graduated with the class of 1823!  Second in his class of 35 cadets.

Major-General Alfred Terry’s two divisions, constituting the Tenth Corps, reached Cox’s Bridge on the 21st.  Sherman ordered Terry to wait for the Left Wing’s pontoon bridge and then secure a bridgehead.  Reaching Cox’s Bridge at 7 p.m., Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore’s pontooniers went to work.  By 11 p.m. that night, they had a bridge 260 feet in length across the Neuse.  Brigadier-General Charles Paine, commanding Third Division of Terry’s corps, crossed Second Brigade under Brigadier-General S.A. Duncan and formed the required bridgehead.

Other movements outside the battlefield on March 21 included the transit of the Right Wing’s wagon train to the east.  Sherman directed a depot be established east of the railroad and use a crossing somewhere around Jericho.  Only late in the day did the Left Wing’s trains move towards their appointed depot in the vicinity of Cox’s Bridge.

Throughout the night of March 21 and early morning hours of the 22nd, the two sides kept up artillery and skirmish line fire.  Federals noticed the intensity from the Confederate side diminishing after 2 a.m.  At daylight elements of the Fifteenth Corps pressed forward to find empty works in their front.  Colonel Robert Catterson’s brigade, the “skirmishers” of the First Division, advanced to the Mill Creek bridge:

On the morning of the 22d my skirmishers again moved forward at daylight and found the enemy’s works evacuated.  Two companies of the Twenty-sixth Illinois, supported by the remainder of the regiment, were moved forward as skirmishers on the road leading to Bentonville, and reached the bridge across Mill Creek, near that place, in time to extinguish the flames (the enemy having fired it), and in a very few moments after the enemy’s rear guard had crossed.  I immediately crossed with my brigade, and skirmishing again commenced, we driving our opponents in wild confusion beyond Hannah’s Creek.  The bridge over this stream was also on fire, and was saved only by the fearless daring of my men, who rushed forward and extinguished the flames.  At this point I received orders to recross Mill Creek and take a position covering the bridge.

Catterson’s pursuit, against Confederate cavalry as a rear guard, was the last action in the battle of Bentonville.  Sherman was content to let General Joseph E. Johnston to retire.  Sherman’s chief concern, as it was during the previous days, was refitting the army for the next appointed movement to Virginia.

NCMarch_March22

Toward that end, Sherman ordered the Left Wing to retire from the field towards Cox’s Bridge.  Though a short eleven mile march across ground controlled by the Federals, this was no easy task.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis wrote,

Owing to the exceedingly miry ground on which the troops were encamped, rendered impassable to artillery and wagons by the recent rains, the trains and artillery were slow in getting into the road, and Cox’s Bridge was only reached by the rear of the column by night….

Major-General Alpheus S. Williams made less progress with the Twentieth Corps and camped south of Falling Creek that evening.

That afternoon, the 1st Missouri Engineers set a pontoon bridge across the Neuse opposite Goldsboro near the railroad bridge.  At dusk on the 22nd, Shermans’ logistical woes were being resolved.  Sherman had two bridges over the Neuse (three if one counts the bridge at Kinston). He had Goldsboro.  A railroad ran from outside Kinston to Morehead City.  Another railroad from Faison to Wilmington was being repaired.  All manner of supplies were waiting at the depots for issue to the long marching troops of the Army of the Tennessee (Right Wing) and the Army of Georgia (Left Wing).  Sherman now promised some rest for those weary troops.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 259, 436, and 934; Part II, Serial 99, page 942.)