April 21, 1865: “… making fair contracts in writing with the people to cultivate the land…” in South Carolina

On April 21, 1865, there were several matters competing for Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s attention. The day before Gillmore received word of Major-General William T. Sherman’s truce with General Joseph E. Johnston, which thus governed operations in the Department of the South.  Also arriving was news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  The former prompted adjustments to Gillmore’s active field operations.  The latter prompted General Orders No. 48 informing the command of Lincoln’s death.

Gillmore had many active field operations, the most important of which was Brigadier-General Edward Potter’s expedition.  Potter’s instructions were to march to Georgetown or Charleston, as best accommodated the situation.  Sherman’s latest correspondence put on hold a planned follow-on expedition to Augusta, Georgia.  Instead, Gillmore was content to detail Colonel Henry Chipman’s 102nd USCT to guard the railroad bridge over the Santee River, and serve as an advanced force protecting the area north of Charleston.

Gillmore updated instructions for interacting with the civilian population, given the arrival of news.  Colonel Stewart Woodford, Gillmore’s Chief of Staff, provided those in writing to General John Hatch on April 21 (and thus the third person “he” in the instructions):

[Gillmore] directs that our forces in this department cease all further destruction of public and private property. While you are to execute this order literally, still the major-general commanding directs that you suppress every manifestation of rebellious or disloyal feeling within your command. He has learned, unofficially, that there are some expressions of gratification in Charleston at the cruel murder of our late President, and that you summarily arrested the offending parties. He commends this action and desires you to compel a decent and quiet behavior on the part of all residing within your lines.

But that area north of Charleston – specifically that of Charleston County between the Cooper and Wando Rivers in St. Thomas’ Parish – was of keen interest to Gillmore and Hatch.  St. Thomas’, and in general the area north of Charleston, contained several large plantations and thus now had a large recently emancipated population.  Hatch wrote to Gillmore about this two days earlier asking for instructions to deal with the issues arising:

The immense number of negroes flocking into the city threaten us with a pestilence and them with starvation. No adequate steps are taken by General [Rufus] Saxton for their removal and establishment. He complains of want of transportation. Something should be done without delay. I propose to issue a letter to the planters on Cooper and Wando Rivers–in it to state that slavery being extinguished, all who desire to be loyal citizens and to reside on their plantations will be allowed to do so, making fair contracts in writing with the people to cultivate the lands in shares for this season. Those who do so will be encouraged and protected as far as military necessity will allow. I do not care about taking this step without the approval of the general, but I think if something is not done, and that immediately, we will have starvation among the freedmen.

Saxton was at that time charged with managing resettlement of emancipated slaves onto confiscated lands in accordance with Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, as issued in January of that year. But Saxton faced some serious logistical problems, given the limited amount of shipping and other transportation, moving the former slaves to the designated areas.  Furthermore, Saxton was running out of “40 acres” to provide for all those now free, given the spectacular success of Federal operations.

On April 21, Woodford forwarded Gillmore’s response to the crisis Hatch identified:

I am directed by the major-general commanding to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of April 19, 1865. He desires me to inform you that the steamer Canonicus, after having returned from Darien, Ga., will be at the disposal of Brevet Major-General Saxton, and sent to him with the least possible delay. I am furthermore directed to inform you that you are authorized to issue a letter to the planters on Cooper and Wando Rivers, north of Charleston City, for the purpose and according to the tenor mentioned in your communication of the 19th instant. You will be careful not to act upon the question of the settlement of the freedmen within the territorial limits prescribed in General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, dated headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, in the Field, at Savannah, Ga., January 16, 1865, that matter within these limits having been by this order specially placed under General Saxton’s charge.

Thus, the military policy for the moment, given the lack of direction from Washington on the issue, allowed for two systems.  Saxton’s, operating under Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” policy, continued for the selected confiscated lands, mostly on barrier islands.  And with Gillmore’s consent, Hatch would allow any planter, who took the oath of allegiance, to offer “fair contracts” to freedmen for their labor.  Woodford elaborated on that second system in a message to Saxton, just to make sure nobody’s toes were stepped on:

The major-general commanding directs me to inform you that he has received a letter from Brigadier-General Hatch, commanding the Northern District of the department, in which he states that he proposes to issue a letter to the planters on the Cooper and Wando Rivers, and to state therein that slavery being extinguished, all who desire to be loyal citizens and to reside on their plantations will be allowed to do so, making fair contracts in writing with the people to cultivate the land on shares this season, and that those who do so will be encouraged and protected so far as military necessity will allow.

Woodford added, for clear delineation, that the lands designated by Gillmore for Hatch’s purview were beyond those designated by Field Orders No. 15.

Certainly these two concurrent policies were not the “end state” that would apply to the question of freedmen and lands.  That would take us into a discussion of the post-war period and bring in the Freedmen’s Bureau.  My point in mentioning these orders issued on April 21, 1865 is to call out what would become a major issue during the Reconstruction period, as it was being evolved as part of a military operation.

Step back a bit further for a moment.  One of the considerations when assessing Reconstruction from the historian’s perspective is the nature of how the policies set forth by leaders – be they Lincoln, Johnson, or Grant – were implemented at the ground level.  We can all point to current events where that same factor holds play.  In the case of Reconstruction, much of that policy, at least for the initial phases, was implemented as part of a military operation.  A fascinating military operation, in context with American military operations since World War II, I would add.  Yet, I sense that in our rush to provide a simple description for the period, while rushing off to things like the Gilded Age, Robber Barons, and the run-up to World War I, that appreciation for the military aspects of Reconstruction is lost.

And with Reconstruction having a military component in play, there must be analysis of what could and could not be accomplished… operationally, in military terms.   You know, some of those “reach and grasp” discussions which often boil down to practical application of arithmetic and logistics.  Yes, there is a military history component… a very important military history component… to reconstruction.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 256, 273, 274.)

Sherman’s March, March 6, 1865: “Virtually living upon the country” as the Federals advance

Well, seeing as the majority of votes from Wednesday called for continued marching with Major-General William T. Sherman, let us proceed along his line.

For March 6, 1865, the columns made limited progress as Sherman held the right wing to allow the Left Wing to negotiate the PeeDee River.


The Seventeenth Corps moved to Bennettsville, to the southeast, to ease congestion near Cheraw and also to allow for foraging of fresher areas of the sparse countryside. The Fifteenth Corps moved just a few miles further out from the east side of the PeeDee.  And, as Major-General John Logan added, made use of the area’s grist mills:

During the campaign every opportunity was seized to work all grist and flour mills met with in the country, and on encamping for the night the mills in the neighborhood were regularly assigned to the different divisions.  Virtually living upon the country, it was necessary to husband our supplies and put under contribution all the resources of the country.

Colonel Reuben Williams’ expedition returned to Cheraw on the 6th.  This allowed the Fifteenth Corps to complete crossing the river.

The Left Wing continued to experience delays associated with the bridging operations.  Not until late in the afternoon was a pontoon bridge ready to receive traffic.  And even then, it used several wagons, covered with canvas, as ersatz pontoons.  Brigadier-General George Buell, who supervised the bridging in lieu of the incapacitated Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, crossed his brigade first to cover the distant shore.  But at that time, the right of way passed to Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry.  Their crossing would take most of the night.  The Fourteenth Corps would wait for their turn the next day…and then assume the lead in Sherman’s movement in echelon to Fayetteville.

In order to speed the crossing, the Twentieth Corps started movement at 8 a.m. that morning to Cheraw.  After waiting for the last of Fifteenth Corps to cross, the Twentieth took to the pontoon bridge at 4 p.m.  Most of the corps crossed during the night.  Thus by morning of March 7th, most of Sherman’s forces had bounced over the PeeDee.  But, as seemed to be the case throughout the march, the Fourteenth Corps, which had been designated to lead the next advance, was behind.

A lot of other parts were in motion outside of Sherman’s direct control at this point.  The Confederates under Lieutenant-General William Hardee continued their withdrawal north.  Some confusion existed in Confederate command with respect to where Hardee should move next.  By the end of the day his objective was confirmed as Fayetteville. The cavalry was crossing the PeeDee at a point upstream of the Federals, to keep pace with Sherman’s movements.  And to the east, off my map, General Braxton Bragg reported an advance towards Kinston in force.  This was a column under command of Major-General Jacob Cox with about 12,000 men.  Bragg could oppose that move with some 8,500 men from various detachments and commands. But for a few days delay on either sector, the Confederates could consolidate forces and be in front of Sherman.  On March 6, opportunities were opening up for Confederate action.

Meanwhile, far to the south of all this movement, the city of Charleston was adjusting to life under occupation.  The previous day, Brigadier-General John Hatch reported:

I would suggest that two or three additional points be designated where the people can register their names and subscribe to the oath. I hear that the crowd is so large and the delay so great that many persons are obliged to spend time that they can hardly spare. I have also heard that it is proposed to get up a demonstration on Thursday next by the colored people. If it meet your approval it is very well, but the city being under martial law no assemblage should be allowed without your previous sanction. One thing more; I would suggest that an order prohibiting enlisted men being in the streets (except on duty) after retreat would at the present time assist in preventing the numerous robberies and irregularities. This need be only temporary.

Such was life in the “Cradle of Secession” under the Federal flag.  Yet, March 7th, the Charleston Courier, still in print, would proclaim, “The Yankees may hold Charleston for a time, as the British did in the Revolution, but the end of the war will restore it to the Confederate flag, and it will enter a new career of prosperity and importance.”

Well we might say at least the second half of the prediction was fulfilled.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 321; Part II, Serial 99, page 698.)

Operations against Charleston, February 9-13, 1865, Part 1 – Togodo Creek

While Major-General William T. Sherman’s two wings maneuvered deeper into South Carolina, along the coast the Department of the South and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron made several demonstrations and probes around Charleston.   As mentioned before, Sherman had no intentions to attack Charleston directly.  Such an effort, he feared, might bog down the campaign and add unnecessary delays.  So Sherman suggested and authorized operations around Charleston to distract and pin down Confederate forces that would otherwise move to oppose Sherman.   And if the big prize – Charleston itself – could fall by way of circumstances, there were several key Federal leaders waiting to grab that ring.

To demonstrate how wide-ranging these operations were, I must go to a large scale map of the Charleston area:


I’ve noted the main operations on the map with lettered boxes.  These are:

  • Point A – Naval operations to clear Togodo Creek, February 9, 1864.
  • Point B – Joint demonstration against James Island, February 10-11.
  • Point C – Army demonstration against Fort Johnson, February 11.
  • Point D – Joint demonstration at Bull’s Bay, starting February 13.
  • And… another demonstration against James Island to distract Confederates from the demonstration at Bull’s Bay (yes!)

There were several smaller operations, including a foray onto John’s Island, during this period.  And off the map to the southwest, Brigadier-General John Hatch’s forces were told to push the Confederates back to the Edisto. But that operation never really gathered steam.  Hatch spent several days waiting for the Confederates to leave the fortifications behind Combahee Ferry.  On February 12, Hatch announced the Confederates had abandoned the Combahee and he was following up… cautiously.  “I should have more troops to make this demonstration effective,” he complained.

Closer to Charleston, on the morning of February 9, Commander George Balch lead a force consisting of the USS Sonoma, USS Pawnee, and USS Daffodil up the North Edisto River to Togodo Creek.  The Federal gunboats had made forays up the river throughout February.  As with previous trips, boats and the tug Daffodil cleared the way checking for torpedoes.  At 9:50 a.m., the Pawnee and Sonoma opened fire on Confederate batteries further upstream on the Wadmelaw River.  While the gunboats found it hard to range the batteries, there was no return fire. That changed at 2:40 p.m. when six Confederate field guns opened a cross fire upon the gunboats.  Balch reported, “The rebel batteries, connected by rifle pits, were at distances varying from 1,000 to 2,000 yards.”  These were some of the many prepared positions the Confederates constructed earlier in the war.

The Pawnee was struck ten times, the Sonoma and Daffodil twice, respectively; nobody hurt on either vessel. A shot struck on the deck of the Pawnee, passing through an arms chest, setting it on fire, and going out the ship’s side….

At 5:20 p.m., [the Pawnee] and the Sonoma being afloat, we got underway and stood down the creek, but, owing to the extreme narrowness of it we grounded, were towed off by the Daffodil, and at 7:30 p.m. anchored off White Point, our usual station.

Both the Pawnee and Sonoma suffered minor damages, mostly to the masts and smokestack.  In return the Pawnee fired 382 rounds. Sonoma fired 256 rounds. And Daffodil contributed 30 rounds.  Other than the large ammunition expenditure, the affair on the Togodo was simply another loud diversion.

I’ll break for the moment there and pick up the story of these demonstrations in part 2 of this set.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 402, ; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 225-7.)


February 9, 1865: Changes in the Department of the South – Foster out, Gillmore back in command

The change of command had been forecast weeks before.  But the switch was made official on February 9, 1865.  Major-General John Foster issued General Orders No. 15 for the Department of the South from Hilton Head that day:

Having been granted a leave of absence, on account of disability from wounds, I hereby transfer the command of this department during my absence to Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, U.S. Volunteers, in accordance with orders from the War Department.

Gillmore posted General Orders No. 16 announcing his assumption, temporary assumption, of command.

Foster had suffered a hard fall from his horse the previous winter, while serving in Tennessee.  That, along with effects of other, older wounds, took a toll on the forty-one year old general.  Earlier he’d worked a request, by way of his wife, to secure a leave of absence.  One historian has cast this as a move “in order to save face….” But there seems to be little weight for that inference.

Major-General William T. Sherman had recognized Foster’s impairment, starting on the night after Fort McAllister fell.  When Foster’s department was placed under Sherman’s military division, the two continued to work together.  Sherman avoided replacing Foster during January when authorities in Washington had offered several able replacements.  Instead, Sherman worked with Foster, launched the march into South Carolina, and was issuing instructions to his subordinate right up until the day of the change in command.  In fact, even after the change, Sherman still addressed correspondence to Foster (particularly on February 24 and March 12!).  The simple explanation is Foster was physically impaired at that point.  And was thus not able to share the laurels that were to come.

However, this change came at a critical time.  In a very thorough (better than Gillmore left on his departure the previous spring, I might add) letter, Foster described the operational and tactical situation.  Referencing Sherman’s written instructions (and recall those of February 7 still had not reached the coast), Foster explained:

General Sherman’s written instructions may be modified in execution if the circumstances warrant it; for instance, if the enemy show a disposition to evacuate Charleston he may be felt strongly, and if the evacuation actually takes place the works are to be occupied and the diversion in Bull’s Bay may not then be made. Secondly. After carrying out the instructions regarding the operation at Bull’s Bay, if, in the judgment of the commander of the department, an additional operation may be attempted on Sullivan’s Island, as the admiral desires, he may undertake it if circumstances be favorable. This must not, however, be to the prejudice of anything specially directed by General Sherman.

As for ongoing operations, Foster described each in detail.  Brigadier-General John Hatch was over the Salkehatchie-Combahee with orders to pursue the Confederates along the railroad.  “This ought to be done as far as the Ashepoo if possible, and under very favorable circumstances to the Edisto.”

Brigadier-General Henry Prince, at Pocotaligo, held detachments from Sherman’s army to guard communications with Sherman’s columns. While Hatch might be withdrawn when Sherman reached the vicinity of Columbia, Prince’s base was to be maintained indefinitely, by order of Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant.

Foster continued, as he knew Gillmore’s attention would be focused on Charleston:

As far as operations in Charleston Harbor is concerned, the commander of the department may co-operate with the admiral in any way that he may judge proper, provided the written instructions be first fully carried out. General Sherman did not favor any serious operation about Charleston Harbor, but was willing to yield his objections if the commanding officer, after carrying out his essential directions, judged he had an opportunity favorable enough to warrant the risk of a serious attack. General Sherman attached more importance to the flank movement at Ball’s Bay and Georgetown. Major Gray informed me that General Sherman desired the operation at Bull’s Bay to be made six days from that day (the 8th instant). The force for this is assembled at the Stono.

The date set for the demonstration at Bull’s Bay is rather important to set in context.  On the day Foster and Gillmore changed the guidon, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig was preparing for a joint operation into the Stono River.  The objective was to demonstrate against James and John’s Islands.  This operation was timed to work with another naval operation on the North Edisto.  Foster had sent instructions for that operation on February 6.  And due to Sherman’s notes on February 8, complaining about delays due to the bad roads, Foster intended to continue those demonstrations.  The intent was to make feints on one side of Charleston before withdrawing the troops to land on the other side at Bull’s Bay.

The problem here was there being only so many troops in the department to perform all these demonstrations.  Hatch had about 3,500 men.  Schimmelfennig could scrape together about 1,000.  By removing troops from Schimelfennig and pulling others from around Hilton Head, the Federals could put 1,300 men under Brigadier-General Edward Potter at Bull’s Bay.  It is not clear from the record if Foster or Gillmore decided Bull’s Bay would have priority.  But regardless the abrupt change caused problems with the navy.

While Sherman appeared to remain aloof from the change in command, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was unsettled to say the least.  On February 10, one of Dahlgren’s officers returned from Hilton Head with news,

… General Foster told him that the Stono must be over and the troops must be going to Bull’s Bay by this time. Also, that General Gillmore had taken command. How vexatious!  If General Gillmore had left a note with Captain Reynolds, saying what he designed to do, it would have been easy enough.

Dahlgren was not happy with the prospect of another operation with the general.  The two had not parted on cordial terms the previous spring.  Dahlgren hung the failure to take Charleston earlier in 1863 on Gillmore.  Now Gillmore was back to share in the laurels of the capture of the city.

While Foster departed having given Gillmore a fair appreciation for the situation, there is one thing he retained and which would serve to inhibit operations that followed.  Foster had possession of the cypher used by Sherman to encrypt messages.  This was the same cypher given to Dahlgren in January. Gillmore was not part of that “circle of friends”… if I may.  On February 13, when Sherman’s orders written on February 7 finally arrived at the coast, Gillmore couldn’t read the message.  He had to beg Dahlgren for assistance.

The good news, however, was that the end at Charleston was near.  These personal issues and counter-marches would not stand in the way of eventual success.  The matter was at that time being decided well to the north of Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 367 and 369; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 367;  E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston: 1861-1865, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970, page 314.)

Sherman’s March, February 7, 1865: The South Carolina Railroad falls to Sherman

Thus far into the narrative discussing Major-General William T. Sherman’s march into South Carolina, one major factor which played into the Savannah Campaign had not been much importance.  That would be the railroads.  Other than the Charleston & Savannah Railroad along the coast, the Federal advance encountered no lines. That is until February 7, 1865.  On that day, Sherman directed his leading columns at the South Carolina Railroad.  The aim was to cut the line providing direct connection between Charleston and Augusta.


Most of the laurels that day fell again to the Right Wing of Major-General Oliver O. Howard.  Marching orders for the 7th had the Fifteenth moving to Bamberg and the Seventeenth towards Midway.  Because he was traveling with Fifteenth Corps, Sherman gave direct instructions to Major-General John Logan.  Other than suggesting leading the march with two divisions in light marching order, Sherman directed that once upon the railroad “every rail must be twisted.” Other than suggesting leading with two divisions in light marching order, he left the details to the corps commander:

I will be with you, but want you to fight your own battles, as I am a non-combatant.  The enemy ought to fight us, but I don’t believe he will.

Sherman was correct. The Confederates did not contest the movement.  Logan recorded for the march:

The advance was unopposed, and with the exception of felled timber in the crossing of Lemon Swamp, which delayed the column a short time, the march was made with ease and celerity, my mounted infantry striking the railroad at Bamberg, or Lowry’s Station, by 9.30 a.m., and by 12 m. I had two brigades at work tearing up the track and piling up ties and rails preparatory to burning and twisting the same.

That evening, Logan deployed the divisions in a strong perimeter around the town.  On Logan’s right, Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps likewise met no formal resistance, but had a tough time crossing the creeks and swamps:

… the command moved forward through a drenching rain and over almost impassable roads toward Midway Station, on South Carolina Railroad. We rebuilt three bridges at Lemon’s Swamp, and succeeded in getting the Fourth Division and one brigade of the First Division into position covering the station.

To feel out the Confederate dispositions beyond to the Edisto River, mounted patrols fanned out to Holman’s Bridge, Binnaker’s Bridge, Cannon’s Bridge, the Edisto Railroad Bridge, and Walker’s Bridge (smaller blue dashed lines on my map).  Most of the bridges were already destroyed.  The patrols fought brief skirmishes at the Railroad Bridge and Cannon’s Bridge.  But this confirmed no Confederate force waited on the east side of the Edisto.

To the left of the Fifteenth Corps, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams moved two divisions of Twentieth Corps towards Graham’s Station.  At 2 p.m., Williams reported his progress:

My advance is within two miles of the railroad.  My column is badly stretched out, owing to the swollen condition of the streams.  I have three brigades in hand and shall move on the railroad at once, and shall bring up my whole command to that point to-night. I am satisfied from the report of prisoners that there is nothing but one brigade of cavalry (perhaps more) in my front. They are withdrawing.

By nightfall, Williams had the two divisions in camp along the railroad.

Further to the left of the advance, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry advanced on Blackville.  After skirmishing with some of Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, the Federals gained the town and the railroad there. With that, nearly twenty-five miles of the railroad line were in Federal hands by nightfall.

Boasting of his success thus far, Kilpatrick wrote to Sherman, “At any moment you desire I can drive Wheeler into the Edisto, and think save any bridge you may name.”  But Sherman was not concerned with the Edisto for the moment, and directed the cavalryman to focus on the railroad for the moment.  Any crossing of the Edisto (technically the South Fork of the Edisto) would be further upstream.  “Don’t risk much, but keep your horses and men well in hand.”

Further south, five divisions in the “second wave” were still struggling with the swamps.  Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, Twentieth Corps had trouble crossing the Coosawhatchie Swamp.  Spending most of the day cordurying and bridging, not until 4 p.m. could the men begin crossing.  Behind them, the First Division, Fourteenth Corps made an equally difficult march, only gaining nine miles using the road up from Brighton.  The other two divisions of the Fourteenth Corps did little movement on the 7th, as they replenished supplies and did improvements to the roads.

However Major-General John Corse did make significant progress in his march to rejoin the Fifteenth Corps.  From his camp that evening at Hickory Hill, reporting to Sherman he wrote:

I know not how anxious you may be to have me with you, but I assure you not more so than I am. Our roads have proven execrable. I worked all one day on a swamp about three and a half miles long. If I can get this bridge done to-day I will move heaven and earth to join you day after to-morrow, if you are not too far from me. Please let me know of your whereabouts as soon as practicable after the reception of this. Slocum is to-day about Duck Branch Post-Office with Geary; Davis is–God knows where, for the roads are such I have no doubt he is nearer the infernal regions than he ever was before. I hope you have a few green leaves of all the fresh wreaths you are winning left for.

At least past the Coosawhatchie, Corse and the others could expect to find corduroyed roads and intact bridges in the wake of the earlier marches.

Along the coast, Brigadier-General John Hatch’s men advanced, somewhat tentatively, along the railroad.  By day’s end they could report three miles gained.  But knowing veteran troops opposed them, Hatch ordered his men to entrench for the night.  Discretion was the better part of valor for a column engaged in a demonstration.

That evening, Sherman sent a note to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren indicating his progress and directing future movements.  Sherman’s message indicated he was keeping a lot of options open:

We are on the South Carolina road, at Midway, and will break fifty miles, from Edisto toward Augusta, and then cross toward Columbia. Weather is bad and country full of water. This cause may force me to turn against Charleston. I have ordered Foster to move Hatch up to the Edisto, about Jacksonborough and Willstown. Also to make that lodgment about Bull’s Bay. Watch Charleston close. I think Davis will order it to be abandoned, lest he lose its garrison as well as guns. We are all well and the enemy retreats before us. Send word to New Berne that you have heard from me, and the probabilities are that high waters may force me to the coast before I reach North Carolina, but to keep Wilmington busy.

An interesting observation made by Dahglren with respect to Sherman was, “I notice that all these letters he writes himself.”  And the message of February 7 was one asking for specific actions.  Unfortunately, due to the distances involved, the message was not in Dahlgren’s hands until February 14.  By that time, the situation had changed considerably.  Instead, the operation at Bull’s Bay had assumed the higher priority.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 224 and 377 ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 321, 328, 336, and 338. )

Sherman’s March, February 6, 1865: “Burnwell” South Carolina

On February 6, 1865, the arrangement of Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces looked more like a pair of waves as opposed to two wings advancing in parallel.  Ten divisions – the Seventeenth Corps, three divisions of the Fifteenth Corps, two divisions of the Twentieth Corps, and the Cavalry Division – were pressing forward past the Salkehatchie River.  Behind them, five divisions were not yet to Coosawhatchie Swamp.


In that “second wave,” Major-General Jefferson C. Davis completed resupplying two of his divisions – First Division under Brigadier-General William Carlin and Third under Major-General Absalom Baird.  Those two divisions made modest marches towards Brighton on February 6.  Major-General James Morgan’s Second Division remained at the depot, setup on the South Carolina side of Sister’s Ferry, to resupply.

Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps continued its march northward to rejoin the corps, making only a short march due to the swamps encountered.  Major-General John Geary’s division made better time following a path already used by earlier columns.  But the going was still difficult:

February 6, moved at 6 a.m., taking the road to Lawtonville, passing through which followed the road toward Beech Branch; encamped near Mears’ Store.  The roads to-day were bad; weather warm. Towards evening it began to rain. The country passed through yesterday and to-day had been quite a rich one.  The planters had fled to the upper country and the plantations now looked desolate. Most of the supplies had been carried off by the divisions preceding me.

These divisions in the rear of the march would need several more days to catch up.

On the far right of Sherman’s advance, Major-General John Foster had his forces along the coast in motion on February 6.  Brigadier-General John Hatch began pursuit of the Confederates over the Salkehatchie.  And at Charleston, Foster began preparing for demonstrations from Folly Island and Bull’s Bay.

On the front “wave” of the advance, the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps resumed marching that morning, setting a course for the Little Salkehatchie River.  Each would meet Confederate resistance at those crossings.  Major-General Frank P. Blair, Seventeenth Corps, noted only light resistance, easily pushed aside by his Third Division, at Cowpen Ford.  But the Federals had to rebuild seven bridges.  Two divisions of the Twentieth Corps under Major-General Alpheus Williams made a non-eventful march to the left of Fifteenth Corps that day.

Major-General John A. Logan’s Fifteenth Corps likewise encountered a Confederate force at Lane’s Bridge.  Logan employed the same techniques used at Rivers’ Bridge to gain the far side.  He deployed Major-General John Smith’s First Division against the swamps to put pressure on the Confederates.  Mounted infantry searched for crossing points up- and down-stream. As Logan described it, the Confederate position was formidable, even if held lightly:

The position occupied by the enemy was very defensible, his front being covered by a deep and tangled swamp extending for several miles below his position, while the stream above opened into a wide pond, yet our skirmish line pushed through the mud and water and developed his line, extending quite a distance above and below the bridge, covered by rifle-pits. The bank on the south side of the river appeared to be much higher than that on the opposite side, rising in quite a bold bluff, but the swamp was so dense that it was impossible to appreciate the character of the opposite bank or to avail ourselves of any advantage we might have in height of position.

But eventually it was enough to put weight upon the Confederates to undo this position:

General Smith’s dispositions having been made for an attack, and General Woods’ division being within supporting distance, I ordered him to push his Second Brigade through the swamp in line of battle, covered by a heavy line of skirmishers, and endeavor to take the works of the enemy. It affords me great pleasure to testify to the gallant manner in which my orders were executed by Colonel [Clark] Wever, who charged with his men through mud and water, across the stream and in face of the enemy’s fire, driving him from his line of works, all along the river. The rebels fell back to some open fields about a mile and a half from the stream, formed in line, as if preparing to receive our attack. General Smith, having crossed his First Brigade, pushed forward on the road to Duncansville. The rebel cavalry meanwhile moved from our front in the direction of Blackville and the railroad.

While the main reason for the Confederate cavalry to displace was such a strong force driving up from the river.  But events to the west, where Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick made a loud entrance on the stage, also prompted a quick withdrawal.  Sherman’s cavalry was on line and making its presence known.

In instructions sent to Kilpatrick on the evening of February 5, Sherman wrote:

…  I want you to-morrow to move rapidly on Barnwell, keeping up any feint you may please in the direction of Augusta. Next day strike the railroad where you please from Blackville to Lowry’s. If you can, get and destroy cars, locomotives, and depots, but don’t delay long, but effectually destroy some piece of the track, enough to cut communication, and then turn to us about Duncanville and Bamberg. You will find plenty of corn and bacon. I think Wheeler’s forces are scattered, and he has no idea where you are up to this moment, so you can act with a rush. …. I don’t care about your going into Barnwell, and only refer to it as the point where you will likely find cleared roads across the swamp. The bridges amount to nothing; the swamp is the worst, and you may cross it wherever you please. … On this side the Salkehatchie we find the roads fine, with farms and abundance of forage. None has been destroyed. The farmers west of Salkehatchie were ordered to move their forage and stock to the east of Salkehatchie, expecting to hold that line.

Sherman closed the instructions, “Mystify the enemy all you can, but break that road whilst I move straight on it about Lowry’s.”  Interesting insight as to what Sherman wanted his cavalry to do.

On this mission to “mystify,” Kilpatrick moved up the road to Barnwell, even if that city was not the chief objective.  The troopers did not encounter resistance until reaching the Salkehatchie River:

The enemy, about 300 strong, occupied a well-chosen position behind earth-works upon the opposite side, commanding the bridge. The bridge was already on fire, but the Ninth Ohio Cavalry, Colonel Hamilton, Ninety-second Illinois Mounted Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Van Buskirk (dismounted), gallantly dashed through the swamp, men wading in the water up to their armpits, crossed the stream on trees felled by our pioneers, and, under cover of a rapid fire of artillery, gallantly carried the works, driving the enemy in confusion toward the town of Barnwell. Only a portion of the bridge had been destroyed and was quickly repaired, and we entered the town of Barnwell at 4 p.m., having marched twenty-one miles.

Again, these accounts of river crossings under fire tend to blend together.  I would point out that critical to this crossing was the employment of pioneers… from a cavalry formation.

Crossing the river, Kilpatrick’s cavalry in Barnwell went to work as instructed to destroy government buildings and public property.  That endeavor soon got out of control.  The journal of the division indicates, “in spite of every effort of the general commanding to prevent it, was laid in ashes.” Kilpatrick would contend he restricted the damage where possible.  But Southern papers would circulate stories of Federal troopers bursting into homes, pillaging belongings, and then firing private dwellings.  And the town would suffer additional damage when the Fourteenth Corps passed days later.

Proper first hand accounts, written at the time of the incident, are hard to come by.  The truth was probably somewhere in between the stories.  Fact is, Barnwell was put to the torch.  Though I have often wondered if the town’s fate would have been different had there not been a skirmish on the Salkehatchie.  Many would quip later the town’s name should be changed to “Burnwell.”  However I would point out that a dozen anti-bellum structures still stand in “Burnwell.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 223-4, 683, and 858; Part II, Serial 99, pages 311-2.)

Sherman’s March, February 5, 1865: Three dead Federals and Mr. Trowell’s house in ashes

For the third day in a row, I’ll discuss the progress of Major-General William T. Sherman’s Great March and say there was not a lot of marching!  But for those at Sister’s Ferry 150 years ago today, the traffic jam was almost resolved:


The Seventeenth Corps did no major marching on February 5, 1865.  Though some of their patrols bumped up against Confederates operating in front of the Little Salkehatchie near Duncanville.  Just to the left of the Seventeenth Corps, the Fifteenth Corps wrestled to cross the Salkehatchie River at Buford’s Bridge.  Major-General John A. Logan recalled:

… the 5th of February, was consumed in crossing the Big Salkehatchie, and my command was encamped that night in the salients, as it were, of an equilateral triangle, the First Division on the direct Bamberg road, the Second Division on the road leading to Barn-well, and the Third Division on that leading to Rivers’ Bridge, the First and Second Divisions being intrenched.

The two divisions of the Twentieth Corps with Major-General Alpheus S. Williams moved from Allendale to a position behind the Fifteenth Corps.

To the far right, Brigadier-General John Hatch reported his probe towards Combahee Ferry skirmished with a Confederate rear guard.  But for the most part, the defenses along the river were abandoned.  Hatch received orders to prepare an advance for February 6.  No longer was the Charleston & Savannah Railroad an important target for the Federals.  Rather, Hatch was to keep pressure on McLaws to prevent shifting forces.

Once out of the swamps of the Savannah River bottoms, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick was free to move aggressively… just as desired by Sherman.  For the 5th, Kilpatrick turned away from the Augusta Road and moved to cover the flanks of the Right Wing. His objective was Barnwell. Kilpatrick would pass the trail of William’s column at Allendale, and proceed towards the Salkehatchie, camping short of that stream for the night.

But it was Sister’s Ferry where the significant progress developed over the day.  Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, Twentieth Corps shared the work with Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps to repair and improve the roadway up from the River to Robertsville.  As Corse related, the going was still difficult:

At daybreak on the 5th instant I threw forward three regiments to repair the road through Black Swamp, and at 3 p.m., with twenty-two days’ rations of hard bread and eighteen of sugar and coffee, and carrying four days’ rations on the person, I again took up my line of march, and pushing across the dense swamp just referred to (being three miles wide), moved via Robertsville to the right, crossing the Lawtonville and Lawtonville and Gillisonville roads and Coosawhatchie Swamp, making Hickory Hill at dark on the evening of the 7th of February.

Notice Corse indicated his division stepped off with 26 days’ rations for the soldiers.  But he did not mention details of the animal fodder at this stage of the operation.

Geary’s division did not move as far, but was able to clear Black Swamp.  Behind them, the Fourteenth Corps, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis commanding, cleared the crossing of the Savannah River.  The journal of the Second Division of that corps recorded:

February 5 – First Division commenced crossing at daylight; crossed by 8.30 a.m. Third consumed from then till 2.30 p.m. Reserve artillery and corps headquarters followed. Our division commenced at 4 p.m. Pontoons taken up twice to pass boats. General came into camp with the rear to the highlands at 10 p.m. Camped for the night; distance two miles and a half. Non-veterans of Tenth Michigan mustered out by Lieutenant Scroggs.

No mention of how the mustered out troops made their way home.  But by nightfall, the only a guard force of the Fourteenth Corps remained in Georgia, protecting the pontooniers as they recovered the bridge. Thus the day progressed relatively quietly for the Federals, save perhaps the cursing and swearing of the teamsters.

But that is not to say February 5 passed with no incidents.  Along Geary’s line of march, the Federals came across something which added to the “grudge” mentioned yesterday. Geary recorded the episode in his official report:

By noon the head of the train had crossed. At 1 p.m. I moved my command and encamped at a crossroad near Trowell’s farm, eight miles from Robertsville. Near Mr. Trowell’s house we found three soldiers of our army, who, according to the testimony of negroes, had been pointed out by Mr. Trowell to some of Wheeler’s cavalry and by them shot in cold blood. Their bodies were found in the bushes not far from the house, where they were thrown by the murderers. I had them buried and Trowell’s house and other property destroyed, and he was taken with us to be tried as accessory to the murder.

Mind you, this was John Geary who received praise from southerners a month earlier for his even-handed and fair approach to governing Savannah.  This was also the same John Geary who had strictly enforced foraging rules during the Savannah Campaign.  But there at Trowell’s Farm, Geary ordered – he mixes no words here – the destruction of the property.  Although Trowell was taken away for a trial, Geary had for all practical purposes already administered some punishment.

Since the opening of the Savannah Campaign, the issue of prisoner executions was simmering.  Kilpatrick and Major-General Joseph Wheeler had taken actions to cool the situation.  But as the army entered South Carolina, the issue returned to the fore.  And as witnessed in Geary’s response, there would be a correlation between acts taken against Federal prisoners and acts taken against civilians.  That grudge was a heavy thing to carry.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 223, 337, 489, and 683.)