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.)