For a few days in late February 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman’s march through South Carolina seemed much more an administrative movement than a military operation. Movement orders were cut. The troops started each morning at the appointed time. Foragers went out. And guards remained alert. But the Confederates did little to contest these movements. Sort of like a calm the day after a great storm.. February 20, 1865 was one of those march days.
The Left Wing set aim for Winnsborough that day. The Fourteenth Corps, with their pontoon problems behind them, crossed the Little River at Ebenezer Meeting-House. On their left, the Cavalry Division crossed the Broad River and reached Monticello. Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick noted, “Found that Wheeler had already crossed the river and was moving north to Chesterville.” The Twentieth Corps complemented those other movements, completing their crossing of the Broad River and reaching a camp beyond the Little River that night. Major-General John Geary described conditions on that day’s march:
February 20, my division in the center marched at 2 p.m., following the First Division; crossed Broad River on a long pontoon bridge at Freshly’s Mill and moved forward toward Winnsborough. A short distance from the river we crossed the Abbeville railroad, which is a cheap structure of stringer track and strap rail. Following a very miry and unfrequented road through woods and fields, we forded Little River, a deep, rapid stream thirty yards in width, and at Colonel Gibson’s house entered a main road to Winnsborough. Here, turning to our left, we moved forward on this road, which we found an excellent one, through a very hilly country, and encamped within nine miles of Winnsborough. The country on our route to-day was a rich one, and forage and supplies were plentiful. The soil was a good, rich loam, with subsoil of yellow or red clay; distance, seven miles.
The Right Wing also made progress marching in the direction of Winnsborough that day. The Seventeenth Corps continued to chew up the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad as it moved. The Fifteenth Corps avoided clogging the roads behind the other corps by moving to the east. The refugee train followed behind the Third Division (third in order of march that day) with the engineers close by to aid passage. Orders called for a halt at Muddy Springs. But due to poor water in that vicinity, the corps continued on for a few miles before going into camp. Before leaving Columbia, Major-General John Logan had the rear guard sweep through the city. Brigadier-General William Woods (First Brigade, First Division, Fifteenth Corps) “had driven all stragglers and camp followers before him and moved his command from the city in good order.” Columbia was left to fend for itself.
On the 20th, Major-General Oliver O. Howard became very concerned about pillaging and robberies that he felt were out of order, and increasing in frequency. In an effort abate these, Howard issued a rebuke that day:
I desire to call your attention to the fact that some of our soldiers have been committing the most outrageous robberies of watches, jewelry, &c. A case has come to my notice where a watch and several articles of jewelry were stolen by a foraging party under the eye of the commissioned officer in charge. Another, where a brute had violently assaulted a lady by striking her, and had then robbed her of a valuable gold watch. In one instance money was stolen to the amount of $150, and another, where an officer with a foraging party had allowed his men to take rings off the fingers of ladies in his presence. To-day a soldier was found plundering, arrested, placed under the guard of one of General Corse’s orderlies, and was liberated by some of his comrades who had arms in their hands, and who threatened the life of the guard. These outrages must be stopped at all hazards, and the thieves and robbers who commit them be dealt with severely and summarily. I am inclined to think that there is a regularly organized banditti who commit these outrages and who share the spoils. I call upon you and upon all the officers and soldiers under you, who have one spark of honor or respect for the profession which they follow, to help me put down these infamous proceedings and to arrest the perpetrators. Please furnish to every inspector, provost-marshal, and officer in charge of a foraging party a copy of this letter, and enjoin them to be on the watch to stop these infamous proceedings, and to bring to justice the individuals who commit them.
Again, there is no denying these offenses took place. At the same time, one cannot claim authorities turned a blind eye.
On the Confederate side, the situation seemed chaotic. The opportunity Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton saw two days earlier had lapsed. His cavalry fell back around Winnsborough. Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s corps remained at Newberry that day, but received orders to move to Charlotte, North Carolina. General P.G.T. Beauregard called for a concentration at that point. He’d suggested General Braxton Bragg bring his command out of the Wilmington area to unite. And fearing Sherman might intercept the forces withdrawn from Charleston, Beauregard ordered Lieutenant-General William Hardee (Major-General Lafayette McLaws being the field commander at that time) to move rapidly to Florence. But to authorities in Richmond, Beauregard painted a dim picture of the situation:
There are so many roads in this section of country on which the enemy can move towards Charlotte it is impossible with my small force of infantry to remove or destroy all supplies.
To help Beauregard sort things out, in particular get the troops moving faster towards a concentration, Richmond sent Major-General Jeremy F. Gilmer to Charlotte, with instructions to “advise as to the movement of his forces, the roads most available to effect the earliest possible junction of his troops, which should be effected before a battle with the enemy is risked.”
One more great battle was in order before the Confederacy gave up on the Carolinas.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 288, 687, and 859; Part II, Serial 99, pages 505-6 and 1229.)