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 4, 1865: A missed opportunity for the Confederates?

The map showing Major-General William T. Sherman’s movements for February 4, 1865 does not offer a lot of “arrows”:


As with the previous day, delays getting the Left Wing across the Savannah River caused the Right Wing to slow down on February 4.  But on the positive, Major-General Henry Slocum’s wing finally had a corduroyed, bridged path out of the Savannah River bottoms.  After crossing on the 3rd, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division moved past Robertsville to Lawtonville.  His mission was to feint towards Augusta.  Allendale and Barnwell were next on Kilpatrick’s agenda.

The Second Division, Twentieth Corps followed the Cavalry across Sisters’ Ferry and escorted Kilpatrick’s wagons. However, Major-General John Geary found “the road for nearly three miles through Black Swamp utterly impassable for trains….” and the division was only able to make nine miles that day.  Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps crossed the river that evening, and escorted a large number of Fifteenth and Twentieth Corps wagons.  The Fourteenth Corps waited their turn to cross the next day.

Major-General Alpheus Williams, with two of his Twentieth Corps divisions (minus one brigade), performed Sherman’s desired demonstration towards Barnwell.  “On the 4th, to avoid the deep water of Coosawhatchie Swamp, I diverged to the left by a settlement road through very swampy ground as far as Smyrna Post-Office, and then moved north on the Barnwell pike, encamping at Allendale Post-Office,” recalled Williams.

Major-General John A. Logan did have the Fifteenth Corps in motion that day.  With word of success at Rivers’ Bridge the day before, Logan received orders to move on Buford’s Bridge upstream:

In compliance with these orders I directed General [Charles] Woods to move forward from his advanced position at 6 o’clock, sending a brigade in light marching order, unencumbered with wagons, to Buford’s Bridge to secure the same and to follow on with the rest of his command as rapidly as possible.  General [John] Smith moved in rear of the First Division.  General [William] Hazen was ordered to Angley’s Post-Office…. On reaching the bridge General Woods found the works of the enemy deserted, but the bridge over the main stream had been destroyed and the lagoon bridges, some twenty-six in number, had been all broken down.  The roads were heavy and required a good deal of work from the pioneer corps.

There was a minor skirmish between Hazen’s men and Confederate cavalry near Angley’s.  But otherwise only the swamps and terrible roads contested the Federal advance.  The crossing at Rivers’ Bridge prompted most of the Confederate forces in the sector to fall back.  Major-General Lafayette McLaws began movement back from the Combahee-Salkehatchie to the Ashepoo and Little Salkehatchie Rivers.  Orders came for Major-General Joseph Wheeler to move portions of his command on the far side of the Salkehatchie to in front of Branchville.  These movements, while compliant with plans formulated on February 2nd, removed the Confederate forces from an opportunity which opened… very briefly… behind the Federal advance.

Consider the activity, or inactivity, of the Seventeenth Corps that day.  Major-General Frank Blair concentrated his corps on the far side of the Salkehatchie over the hard-won crossing points.  And Blair mentioned, “A train of thirty wagons and some ambulances was sent back to Pocotaligo with our sick and wounded, under escort of the Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry.”  Not that Blair had thirty wagons full of wounded.  Rather those wagons were going back to replenish supplies.  All the empty wagons from the Right Wing headed back to Pocotaligo that day.  Keep in mind Sherman’s report from late January which mentioned having four days of fodder on hand to start the campaign.  It was the fourth day of the march from Pocotaligo.

Fifty wagons and ambulances were but a portion of the vehicles supporting the Right Wing.  In a report posted February 3, the quartermaster of the Fifteenth Corps tallied 794 wagons and 144 ambulances.  Still that was fifty wagons to carry a vital supply.  And that supply line was lengthy and prone to interruption, had the Confederates desired.  However, just a day earlier, Confederate leaders had concluded, “The enemy moving with a certain number of days’ rations for all his troops, with the hope of establishing a new base at Charleston after its fall, has in reality no lines of communication which can be threatened or cut.”

In one way, the Confederate assessment was correct, in that Sherman moved with a limited supply with hopes of replenishing later in the march.  But the assessment assumed that would necessitate the capture of Charleston and not continued foraging along the march.  That same assessment pointed to the need to delay Sherman for a week to ten days in order to get reinforcements form the Army of Tennessee into play.

While a dash against the Right Wing’s supply lines would not have stopped the invasion of South Carolina, it might have caused pause and provided the Confederates the desired week to ten days.  Instead, the forces directly in front of the Federals were instructed to fall back to a new line of resistance.  The key point governing Confederate decisions was this:

During the pending negotiations for peace, it was thought of the highest importance to hold Charleston and Augusta, as long as it was humanly possible.

The Confederate commanders facing Sherman were not contesting every inch of ground in South Carolina.  Rather they were hoping to play out the clock.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 222-3, 377, 582, and 683;  Part II, Serial 99, page 1085.)

Sherman’s March, February 2, 1865: Skirmishing everywhere!

Yesterday I put some of the geographic and “demographic” aspects of the first days of Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance into South Carolina.  Today, let me focus on more of the martial aspects.   Lots of skirmishes broke out across the line of advance on February 2, 1865.  Some of those are depicted on the map below with yellow stars:


As mentioned earlier, the level of skirmishing in South Carolina is in contrast to that in Georgia the previous fall.  While contact with Confederate forces of some sort happened every day in Georgia, often days would pass with a column encountering no organized resistance.  Such was not the case in South Carolina.  Every day of the march, some Confederates formation was there to contest the advance.

Specific to February 2nd, Major-General Lafayette McLaws’ division manned a line along the Combahee River, upstream to the mouth of the Salkehatchie River.  The extension of this line was a brigade under Colonel George P. Harrison covering the bridges over the Salkehatchie.  Harrison’s command included three regular Georgia regiments, two Georgia reserve regiments, detachments of South Carolina cavalry, and a battery of artillery.  All told, just over 2,000 effectives.  From there, the division of Brigadier-General William Y.C. Humes, from Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, covered the area between the Salkehatchie and Savannah Rivers.  (Not depicted on the map, the division of Major-General Alfred Iverson covered the Georgia side of the Savannah River… to the displeasure of Major-General D.H. Hill.)

The advance of the Right Wing had to cross the lines defended by Humes and Harrison.  Reacting to the advances on February 1, McLaws sent a request for Humes to “cross the Salkehatchie with the greater portion of your command and assist in guarding the crossings of that stream from Rivers’ Bridge to Buford’s and above as far as possible.”  Later in the day Humes reported falling back to cover Barker’s and Buford’s Bridges, though he kept his headquarters near Angley’s Post-Office, south of the Salkehatchie.  Harrison posted his troops to cover Rivers’ and Broxton’s Bridges (not labeled on the original map, but with a gold box on my overlay above).

Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s original orders for February 2 had the Seventeenth Corps, of Major-General Frank P. Blair, continuing the line of march on the roads paralleling the Salkehatchie with the aim of securing Rivers’ Bridge and a lodgement on the other side.  The Fifteenth Corps, under Major-General John A. Logan,  was to move on their left to Angley’s Post-Office.  But in the evening of February 1, Sherman asked Howard to amend those orders:

Slocum is a little behind.  I don’t want Logan to get farther to-morrow than the place marked “Store” near Duck Branch Post-Office. I want to make show marches till Slocum gets up, or nearly so.  Please make your orders accordingly.

We need to consider the maps as primary sources here.  There are plenty of “stores” around South Carolina.  The one in question is indeed simply marked “store” on the military map (a gold colored box on my map above).  Logan complied with the amended orders:

 … the Second Division having the advance, moved to Loper’s Cross-Roads. Our advance was contested by the enemy’s cavalry at the crossing of all the streams and creeks, in which timber had been felled, with the same pertinacity as on the previous day, but with the same result, and our mounted infantry found no difficulty pushing them back across Duck Branch.

Logan kept his Second Division at Duck Branch, but turned First Division towards Angley’s.  The Third Division followed but remained within supporting distance of both divisions when going to camp that night.

On the right, Blair sent forward the Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry, followed by the Third Division, on a road to the left to reach Whippy Swamp Post-Office.  Along the main road, First Division, under Major-General Joseph Mower, assumed the vanguard.  Mower first moved up to Broxton’s Bridge, which was burned by the time of his arrival.  Leaving one regiment posted to keep the Confederates in place, he moved the rest of the division forward to Rivers’ Bridge:

I took the balance of my command on the Rivers’ Bridge road and ordered the Twenty-fifth Wisconsin, Colonel Rusk commanding, forward as skirmishers; they gallantly charged up toward the enemy’s works, and drove them so rapidly that they had no time to burn the bridges, sixteen in number, over the causeway leading to the other side of the Salkehatchie River. Having saved the bridges I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Rusk to deploy his regiment on the right and left of the road and drive the enemy’s skirmishers (if he had any) from this side of the river. The next regiment, the Forty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Colonel Swayne commanding, I ordered to move in and take position on the right of the road. While showing him his position a piece of shell struck him in the leg, rendering amputation necessary, which deprived me of the services of a very brave and valuable officer.

Harrison brought up his only artillery at that time, and swept the Federals back away from the bridge itself.  Mower’s direct action had saved the crossing, but effecting a crossing was another matter.  Towards that end, Mower deployed the remainder of his division to threaten a crossing and started looking about:

After reconnoitering the enemy’s position I found his works too strong to assault them in front, so I ordered all the troops out of the swamp, which was about one mile long, only leaving a very strong skirmish line, and placed my command on high ground; I then put all my pioneers to work felling trees and constructing a road through the swamp, the water in most places being from one to eight feet deep. I reported the condition of affairs in the swamp to Major-General Blair that evening, who ordered me to go on constructing bridges and to cross, if possible, the next day.

A note here to any aspirant armchair generals… this is what you do when confronted with an “impossible” situation.  You look for openings and try to make something happen.

Elsewhere, the Left Wing continued its efforts to get out of the Savannah River bottom lands.  To close some of the gap developing between the wings, Major-General Henry Slocum directed the two divisions of the Twentieth Corps already over the river to push out towards Lawtonville.  Major-General Alpheus Williams left one brigade to protect Robertsville.  Major-General William T. Ward’s division lead the advance:

Marched for Lawtonville upon the 2d of February, meeting the enemy about one mile from town, barricaded in a dense swamp, with artillery. I deployed two brigades, and pressing forward two regiments, One hundred and fifth and One hundred and twenty-ninth Illinois Volunteers, and four companies of Seventieth Indiana, dislodged the enemy, losing 2 killed and 12 wounded; enemy’s loss, 8 killed, 30 or 40 wounded.

In addition to these movements, Brigadier-General John Hatch started a demonstration towards Combahee Ferry.  With one regiment and two Napoleon guns, Colonel Edward Hallowell’s objective was simply a reconnaissance, but “If you are confident that you can carry the work without serious loss you will do so.”   That move would develop over the following days.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 222, 387, and 782; Part II, Serial 99, pages 194, 203, and 1053.)