April 4, 1865: “I have no communication from General Lee since Sunday” as the Confederate high command splinters

On April 4, 1865, General Robert E. Lee lead the retreating forces from Richmond and Petersburg into Amelia Court House. There, Confederates found empty box cars along the Richmond & Danville Railroad.  A staff mistake of the highest order had deprived the hard-pressed Confederates of supplies.  Lee was forced to appeal to the local populace for supplies.

Why couldn’t he simply telegraph down the railroad line and order the trains up?  Well, that same day, Federal cavalry reached Jetersville and Burkeville, captured the railroad stations and severed the telegraph… and Lee’s life-line. Lee would later attempt to re-establish communications by way of telegraph lines out of Farmville and Crew, supplemented by couriers.  In the modern military we are taught to rate communications as “positive” as defined where the flow is bi-directional, reliable, and responsive.  As of April 4, 1865, Lee’s communications were not positive in tone, content, or rating.

Without “positive” communication links, Lee’s Confederacy shrank to a few counties in Virginia.  And outside of that confined area, the Confederate high command struggled to get a grasp on the situation.  In Danville, President Jefferson Davis issued a message aimed to rally what was left of the Confederacy.

Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense, with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating from the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in the case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve.  Let us but will it, and we are free; and who, in the light of the past, dare doubt your purpose in the future!

Yes, to the public, Davis put on a good face as any political figure might. But to his remaining military subordinates with “positive” communication links, Davis inquired what could be done.  Exchanging messages with General P.G.T. Beauregard, in Greensborough, Davis wanted to confirm the rail lines south of Danville were in order.

Please give me any reliable information you have as to the movements of the enemy and dispositions to protect the Piedmont Railroad. I have no communication from General Lee since Sunday.

Beauregard responded at around 3:30 p.m. (around the same time telegraph operators reported the loss of communications to Burkeville, showing history has some rhythmic resonances):

See telegrams of yesterday and to-day to General [H.W.] Walker. I consider railroad from Chester to Danville safe, at present.  Will send to-day 600 more men to the later point. Twenty-five hundred more could be sent, if absolutely needed, but they are returned men of various commands of the Army of Tennessee, temporarily stopped and organized [at Greensborough]. General Johnston has ordered here some cavalry, which I have diverted from Hillsborough to Danville. No news from Lee or Johnston. Please answer.

Major-General George Stoneman’s raid indeed had an effect on Confederate movements.  And arguably, it was on the forces for which it was designed to impress – those defending North Carolina’s railroads.  And in their wake, Stoneman’s raiders sowed confusion, as Davis noted in his response to Beauregard:

Your telegram of to-day received. The reports in regard to raiders very contradictory. Best evidence indicates that they have not been at Madison. The cavalry you have ordered here will be of special value at this time, and with the infantry en route will probably serve the immediate necessity.  Have sent a courier to General Lee, from whom I have no communication.

Beauregard also tried to reach Lee, sending a report on Stoneman’s progress to both Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston in Smithfield, North Carolina:

Stoneman’s command is reported to have crossed Yadkin at Jonesville and Rockford on 2d instant, p.m., and moved toard Dobson and Mount Airy, destination probably Taylorsville.  From there he may continue to Lynchburg, if he is protecting flank of column reported moving along Virginia and Tennessee Railroad; or from Taylorsville he may march on Danville.

The assessment, while somewhat dated, did match well to Stoneman’s movements.  But Beauregard could not be sure Stoneman was not turning on Danville.  So he dispatched Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry – about a third of the organized cavalry in North Carolina.  But Johnston would countermand that order, reasoning, “It is too late for Wheeler to attempt to reach Danville.”  But Beauregard’s and Johnston’s telegrams crossed each other in transit, forcing Wheeler to inquire for clarification.  The following morning, Johnston would clarify further:

Events in Virginia will make Sherman move. Wheeler is, therefore, absolutely necessary here.

At that point, with Lee outside coverage of positive – meaning responsive and regular – communication means, the control of the armies of the Confederacy devolved to subordinate commanders.  No one could bring aid to Lee in his retreat.  Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia, and other troops evacuated from Richmond-Petersburg were on their own.  Somewhat contrary to Davis’ public statement, the Confederate armies were forced to move in response to the Federal advances into an ever contracting Confederacy.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, page 1383; Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 750-1 and 755.)

Driving Dixie Down: A flooded Yadkin River delays Stoneman’s advance, March 30-April 2, 1865

Allow me to briefly outline the movements of Major-General George Stoneman’s raiders as they moved from Wilkesborough up to the North Carolina-Virginia state line from March 30 to April 2, 1865.  In the last post on this thread, I closed with the capture of Wilkesborough on March 29.  Stoneman’s command moved up to that point in two columns, with Colonel William Palmer moving north of the Yadkin River while Stoneman and the rest of Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem’s division moved south of the river. One of Palmer’s three regiments, the 12th Ohio Cavalry, entered Wlkesborough on the evening of March 29.  The other two regiments remained on the north side opposite the town.  This setup a dangerous position for Stoneman, with a portion of his command isolated from the rest.

March 30 brought rains.  According to observes in Charleston South Carolina, the season’s last Nor’easter ran up the coast.  I don’t know if that storm directly caused the rains which fell on Stoneman, as satellite imagery was a bit slim during those days.  But we might at least say that the precipitation, be that from what ever weather event one might conceive, once again worked to limit Federal operations that spring.


The 12th Ohio rejoined the rest of Palmer’s brigade north of Wilkesborough that morning (depicted on my map by a dashed line).  But the rising waters of the Yadkin prevented the rest of Stoneman’s forces from crossing.  At that moment, Stoneman’s dispositions were terrible.  One brigade isolated from the rest of the command and an unfordable river at his back.  But after spending most of the morning in a foul mood, Stoneman settled comfortably with the knowledge that no organized Confederate force was anywhere close.  So March 30th was spent doing what soldiers often have to do – attempting to stay dry.

On the 31st the river continued impassable,” recorded Gillem.  Stoneman had the command move east, but still waited on the Yadkin to fall.  While waiting, the Federals fanned out on both sides of the river searching for forage, horses, and anything worth plundering.  The trailing brigade, Colonel John Miller, caught up with the main force east of Wilkesborough that day.  Meanwhile on the north side of the river, Palmer reached Roaring Creek to find it also in flood stage.

The waters subsided somewhat on April 1.  Palmer’s brigade moved to the milling community of Elkin and continued their heavy foraging.  Stoneman ordered the main column forward toward Jonesville on the south side of the river.  But the Yadkin remained too swift and deep for a crossing. Not until the next day did the waters fall to a point that a crossing could be effected.

Finally across the Yadkin, Stoneman united his command and made a dash for the Virginia state line on April 2.  His plan was to recross the Blue Ridge near the border and then re-enter the New River Valley to reach his assigned objectives.  The main line of march was from Jonesville, through Dobson, up to Mount Airy.  In addition to that movement, a portion of Palmer’s brigade advanced to Rockford.  This was a feint aimed at causing pause for any Confederates pursuing the column.  Otherwise, all of Stoneman’s horses rode north that day.

As the lead elements of Palmer’s brigade entered Mount Airy that evening, word came of a Confederate wagon train having left the town earlier in the afternoon.  Gillem directed Palmer send a force to catch the Confederates.  “An officer of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry had charge of the pursuing party, and after reaching the top of the Blue Ridge halted until the remainder of the command came up the next morning.”  Thus the vanguard of Stoneman’s force camped that evening in Virginia that evening and on the Blue Ridge.

From a larger context, Stoneman’s movements were having an effect on Confederate dispositions.  In Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, Confederate forces held as  Brigadier-General Davis Tillson’s infantry appeared to threaten that position.


To General P.G.T. Beauregard went the task of forming an opposition to Stoneman.  The first order of business, given reports of Federal activity at Lenoir, was to protect the North Piedmond Railroad which formed the backbone of the Confederate position at that time.  Urgency increased as reports came in regarding Stoneman’s movements from Wilkesborough and the raid into Rockford.  Beauregard pulled together what forces were available to form a series of defenses from Chester, South Carolina up to Danville, Virginia.

Another broad context to consider, thinking of the situation that existed on April 2, 1865, was what happened at Danville and to the east of that point.  Though he didn’t know it, Stoneman was threatening the Confederate retreat from Richmond.  But with his eyes on the Blue Ridge, some 4,000 cavalry troopers, and his orders in hand, Stoneman was not prepared to make any moves against Danville.

But that does not stop historians from pestering us with “what could have been” scenarios.   For what it is worth, Stoneman lost three days’ march distance on the Yadkin.  It is reasonable to say had that river not flooded at that time, Stoneman would have been well into Virginia.  But he would have been near Christiansburg, perhaps threatening Lynchburg, at that time, and not anywhere across the line of retreat from Richmond-Petersburg.  Stoneman was following orders, not seeking opportunities unknown to him at that moment.

Following Stoneman’s Raid by markers, for this leg there are stops at Roaring River, Elkin, Jonesville, Dobson, and Mt. Airy.  In addition, let me direct you to The Stoneman Gazette. On that blog Tom Layton is touching upon the many stories associated with the raid, particularly those of the civilians caught up in the middle.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, page 331.)

Sherman’s March, March 23, 1865: Sherman shuffles his command; Johnston throws in the towel

Over March 23-24, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman ordered movements to close the Carolinas leg of the Great March.  I’m mixing definitions there a bit, as “Great March” was somewhat a post-war term applied by the veterans as they recalled the roads from Atlanta to Washington, D.C.  On the other hand, at the time, operationally speaking, Sherman saw the march through South Carolina up to Goldsboro as the first phase in a larger movement to reach the trenches outside Petersburg.  We often forget, as we know how the movie ends, the high-level objectives in mind as the month of March closed.  Sherman was not so much concerned about crushing General Joseph E. Johnston at Bentonville, but rather keeping that force out of his way for the next march north to Virginia.

First priority for Sherman was to refit those four hard-marching corps which had tracked up from Savannah to Goldsboro.  To accomplish this, he planned to have the Left and Right Wings camp around Goldsboro where they would draw supplies off the railroads – both to Wilmington and New Bern, when both were repaired.  The Cavalry Division would camp near Mount Olive where forage appeared to be plentiful.  The Twenty-third Corps would move back to Kinston where it would be responsible for guarding the railroad line back to Morehead City.  And the Tenth Corps (Major-General Alfred Terry) would camp around Faison’s Depot to cover the railroad to Wilmington.  That general disposition of the force, now constituting three wings with Major-General John Schofield taking the “Center Wing,” would be in effect for several weeks through the middle of April.


The Fourteenth Corps crossed the Neuse the day before, being the lead of the Left Wing.  The Twentieth Corps took a little more time to move up.  One delay was the movement of the Fifteenth Corps across their line of march.  Though there were two pontoon bridges at Cox’s Bridge, the passage of three corps (plus the trail of the Tenth Corps) meant a lot of feet had to compete for time on the roads.

The Right Wing departed the works at Bentonville with the Fifteenth Corps in the lead.  Major-General William B. Hazen’s division crossed the Twentieth Corps’ line of march, but the remainder of the Right Wing waited for the Left Wing formations to pass. By the end of the day, the Right Wing camped around Falling Creek Post-office.  Well in advance, empty wagons of the Right Wing closed the depots south of Kinston to retrieve much desired supplies. Lieutenant-Colonel Ephraim Joel, Seventeenth Corps quartermaster, reported:

The road I came on is very good, and I will send the train back on the same road loaded with five days’ rations for the corps, and one-quarter of clothing at this point, which amounts to 600 hats, 3,000 blouses, 3,000 pants, 600 cavalry pants, 7,500 shirts, 3,000 drawers, 9,300 shoes, 1,800 boots, 4,500 stockings, and a few other articles of no consequence. The above is hardly enough for one division, but Colonel Conklin assures me I can get all the stores I want, consequently I will remain here until I do receive them. The railroad bridge is not finished across the river at this point. Stores will be slow in coming to the front. You will please order all the wagons to be emptied and sent at once to this point. I will see they are loaded with something. I will have all the wagons here loaded before I go to bed to-night, to be ready to start at daylight to-morrow morning. I have just heard that a large mail will be here some time during the night. I will retain wagons and send it as soon as I can.

For the soldiers on the march, good news was shoes and mail were soon to arrive.  But until the railroad was repaired, moving those supplies depended upon the wagon trains.

While the Right and Left Wings moved, Terry advanced the remainder of the Tenth Corps across the Neuse and into position to cover the crossing.  Around mid-morning, Terry sent a warning about Confederate cavalry which had crossed about two miles above Cox’s Bridge.  Though a small force, and with plenty of Federal troops on the roads, Terry was concerned, “these people may get around them and do some mischief.” Howard sent word to hold movements that afternoon while the Confederates were located.  The cavalry in question were likely from Brigadier-General Evander Law’s command who’d been posted along the River Road on the left bank of the Neuse.  From these patrols, Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton could report accurately the movement of the Federal forces.

In somewhat contrast to the work done by Confederate cavalrymen, Terry would inquire “Can you tell me where General Kilpatrick is?”  After covering the withdraw of the Right Wing, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s force made for Mount Olive as ordered.  Though we might fault Kilpatrick for being out of position – again.  But the fault was just as much Sherman’s for directing the cavalry out of the way in the first place.  At any rate, the Right Wing’s “organic” cavalry, consisting of mounted infantry regiments, were employed to screen movements.

General Johnston remained near Smithfield on March 23rd.  He also faced a logistic problem that took precedence over continued movement for his command.  Returns for his patchwork concentration (sometimes identified as the “Department of the South” or “Armies of the South”) indicated some 13,363 men, effective total. Those included the Army of Tennessee (Lieutenant-General A.P. Stewart), Lieutenant-General William Hardee’s Corps, and Department of North Carolina Troops (General Braxton Bragg).

Johnston first needed to draw upon the depots further up the railroad lines to resupply his force.  General P.G.T. Beauregard, Johnston’s second in command, was resourceful, but lacked resources.  Beauregard acquired some 30 wagons from the state to aid movement.  But the pressing matter was prioritization of the railroad assets.  Johnston’s back was now up against the depots which supplied General Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia.  Any disruption of the railroads would be felt on the lines outside Petersburg.  Sort of a logistical conundrum.

At 1:30 p.m. on the 23rd, Johnston reported the outcome of the battle of Bentonville to Lee.  “Troops of Tennessee army have fully disproved slanders that have been published against them,” Johnston could boast.  But the overall reality was Johnston had failed to inflict any serious injury on Sherman. Nor could Johnston conceive a means to do such damage in the future:

Sherman’s course cannot be hindered by the small force I have.  I can do no more than annoy him.  I respectfully suggest that it is no longer a question whether you leave present position; you have only to decide where to meet Sherman. I will be near him.

To this blunt assessment, Lee responded:

I am delighted at the conduct of Tennessee army.  I hope you will be able often to repeat your blow and finally shiver enemy.  Still we must meet the question.  Where, in your opinion, can we best meet Sherman?

Beyond Lee’s question was a practical one.  Could the Army of Northern Virginia shake free of the Federals around Richmond-Petersburg?  Well, on this same day, Major-General John B. Gordon recommended a surprise attack on Federal lines at a point called Fort Stedman.  Lee would approve this plan.  I don’t think that was just coincidence.  You see, by this time in the war EVERYTHING was related.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 973, 974, and 1454.)

Lee to Johnston: Calling attention to the “vital importance of checking General Sherman”

On February 23, 1864, General Joseph E. Johnston was one day into his command of the “southern army.”Note 1  He had yet to join the force.  Orienting Johnston to his new command, General Robert E. Lee wrote on the 23rd to offer his views as to the situation and how to deal with the threats which seemed poised to rip the Confederacy apart.  Lee began with an assessment of things – both internal and external:

General Beauregard, upon whose cheerful and zealous support I need not say you can fully rely, will apprise you of the present condition of affairs. Leaving the adoption of the best measures of defense to your skill and judgment, I will only suggest what has occurred to me from the information I have received. I have doubted whether it was General Sherman’s intention to move by way of Charlotte, Greensborough, and Danville, toward Richmond, as the difficulties attending that course would be very great. I thought that after a demonstration in [that] direction, laying waste the country and destroying the railroads, he would turn toward the coast and reopen his communications and endeavor to unite with the army of General Schofield, operating on the Cape Fear River. The latest intelligence from General Hampton would indicate that General Sherman is moving eastwardly toward Camden. Should such be his purpose the troops that withdrew from Charleston toward Monk’s Corner would be in some danger of falling between General Sherman and General Schofield, and I think it would be best to move them as rapidly as possible to Fayetteville, or any other convenient point whence they can proceed to General Beauregard’s army, or be otherwise used as you see fit.

Lee’s forecast for Sherman’s next movement was accurate.  So we can confirm that Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s attempt to mislead the Confederates, to think the next march was toward Charlotte, had fooled nobody save perhaps Kilpatrick himself and Beauregard.

Mentioning the need to move the former Charleston garrison to prevent being isolated touched upon the foundation of Confederate strategy during the winter of 1865 – keeping an army in “being” above all else.

Lee continued, turning to what might be done with the remaining elements of the Army of Tennessee:

The movement of General Sherman above suggested would also intercept the march of Stewart’s and Cheatham’s corps, which, as I understand, are advancing east of Columbia to join the forces under Beauregard in front of Sherman. If a junction of these troops cannot be effected at once with the rest of the army they should be kept upon the enemy’s flank so as to embarrass his movements until such time as they can be united with the others.

From there, Lee touched upon some points which were, for the most part, were more abstract than concrete:

I need not say that the first thing to be done is to concentrate all our forces and bring out every available man. If this can be accomplished in time to strike General Sherman before he reaches the coast or unites with Schofield, I hope for favorable results. His progress can be embarrassed and retarded by removing or destroying all kinds of supplies on his route, and I hope you will spare no effort to accomplish this object. You will have to depend upon marching, to a great extent, for the movement of your troops, and upon wagons for transporting supplies.

Somewhat apparent the goal should be to concentrate.  And space had to be traded for time for such concentration.  Any measurable delay in Sherman’s progress was important.

As for Bragg’s forces retreating from Wilmington, Lee made it clear who was senior, “Should your operations bring you within reach of the troops under General Bragg, and you find that they can be used to advantage, of course you will direct their movements.”  Working from the mention of Bragg, Lee made light of other Federal threats which might work with Sherman:

In this connection I call your attention to the fact that a column of the enemy is reported as preparing to move by Kinston toward Goldsborough, to oppose which there is only a small force under General Baker. If, on the other hand, General Sherman should advance northwardly toward Greensborough and Danville and we cannot check him, it will become necessary for this army to change its position. I am endeavoring to hold General Grant in check as long as possible and resist any attempt he may make to co-operate with the Federal forces in North Carolina.

And what assistance could Lee offer?

At this time nothing can be sent from here to your assistance, but should the enemy reach the Roanoke, I should endeavor to unite with you to strike him, or if opportunity occurred, to attack General Grant if he follows me rapidly.

But Lee would not manage the situation for Johnston, though he wished to press the seriousness of the situation (if Johnston was not sufficiently aware):

This outline will explain generally time posture of affairs. It is needless for me to call your attention to the vital importance of checking General Sherman and preserving our railroad communications as far as practicable. I rely confidently upon you to do all that the means at your disposal will permit, and hope for the most favorable issue. You can depend upon receiving all the assistance I can render. Please keep me advised of the enemy’s movements, and of your own, that I may be able to co-operate as far as practicable. It will be well to call upon the State authorities to set to work at once to repair the roads as they are left open by the advance of the enemy.

Responding to Lee, Johnston wrote the same day, providing dispositions and troop strengths for his subordinate commands:

General Beauregard has given orders for the concentration of all his forces. Lieutenant-General Hardee is moving by Florence and Cheraw, and Major-General Cheatham and Lieutenant-General Stewart by Newberry. In front of the Federal army are the cavalry and S. D. Lee’s corps, 3,000; Stewart and Cheatham. 3,200; Lieutenant-General Hardee’s, about 11,000; cavalry, about 6,000. I suggest that General Bragg’s troops join these. Can Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, assistant adjutant general, join me? I have no staff, that of the Army of Tennessee being dispersed.

As of the evening of February 23, 1865, Johnston had no staff.  He had very few troops.  And what he had were widely dispersed.  What he had plenty of were problems.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 1256-7.)

Note 1 – I’m borrowing the title “southern army” all lowercase from a message Beauregard sent to Lee on February 22, acknowledging Johnston’s appointment and effectively replacing Beauregard. I think it a good “loose” term that both defines Johnston’s authority and the task at hand. 

Sherman’s March, February 22, 1865: Another easy river crossing; Retaliation threats for murdered prisoners

By February 22, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces had crossed five large rivers in the march across South Carolina – Salkehatchie, South and North Forks of the Edisto, Saluda, and Broad Rivers.  And this is not counting the smaller streams along the way.  Thus far, only at the first, at Rivers’ Bridge, did the Confederates offer any lengthy delay to the march.  Even at Congaree Creek, the defenders only slowed the march by hours.  Turning eastward for the next leg of the march, Sherman’s men had to cross the Catawba-Wateree, Lynches, PeeDee, and Lumber Rivers before reaching the Cape Fear River.  If the Confederates were going to buy any time in order to concentrate forces against Sherman, they needed to make those river crossings difficult for the Federals.  By Sherman’s plans, the first of those rivers – the Catawba-Wateree – should be crossed on February 22.  Would the Confederates contest that crossing?


Starting the day, three Federal Corps acted along the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad around Winnsborough. For Sherman’s east turn to be successful, his cavalry had the important task of keeping the Confederate cavalry at bay, while the infantry conducted the pivot.  Sherman’s instructions to Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick were to take position and maneuver “so as to seem to be the advance of the whole army in the direction of Chesterville and Charlotte…,” and to cover the Fourteenth Corps as it turned east.  Sherman also wanted all railroad bridges on the Broad River destroyed to delay any Confederate reinforcements from Georgia.

In short, Kilpatrick was charged with a covering mission, with deception.  The only catch here, deviating from a classic covering force mission, Kilpatrick was not allowed to develop the situation to engage the enemy.  Little margin for error in that regard. But working in Kilpatrick’s favor, the Confederate cavalry was not very active at this phase of the campaign.  Discussing the period starting on the 22nd, Kilpatrick  summarized:

Here it was found that Hampton’s and Wheeler’s combined forces were in my front.  By demonstrations and feints, communications, and a well-timed interview with Major-General Wheeler, the enemy was not only deceived as to our real movements, but the deception was kept up for several days, and it was not until our army crossed [Lynches River] and the advance had actually reached Chesterfield and Cheraw that he discovered his mistake.

Reporting to Sherman on the 22nd, Kilpatrick indicated his troops had accomplished the secondary mission against the Broad River bridges and were watching the withdrawal of the rear elements of the Fourteenth Corps. (I’ve generally depicted the Cavalry forces arrayed on the map with dashed lines.  I’d interpret those as small detachments and reconnaissance parties.  Kilpatrick’s headquarters were at Black Stocks Station that day.)  Though Kilpatrick’s report makes things sound as if he’d conducted some great deception, in reality the guard force deceived the Confederates for a day, as will be seen below. Kilpatrick also reported other, more disturbing, developments that day, which we will discuss below.

The Fourteenth Corps ground up the railroad from White Oak to Cornwall, then began movement towards Gladden’s Grove.  The Twentieth Corps also spent time destroying the railroad in the morning before turning east.  The corps camped on the Catawba River that evening at Rocky Mount.   The Fourteenth Corps moved from just south of Winnsborough to Poplar Springs, putting them behind the Fifteenth Corps.  One small incident is worth noting in regard to Winnsborough. As Major-General John Geary’s division left the “pretty town” he left behind a detail maintain order.

Lieut. Gen. Wade Hampton, commanding the enemy’s cavalry forces, had left with the mayor a note pledging his word that any men of our army who might be left in the town as safeguards after the departure of the main force should be protected from arrest or injury if overtaken by any of his troops.

Geary left behind two mounted men, around whom the citizens “organized themselves” to “drive out a few stragglers.”  Confederate cavalry arrived the next day and honored Hampton’s word.

Major-General John Logan and the Fifteenth Corps had the task of getting over the Watree River at Peay’s Ferry (the Wateree was formed at the confluence of the Catawba River and Big Wateree Creek, just north of Peay’s Ferry, a location submerged today by Lake Wateree).   Logan dispatched First Division of his corps to demonstrate at Nichols’ Ferry, while the remainder of the force marched on Peay’s Ferry.  Reaching the river, the pontoon bridges went out across the river.  Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard later recalled:

The work of laying the bridge across the Wateree commenced at 1 p.m.  Our crossing at that point did not seem to be anticipated.  Here we found the country high and rolling and the banks of the river quite steep. General Logan crossed two of his divisions after the completion of the bridge.

The divisions across were Second and Third Divisions of the corps.  Once again, the Federals were across a river barrier with no opposition worth noting.

On the Confederate side, General P.G.T. Beauregard reported the disposition of his forces to Richmond that morning, indicating Sherman’s forces were in Winnsborough and advancing.  Major-General Carter L. Stevenson’s infantry were at Land’s Ford on the Catawba.  After evacuating Columbia on the 16th, Stevenson moved northeast escorting the various wagons and trains from the city.  Those troops crossed to the east of the river at Land’s Ford and moved towards Charlotte, North Carolina.  Remarkably, this cleared approaches to the Catawba just before the Federals reached the river.

Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s corps, along with much of the Army of Tennessee reinforcements, countermarched on the 22nd back to Newberry.  The bridges destroyed by Kilpatrick’s troops prompted a series of marches just to get across the Broad River.

In front of Kilpatrick’s cavalry, Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton was not fooled.  Reporting late that day to Beauregard, Hampton wrote:

Enemy are evidently moving eastward.  The Fourteenth Corps on the railroad. Sherman has moved to his right.  Kilpatrick is there also….

Thus all the designs to protect Charlotte were rendered invalid for the situation.  Beauregard dutifully reported this to Richmond that evening.

But the big news from the Confederate side on the 22nd was a change in command at the top.  With confidence in Beauregard reaching an all time low (… no comments…), General Robert E. Lee decided to bring General Joseph E. Johnston back to active service.   Officially, Lee gave Johnston command of “the Army of Tennessee and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.”  His primary task was to “Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.”  Beauregard would report to Johnston under this new arrangement.

However, in the midst of this day of railroad wrecking, marching, crossing rivers, and changing commanders, a problem left over from the Savannah Campaign re-emerged.  In Kilpatrick’s report to Sherman, he noted:

An infantry lieutenant and seven men were murdered yesterday by the Eighth Texas Cavalry after they had surrendered. We found their bodies all together and mutilated, with paper on their breasts, saying, “Death to foragers.” Eighteen of my men were killed yesterday and some had their throats cut. There is no doubt about this, general, and I have sent Wheeler word that I intend to hang eighteen of his men, and if the cowardly act is repeated, will burn every house along my line of march, and that can be reached by my scouting parties. I have a number of prisoners, and shall take a fearful revenge. My people were deliberately murdered and by a scouting party of 300 men commanded by a lieutenant-colonel.

As indicated, Kilpatrick had already sent note to Wheeler, who responded the same day.  Wheeler claimed the description of the troops did not match any Texas units under his command.  While agreeing the murders were transgressions that should be investigated, Wheeler preferred any punishment be inflicted upon the guilty parties and not against “innocent persons.”  Needless to say, Wheeler felt the threat of burning houses too brutal.

A cycle of claim and counter-claim was about to give way to retaliations.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 200, 687, and 859-60; Part II, Serial 99, pages 518-9, 533, 1247, and 1248.)

Sherman’s March, February 21, 1865: “Winnsborough is a pretty town”

At the three week mark in the march through South Carolina, Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns were well into South Carolina.  Although contact skirmishing occurred each day during the march, after Columbia the Confederate forces were ill-arranged to pose serious impediments to Sherman’s movements.  Thus, the Federal march orders and daily reports focused on waypoints and distances of railroad to destroy.


On the Right Wing, the Fifteenth Corps moved up to Longtown and Harrison’s Cross Roads, fronting Dutchman’s Creek.  Their movements were designed to reach Poplar Springs the following day to setup the next phase of movements.  The Seventeenth Corps continued its march towards Winnsborough, taking a direct route by road.  Detached brigades remained along the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad turning rails into bow-ties.

The Left Wing closed up on the same railroad to the north.  Major-General John Geary’s Second Division had the lead for the Twentieth Corps’ march that day.  Leaving his trains behind, his men neared Winnsborough at 11 a.m.

When within two miles of the town, I saw heavy smoke arising from it, and double-quicked my two advance regiments in order to reach it in time to arrest the conflagration.  This we effected with much labor, my troops performing the part of firemen with great efficiency.  About one square was burned before the fire could be arrested.

Geary did not say what started the fire.  However, he did find foragers from several corps in the town, which he immediately sent back to their respective commands.  Geary’s men were assigned details on the railroad and took their turn twisting rails.

The Twentieth Corps met no resistance on the march up to the town, nor encountered Confederates beyond the town. But dispatches on the Confederate side indicate Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton departed that point earlier in the day.  With insufficient force to oppose three converging Federal corps, Hampton opted to trade space for time.

Despite the fire, Geary was impressed with the town:

Winnsborough is a pretty town of about 2,500 population, the seat of justice for Fairfield District.  Among its residents were many refugees from Charleston. The surrounding country is well farmed and furnished abundance of supplies….

The Fourteenth Corps skirted around to the north of Winnsborough and went to work on the railroad line there.

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry moved on the left of, and parallel to, the Fourteenth Corps to arrive at Springfield Post-office.  Major-General Joseph Wheeler had finally gotten in front of the Federal advance, and was in position to spar with his West Point classmate again. From the Confederate perspective, with cavalry fronting the advance along the railroad and three infantry corps behind, it appeared that Charlotte, North Carolina was the next destination.

In Chester (or Chesterville), just north of the Federal advance, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s attitude swung from alarmed to emboldened.  Recall, the previous day he’d reported to Richmond that he lacked the forces to delay Sherman.  That evening he even suggested removing all ordnance stores from Charlotte as a precaution.  But on the morning of the 21st, Beauregard was suddenly feeling aggressive… and even had a plan!  To Richmond he telegraphed:

Should enemy advance into North Carolina toward Charlotte and Salisbury, as is now almost certain, I earnestly urge a concentration in time of at least 35,000 infantry and artillery at the latter point, if possible, to give him battle there, and crush him, then to concentrate all forces against Grant, and then to march on Washington to dictate a peace.  Hardee and myself can collect about 15,000, exclusive of Cheatham and Stewart, not likely to reach in time.  If Lee and Bragg could furnish 20,000 more the fate of the Confederacy would be secure.

Beauregard was correct to not count Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s long delayed column.  After spending two days at Newberry, the command marched twenty-one miles that day.  But lacking pontoons or other means to repair bridges, the column would return the next day to march a different route.  Yes, it was easier at that point in time to move troops from Virginia to Charlotte, than to move them across South Carolina.  A lot of it had to do with those iron bow-ties.

Further reducing Beauregard’s forces at the time of most need, Governor Andrew MacGrath determined to keep most of the state militia.  “This reduces my infantry to about 2,500 men,” reported Beauregard.  MacGrath, with the column himself, preferred to move those men east of the Catawba-Wateree River instead of fleeing to North Carolina.

As things happened to be working out, Sherman was also looking east of the Catawba-Wateree Line.  He would meet with Major-General Henry Slocum, commanding the Left Wing, in Winnsborough that day, and to Major-General Oliver O. Howard he instructed:

Slocum sends his pontoons and wagons to-morrow straight for the ferry at Rocky Mount Post-Office by Gladden’s Grove. He will keep four divisions breaking road up as far as the Chester District line, and aim to cross his whole command the day after to-morrow. Let Blair finish up the road good to this point, and then assemble at Poplar Springs and effect a crossing of the Wateree, prepared to get all across the day after to-morrow. Slocum will assemble his command at Gladden’s. Communicate with me there or at Rocky Mount. After crossing, Slocum and the cavalry will have the road from Lancaster to Chesterfield and you from your ferry straight for Cheraw, dipping a little south, to get on the Camden road. I will keep with the Twentieth Corps, which is Slocum’s right.

The Federals were about to pivot again.  This time to the east and towards the coast.  Three weeks on the march, and it was time to start seeking a base for resupply.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 687;  Part II, Serial 99, pages 513 and 1238.)

Sherman’s March, February 20, 1865: Howard instructs – “These outrages must be stopped at all hazards”

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.)