Tag Archives: P.G.T. Beauregard

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.

StonemanMar30_Apr2

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.

StonemanMar30_Apr2_Operational

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.

NCMarch_March23

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.)