Sherman’s March, February 27, 1865: “I cannot dry up the river…” as floods continue to delay the march

Most days, as I draw the maps showing the route of march, I’ll have long blue lines running from point to point.  Today, you see none of that.  On February 27, 1865, all of Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns slowed and waited for the flood waters to fall.


For the day, Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders to the Right Wing were:

Owing to the freshet, the orders of march for to-day are so modified to make the first stage, to get everything across the Lynch as soon as it can be done, and then begin the march on Cheraw, for which three days will be designated.

The Fifteenth Corps built footbridges and laid some pontoons at their two separate crossing points.  Troops were across the river, but wagons could not cross.  So resupply was only accomplished by hand. The trouble faced at each crossing point was the river was not a single channel due to the flood.  In addition to the normal river width, the Federals faced overflows, often up to 1,000 yards, on each side. At Tiller’s Bridge, the 1st Missouri Engineers struggled against the overflows, and further worked to ease the concentration of forces at the crossing site:

The bridge of the first section over [Lynches River] was in good order, but the overflow on the west side was 700 feet wide and from three to four and a half feet deep; on the east side it was a half or three quarters of a mile wide.  We laid the ponton and built trestles on the west side fording the east side. The second section at 6:30 took out four boats and corduroyed the road across the creek in rear of the Third Division; then took up the bridge, went to [Lynches River] and worked the train until 10 p.m., when they were ordered to cross, which owing to the darkness, too until 4 a.m.

A long day for the engineers. At Kelly’s Bridge, Major-General William Hazen reported the positive news that, “The river at this point has fallen about three inches….”  Imagine, Sherman’s entire campaign was down to a measure of vertical inches of floodwater.

Seventeenth Corps likewise worked on bridging, and waited for the waters to fall.  Major-General Frank Blair described the area around Young’s Bridge:

… we found the road [and] bottom lands adjoining overflowed for a considerable distance on each side, the water being from two to six feet in depth for a distance of about 200 yards on west and 1,500 yards on east side.

By afternoon of the 27th, the Corps had some bridging done. “About 2,500 men were engaged upon the work, and comleted 850 feet of bridging and 7,000 feet of corduroyed road on stringers before 5 p.m….”  At the fore of the advance, Brigadier-General Manning Force reported some progress:

… my command in camp about three-quarters of a mile from the bridge.  I propose, it meeting your approbation, to cross all my train to-night and let the troops remain on this side until morning. In the event of heavy rain and the water rising will move at once.

The Right Wing would at least have passage over the river for the next day.

The Twentieth Corps made a movement of just a few miles on the 27th.  The main effort was to consolidate the trains on the east side of Hanging Rock Creek. Major-General John Geary reported the ford used had a “smooth, rocky bottom.”  Geary further observed, “The soil continues treacherous and full of quicksands….”

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry remained at Lancaster for the day, continuing the missions of guarding the left flank of the advance while putting up appearances of an advance on Charlotte.  In a note to Sherman, Kilpatrick proposed remaining on the flanks until the Fourteenth Corps was clear of the river crossings.  The cavalryman wanted to move from there through the headwaters of Lynches River instead of following the infantry.  As for his command and the Confederates he faced:

The country here is good; forage plenty. My command has been resting for two days, and is in better condition than at any time during the march. We have captured a large number of mules and some horses, and have mounted all my dismounted men, save 300. I think Hampton’s and Wheeler’s forces combined amount to about 6,000 fighting men. Notwithstanding this superiority of numbers, I shall attack if a favorable opportunity offers. The road upon which I shall march is the best in the country. I will keep you advised daily as to my operations and position.

Kilpatrick always seemed ready for a fight – one way or the other.  Sherman approved Kilpatrick’s plan of movement, though he reiterated the importance of maintaining communication.

It was at Rocky Mount Ferry where the anxious hours continued to burn away.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis still had the Fourteenth Corps astride the Catawba River. Davis shook things up a bit to cure what he felt was an inefficiency with the pontoons.  Davis was fed up with the work of the engineers to that point.  Brigadier-General George Buell, Second Brigade, First Division, assumed overall control of the bridge-laying operations.  With the change made, Davis reported to Major-General Henry Slocum, adjusting his itinerary, hoping to cross that afternoon.  Davis added:

This is the best that can possibly be hoped for under the circumstances.  I am doing everything that man can do, but I cannot dry up the river that separates my command; it has fallen about eighteen inches and is still falling.  I do not know what the emergency is in the front, but presume it must be very great, judging by the general’s dispatches, and am working accordingly.

Slocum retraced the route back to the crossing that day to personally ensure no more time was lost.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the pontoons, then following Buell’s instructions, laid a 680 foot long bridge about a half mile downstream from the original point.  Moore observed, “Here the current was not so rapid, and by 11 p.m. we completed the bridge….”  The first troops crossed over at midnight.  However, there was some difference of opinion which lingered after the war – was it Buell, persistence of Moore, or falling waters that enabled the crossing?  Perhaps all of the above.

While the bridging operations were going on, a foraging party met Confederate cavalry near Rocky Mount Creek.  The 104th Illinois had lost nine men from a foraging detail the day before, and on the 27th, a better armed party met an equally reinforced Confederate cavalry force.  The skirmish served to underscore the vulnerability of the Fourteenth Corps, as it struggled to catch up with the rest of the column.

The extended dispositions, with several columns outside range of mutual support due to the flood waters, did not go unnoticed on the Confederate side.  Major-General Matthew C. Butler reported to Lieutenant-General William Hardee, then in Cheraw with the forces withdrawn from Charleston, about an opportunity he noticed to his front.  “I think that if our troops were concentrated now and thrown rapidly upon the Fifteenth Corps very serious damage may be inflicted.”  Indeed, the opportunity appeared clear on any map one might draw.  The problem was that Hardee’s force was even less mobile than the Federals.  If the flooded rivers had isolated some of the Federal commands, it had likewise pinned the Confederate forces in place.  Butler went on to add his observations of Sherman’s supplies:

Prisoners taken on the 23d report Sherman’s army to have only five days’ rations, and were moving toward Wilmington or Georgetown. He has been foraging very extensively along his line of march, no house within reach of his main column has been passed by, and all supplies have been taken from the inhabitants by foraging parties of infantry mounted on captured horses.

As designed, Sherman’s command was living off the land as it moved.  But at some point, just as Butler and other Confederate commanders speculated, Sherman had to turn towards the sea for military supplies.  Though Sherman did not know at the time, Federal efforts along the South Carolina coast anticipated a move to a port facility.  Somewhat contrary to orders sent from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant, Major-General Quincy Gillmore pushed out from Charleston to the Santee River railroad bridge.  And Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren occupied Georgetown, South Carolina on February 25th.   While none of this changed Sherman’s agenda, it did leave question marks in the minds of many Confederate leaders.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 380, 427, and 689; Part II, Serial 99, pages 597, 598, 599, 600, 603, and 1288; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 170.)

Sherman’s March, February 26, 1865: “I cannot cross this stream…until the water subsides”

Since the start of the march into South Carolina in February 1865, Confederate leaders from Augusta to Richmond had cast plans which depended upon some delay imposed upon Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance.  Through most of February, the Federals maneuvered around and through military obstacles thrown in their way.  And the Confederate forces moved slowly, at times clumsily, towards a concentration.  But at the close of February, nature imposed a four day delay on Sherman’s march.  February 26, 1865 started with more saturating rains and rising flood waters.


At Rocky Mount Ferry, the Fourteenth Corps remained isolated on the west side of the Catawba River.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis countermanded the the attempt and everyone waited for the river to fall.  That morning, Davis reported to Major-General Henry Slocum, Left Wing commander:

Misfortunes never come single. The work of crossing the trains was continued last night until about 12.30 o’clock, when the bridge gave way in the center. All the boats but two have been recovered. The balking and planking were lost. The river is still rising, and it is doubtful if the anchors will hold the boats in their places against the heavy current. Material to reconstruct the bridge is being gathered from houses, and an attempt to relay it will be made as soon as possible.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, in charge of the pontoons, attempted to build another bridge that day in the face of a raging flood.  “… we took out the remainder of the pontoons and made hasty preparations to span the river some 500 yards below.” But Davis countermanded the the attempt and everyone waited for the river to fall.

On the east side of the river, the Cavalry Division remained in camp around Lancaster that day.  Aside from the flag of truce to pass messages between Sherman and Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, little transpired.  Although, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick did send a somewhat absent-minded note to Davis back at the river crossing, warning,  “The roads are very bad, and the streams much swollen.  Please inform me where you will encamp to-night, that I may protect your left flank.”  No doubt Davis spent some foul words contemplating a response.

Having been the object of Kilpatrick’s accusations two days before, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams defended the Twentieth Corps from those charges in a response written on the 26th.  In brief, Williams explained his provost-marshal had disciplined come cavalrymen for vandalizing a home.  Furthermore, any confusion about the right of way at the bridge on the 23rd was due to the cavalry wagons that Williams was entrusted with.  Nor had Williams intentionally destroyed horse fodder.   Williams brought his defense to a point:

General Kilpatrick speaks of his ability to “retaliate,” as though I had sent out men to harass his column, or had personally endeavored to affront him in some way. It would be puerile in me to disavow any such intention, and I really must protest against being held responsible for the conduct of bummers and stragglers.

Williams then closed, reminding that the Twentieth Corps was trusted with the safety of Kilpatrick’s 250 wagons, somewhat a trump card in the event “retaliations” would play out.  Sherman simply passed the message along, “There is no need of rejoinder.”

On serious matters, Williams was able to move the Twentieth Corps to Hanging Rock that day, over the roads corduroyed the day before.  Major-General John Geary provided another vivid entry for the day:

February 26, my division in the center marched at 7 a.m., following the Third Division, and having in my charge the trains of that division and my own. For three miles, to Russell Hill, we moved on the road taken yesterday by the Seventeenth Corps. At that point we diverged to the left, and at 1.30 p.m. reached Hanging Rock Post-Office, where we encamped. The weather to-day was warm and clear. Two-thirds of the road had to be corduroyed for our trains. In most places fence rails were abundant, and were quickly brought into requisition. The surface of the country since leaving Catawba River is crust with quicksand underneath. Wagons and animals everywhere except on the corduroy broke through the crust to the depth of three feet or more. Hanging Rock Post Office is near a creek of the same name. Near the ford where the main road crosses is a large projecting rock on the hill-side overhanging the stream, and giving it its designation. The place is noted as the scene of one of the minor conflicts of the Revolution, with which this State abounded in the days of Marion, Sumter, Cornwallis, and Tarleton; distance to-day, nine miles.


Geary, as was most of Sherman’s force, was finding the very ground of South Carolina more difficult than the enemy.

The Right Wing did make progress on the 26th.  The goal was to cross Lynches River that day.  Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps started in the morning with Fourth Division over Lynches Creek, and the remainder of the corps on the west side of that body of water.  With the rise of the creek overnight, Fourth Division had to take the lead again while the rest of the corps struggled over the creek.  Lead elements of the corps found Young’s Bridge over Lynches River intact (Confederate cavalry had used it earlier in the day).  However, as Blair reported:

Here, however, we found the road [and] bottom lands adjoining overflowed for a considerable distance on each side, the water being from two to six feet in depth for a distance of about 200 yards on west and 1,500 yards on east side. One regiment of Fourth Division waded along the road and through the swamp to the high ground beyond, where they intrenched a strong position for the purpose of covering the crossing.

With a small force over the river, Blair set his engineers to work building a foot-bridge to support them as needed.  All hopes were the river would fall during the night.

Major-General John Logan had the Fifteenth Corps split onto two axis of advance.  The Fourth and First Divisions moved against Tiler’s Bridge.  The Second and Third moved to Kelly’s Bridge.  A mounted column had secured these bridges the day before.  So orders that day called for the corps to reach Black Creek beyond.  But, again, the rains and mud upset the plans.  Logan described the situation his men encountered at Lynches River:

The rains of the previous week had so swollen this stream that, although the bridge remained, the water on each side was deep enough to swim a horse, and presented in its then condition an almost insurmountable obstacle to the crossing of our trains.

On his copy of the orders for the day, Logan wrote:

It is impossible to comply with this order…. If that is desirable I can swim my men and animals and cross with a destruction of ammunition and supplies. It is an easy matter to put an order on paper that cannot be obeyed, and then place the responsibility on those who fail to comply. I only have to say that I cannot cross this stream with my command under all the circumstances until the water subsides, and hereby protest against the order as being impossible to be obeyed.

However, the Fifteenth Corps did manage to get some troops across Lynches River that day.  At Tiller’s Bridge, Major-General John Corse had troops wade and swim to the far shore:

In order to secure the bridge and occupy the position designated in orders from corps headquarters, I succeeded in crossing one brigade of infantry and my battery, although the men were compelled to wade in the water to their waists, making a lodgment on the opposite bank at 12 m. Prior to the crossing of this force the foraging details from my own command, and others of the corps, had encountered the enemy’s cavalry and been driven in toward Tiiler’s Bridge, but were checked by the appearance of my infantry and the addition of a few mounted men of the Seventh Illinois Veteran Volunteers and orderlies attached to these headquarters.

Corse described “promiscuous skirmishing” with what turned out to be Major-General Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry.  Corse managed to cross all but a handful of companies from his division, but had to leave his trains behind for the moment.  He also singled out one soldier in particular:

In the skirmishing which took place I am pleased to mention the name of Corpl. Elijah G. Davis, Company I, Eighty-first Ohio Volunteers, with forage detail, who distinguished himself by refusing to surrender when attacked by four rebels, and fought hand to hand with them until he received seven wounds, and finally escaped death on the spot by the assistance of a comrade. His wounds, it is thought, will not prove fatal, and consist mainly of saber cuts.

Elijah G. Davis would indeed survive those wounds. Later moving to Colorado, he died in 1915.

At Kelly’s Bridge, further downstream, Major-General William Hazen reported getting two brigades and a battery over the river.  But as the case at Tiller’s Bridge, Hazen left his trains behind and started building foot-bridges over the river while waiting for the flood waters to ease.

One other column pushed out from the Right Wing that day.  Having word of Charleston’s fall, Major-General Oliver O. Howard dispatched Captain William Duncan and Lieutenant John McQueen, escorted by sixty mounted troops, with a message for the Federal commander in Charleston.  Duncan departed Federal lines late that evening.  They crossed Lynches River the next morning. But this force soon ran into a detachment of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry.  Though able to push aside the Confederates, Duncan was concerned after encountering such a large force, so he fell back.  So no updates from Sherman’s force would go out that day.  In the action Colonel Hugh K. Aiken, commanding a brigade in Butler’s division, was mortally wounded.

The skirmishing was slight on February 26th.  Instead what resisted and delayed the Federals most, and what was granting the Confederates a much desired time to concentrate, was the weather.  Perhaps a small consolation for the soldiers – at least it was not snow and ice.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 99, pages 380, 427, ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 583, 586, 589, 591, and 1288.)

Sherman’s March, February 25, 1865: “a broad, turbulent, and rising river, road without bottom, raining almost constantly”

During the last week of February 1865, the forces marching with Major-General William T. Sherman passed through the area between the Piedmont and Sandhills landform regions.  This was somewhat the reverse of the passage made only ten days earlier – from Sandhills to Piedmont – before reaching Columbia.

Parts of the Left Wing and the Cavalry Division were, on February 25, 1865, entering the area known as the Waxhaws.  Of course South Carolina being steeped in Revolutionary War history, many of the place names encountered along the march corresponded with actions from the previous century (such as Camden).  Perhaps just a quirk of fate, but as the march brought the combatants near the site of the Waxhaws Massacre, the topic of executing prisoners was at the fore of discussions.

Perhaps General Horatio Gates was able to complete passage across sixty miles of this terrain on August 16, 1780, during his flight from Camden. But on February 25, 1865, no-one was going anywhere quickly.  The rains made every stream a river and every road a quagmire.  Not only did Sherman’s march slow to a crawl, but the pursuit of Sherman’s forces likewise paused.  Brigadier-General William Allen’s cavalry, seeking to join with Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, who’d withdrawn to the area of Fort Mill, was stuck at Fishing Creek that day, far behind the Federal rear guard.  Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s column from the Army of Tennessee was still near Newberry, due to bad roads, lack of bridges, and general confusion.  The Confederates would miss an opportunity to isolate and possibly destroy a corps.


That corps was Major-General Jefferson C. Davis’ Fourteenth Corps.  Still attempting to cross the Catawba at Rocky Mount Ferry, the swollen river stood in their way.  Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the Left Wing’s pontoon trains, wrote:

 February 25, river still rising and the current becoming so rapid that I had to place heavy timbers on the lower end of the boats to prevent them from sinking or filling with water. During the 25th about two-thirds of the train of the [Fourteenth] Army Corps crossed and stopped at dark on account of the hill on the opposite bank. It commenced raining at 7 p.m., and I accordingly sent word to the quartermaster in charge of the remainder of the train that had not crossed that he had better cross it immediately; and consequently the teams were soon ready at the bridge, but made slow speed. At 12 p.m. the same night some 400 feet, midway the span, broke loose and washed violently away.

Those wagons that were across found the ascent up the bank nearly impossible.  The Second Division of the corps reported, “Three miles of corduroy road made by the division,” on that day.  Brigadier-General James Morgan, of the Second Division, summarized the difficulties of February 24th to 27th, “At this point was met the greatest detention and difficulties encountered during the campaign – a broad, turbulent, and rising river, road without bottom, raining almost constantly.”   Against this, the Fourteenth Corps made no progress on the map that day.

Considering the difficulty crossing the Catawba, Sherman prodded Left Wing Commander, Major-General Henry Slocum, that,

It is plain that we must reduce our trains. If you will order General Davis to burn his trains beyond the river and double his teams I can make up 100 or 200 wagons out of the headquarters trains and from Howard when we meet at Cheraw.  He could discriminate as to contents, giving the preference to those containing salt, sugar, coffee, and bread.  Of course the pontoon train must be carried along.

Slocum passed the suggestion on to Davis.  What I find remarkable is the number of wagons for this “light column” and that Sherman assessed he had ample replacements.  Again, the logistical arrangements of this march are an under-appreciated facet.

Further down the road, for the Twentieth Corps, it was the “road without bottom” that resisted movement.  Remaining in camps for the day, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams sent out detachments to repair and corduroy the roads in a “Cold; heavy rain….”

To the north of the Left Wing, the Cavalry Division moved into Lancaster.  Although briefly skirmishing with a Confederate detachment, the town fell without incident.  The important detail that day was holding a flag of truce to relay Sherman’s message to Hampton.  The Federal cavalry would stay a few days in Lancaster.

The Right Wing was able to move on the 25th, but with great difficulty.  The Seventeenth Corps took a direct road to Hough’s Bridge over Little Lynch’s Creek (today just Lynches Creek).  Major-General Frank Blair reported,

The advance division (Fourth) crossed and encamped about two miles east of the creek, the First Division on the west side of the creek, and the Third Division at Copeland’s.  While the Fourth Division was crossing the water rose very rapidly, rendering it impossible to cross the First Division before daylight.  During the night the First Michigan Engineers built a bridge about 250 yards in length across the creek.

Let me pause here to say that my depiction of the Seventeenth Corps’ movements for this day on the map above is a less than authoritative than I strive for. I have found no maps that match all the road network and placenames mentioned by Blair.  So the line is rather general, based on a consolidation of map sources.  If anyone can clarify the particulars of the route, I’ll be happy to give you a post!

The Fifteenth Corps closed up their columns near Pine Tree Church.  Brigadier-General William Hazen’s Division covered McCaskill’s Crossroads, enabling direct communication between all divisions.  Hazen also detached a brigade to follow the 29th Missouri Mounted Infantry in a dash towards the bridges on Lynches River (again, Lynch’s in the wartime dispatches).  Major Charles Burkhardt of the 29th reported around mid-day:

… I broke camp at daybreak this a.m. and marched to [Tiller’s Bridge], at which I arrived at 9 a.m., meeting up with no opposition and finding the bridge safe.  We captured 10 guns, 7 kegs of powder, and 20 prisoners.  There is another bridge four miles below.  The road is good to both bridges on this side.  On the opposite side the roads are swampy for about a quarter of a mile. I have picketed the road at both bridges and await orders.  My vedettes have just brought in a company of State militia, seventeen strong.

Using rapid mounted forces to infiltrate the road network, the Fifteenth Corps had secured another bridgehead over another important river in South Carolina.  This, you see, is what “shock troops” do.  However, that bridgehead was a fleeting hold.  It was not the Confederates who would cause issues the next day, but rather “a broad, turbulent, and rising river” again.  The two points were Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges.  And please note the base map used above has incorrectly labeled those. Tiller’s is the bridge immediately downstream from the mouth of Little Lynches Creek.  Kelly’s is downstream from there.

Major-General Oliver O. Howard reported that day he’d used the crossing of the Wateree to reduce his column somewhat.  “At the last crossing about 2,000 horses and mules were taken from men not authorized to use them. The unserviceable were killed. The artillery and mounted men and pontoon trains were refitted.”  In addition, Howard would issue a circular to his command in regard to the forager security:

The general believes that it is the enemy’s intention to kill our foragers after capture. Two were found murdered the other day and labeled “Death to foragers.” Two were killed this morning near General John E. Smith’s camp. General Sherman’s directions with regard to retaliation will be strictly carried out by corps and division commanders; yet it is enjoined again upon all officers to prohibit individual foraging.

Howard instructed that all parties would henceforth be strong enough to resist attacks by Confederate cavalry patrols.  Reinforcing earlier orders, each brigade would have an officer in command of foragers, with his name registered with Howard’s headquarters. This was a “positive” control measure by which the command could quickly determine the status of foraging parties. But with this circular came the instructions that retaliations were authorized and would be carried out.  The box was open and there would be consequences to this circular.

Incidentally, Howard assigned his signal officer, Captain P.A. Taylor, the forager duties for headquarters, Army of the Tennessee.   The signal officers always seem to get the additional duties – then and now.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 426, 483, 491, and 688; Part II, Serial 99, pages 565, 566, 571, and 572.)