Sherman’s March, March 2, 1865: “To be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff”

During the first days of March, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman expressed some concern about Confederate concentrations in front of his force.  During the last days of February, Sherman’s columns were at a standstill as they dealt with flooded rivers. Orders to the Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, during that time were to wait until the Left Wing, particularly the Fourteenth Corps, caught up.  But the situation changed with the flip of the calendar page.  Reports, which were accurate reports, had a Confederate force under Lieutenant-General William Hardee in Cheraw.  Writing to Howard on March 1, 1865, Sherman dismissed any serious threat from those forces, but necessary objectives:

The enemy cannot hold Cheraw against us, because it is on a branch road and we can insulate it.  [General Joseph E.] Johnston, if there, will not fight with a bridge behind him.  We may have to cross the Peedee with a serious enemy in front, but we must not allow the Confederates time to fortify Cheraw.

So for March 2, Sherman wanted his columns to push on to Cheraw and thence over the PeeDee.

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The Fourteenth Corps, which perpetually seemed to be behind on the march through South Carolina, continued to catch up on the 1st.  In the lead that day, Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division reached Lynches River.  Morgan reported:

The roads to-day very heavy.  Long hard hills to pull up, but on the whole the roads were better than yesterday.  My command has made a first-rate march of twelve miles to-day.  Will cross the bridge with my command as soon as the road is completed and await further orders.

To this, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis replied that “no doubt you have made a good march to-day, but would have preferred you had pushed on for or five miles beyond the bridge.”  Davis ordered Morgan to be on the road again at daylight.   Screening the left of the Fourteenth Corps, the Cavalry Division made a modest march of only a dozen miles.

To the front of the Left Wing, the Twentieth Corps pressed on to Chesterfield and had one of its few engagements of the South Carolina march.  The troops had to look sharp, as Sherman himself accompanied them on the march that day.  Major-General Alpheus S. Williams had Brigadier-General Nathaniel Jackson’s First Division on point.  As the column neared Chesterfield, scouts reported Confederate cavalry on the road ahead.  Jackson deployed skirmishers from the 5th Connecticut and 141st New York, part of Brigadier-General James Selfridge’s Brigade.  “We drove the enemy, after exchanging many shots, and captured the town of Chesterfield without the loss of a man,”  recalled Selfridge.

The infantry followed up the cavalry to bridges over Thompson Creek beyond. Selfridge’s men kept effective fire on the bridges and prevented any attempt to destroy them.  The Confederates countered with artillery fire from the opposite side of the creek.  Escalating the action, Major John A. Reynolds, Twentieth Corps artillery chief, brought up a section of Battery I, First New York Artillery and Battery C, 1st Ohio Artillery.  The New Yorkers fired thirteen rounds.  The Buckeye artillerists added twelve solid shot and eight spherical case.  A first rate artillery duel, with the Federals gaining the upper hand before nightfall.

On the 2nd, Howard was increasingly anxious to move the Fifteenth Corps forward on the right side of the march. Though unavoidable, problems with the bridges over the Lynches River the day before had greatly delayed Major-General John Logan’s advance.  With repairs made overnight, the last of the Fifteenth Corps crossed Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges.   Thus a river crossing which had started on February 25 was finally complete – the longest delay in Sherman’s movements since leaving Savannah.

Three Divisions of Fifteenth Corps managed to reach Black Creek that evening.  A pontoon over that creek allowed lead elements to occupy New Market.  While Logan directed that traffic, Howard directed Major-General John Corse to move Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps forward to close the gap with Seventeenth Corps.  Receiving orders mid-morning, Corse broke camp at 1 p.m. and reported making six miles towards Cheraw that day.

Howard had Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps to hold position on the 2nd.  While not marching, Blair had two issues to deal with.  The first concerned the need to press forward and confusion between Sherman and Howard.  Late on March 1, Sherman addressed Blair directly:

The Twentieth Corps will be to-morrow night at or near Chesterfield. I want the Right Wing to move straight on Cheraw vigorously and secure if possible the bridge across PeeDee.  You need not suppose the enemy to be there in heavy force.  Big generals may be there but not a large force. At all events get across Thompson’s [Creek] on to-morrow and in Cheraw if possible. I will have men across the same stream about Chesterfield.  Communicate with me there to-morrow night.

Blair received this order around 10:00 a.m. on March 2.  But, “I was making preparation to move forward at once… when I received General Howard’s directions to wait,” Blair reported.  Not until late afternoon did Howard respond to clarify the orders.  “The general directs that in accordance with General Sherman’s instructions you move forward on Cheraw as early an hour as possible to-morrow morning.”  Not the time table that Sherman wanted, but the corps would move.

While waiting on the orders to be worked out, Blair dealt with another, more sensitive issue – that of retaliation for the execution of a forager.  Word came in the previous afternoon that a soldier from the 30th Illinois was found beaten to death.  The soldier was found at Blakeny’s Bridge, marked on the map above.  This was well to the rear of the Corps march, considering Blair’s instructions issued the previous day.  Satisfied from reports this was a murder of the manner described in Sherman’s message issued on February 23. Blair was thus compelled to issue, as the first paragraph for Special Orders No. 56, this response:

In accordance with instructions from the major-general commanding the army, directing that for each of our men murdered by the enemy a life of one of the prisoners in our hands should be taken, Mar. J.C. Marven, provost-marshal, Seventeenth Army Corps, will select from the prisoners in his charge one man and deliver him to Brig. Gen. M.F. Force, commanding Third Division, to be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff, Company H, Thirtieth Illinois Volunteers, a regularly detailed forager, who was beaten to death by the enemy near Blakney’s Bridge on or about the 1st day of March, 1865.

The prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps drew lots.  James Miller, a South Carolinian, drew the lot from among the prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps.

Miller’s execution is one of the most mentioned incidents of Sherman’s march through South Carolina.  Second only to the burning of Columbia, perhaps.  As such, that warrants a separate post with a look at some of the details.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 610 ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 628, 649, 650-1.)

Sherman’s March, March 1, 1865: “making a march of full twenty miles” out of the flooded sand hills

For the better part of five days at the end of February 1865, heavy rains, mud, and flooded rivers stalled Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance.  Aside from the defenses of Savannah, nothing had delayed Sherman’s progress as the Catawba and Lynches Rivers.  And for one additional day, the situation at Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges would resist movement… only for part of the day.

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With any flood comes a crest and eventual retreat of the waters.  Based on accounts, it appears the flooding of the Lynches River crested on February 26, 1865, but required several days to subside.  Behind the flood, the ground remained soft and difficult to traverse.  In spite of bridging and corduroying, passage through the bottoms was difficult.  With heavy traffic, the bridges, which had taken so much labor to construct, failed. Commander of the Right Wing, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, accompanied First Division, Fifteenth Corps, under Major-General William B. Hazen, that day, crossing at Kelly’s Bridge.  Howard recalled:

March 1 the water had subsided so much that a roadway completely practicable was finished by noon at Tiller’s Bridge, while at Kelly’s General Hazen finished his plank bridge about 3.30 p.m.,of nearly a half mile in extent. But owing to the want of sufficient breadth of the trestles, and their resting upon a quicksand, the bridge racked over under the weight of heavy wagons, and part of it had to be reconstructed.

Hazen did get two brigades across to secure Kellytown.  But at the bridge, Third Division, under Major-General John Smith, repaired the bridge and waited to cross.

At Tiller’s Bridge, Major-General John Logan supervised the other two divisions of Fifteenth Corps:

The water having fallen sufficiently to warrant an attempt at crossing our trains, on the 1st of March the crossing was attempted, and by raising our hard bread and ammunition five or six inches in the beds of the wagons the Fourth Division train and a portion of the First Division passed with little or no damage, but before General [Charles] Woods could pass the whole of his train it was necessary to build another bridge of considerable length, so that it was not until the morning of the 2nd of March that he succeeded in crossing the last of his wagons.

As Logan stated, Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division had crossed all but its trains.  Corse reported reaching Black Creek at 8:30 p.m. that evening, “where I placed my command in a defensible position with reference to my rear and flanks, the front being protected by the creek and swamp…. No enemy has been developed in my front just far.”

Being far in the advance, the Seventeenth Corps held position on March 1, only closing up the trailing wagon trains.  However, Major-General Frank Blair sent out a brigade, under the direct command of Major-General Joseph Mower, to probe for Confederates in the direction of Cheraw. “They encountered the enemy in strong force at the crossing of the Chesterfield and Society Hill road, developed their position, and withdrew.”  The Confederate forces were at that time busy evacuating Cheraw, and this only added to the haste.

In his spare time that day, Blair wrote Special Orders No. 55.  The order addressed the need, again, to reduce the number of excess animals accumulated with the column and procedures for foragers.  Of note, Blair insisted, “the great number of mounted men that are exploring the country in advance of not only the infantry but the cavalry renders any effort of the latter to obtain information concerning the enemy’s movements perfectly futile.”  Blair went on to say:

Foragers are captured every day, and every one captured is a source of information to the enemy.  The most stringent measures must be taken to prevent foraging in front of the columns. The operations of foraging parties can be extended to the flank as far as the commanding officer may see proper to go.

From this point on, Blair’s officers would arrest any foragers found in front of the column.  But it didn’t stop the practice.

For the Left Wing on March 1, the pieces finally moved at once.  Finally free of the Catawba River, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis made good time catching up with the rest of the army.  That evening, Brigadier-General James Morgan, Second Division, reported reaching Clyburn’s Store, “making a march of full twenty miles….” The other two divisions of the corps were near Hanging Rock that evening.

The Twentieth Corps also made a respectable march that day, crossing Lynches River and camping on the road to Chesterfield.  Major-General John Geary recorded:

March 1, my division in rear, moved at 11:40 a.m.; crossed Big Buffalo Creek, and further on, Lynch’s [River], where we found a good bridge at Miller’s Mill.  Slight rain all day. The roads, generally, were good. At the hills bordering on the creeks we had considerable corduroying to make. The country was poor, with sandy soil, and thinly settled by “poor whites;” distance, twelve miles.

On the far left flank of these movements, the Cavalry Division proceeded out of Lancaster on the roads to Chesterfield.  Behind them, later that afternoon, Confederates under Major-General Joseph Wheeler entered Lancaster.  Wheeler reported,

I think Kilpatrick is camped to-day about six miles from here, where he is throwing up breast-works.  The Fourteenth Corps only left the river this morning.  We captured a few of their foragers, who were in advance.  The opinion of citizens who conversed with officers is that the enemy will leave Charlotte to the left.  There is talk among the officers that they are going to Goldsborough.

General Joseph E. Johnston voiced a similar opinion earlier in the day, when describing the situation to General Robert E. Lee in Richmond.  “Our cavalry on their right think them moving toward Florence or Cheraw.”  Johnston went on to say, in a lengthier message later in the  day, “The route by Charlotte, Greensborough, and Danville is very difficult now, as you remark…. It seems to me, therefore, that he, General Sherman, ought not to take it.  His junction with General Schofield is also an object important enough, I should think, to induce him to keep more to the east.”

So much for all those efforts by Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick to deceive the Confederates as to Sherman’s intentions.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 201, 229-30, and 1123; Part II, Serial 99, pages 630, 635, and 1297.)

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.

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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.)