“Such is the case wherever they go.”: The lawless situation in the wake of Sherman’s march

Colonel George G. Dibrell commanded a brigade of cavalry in Brigadier-General William Humes’ Division, Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry.  Humes’ command had faced some of the initial Federal movements in the South Carolina march.  For much of February 1865, Dibrell’s men dogged the Federal columns.  But like much of Wheeler’s force, they were scattered too thin to impede Major-General William T. Sherman’s advances.   February 26, 1865 found Dibrell just south of Gladden’s Grove, at Wateree Creek, caught up like others with the rains and floods. So like a good officer will, he reported his status to higher headquarters:

We wrote you yesterday by a scouting party from the Eighth Confederate that the enemy had all crossed the river and that we would move down toward Peay’s Ferry and Camden and try to cross, and sent out scouts night before last to ascertain the condition of things, when they found every boat destroyed and no means of crossing the river. Wateree Creek was past fording, and we moved up it and got upon this road and are moving this morning to Landsford and will cross the Catawba first chance.

In perspective to Federal dispositions that day, Dibrell was about ten miles west of the Fourteenth Corps position at Rocky Mount Ferry.   Though, based on details offered by Dibrell, the Confederates were not appreciative of the Fourteenth Corps problems crossing the Catawba River.  Though Dibrell did know the Right Wing had crossed at Peay’s Ferry. But Dibrell was stuck just like the Federals to his front, and unable to pursue.  He was, however, looking for a crossing further upstream on the Catawba.

Dibrell went on to describe the state of his command and opportunities – both missed and contemplated:

Our men ran out of rations yesterday and every mill on this side has been burned by the enemy, consequently we will move as rapidly as possible until we can get out of this section and to where we can get rations, and will overtake you as soon as possible. If we had been one day sooner could have got 100 stragglers. It would be of great service to people to have a force in the rear all the while to prevent these stragglers committing so many depredations. If we can cross at Landsford will do so; aim to reach that vicinity to-night, and would be glad to receive orders as to what to do there. Unless otherwise ordered shall move up to the command, unless I can see an opportunity of accomplishing something in the rear.

Dibrell described the Federal activity on the march:

The enemy have large droves of cattle and very large wagon trains, all guarded by infantry. Sometimes large guards and at others small. Negroes report they hung eighteen Confederate soldiers in retaliation for killing theirs, but I can’t find out certainly. They say it was done between Wateree Meeting-House and Rocky Mount. I have sent a scout down this side the creek to learn certainly.

We see here the “rumor mill” at work during war.  The forager murders and threatened reprisals, which were a topic being discussed at the highest levels, left fertile ground for all sorts of stories.

But what I find most informative is Dibrell’s description of the wake of Sherman’s march through Fairfield County:

They burned a great many houses through the country, robbed every one, have caused negroes to take everything they wanted out of houses, and defied the owners to molest them. We yesterday saw a Mrs. Mobly (whose husband is in Second South Carolina Cavalry), an intelligent lady, living in a negro cabin, and her negroes in possession of her clothing, bedding, bacon, &c. I sent a detail and had it all gathered up and returned and her moved to another house. Such is the case wherever they go. A small party could accomplish much for citizens in regulating negroes. I am more than willing to bring up the rear if I can so arrange it as to feed the men, and hope not to be bothered by high waters again. It has rained incessantly and every creek is overflown. The Yankees cleaned out every horse, mule, and cow in their line. Their infantry treat citizens much worse than cavalry. All express the greatest horror at the idea of falling into the hands of Wheeler’s cavalry.

What Dibrell brings light to, and which is corroborated by civilian reports written during the war, is the stripping away of law enforcement as the Federals moved through.  Let me make sure this is phrased so the point is made – as the Federal columns moved through, the local officials – police, sheriffs, constables, judges, and such –  were noticeably absent from many communities.  While the Federals were in an area, there was some enforcement by military authorities.    But that was usually focused on military-to-civil affairs. If the provost marshal was not handy, the soldiers were ill-equipped or motivated to deal with civilian-to-civilian matters of law and order.

Keep in mind, with the very arrival of the Federal columns, something dramatic changed with respect to just WHO was a civilian.  Emancipation marched forward with the men in blue coats.  Thus creating a very interesting – to say the least – situation in regard to… for instance … property rights.  Consider well the word choice offered by Dibrell here: “[The Yankees] have caused the negroes to take everything they wanted out of houses….”

But, there’s another layer to this problem.  Many of these communities had long been heavily “policed.”  With large numbers of slaves held in bondage, enforcement of rules was vital to the society.  War exacerbated that condition – fewer able-bodied men at home, competition for resources, more threats to civilian well-being, and other encounters (say like escaped prisoners or deserters) brought in directly by the war.  As the war neared, in January 1865, call-ups of militia further depleted manpower and reduced law enforcement forces. Many parts of South Carolina were already, for all practical purposes, police-states.   And some sectors had only military authorities as a practical law enforcement force.  The arrival of the Federals pealed away what was left (as I mentioned was the case with Columbia).  After that there was nothing in place, save some passing troops like Dibrell’s, to restore any semblance of order.  In time, officials returned and some order restored.  But even then, the restoration was not evenly or completely accomplished for many months.

And again, the fine point I’m calling out here is not so much “just enforcement” but simply having “any enforcement” of law and order…. the former would lead us into a discussion of Reconstruction and stuff of the post-war decades.

When we consider the state of South Carolina in April 1865, we must recognize the forces which contributed to the destruction and desolation.  The Federals, the Confederates, and even the South Carolinians themselves all had a hand in creating the rubble.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 1283.)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Marching Through Georgia, November 26, 1864: “A Rapid Ride to Millen” by the Cavalry

Often the discussion of cavalry operations during the March to the Sea begins with “Kill-cavalry again?” and ends somewhere with references to silver platters.  The real story is a bit more complex.  During portions of the campaign, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s division provided security for the two wings of the march.  At other times, Kilpatrick’s command also went out on long range raids of the type that always seemed to bring trouble.

Kilpatrick’s division consisted of two brigades.  The First Brigade, under Colonel Eli Murry, contained the 8th Indiana Cavalry; 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Kentucky Cavalry; and 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry.  Murry’s command was 2,800 strong at the start of the campaign.  Second Brigade, with 2,700 troopers under Colonel Smith Atkins, had the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry; 3rd Indiana Cavalry; 9th Michigan Cavalry; 5th, 9th and 10th Ohio Cavalry; and the McLaughlin (Ohio) Squadron.  Not brigaded were the 1st Alabama (US) Cavalry and 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry, which were employed to security details supporting the infantry columns.  The 10th Wisconsin Battery, under Captain Yates Beebe provided the only horse artillery for the march.  Initially four guns, Beebe “upgraded” to a six gun battery with two captured Ordnance Rifles at Lovejoy’s Station.

Kilpatrick’s chief opponent, Major-General Joseph Wheeler, had three divisions, but saw those detailed out over the campaign for various assignments.  At Sandersville on November 25, he had portions of Brigadier-General Alfred Iverson’s, Brigadier-General William Humes’, and Brigadier-General William Allen’s divisions.

When Kilpatrick left Milledgeville on November 24, his orders were to launch a raid aimed at breaking the railroad connecting Augusta and attempt a rescue of prisoners at Camp Lawton outside Millen.  Such a move would also raise alarms in Augusta, with the hope of the same effect as at Macon a week earlier.  As mentioned earlier, Kilpatrick’s division moved out along the same route as the Fourteenth Corps, then began the run northeast.  These were long marching days.  Beebe recorded his battery covered 123 miles between the 24th and 27th. The troopers continued on to the Shoals of the Ogeechee, some reaching that point by the evening of November 25.  There the Federals tripped the Confederate picket line.

When notified that Federals had hit Confederate pickets at the Shoals of the Ogeechee in the evening of the 25th, Wheeler left part of Iverson’s command to delay at Sandersville, and moved on the main road to Augusta.  I’m not completely sure as to what units Wheeler had with him, but his reports reference Humes’ Division (with brigades under Brigadier-General Thomas Harrison and Colonel Henry Ashby) and brigades under Brigadier-Generals Robert Anderson and George Dibrell from Iverson’s (I have fragmentary evidence that Allen’s Division remained with Iverson at that time).

Through the 26th both cavalry columns raced towards a point labeled Sylvan Crossroads on the map (which generally presents the respective routes of march).


During the night, Kilpatrick dispatched a flying column under his Adjutant-General, Captain Llewellyn Estes, to complete the raiding tasks.  While Estes would drive on toward Camp Lawton, Captain Edward Hayes (another of Kilpatrick’s staff) would lead a detail to destroy the railroad bridge over Briar Creek.

The only lengthy first hand account I’ve ever located appeared in an 1883 issue of the National Tribune, written by Julius B. Kilbourne.  In a section titled “A Rapid Ride to Millen,” Kilbourne described Estes’ advance:

A little after daylight we stopped at a farmhouse where there was corn and fodder for our horses, and rested an hour or so.  While the boys made coffee to soften up their “hardtack,” the servants of the horse brought us some sweet potatoes and a little bacon, which gave us a good breakfast. Shortly after sunrise we were again in the saddle, having ridden within the past twenty-four hours over sixty miles. During the night we had passed several towns, the names of which we did not know; but the negroes told us we were still forty miles from Millen.

During the forenoon we made good progress, meeting with no opposition. About the many plantations which we passed we saw no one but now and then some gray-haired man walking about the house, looking at us as we passed. Their sons and their sons’ sons were all in the rebel service.

At noon we made another short stop to feed and water.  Here we in some way got the impression that the prisoners had been sent away from Millen, but could not altogether credit the report, but as we advanced the evidence became more conclusive.  About 4 o’clock we came in sight of the prison pen in which our poor boys had suffered so keenly – even death itself. How our hearts leaped with joy at the sight and at the thought that we should be able to effect their release!

Millen is situated on the Savannah and Charleston Railroad, and the stockade some distance to the north and near the branch road running to to Augusta.  Maj. Estis, with his scouts, made a reconnaissance, capturing the guard, – some thirty that had been left behind, – who informed us that the prisoners had been removed the Tuesday before, and that most of the officers had been sent to Columbia, S.C., while the privates had been taken south on the Gulf Railroad. After destroying the stockade and its surrounding buildings, Major Estis, with his command, as ordered, joined Kilpatrick south of Waynesboro’….

I would point out, in the interest of clarity, that it was the Augusta & Savannah Railroad running through Millen.

While Estes came up empty at Camp Lawton, Hayes managed to damage the railroad and burn part of the bridge.  To cover these advanced forces, Kilpatrick planned to move towards Waynesboro in force on November 27.  At the same time, Wheeler planned to move in force on his own – to intercept Kilpatrick.  These movements setup the first in a series of cavalry actions around the town that would take place over the week to follow.

(Citation from The National Tribune, Volume II, No. 40, May 17, 1883, page 1, column 5. Digital copy in LOC collection, online.)