Sherman’s March, February 10, 1865: “No better opportunity ever offered to break Wheeler up”

February 10, 1865 was not a day of great advances for Major-General William T. Sherman’s command.  The armies closed up, completed destruction of a railroad, and positioned for the next phase of the march.  From the perspective of 150 years, the activities of this day well demonstrate against the myths of Sherman’s passage through the Palmetto State – it was not simply a string of destructive marches, but rather a series of smart operational movements that both gained objectives and avoided major engagements; and the march was not unopposed… rather, it was opposed with a decentralized, disorganized response.


The longest march for the day was by elements of the Fourteenth Corps as they caught up. Major-General Absalom Baird’s Third Division reached Barnwell that day.  After posting a guard “keeping order and guarding the families that remain,” Baird reported “All is very quiet and orderly.”  Baird also began reviewing the line of march for the next day, in the direction of Williston.  Behind Baird, Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division reached a point eight miles from Barnwell.  Traveling another road, Brigadier-General William Carlin’s First Division, along with most of the trains for the Corps, reached Fiddle Pond.  The Major-General Jefferson C. Davis could report the marches were easier, having finally left the swamps behind.  But Sherman was still governing the advance to allow the trailing corps to catch up.

Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps could say they re-joined the Fifteenth Corps on February 10.  That evening, the troops arrived at what had been Graham’s Turnout on the South Carolina Railroad. They prepared to cross the South Edisto as the rear guard of the corps on the 11th.

Both the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps spent the day completing their railroad destruction tasks and moving to new camps astride the Edisto.  Second Division, Fifteenth Corps (Brigadier-General William Hazen) completed crossing that day.  Third Division (Brigadier-General Manning Force) of the Seventeenth Corps joined First Division (Major-General Joseph Mower) across the river.  The other divisions of the Right Wing (except Corse’s) went into camps near the crossing points and prepared to march the next day.

The previous day, Sherman complained to Major-General Henry Slocum that the Twentieth Corps work on the railroad was insufficient.  “Tell Williams I have inspected his work [at Blackville], and the bars are not twisted; better do half the quantity, but do it thoroughly; unless there be a warp, the bar can be straightened.” So Major-General Alpheus S. Williams and his corps spent the morning focused on railroads.

At 1 p.m. orders came to move the Twentieth off to two crossing points of the Edisto.  Third Division, Major-General William T. Ward’s, marched towards Guignard’s Bridge, but found it undefended but burned.  Most of Ward’s division remained at Williston while engineers repaired the bridge.  Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, taking the lead for the first time in South Carolina, advanced on Duncan’s Bridge with the First Division following.  Geary started the eight mile march at 2 p.m.  He also found no Confederates but a damaged bridge:

With my infantry I crossed before dark and encamped on the north side, on the plantation of Mr. Winningham.  Neither my artillery nor any of our horses could be taken over until the bridge was repaired.  Duncan’s Bridge (better known among the inhabitants as New Bridge) comprises six bridges, with causeways connecting them, the entire crossing being about one mile in length.  Three of these bridges, including those across the two main channels of the South Edisto, had been burned by the enemy, and required much work to repair them.

Geary also noted, “The country along the Edisto is a rich one, and the resources for subsistence and forage were abundant.”

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division also focused on railroad wrecking that day… along with patrols to feel out the Confederate forces.  Around mid-day, Kilpatrick reported, from Johnson’s Turnout, his progress and described Confederate activity:

Have just driven out a brigade of rebel cavalry, and find that Wheeler has concentrated the majority of his troops at Aiken, and is now in line of battle, barricading his position two miles this side of Aiken. We have had considerable skirmishing, but nothing more. This is a splendid country; plenty of forage and supplies. The enemy now believe that we are marching on Augusta; such, at least, is the impression among the citizens. Anderson’s division crossed Cook’s Bridge last evening, and passed this point. Wheeler’s command is at this moment passing up from the direction of the river to my front and forming lines at a trot. I will not attack until I hear further from you.

To this, Kilpatrick offered a suggestion:

No better opportunity ever offered to break Wheeler up; but as he may have supports of infantry I do not consider it prudent to attack. Could he now be driven back and Aiken captured we could secure a large amount of provisions, needed by my command, and I think a wrong [impression] be produced upon the minds of the enemy which he could not correct until it would be entirely too late. If you will send me a brigade of infantry from the Twentieth Army Corps, which must now be this side of Blackville and consequently less than a day’s march from this point, I will render Wheeler powerless to even annoy your flank or wagon trains again during the campaign. … I hope, general, that the suggestion in this communication contained will meet with your approval, and that you will give me an opportunity of disposing of Wheeler’s command. I will break road until I am attacked, in which case you can rest easy as to the result.

Kilpatrick seemed perpetually placing himself upon a faltering pillar.  Insistent on setting up his own fall.  Sherman, however, could not afford some repeat of February-March 1864 in South Carolina:

I cannot change my plans now, as they are in progress. I don’t care about Aiken, unless you can take it by a dash, and as Wheeler’s attention is drawn to that quarter you can let it work. … t won’t pay to have infantry chasing Wheeler’s cavalry; it is always a bad plan, and is injurious to detach infantry, save for a day or a single occasion.

Aiken was a diversion, and not an objective.  And demonstrations don’t get more resources than absolutely needed.  (Keep this in mind for tomorrow’s post… and the battle of Aiken.)

The Confederate command made adjustments to Kilpatrick’s presence, threatening Aiken and thus the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia.  Fearing a Federal strike back into Georgia, Major-General Daniel H. Hill called for reinforcements.  Major-General Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps, just arriving from the west, was dispatched across the Savannah River.  Hill urged “The preservation of the factory at Graniteville” just west of Aiken, asking Cheatham to dispatch 500 men to that point on the railroad. The factory was a textile mill owned by William Gregg, engaged in making uniforms for the Confederate Army.

In response to the Federal cavalry, Major-General Joseph Wheeler began shifting his cavalry off the South Edisto towards Aiken, just as Kilpatrick reported. This uncovered the area between the forks of the Edisto, which caused Major-General Carter L. Stevenson no small worry.  To Major-General Lafayette McLaws, Stevenson urged, “Send some cavalry to guard the North Edisto. From Rowe’s Bridge to its mouth it is uncovered.” Exacerbating the situation, the forces Stevenson detailed to guard the approaches to the North Edisto, in front of the Federal bridgeheads, withdrew before orders pinned them to their posts. Slow dispatches and Wheeler’s shift worked to remove most opposition in the way of Sherman’s planned movements for February 11.

The problem for the Confederate commands here was lack of unity.  Matching Hill’s worries about Augusta’s safety, Lieutenant-General William Hardee was concerned about Charleston.  The Confederates were willing to give up the port, but were not quite ready to leave at that time.  Detachments from the Army of Tennessee (Stevenson and Cheatham) did not directly fit under either of those commands. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was responsible for coordinating these actions, was in Columbia that day.  But he might as well been on the moon, as he offered little clarity or guidance.  The situation was foggy at best.  Where was Sherman heading?

To be fair, Sherman himself was in a fog.  For several days he had acted in belief that only Wheeler and detachments from McLaws command opposed his movements.  The reports about troops from the Army of Tennessee were discounted as simply vanguard elements of small strength. That is until the 9th with prisoners brought in from Stevenson’s command (and other contact).  This caused a little pause from Sherman as he quickly recalculated the situation.  That evening, amended orders went out:

 I want to have the road broken up good from about Orangeburg up above the State road, Mathews’ Post-Office, but would prefer that one corps should do the work, leaving the Fifteenth to follow a course more to the west in support of the Left Wing, in the event of Dick Taylor having got to Augusta with Hood’s old army. Slocum’s orders will take him by the most direct road possible to Columbia, but making to his left about the Sand Hills in case he comes in contact with one of your columns.

Orangeburg and the railroad were still objectives.  But Sherman would proceed with a little more caution.  One can see some of this caution in the response to Kilpatrick, regarding Wheeler and Aiken.  There was as stark difference in the “active” response to Sherman as opposed to the “inactive” stance of Beauregard on the evening of February 10.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 684; Part II, Serial 99, pages 364, 373, 381, 382-3, 1144, and 1146.)

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.)



January 20, 1865: Logistic constraints and rains delay Sherman’s movements

Following the Confederate withdrawal from Pocotaligo on the night of January 14, 1865, Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps consolidated positions for its foothold in South Carolina (Point #1 on the map below).  Immediately, Federal officers began looking at the Confederate line along the Salkehatchie River for possible crossing points.


Further south, Major-General Henry Slocum’s Left Wing had established a division-sized foothold in South Carolina earlier in the month.  Shortly after the Confederate withdrawal back to the Salkehatchie River, Brigadier-General William T. Ward’s division moved up to occupy New River Bridge.  From there Ward’s men made contact with cavalry from Blair’s corps.  On January 17, Ward moved further inland to Hardeeville, finding nothing but road obstructions to resist the march (Point #2).  This was, on the map, a promising position.  Slocum began moving the remainder of the 20th Corps, under Major-General Alpheus Williams, across the Savannah River in order to exploit.

However, unlike the aggressive movements that characterized the Savannah Campaign, the Federals did not take immediate advantage of the Confederate actions.  Maj0r-General William T. Sherman originally intended to have both wings of his army moving by mid-January.  But several factors forced that schedule to shift to the right.  Two constraints began to work against against Sherman.  Both can be summed up in a word – logistics.  Because Savannah’s main channel remained blocked for normal use, all supplies sent to Sherman’s command had to pass through the dock at Thunderbolt.  Those facilities were simply not sufficient to support four army corps.  And the channel allowed only light draft vessels.  So the buildup of supplies needed for the push into South Carolina required more time.  Furthermore, the movement of the Fifteenth Corps, which also used Thunderbolt and required light draft vessels, could not take place within in a timely manner.

The first adjustment with these constraints was to change the Fifteenth Corps’ movement orders.  Instead of moving by way of boat to Beaufort (Points #3), orders came down for Major-General John Logan to move those troops (minus one division already on Port Royal Island) by way of Union Causeway to join the rest of the Right Wing (Points #4).  Also using that causeway were two divisions of the Twentieth Corps moving up to reinforce Ward’s advance position.  So five divisions would use that one path through the rice fields leaving Savannah.

There and then the weather, which had been generally favorable through November and December, turned against Sherman’s columns.  A strong front brought rains.  Off shore, this disrupted shipping.  Ashore, this brought flooding and made the roadways muddy.  The rains were so bad that on January 19, Williams requested (and was granted) permission to hold his last division, that of Major-General John Geary, in Savannah. The following day, reporting from the causeway, Williams provided a dismal appraisal of the situation:

The whole country on this side of the river is entirely submerged by the freshet in the river. I attempted to get back to my headquarters trains, but found it impossible.  The water has broken away the dikes and washed away the corduroy. It is utterly impossible for the trains now on the island to come through this way.  The causeway is not yet flooded, but from this point to the river is warn out, and impassible even for empty wagons…. The water is rising rapidly, and the negroes here say that the causeway also will be flooded.

Williams would, however, move what he had over the river at that time up to Purysburg and Hardeeville.  While somewhat isolated, they were at least over the Savannah River.

The Fifteenth Corps, on the other hand, now switched back to the boat route to Port Royal.  A portion of Brigadier-General John Smith’s division moved by the causeway.  But eventually all but one division would move by boat.  The last division of Fifteenth Corps and the Cavarly Division of newly brevetted Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick would follow the Fourteenth Corps (Point #5) looking to cross the Savannah River upstream.  The rains had forced a significant revision of Sherman’s plans.

While the Federals fought floods and mud to get out of Savannah, further north Blair looked to gain some lodgement over the Salkehatchie.  The hope was for a bridgehead to avoid a situation such as happened on the Oconee in November.  Major-General Joseph Mower’s division drew the task (Point #6 on the map), as Blair later reported:

On the morning of the 20th the First Division, Major-General Mower commanding, started upon an expedition to the Salkehatchie bridge for the purpose of surprising, and, if possible, capturing a portion of the force, consisting of about 3,000 infantry and cavalry and one battery of artillery, stationed at that point.  From information derived from negroes and deserters we were led to believe that the river was fordable at a point about three miles above the bridge, but upon the arrival of the command at that point they discovered that in consequence of the late heavy rains there was from twelve to fifteen feet of water in the river.  Not being provided with boats it was found to be impracticable to effect a crossing without attracting the attention of the enemy, so the expedition returned the same night.

Corresponding with Blair the next day, Right Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard expressed some relief at the failure.  “General Sherman particularly requested me not to reconnoiter beyond the Salkehatchie, and I am glad that General Mower did not cross the river.”  Perhaps a curious statement to come from an army commander.

But read a bit between the lines.  We credit Sherman for a lot of things – good and bad – while assessing his generalship.  On January 20, 1865, he at least had the good sense to understand the limits of logistics.  A lone division across the Salkehatchie, however attractive that lodgement might be, would stretch the command’s reach beyond its grasp.  The flood waters may have been an ally to the Confederates that day, but time was not.  A fact that Sherman had in plain view.  So plans and time lines would be adjusted while the floods subsided.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 375; Part II, Serial 99, pages 101 and 107.)