January 21, 1865 (Saturday)
The Confederates gathering to oppose General Sherman’s army had more questions than answers. Even with scouts sent by infantry and cavalry, their findings provided little in the way of intelligence, what to speak of comfort.
The basic conception of Sherman’s plan, as the Rebels understood it, was that he would attack Augusta, Georgia or Charleston, South Carolina. Augusta, now commanded by D.H. Hill, had been untouched on Sherman’s trek to Savannah. Since it was a supply center, it was an obvious target. Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon understood this and instructed Hill in “the removal of cotton, whether of the Government or of private individuals, from Augusta.” He wished for him to take it as far north had he could.
“To promote removal and to be prepared for contingencies,” he continued, “make preparations to burn whatever cotton may be in the city in event of its evacuation or capture. It must not fall into the hands of the enemy.”
While Richmond was entertaining the probability that Sherman would strike for Augusta, other thought he was already headed to Charleston. From a prisoner captured the day previous, it was told that the Federals “have in the main the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Army Corps; that Sherman is in Beaufort and the whole force will be over in a few days; that park of Sherman’s army is marching from Savannah and thinks part of it has already arrived at Coosawhatchie; thinks Sherman is aiming for Charleston direct.”
But so far, though Sherman’s army was in motion, it seemed to have no destination. From two different scouting parties, General Laffayette McLaws, commanding south of Charleston in Salkehatchie, learned “that yesterday two divisions of the Seventeenth Army Corps, the First and Fourth, marched out from Pocotaligo with two days’ rations and sixty rounds of ammunition, and came down to the river with a large pioneer force, stopping at a place called Blountville until 10 o’clcok last night, when they returned to Pocotaligo.”
McLaws had even prepared his force for an attack, but it never came. “I think they returned because the waters were rising and because they heard the cheers of our troops. I regret to add that my troops fired upon each other in the swamp, the mistake being caused by the nature of the country in which they were operating.”
Additionally, he heard that the Federals “are taking up the iron from the railroad between the Salkehatchie and Pocotaligo Station.” Sherman, in other words, was being Sherman. He sent out scouts, reconnoitered the ground, and tore up tracks. Thus far, McLaws knew only the whereabouts of the Seventeenth and Fifteenth Corps – at Pocotaligo and Beaufort, respectively.
From General Joseph Wheeler, McLaws was told more, but learned little: “A citizen who was a prisoner at Hardeeville on the 19th thought that there was at least a corps at Hardeeville, and said that he had heard drums in the direction of Purysburg, but was unable to learn from the enemy the name of the commanding general or the corps. He saw little cavalry, but large crowds of infantry; could hear nothing of any crossing the Savannah River. Had heard nothing of any boats coming as high up as Purysburg.”
A scout informed Wheeler that the Federal encampment extended from Purysburg to Hardeeville; also, “he heard of many negroes running to the enemy.”
In reality, the Seventeenth and Fifteenth Corps, along with the rest of Sherman’s army, were slowed greatly by the weather. And though Sherman was purposely being coy about whether he’d fall up Augusta, Charleston or neither, he certainly wished that he could move with more swiftness. His forces would remain more or less where they were for days.