Of Old Wine, Fine Rugs, and the Necessity of Stealing Books

March 5, 1865 (Sunday)

The end of February saw William Tecumseh Sherman’s army turn towards Cheraw, where Confederate General William Hardee had rested his men in retreat. As March came, Sherman’s forces divided, and the Seventeenth Corps, followed closely by the Fifteenth, entered the town on the 2nd.

The Seventeenth Corps entering Cheraw
The Seventeenth Corps entering Cheraw

“General Hardee had retreated eastward across he Pedee, burning the bridge,” Sherman recorded. And so rather than sending his Left Wing to the same abandoned town, he marched them around, toward Sneedsborough, ten miles above. There, they would cross the Pedee River.

Sherman had been riding mostly with the Left Wing, helmed by Henry Slocum, and now decided that Oliver Otis Howard’s Right Wing would be his new home. A slight rain set in on the 3rd of March, as Sherman entered the town.

“Cheraw was found to be full of stores,” recalled Sherman, “which had been sent up from Charleston prior to its evacuation, and which could not be removed. I was satisfied from inquiriers, that General Hardee had with him only the Charleston garrison, that the enemy had not divined our movements, and that consequently they were still scattered from Charlotte around to Florence, then behind us.

“Having thus secured the passage of the Pedee, I felt no uneasiness about the future, because there remained no further great impediment between us and the Cape Fear River, which I felt assured was by that tie in possession of our friends.”

The people and soldiers who evacuated Charleston must have believed that Cheraw would be a haven. They had evacuated not just themselves to that point, but their valuables, including the most expensive wines and rugs, which Sherman’s men distributed widely.

Shutter of Old St. David's Church, around which Union troops encamped.
Shutter of Old St. David’s Church, around which Union troops encamped.

“There was an immense amount of stores in Cheraw, which were used or destroyed; among them twenty-four guns, two thousand muskets, and thirty-six hundred barrels of gunpowder. By the carelessness of a soldier, an immense pile of this powder was exploded, which shook the town badly, and killed and maimed several of our men.”

General William Hazen commanded the Second Division of the Fifteenth Corps, which was on this day leaving Cheraw. In his memoirs, we’re left with a story of General Sherman:

My own quarters at Cheraw were at the residence of a most amiable and respectable citizen, who was judge of one of the courts. He assigned to me, with my approval, one half of his house, including a very good library, on which he claimed to set great store. He proposed to remove the books; but I assured him that there was no occasion for doing so, as no one at my headquarters ever disturbed property in the houses we occupied, and that books especially would be held sacred. He was perfectly satisfied, and went away.

A few minutes after, General Sherman came in. He is a rapid and constant reader, and his eyes at once fell upon the library. He examined it closely, and ended by appropriating such volumes of Scott’s novels as he just then happened to want. He was taking a course of Scott at the time, and read the full series during that campaign.

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

I expostulated, and he remarked in a pleasant way that it made no difference, as he would leave as many more in town. I was annoyed, and was on my way to account to my host for the books as best I could, when, with a great racket, my chief orderly came down-stairs collaring a fine-looking, well dressed young man whom he had captured in the garret.

On my first taking possession of the house the judge had requested me to make no search of the premises, assuring me that there was nothing concealed. On this assurance I had given directions in accordance with my host’s wishes. My orderly, however, had become suspicious, and instituted a search on his own responsibility.

The appearance of the prisoner, who was the judge’s son, and a Rebel customs-officer from Charleston, and was hidden away with the knowledge of his father, completely nonplussed the latter; so that when I told him about the books and proposed that we should call it even, he felt perfectly satisfied. No man ever lived who was more thoroughly free from venal taint than General Sherman; but he claimed, and perhaps rightly, that reading-matter was necessary food, and that we had a right to forage for it.


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