‘Please Answer at Once’ – Charleston to Be Abandoned Already?

February 11, 1865 (Saturday)

Even this late in the march, the Confederates in South Carolina were confused as to whether William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces were moving on the westerly Augusta, the easterly Charleston, or Columbia, in the middle.

Sherman's troops fighting across a swamp.
Sherman’s troops fighting across a swamp.

“The indications suggest Charleston as the objective point,” wrote President Jefferson Davis to William Hardee, commanding in that city, “and if you have supplies inside the works and General Beauregard has the hoped-for success in concentrating the army and in raising auxiliary forces in Georgia and South Carolina, the attempt of the enemy will, I hope, be reduced to operations on the sea front and be finally defeated.”

Thus far, the operations against the Charleston area had been only on the sea front. On this day and the next, landing parties not under Sherman’s command disembarked on nearby James Island, pushing back the Rebel skirmishers and generally causing panic.

With Sherman seemingly moving in that direction as well, P.G.T. Beauregard, now in command in Columbia, also believed the Federals were about to attack Charleston. “By late movements of the enemy,” he wrote to Hardee, “it is apparent that he intends to move upon Charleston, or to cut off your communications along the Northeastern Railroad. It is therefore advisable that you proceed to execute as soon as possible the movement agreed upon the 2nd instant.”

This hearkened back to a conference held in Green Cut Station over a week before. There, Generals Beauregard and Hardee, along with D.H. Hill and G.W. Smith, made contingency plans for what to do if things went bad in either Augusta or Charleston. Specifically, Beauregard was referring to what must be done if the Federals indicated an attack on Charleston.

If it “should become evident that a longer defense was impracticable, General Hardee should abandon the place, removing all valuable stores, and hasten to form a junction in front of Columbia with the forces of General Beauregard, who would have to cover Columbia, and take up the Congaree as a line of defense.”

Hardee seemed taken aback by such an order. “Do you direct that the agreement made on the 2nd instant be carried into effect immediately?” he asked. “Please answer at once.”

Beauregard’s answer was even more confusing, saying that all he was doing was telling him to shorten “your coast line to the Edisto, thence to Branchville, in anticipation of other movement since recommended.” This cleared up nothing, and Beauregard tried again: “Send here soon as practicable the siege-train guns and all available rifled guns on siege carriages, with their ammunition.” He also ordered Hardee to use ferry and rice boats to build bridges across the Santee River. The ones which could not be used were to be destroyed or sunk.

To the west of Charleston, Sherman’s army seemed just about to cross the Edesto River, leaning toward Columbia, but peering in the direction of Charleston. General Lafayette McLaws commanded a corps which stretched fifteen miles from Branchville to Orangeville, and all up and down the river, there was apprehension and panic.

“On returning to the river,” wrote a Confederate cavalry captain, “the [Confederate] infantry pickets took fright and ran off, reporting the enemy when it was our own men.”

Carter Stevenson, commanding a division under McLaws, held the area around Orangeville, and spent the morning sussing out rumors. Before noon, he could solidly conclude “The enemy have not yet crossed.” He believed, however, that they were massing on the other side and waiting.

But as the day wore on, he reported, “the enemy are skirmishing with my infantry in front of this place.” Then, not much later: “The enemy have driven my skirmishers across the river at this place, and the bridge is being destroyed.”

Orangeville lay on one of two roads leading north to Columbia. Hoping to gain Hardee time to abandon Charleston, Beauregard implored Stevenson to “hold your present line as long as practicable.” He warned him that “you must use your discretion so as not to jeopardize your command.”

All the while, Beauregard was trying to get a hold of Jo Wheeler, commanding the cavalry. He wanted him to send troopers “to protect the flanks of Stevenson and McLaws.” He had already dispatched 1,300, but only 200 had yet to arrive.


With Hardee believing that Sherman was headed to Charleston, and Beauregard now suspecting him to be moving on Columbia, it’s little wonder that D.H. Hill, commanding in Augusta, believed him to be moving on Augusta. So convinced was he that he actually ordered Wheeler, operating east of the city, to burn the cotton in Augusta. Wheeler took issue with this. “I beg that this may not be done,” came the response.

At the same February 2nd meeting, it was decided not to burn any of the cotton until the Federals were within fifteen miles of Augusta. “We would feel very badly to burn so much cotton if the enemy should not reach the city.” Instead, he wanted to wait and see.

Through all of this time, the Army of Tennessee had begun to arrive. Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps, numbering, perhaps, around 4,000, arrived near Augusta, and was now around Graniteville to the east. Cheatham was certain that the Federals were about to attack, and asked Wheeler to watch his left flank.

But as the day and the Federals lumbered on, more and more it seemed as if Augusta was not the objective. They were moving in the direction of Orangeville, “which would indicate an easterly move by the enemy [toward Charleston], and that the move toward Aiken [and Augusta] must be a feint.” Beauregard now wished for Wheeler to move his entire force in that direction as well.

With Sherman’s army divided well into Left and Right Wings, it was impossible for the Rebels to tell what either hand was doing. Slowly, however, they were figuring it out. Both Charleston and Columbia were threatened, and it should have been clear to all that if Columbia fell, Charleston was fully cut off and useless.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p1070, Part 2, p1159-1160, 1162, 1163-1164; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. []


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