February 1, 1865 (Wednesday)
Though William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces had been on the march for a couple of weeks, their going had been slow or stood still due to weather. Now, however, was the time for a rapid movement. The march through the Carolinas would begin in earnest.
His army was, as it had been before, divided into two wings. The Right Wing, commanded by Oliver Otis Howard, consisted of John Logan’s Fifteenth Corps and Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps – nearly 26,000 men. General John Slocum’s Left Wing, made up of the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps, helmed respectively by Jefferson C. Davis and Alpheus Williams, was made up of a near equal number. Rounding out the figures to about 60,000 was Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry.
The Right Wing found themselves on this day at or near Pocotaligo, South Carolina, waiting for the Left Wing and the cavalry, which had been held up by the flooded Savannah River. Near Sister’s Ferry, forty miles north of Savannah, was their crossing, though slow was the going.
It what would have to pass as opposition to Sherman’s march were two main forces of Confederates occupying both Augusta and Charleston. By Sherman’s later word, both garrisons were “capable of making a respectable if not successful defense, but utterly unable to meet our veteran columns in the open field.”
The Rebels were commanded by William Hardee, headquartered in Charleston. He had two divisions under Lafayette McLaws and Ambrose Wright on the road to Augusta, more or less guarding that city. Within the city itself was garrisoned was a force commanded by D.H. Hill, consisting mostly of militia. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry was along the Savannah River, but not near enough to the Union crossing at Sister’s Ferry to make any difference. Charleston was watched over by William Taliaferro’s Division.
And so, in some way or another, both Augusta and Charleston were covered. Sherman understood that these small and scattered Rebel forces would be growing in size, He knew that Wade Hampton’s cavalry was soon to arrive from Virginia, as well as Matthew Butler’s. He did not underestimate the power of what he suspected could be as many as 40,000 Confederates to do him harm. “If handled with spirit and energy,” he wrote later, “[they] would constitute a formidable force, and might make the passage of such rivers as the Santee and Cape Fear a difficult undertaking.”
Sherman knew that time was not on his side, but still, “the question of supplies remained still the one of vital importance.” He reasoned that “we might safely rely on the country for a considerable quantity of forage and provisions, and that, if the worst came to the worst, we could live several months on the mules and horses of our trains.”
As soon as he learned that Slocum had begun to cross the Savannah, he “gave the general orders to march, and instructed all the columns to aim for the South Carolina Railroad to the west of Branchville, about Blackville and Midway.” This destination was neither Augusta nor Charleston, but cut directly in between both. Effectively, it would sever one from the other and both from the Confederacy.
When the columns started, they encountered obstructions in the form of trees felled by Wheeler’s Cavalry, “but our men picked these up and threw them aside, so that this obstruction hardly delayed us an hour.” Sherman himself traveled with the Fifteenth Corps, and made sure to stay in contact with General Slocum “to hurry as much as possible.”
The march would not be uneventful, as the enemy – mostly Wheeler’s Cavalry – would appear from time to time, but there as hardly an opposition as Hardee and Hill did their best to deduce whether Sherman would strike Augusta or Charleston, with neither soon suspecting that he would decline both.
Sherman’s soldiers were swift, but still found time to sack nearly every deserted town along the way. South Carolina would pay for its sins, they held. McPhersonville, for example, was deserted when the Fifteenth Corps arrived, camping there the day previous. Before they left, the entire village was put to the torch. “After the passing of the Fifteenth Corps,” wrote a local historian after the war, “there was left standing the Presbyterian Church and two houses.”1
Illinois became the first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery.
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, p1074; Memoirs William Tecumseh Sherman; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John Barrett. [↩]