The Capture of Col. Rhett and His Fabulous Boots

March 15, 1865 (Wednesday)

“On the 15th of March the whole army was across Cape Fear River, and at once began its march for Goldsboro’; the Seventeenth Corps still on the right, the Fifteenth next in order, then the Fourteenth and Twentieth on the extreme left ; the cavalry acting in close concert with the left flank. With almost a certainty of being attacked on this flank, I had instructed General Slocum to send his corps-trains under strong escort by an interior road, holding four divisions ready for immediate battle. General Howard was in like manner ordered to keep his trains well to his right, and to have four divisions unencumbered, about six miles ahead of General Slocum, within easy support.”
– William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs.

Col. William Hamilton had little use for the Southern Aristocracy.

Col. William Hamilton had little use for the Southern Aristocracy.

As Sherman expected an attack to come on his left, he threw Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry out ahead of the Left Wing as they marched on the road to Averasborough, a small burg on the road to Raleigh. About six miles before reaching this town, Kilpatrick’s men encountered the Confederates.

Kilpatrick’s Second Brigade, helmed by General Smith Atikins, took the lead, stumbling upon the enemy in the later afternoon. Upon crossing Black Creek, Atkins dismounted a Michigan regiment and advanced them as skirmishers so they might suss out the Rebel line before them. What they found was a similarly long skirmish line of what seemed like Southern infantry, but was mostly made up of the 1st South Carolina Heavy Artillery, fresh from Charleston. When some of these former garrison troops were captured, they revealed that Joe Johnston’s entire army, here under the command of William Hardee, was entrenched on their front.

Sherman related that he “encountered pretty stubborn resistance by Hardee’s infantry, artillery, and cavalry, and the ground favored our enemy ; for the deep river, Cape Fear, was on his right, and North River on his left, forcing us to attack him square in front. I proposed to drive Hardee well beyond Averysboro’, and then to turn to the right by Bentonsville for Goldsboro.”

Today's incredibly approximate map.

Today’s incredibly approximate map.

Also from the prisoners, the Michiganders learned that they immediately faced the brigade of Col. Alfred Moore Rhett. This was revealed to them upon the capture of Col. Rhett himself. William Hamilton, colonel of the 9th Ohio, later wrote of the incident:

I was on my horse on the left flank of our line which was pressing the enemy slowly back, when two of the cavalrymen brought back a finely dressed officer on foot as a prisoner. I asked his name. In a spirit of untamed defiance, he replied, “I am Colonel Rhett, Sir, in command of the Confederate Artillery, and I wish to explain that I was on the left of our skirmish line when I saw three men, and in the fog I took them for General Hampton’s men and called to know where he was. They came up and covered me with their guns, saying they were Yankees and directed me to come with them, and I was too far from my men to decline.”

General Kilpatrick soon came up and asked who I had. I told him who he was and how he was captured. When the identity of each was known some hot words passed between them. Colonel Rhett said, bitterly, “I was taken through a mistake of my own and you have the advantage of me now, but you damned Yankees will not have it your own way very long in South Carolina. There are 50,000 fresh men ready and waiting for you.” Kilpatrick replied, “Yes and if that is true we will have to hunt the swamp to find the damned cowards.”

Colonel Alfred Rhett was the son of Barnwell Rhett, the editor of the Charleston Mercury, the leading newspaper of the South, and a strong supporter of his intimate friend. John C. Calhoun. He was a typical representative of South Carolina aristocracy, the young men of which had been formed into an artillery brigade and were known as the Confederate Regular Heavy Artillery, 3,000 of them. They had been assigned to guard duty in Charleston Harbor, and the son of Barnwell Rhett was given command with a commission of colonel.

General Kilpatrick directed me to place him in charge of an officer and send him to General Williams’s headquarters. I put him in charge of Lieutenant Mann of my regiment who got two guards from his company and started with him. On the way the colonel asked the lieutenant if his men would shoot him in case he tried to get away. The lieutenant remarked if he wanted to make the experiment he might try it. He didn’t, however, and on arriving at General Williams’s headquarters he was turned over to Captain J. B. Foraker of the general’s staff for safe keeping.

The impressive Col. Rhett

The impressive Col. Rhett

Here he was treated with the “distinguished consideration” that the South Carolina gentleman felt was his due. He was introduced to the general and members of his staff, taken to their table and given comfortable quarters. All this was a new experience to him. It was one in which he learned that he could not dominate, but he could not desist from making himself offensive by his ill concealed bitterness and contempt for the Yankees.

And now, General Sherman concludes the story in a much kinder manner:
During the day it rained very hard, and I had taken refuge in an old cooper-shop, where a prisoner of war was brought to me (sent back from the skirmish-line by General Kilpatrick), who proved to be Colonel Albert Rhett, former commander of Fort Sumter. He was a tall, slender, and handsome young man, dressed in the most approved rebel uniform, with high jackboots beautifully stitched, and was dreadfully mortified to find himself a prisoner in our hands. General Frank Blair happened to be with me at the moment, and we were much amused at Rhett’s outspoken disgust at having been captured without a fight. He said he was a brigade commander, and that his brigade that day was Hardee’s rear-guard; that his command was composed mostly of the recent garrisons of the batteries of Charleston Harbor, and had little experience in woodcraft; that he was giving ground to us as fast as Hardee’s army to his rear moved back, and during this operation he was with a single aide in the woods, and was captured by two men of Kilpatrick’s skirmish-line that was following up his retrograde movement. […]

The rain was falling heavily, and, our wagons coming up, we went into camp there, and had Rhett and General Blair to take supper with us, and our conversation was full and quite interesting. In due time, however, Rhett was passed over by General Slocum to his provost-guard, with orders to be treated with due respect, and was furnished with a horse to ride.

The skirmishing died down closer to night, and when Kilpatrick’s men went into camp, they established a heavy barricade on their front, and were reinforced by a brigade of infantry. The next morning, they knew, would bring battle.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p422, 862, 880, 886; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Recollections of a Cavalryman of the Civil War After Fifty Years by William Douglas Hamilton; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []