February 12, 1865 (Sunday)
“I have just returned from Orangeburg and Branchville,” wrote General William Hardee to President Davis. Hardee commanded the Confederates defending Charleston, and was overseeing the lines along the Edisto River to the west. There, Generals Lafayette McLaws and Carter Stevenson held their own. It was believed, continued Hardee, that the Federals were nearing Orangeburg, where Stevenson commanded. “Is not certain whether enemy intend going to Columbia or to Charleston,” Hardee admitted.
Whether or not Charleston was the intended target, with Columbia’s fall, it would be cut off. To that end, General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command over Hardee, thought it best to abandon the city. “You can better judge of the precise moment for commencing the movement,” he wrote to Hardee. “I am of opinion that you have not much time to lose to accomplish it successfully.”
William Tecumseh Sherman’s Right Wing, commanded by Oliver Otis Howard, was, as Confederate General Stevenson reported to McLaws, “engaging us at this front with artillery placed in position last night.”
Howard’s wing, consisting of the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps, had skirted the river, moving north, and now appeared before the town of Orangeburg on the other side. Knowing they were about to be attacked, the Rebels burned Shilling’s Bridge, which spanned the river and led to the town.
John Logan’s Fifteenth Corps marched at 7am from their camps the night previous with General William Hazen in the lead. Two hours later, when the burned out bridge was reached, they formed a strong skirmish line, pushing to the banks where they could more clearly see the enemy. They were in, as Hazen reported, “considerable strength on the opposite bank.” He sent two brigades from his division both above and below the bridge, while two additional regiments were sent down to the banks themselves and began felling trees.
Most of the heavy lifting was done by Col. Wells S. Jones’ Brigade, made up mostly of boys from Ohio, with a regiment from Indiana and Illinois thrown in for good measure. Hazen ordered Jones to effect a crossing above the old bridge, and it was Jones who ordered the two regiments forward. As the Ohio and Illinois troops chopped away at the surrounding trees, the rest of the brigade “waded the swamp” that was created by (and basically was) the river at this point. This was no small task, as they found themselves “wading water three to five feet deep for more than a mile.” The men and officers, according to the brigade’s adjutant-general, “waded with cheerfulness and enthusiasm.”
With the trees felled in places both above and below the burned bridge, and with most of the brigade up to their armpits in swamp, they were ready enough to fall upon the Rebels. But the Confederate position was merely before the bridge itself, and while they no doubt guarded their flanks with pickets, there was little they could do about several regiments.
As Jones’ brigade crossed over the river by at least two makeshift bridges, another brigade crossed north of the bridge. In this way, the Confederate position was doubly enveloped and squeezed, though mostly from the north. It was Jones’ brigade who “drove the enemy from their works, capturing fifty-three prisoners and a number of small-arms.”
Crossings were actually made at three points – one for each brigade – and soon after the Rebels were dispatched and sent scurrying to the other side of town, Hazen crossed his entire division, improving the bridges with rafts when he could. Jones’ brigade suffered but five wounded, and there was no mention of Confederate deaths.
With the crossing made, the Union troops entered the town in a rush. At once they took to their work, setting a store house on fire. The winds picked up and the fire spread, aiding the Federals who were setting their own fires about town. Other Federals, and probably some of the few remaining citizens, managed to get the fires under control, but not before half the town was consumed.
General Sherman himself had come up during the skirmish, and directed the laying of a pontoon bridge below the town. This place, he said, was important “as its occupation would sever the communications between Charleston and Columbia.”
Sherman was with the Seventeenth Corps, which was behind Logan’s Fifteenth. In his memoirs, Sherman seemed to ignore the Fifteenth Corps completely. This certainly propped up his story on how the fires were set. Before the time the troops from the Seventeenth Corps crossed, “several stores were on fire, and I am sure that some of the towns-people told me that a Jew merchant had set fire to his own cotton and store, and from this the fire had spread.” That night, Sherman visited an orphanage which was fortunate enough to be spared from the flames. He posted guards, but couldn’t remember if he gave them provisions.
On retreating from Orangeburg and the Edisto, Confederate General Stevenson was supposed to fall back to the southeast, toward Charleston, but instead was compelled to march northeast, falling now under Beauregard’s command. This suited Beauregard just fine, as Charleston was now essentially a nonissue.
The Federal Right Wing would spend the next day gutting the town of Orangeburg in more official ways – burning cotton, destroying the railroad, etc. Meanwhile, Beauregard would now finally decide to concentrate.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p196, 225, 273, 279, 287, 301, 309, 1071; Part 2, p1166, 1168, 1174; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. [↩]