January 3, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman began moving Federal troops north of Savannah in preparation for his impending march into South Carolina.
As the year began, Sherman worked with the navy to send his sick and wounded by water to northern hospitals up the coast. He also began planning his next campaign; in a letter to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, Sherman proposed moving north along the vital railroad system through Branchville and Columbia, avoiding Augusta and Charleston altogether. The march would end at Wilmington, on the North Carolina coast. Sherman wrote:
“I rather prefer Wilmington, as a live place, over Charleston, which is dead and unimportant when its railroad communications are broken… I think the time has come now when we should attempt the boldest moves, and my experience is that they are easier of execution than more timid ones, because the enemy is disconcerted by them–as for instance, my recent campaign.”
“The destruction of railroads and supplies in South Carolina will do the enemy more harm than the capture of either or both of those cities. They can be left for a backhanded blow. If you can lay waste the interior of South Carolina and destroy the railroads Charleston must be abandoned by all except a small garrison. It is useless talking about putting any of our armies into winter quarters. It is not necessary, and the financial condition of the country will not permit it. Those troops not required for defense must move into the enemy’s country and live on it. There is no alternative; it must be done.”
This brought Halleck to Major General George H. Thomas, who commanded the Army of the Cumberland within Sherman’s military division. Halleck was highly dissatisfied with Thomas’s plan to go into winter quarters after halting his pursuit of the shattered Confederate Army of Tennessee. Halleck complained that “he is too slow for an effective pursuit… entirely opposed to a winter campaign, and is already speaking of recruiting his army for spring operations.” Halleck proposed breaking up most of Thomas’s army and sending part of it into Alabama to destroy war-related resources and ultimately capture Mobile.
Meanwhile, Sherman began moving elements of his two armies north of Savannah in preparation for the thrust into South Carolina. On Sherman’s right, XVII Corps of Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee moved to Beaufort, 40 miles north of Savannah, and Howard’s XV Corps soon followed. The U.S.S. Harvest Moon and other transports from Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron conveyed the troops by water to avoid a tiring march.
On Sherman’s left, XIV Corps and the bulk of XX Corps from Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia maintained the occupation of Savannah, while a division from XX Corps moved to Hardeeville, 10 miles northeast of the city.
Sherman corresponded with Dahlgren about possible navy support for the march through the Carolinas. Dahlgren’s fleet could help Sherman’s Federals as they moved through South Carolina, but once they entered North Carolina, they would be in the realm of Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Sherman wrote Dahlgren:
“I am not certain that there is a vessel in Port Royal from Admiral Porter or I would write him. If there be one to return to him I beg you to send this, with a request that I be advised as early as possible as to the condition of the railroad from Beaufort, N.C., back to New Bern, and so on, towards Goldsboro; also all maps and information of the country above New Bern; how many cars and locomotives are available to us on that road; whether there is good navigation from Beaufort, N.C., via Pamlico Sound, up Neuse River, etc.…”
Sherman added his opinion of the recent failure to capture Fort Fisher outside Wilmington:
“The more I think of the affair at Wilmington the more I feel ashamed for the army there; but Butler is at fault, and he alone. Admiral Porter fulfilled his share to admiration. I think the admiral will feel more confidence in my troops, as he saw us carry points on the Mississippi, where he had silenced the fort. All will turn out for the best yet.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 511-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 538