January 10, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman prepared for what promised to be another devastating Federal march through the southern heartland.
After capturing Savannah late last year, Sherman began developing a plan to move his 60,000 men northward into South Carolina. The Federals were especially eager to lay waste to that state because both secession and the war had begun there.
Sherman planned to leave Major General John G. Foster’s Federals from the Department of the South to hold Savannah. Sherman’s Federals would feint toward the coveted port city of Charleston while truly heading for the South Carolina capital of Columbia. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron would divert Confederate attention by operating around Charleston. Sherman wrote Dahlgren:
“When we are known to be in the rear of Charleston, about Branchville and Orangeburg, it will be well to watch if the enemy lets go of Charleston, in which case Foster will occupy it, otherwise the feint should be about Bull’s Bay… I will instruct Foster, when he knows I have got near Branchville, to make a landing of a small force at Bull’s Bay, to threaten, and it may be occupy, the road from Mount Pleasant to Georgetown. This will make the enemy believe I design to turn down against Charleston and give me a good offing for Wilmington.”
As some of Dahlgren’s vessels cleared obstructions in Charleston harbor, the U.S.S. Patapsco struck a torpedo (i.e., a floating mine) and sank within 15 seconds. The blast killed 62 officers and men.
In South Carolina, the only real resistance in Sherman’s path was a small, makeshift Confederate force led by Lieutenant General William Hardee. The force included Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, which tried to find out where Sherman would go. Wheeler reported that some Federal prisoners said Sherman had “received some recruits at Savannah and some at Beaufort,” and “the talk in camp is that Charleston is their destination.”
Falling for Sherman’s ruse, Hardee posted the bulk of his force in and around Charleston. He notified President Jefferson Davis that he would post Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division near the Combahee River to try slowing Sherman down.
Hardee reported that he had about 7,600 infantry troops (3,500 regulars, 3,000 reserves, and 1,100 militia), 6,100 cavalry troopers, and 5,000 garrison troops. He wrote, “Of the force above mentioned, McLaws’ is the only command I regard as movable. The remainder is needed for the defense of Charleston. I am acting on the defensive, and unless heavily re-enforced must continue to do so.” Hardee requested 15,000 troops, but, “If this force cannot be furnished, 5,000 regular troops will still be required for the present defensive line.”
Besides Hardee’s force, the only other substantial force consisted of Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s militia. General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee barely numbered 18,000 effectives after being decimated at Franklin and Nashville late last year. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor had just a token force in his Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana. And General Robert E. Lee could spare nobody as his Army of Northern Virginia remained under siege at Petersburg and Richmond.
Hardee wrote, “I have no reason to expect re-enforcements from Georgia other than Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith’s force of militia, now at Augusta, which is rapidly diminishing by desertion, and numbers less than 1,500 muskets. I have no information whatever from Hood, and have no reason to expect re-enforcements from that quarter.”
Hardee pinned high hopes on Wheeler’s cavalry, which had been the only force opposing Sherman’s march to the sea. He wrote:
“It is a well organized and efficient body. The reports of its disorganization and demoralization are without foundation, and the depredations ascribed to his command can generally be traced to bands of marauders claiming to belong to it.”
Davis replied, “Your plan seems to me judicious and I hope may, with Divine favor, prove successful… (I will) make every exertion to re-enforce you from that army as rapidly as possible.” Davis then contacted General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Western Theater, and directed him to send as much of the Army of Tennessee as he could to South Carolina. Despite reports that those men needed rest, Beauregard wrote, “President orders that whatever troops you can spare be sent forthwith to General Hardee’s assistance.”
Davis wrote to Taylor:
“Sherman’s campaign has produced bad effect on our people, success against his future operations is needful to reanimate public confidence. Hardee requires more aid… and Hood’s army is the only source to which we can now look.”
Davis suggested that Taylor keep some troops to defend the western states, while the main part of Hood’s army should be sent “to look after Sherman.”
Davis then wrote to Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown asking for all possible troops for defense. When South Carolina Governor A.G. Magrath wrote the president explaining the dire situation in his state, Davis replied, “I am fully alive to the importance of successful resistance to Sherman’s advance, and have called on the governor of Georgia to give all the aid he can furnish.”
But the Confederacy no longer had the manpower to stop Sherman’s onslaught, which promised to be even more relentless than it had been in Georgia.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 515, 518; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 541, 544; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 622-23; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703