January 29, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals began turning inland, away from the coast, as they inched northward from Savannah into South Carolina.
Sherman formed his two armies into wings, with Major General Oliver O. Howard’s wing (i.e., the Army of the Tennessee) operating around the Georgia-South Carolina border, and Major General Henry W. Slocum’s wing (i.e., the Army of Georgia) staying mostly around Savannah. Slocum’s Federals began moving out of town on the 20th, with Sherman himself following two days later.
The Confederates expected Sherman to attack both the prized port city of Charleston and the key supply base at Augusta. Sherman guessed that they would, and therefore planned to feint toward those cities while actually targeting the South Carolina capital of Columbia. But he did not divulge this plan to anybody, including most of his own staff. According to Sherman’s judge-advocate Henry Hitchcock:
“As to where we are going or what we are going to do, that will all appear in time. Nobody knows the details except Gen. Sherman himself; very few know even the general outlines, though my position is such that I am one of those; and you may be assured that neither the rebels nor the newspaper men know anything about it–and value what you see in the papers accordingly.”
As the Federals advanced, they stayed close enough to the coast so they could be supported by the Federal naval fleet if needed. The movement was slowed by heavy rains that flooded the roads. But as the Federals reached Pocotaligo on the 24th, Sherman received good news from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander: the Confederates would be sending no troops from Virginia to help oppose Sherman’s advance.
Meanwhile, the Confederates sent all the men they could to Sherman’s presumed targets of Charleston and Augusta. Major General D.H. Hill was sent from Virginia to command the skeleton force guarding Augusta, while Lieutenant General William Hardee commanded the various troops at Charleston. Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry was the only substantial mobile force that could oppose the Federals.
Hill informed Hardee that a problem was developing in the region: men were forming irregular cavalry companies and plundering the countryside. And since it had been reported that most of these men lacked adequate horses to be real cavalry, Hill wrote:
“What I wish to propose is the getting together of this organized or semi-organized mob and putting them into infantry service… Ought not the attention of the Secretary of War be called to this great evil, and to the necessity of disbanding or changing into infantry this omnivorous mob before they bring a famine upon the fighting men of the army?”
Hardee could do little to help Hill because he was having his own problems with the Confederate War Department. He had been promised a regiment of North Carolina regulars, but since then the Federals had captured Fort Fisher and were now threatening Wilmington. Thus, the North Carolinians stayed back to defend their home state. Hardee wrote to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “They are almost the only regular troops holding line of the Combahee; the remainder, Reserves, are much dissatisfied at being detained out of their own States.”
At the same time, Hill at Augusta sent a desperate message to his cavalry commander:
“I cannot use too strong language in urging upon you the importance of delaying the enemy by fighting them. If you but draw a line of battle every mile you will compel him to do the same, and thus give us time, which is everything to our success… If you divide your command and hold each road you can check the Yankees until our forces come up. Augusta depends upon this delay.”
The Federals, by now veterans of moving through hostile country under adverse conditions, continued advancing despite the rain. Like their march from Atlanta, they discarded all excess baggage and intended to live off the land. By the 29th, they were slowly turning away from the coast, skirmishing with various Confederate detachments as they began moving toward Columbia.
Sherman had set up headquarters at Pocotaligo and stayed there several days while waiting for the rain to stop. Hitchcock wrote, “It is understood that we leave here tomorrow morning ‘for parts unknown’, but you know by this time that a soldier’s punctuality consists in his being ready to move at the appointed hour.” Hitchcock also wrote of meeting with black troops (in a brigade of whites and blacks) for the first time:
“The white troops are ‘vets’ and march and look best; but the blacks are a fine looking body of men, and one of the regiments fought at Olustee. A captain in it, an intelligent man, though not of much culture, who was at Olustee fully confirms the good account then given of the negroes’ good behavior there; claiming, I do not doubt truly, from other evidence also, that their steadiness under very adverse circumstances, saved the defeat from being a total and serious rout.”
By month’s end, Sherman’s Federals had definitively turned northwest, with small pockets of Confederate defenders scrambling to stop them. The first units from the shattered Army of Tennessee arrived at Augusta, but it was clear that they still lacked the numbers to offer any effective resistance. President Jefferson Davis desperately turned to new General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee for suggestions “in this, our hour of necessity…”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21975; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 522-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 548; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 630