February 1, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies continued moving into South Carolina, disregarding the elements and sporadic Confederate resistance along the way.
Sherman had left Savannah, Georgia, with 60,000 men consisting of Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry and two Federal armies:
- Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, which included XV and XVII corps under Major Generals John A. Logan and Francis P. Blair, Jr. respectively
- Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia, which included XIV and XX corps under Major Generals Jefferson C. Davis and Alpheus Williams respectively
Sherman’s initial objective was to move through South Carolina and link with the Federals moving inland from the North Carolina coast. From there, the united Federal armies would continue north and join forces with the Federals besieging Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. This march would not be easy; it was a 425-mile hike over rough ground and treacherous waterways during one of the wettest winters on record. But the Federals were imbued with high morale and a deep hatred for South Carolina because it was the first state to secede.
Howard’s army comprised Sherman’s right wing, which was stationed near Pocotaligo, South Carolina, as February began. Slocum’s army comprised the left wing, which was at Sister’s Ferry, about 40 miles north of Savannah on the flooded Savannah River. Howard cleared enemy obstructions at Pocotaligo, Slocum finally crossed the Savannah, and the march began in earnest on the 1st. The destruction began at the town of McPhersonville, which was burned until, according to a resident, “there was left standing the Presbyterian Church and two houses.”
Despite the foul weather, Sherman’s Federals advanced at an impressive average of 10 miles per day. The two wings feinted toward Augusta to the northwest and Charleston to the northeast while actually targeting Columbia to the north.
The Confederates in the Georgia-South Carolina region were commanded by Lieutenant General William Hardee. He had a small garrison under Major General D.H. Hill defending Augusta while he stayed with the other garrison guarding Charleston. Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry patrolled the Savannah River, but this force was too small to contest Slocum’s crossing. Sherman later wrote that Wheeler was “capable of making a respectable if not successful defense, but utterly unable to meet our veteran columns in the open field.”
Sherman was confident that his men could reach their objective, but “the question of supplies remained still the one of vital importance… we might safely rely on the country for a considerable quantity of forage and provisions, and that, if the worst came to the worst, we could live several months on the mules and horses of our trains.” Once Slocum’s Federals crossed the river, Sherman “gave the general orders to march, and instructed all the columns to aim for the South Carolina Railroad to the west of Branchville, about Blackville and Midway.”
General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate department commander, arrived at Augusta on the 2nd to discuss the situation with Hill and Hardee, who came from Charleston by rail. Major General Gustavus W. Smith was also there with 1,500 Georgia militia.
Beauregard estimated his total force to be 33,500 men scattered between Georgia and South Carolina. This included Smith’s militia, which was barred by law from leaving Georgia. It also included the Army of Tennessee, which had not yet arrived from the west. And even when it did, it would number no more than 10,000 demoralized men hardly fit for combat. This left Beauregard with only about 20,000 effectives to oppose Sherman’s 60,000 veterans.
News of a possible peace conference had reached Beauregard, who later explained his strategy: “During the pending negotiations for peace, it was thought of the highest importance to hold Charleston and Augusta as long as it was humanly possible.” Once the Confederate commanders concluded that Sherman would march on Charleston, they placed two of Hardee’s divisions along the Combahee River. According to Beauregard’s orders:
“Whenever it should become evident that a longer defense was impracticable, General Hardee should abandon the place, removing all valuable stores, and hasten to form a junction in front of Columbia with the forces of General Beauregard, who would have to cover Columbia, and take up the Congaree (River) as a line of defense.”
Beauregard would hold Columbia with a token force, and Hill’s Confederates would continue holding Augusta while standing ready to reinforce Beauregard if needed. When Wheeler reported that Sherman was headed for Branchville, Beauregard concluded that the Federals were not targeting either Charleston or Augusta, but rather Columbia.
Beauregard dispatched Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s 4,000 troops from the Army of Tennessee to cover Branchville while the rest of the army was on its way. But this would not be enough to stop Sherman, and Beauregard reported to President Jefferson Davis: “Concentration of Hardee’s forces and mine cannot, therefore, take place south of Columbia.”
Charleston and Augusta could be saved, Beauregard explained, if he could keep the Federals out of Columbia. But to do that, more men were needed. Beauregard wrote, “I respectfully urge the vital importance of concentrating at Columbia such forces as can be sent from North Carolina and Virginia. Ten or twelve thousand additional men would insure the defeat of Sherman…”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213-14; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 525-26; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15738-48, 15865-75, 16541-61; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 549; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 631-32; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 825, 827; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5479