February 27, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals continued their devastating northward march and approached the North Carolina state line by month’s end.
As one of Sherman’s army corps captured the South Carolina capital of Columbia, the other three continued north. Once in North Carolina, Sherman planned to repeat his Charleston-Columbia strategy by feinting toward Charlotte while actually targeting Goldsboro. From there, he hoped to join forces with Major General John Schofield’s Federals moving inland from Wilmington. This combined force would then continue north to join with the Federal armies under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant laying siege to Petersburg, Virginia.
Sherman’s troops enjoyed moving through fertile central South Carolina, but their march grew harder as they entered the more barren region to the north. They were further hampered by the growing number of fugitive slaves, Confederate deserters, and civilians seeking food, shelter, and protection. Confederate forces put up a defense at Camden, but the Federals drove them off after a hard fight. Nearby residents burned their cotton to prevent Federal seizure.
Federal “bummers” continued plundering the countryside, and Confederate cavalry exacted revenge on troops straying too far from the main line. Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick, the Federal cavalry commander, received reports that Confederates were killing Federals beyond the scope of the war. Kilpatrick responded:
“An infantry lieutenant and seven men murdered yesterday by the Eighth Texas Cavalry after they had surrendered. We found their bodies all together and mutilated, with paper on their breasts, saying ‘Death to foragers’… I have sent Wheeler word that I intend to hang 18 of his men, and if the cowardly act is repeated, will burn every house along my line of march… I have a number of prisoners, and shall take a fearful revenge.”
On this subject, Sherman wrote to Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding one of the Federal army wings:
“Now it is clearly our war right to subsist our army on the enemy… If our foragers act under mine, yours, or other proper orders they must be protected. I have ordered Kilpatrick to select of his prisoners man for man, shoot them, and leave them by the roadside labeled, so that our enemy will see that for every man he executes he takes the life of one of his own… I will not protect them (foragers) when they enter dwellings and commit wanton waste… If any of your foragers are murdered, take life for life, leaving a record in each case.”
Sherman protested the killing of Federal foragers to Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, commanding Confederate cavalry in the area. Sherman stated that several Confederate prisoners had been executed in retaliation, to which Hampton replied that “for every soldier of mine murdered by you, I shall have executed at once two of yours, giving in all cases preference to any officers who may be in our hands.”
Hampton explained that his government had authorized him to execute any Federal caught wrecking private property, adding, “This order shall remain in force so long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings.” Hampton then ordered his own officers “to shoot down all of your men who are caught burning houses.”
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal naval fleet off the South Carolina coast, dispatched a gunboat squadron under Captain Henry S. Stellwagen to capture Georgetown, which would facilitate Sherman’s march from Columbia to Fayetteville. Marines occupied Fort White at the entrance of Georgetown Bay, after it was abandoned by the Confederates.
The gunboats U.S.S. Catalpa and Mingoe continued into the bay to Georgetown proper, where a party led by Ensign Allen K. Noyes accepted the town’s surrender and raised the U.S. flag over the city hall. A small Confederate force tried taking the town back, but Federal reinforcements quickly arrived to drive them off. Dahlgren inspected the area and instructed Stellwagen before departing:
“I leave here for Charleston, and you remain the senior officer. The only object in occupying the place, as I do, is to facilitate communication with General Sherman, if he desires it here, or by the Santee… Let parties be pushed out by land and water, to feel the rebel positions, and drive back his scouts and pickets.”
On the 23rd, Federals of XX Corps crossed the Catawba River near Rocky Mount while Howard’s Federals crossed the Wateree. Heavy rains hindered the Federal advance, and two days later Sherman ordered a halt to “close up the column.” Kilpatrick reported on Federal depredations in the area:
“Stragglers and foraging parties of the Twentieth Corps were here yesterday, eight miles from their command, committing acts most disgraceful… I shall now allow no foraging parties to pass through or out of my lines, and I shall dismount and seize all horses ridden by infantrymen who enter my column… foraging parties burned sufficient forage on this road to have fed my entire command.”
The Confederates scrambled to oppose Sherman in some way, as Lieutenant General William Hardee’s troops fleeing Charleston tried joining with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s troops fleeing Columbia. If they could unite, they hoped to link with the scattered Confederates in North Carolina under General Braxton Bragg. If anything, they might be able to stop Sherman from linking with Schofield.
General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that he had “directed all the available troops in the Southern Dept to be concentrated, with a view to embarrass, if they can not arrest Sherman’s progress.” Beauregard proposed a “grand strategy” to defeat the Federal armies:
“I earnestly urge a concentration of at least 35,000 infantry and artillery at (Salisbury), if possible, to give him battle there, and crush him, then to concentrate all forces against Grant, and then to march on Washington and dictate a peace. Hardee and myself can collect about 15,000… If Lee and Bragg can furnish 20,000 more, the fate of the Confederacy would be secure.”
Lee replied, “The idea is good, but the means are lacking.”
By month’s end, Sherman’s Federals had reached the North Carolina line, and there seemed to be no weather or opposing force that could stop them. The havoc they had wreaked in South Carolina was far worse than what they had done in Georgia. A South Carolinian wrote, “All is gloom, despondency, and inactivity. Our army is demoralized and the people panic stricken… The power to do has left us… to fight longer seems to be madness.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22075; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 537-40; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16667-77, 16705-25; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 556, 558-59; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 153; 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. 826-27