March 5, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies began crossing the Pee Dee River after leaving a swath of destruction through South Carolina.
As March began, Sherman’s troops continued their northward march. The Federals laid waste to most everything in their path, making sure that the state which had been the first to secede felt their fury. They were hampered by bad roads and rough wire grass, but they still averaged about 10 miles per day.
Sherman planned to invade North Carolina and feint toward Charlotte while occupying Fayetteville. From there, he intended to join forces with Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina, which was securing a supply line from the Atlantic to Goldsboro.
Sherman’s right wing, consisting of Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, entered the town of Cheraw on the 2nd. Lieutenant General William Hardee, whose small Confederate force had retreated through South Carolina after abandoning Charleston, withdrew across the Pee Dee River. Sherman arrived at Cheraw the next day and later wrote:
“Cheraw was found to be full of stores which had been sent up from Charleston prior to its evacuation, and which could not be removed. I was satisfied from inquirers, that General Hardee had with him only the Charleston garrison, that the enemy had not divined our movements, and that consequently they were still scattered from Charlotte around to Florence, then behind us. Having thus secured the passage of the Pedee, I felt no uneasiness about the future, because there remained no further great impediment between us and the Cape Fear River, which I felt assured was by that time in possession of our friends (i.e., Schofield).”
Sherman reported that Cheraw had been a sort of sanctuary for people who had fled Charleston. Many had brought their possessions with them, including luxury items that the Federals quickly seized. Sherman added, “There was an immense amount of stores in Cheraw, which were used or destroyed; among them twenty-four guns, two thousand muskets, and thirty-six hundred barrels of gunpowder. By the carelessness of a soldier, an immense pile of this powder was exploded, which shook the town badly, and killed and maimed several of our men.”
An investigation was conducted as to the cause of the deadly blast, and according to the official report:
“The explosion was caused by ignition of a large quantity of rebel ammunition which had been found in the town of Cheraw and hauled out and thrown into a deep ravine lying between the town and the pontoon bridge… After diligent inquiry I am unable to ascertain the names of the men who set fire to the powder, but I have no doubt they were ignorant, as I was myself, that any explosive material was in the ravine.”
Another explosion occurred behind Sherman’s armies in South Carolina. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, left Charleston aboard his flagship Harvest Moon to inspect the recently captured Fort White at Georgetown. During the trip, the flagship struck a torpedo. One man was killed, but Dahlgren escaped. He later reported:
“Suddenly, without warning, came a crashing sound, a heavy shock, the partition between the cabin and wardroom was shattered and driven in toward me, while all loose articles in the cabin flew in different directions… A torpedo had been struck by the poor old Harvest Moon, and she was sinking.”
The ship went down in five minutes.
Back at Cheraw, Sherman learned that General Joseph E. Johnston had assumed command of the Confederate forces in the region. Sherman guessed that Johnston’s priority would be to unite these scattered commands and then make a stand against him somewhere in North Carolina. As such, Sherman sought to hurry and join forces with Schofield before Johnston could stop him.
The Federals laid a pontoon bridge over the Pee Dee on the 4th and began crossing the next day. They moved in four columns, with Howard’s XV and XVII corps on the right (east), and Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XIV and XX corps of his Army of Georgia on the left (west). Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division screened the Federal left. By the 8th, Sherman’s entire force had crossed into North Carolina.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560-63; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 268; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 254-55, 506; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 451-52