February 12, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies continued storming through South Carolina, leaving destruction in their wake.
By this time, Sherman’s Federals had wrecked the South Carolina Railroad, cutting the link between the Confederate garrisons at Augusta and Charleston. The Federals then moved north toward Orangeburg on their way to the state capital of Columbia. The heavy rains of the past few weeks had stopped, so the troops could now move much quicker in their devastating march.
General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate department commander, was at Columbia and becoming increasingly certain that the Federals were coming his way. Lieutenant General William Hardee, commanding the Confederates at Charleston, was convinced the Federals were targeting him. And Major General D.H. Hill, commanding at Augusta, believed that Sherman was heading for him.
Hardee posted a defense line under Major General Lafayette McLaws along the Edisto River from Orangeburg to Branchville to try covering both Columbia and Charleston. Major General Carter L. Stevenson commanded the Orangeburg sector, and as Sherman’s Federals approached his front from the other side of the Edisto, Stevenson informed McLaws, “The enemy have not yet crossed,” but they “are skirmishing with my infantry in front of this place.”
Beauregard ordered Stevenson to “hold your present line as long as practicable.” He then contacted Major General Joseph Wheeler, commanding the Confederate cavalry, to send troopers from Augusta “to protect the flanks of Stevenson and McLaws.”
As Wheeler hurried to comply, he received an urgent order from Hill to burn all the cotton at Augusta before it fell into Federal hands. Wheeler answered, “I beg that this may not be done. We would feel very badly to burn so much cotton if the enemy should not reach the city.” Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham soon arrived at Augusta with 4,000 Confederates from the shattered Army of Tennessee to reinforce Hill. However, it was becoming apparent that Sherman would not threaten that town.
Hardee traveled out to the Orangeburg-Branchville line on the 12th and reported to President Jefferson Davis that it was still “not certain whether enemy intend going to Columbia or to Charleston.” But Beauregard knew that if Sherman captured Columbia, Charleston and Hardee’s force would be cut off. He therefore urged Hardee to abandon that city and join forces with him at Columbia, adding, “You can better judge of the precise moment for commencing the movement. I am of opinion that you have not much time to lose to accomplish it successfully.”
Meanwhile, Sherman’s right wing under Major General Oliver O. Howard began shelling Stevenson’s Confederates at Orangeburg. The Confederates burned Schilling’s Bridge, but Federal detachments went up and down the Edisto to find other crossings. Other Federals began felling trees to make a bridge of their own and some, led by Major General William B. Hazen, opted to march through the swampy river by “wading water three to five feet deep for more than a mile.”
The Confederates soon found both their flanks threatened by superior numbers and were forced to withdraw. Stevenson led his men northeast toward Columbia. He joined the Confederates already there, along with Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s cavalry which had just arrived from the Army of Northern Virginia.
The Federals entered Orangeburg and burned public buildings, businesses, and private homes. Sherman arrived soon after, finding that “several stores were on fire, and I am sure that some of the towns-people told me that a Jew merchant had set fire to his own cotton and store, and from this the fire had spread.” About half the town of 800 residents was destroyed.
Sherman’s troops approached the Congaree River on the 13th, plundering the countryside along the way. While Hardee continued trying to hold Charleston against Sherman on the landside, he was now receiving reports that naval forces were approaching the city from the seaside. One report stated “that there are twelve vessels of different kinds on the bay.” Beauregard left Columbia on a roundabout journey to Charleston to determine what should be done there.
Before he left, Beauregard asked Hill to send either Cheatham’s corps or the incoming corps under Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart to Columbia. Hill responded, “The order has been given, and Cheatham will move at once with five days’ rations.” But there were issues with the railroad, prompting Hill to “inquire into the capacity of the Georgia Railroad for the transportation of troops, and probe thoroughly its operations to ascertain if it be to blame, and, if to blame, whether from inefficiency, carelessness, or indisposition to aid the public service.”
Beauregard asked Major General Robert F. Hoke to send troops from Wilmington, North Carolina, but Hoke replied, “No force can be spared from this department for the purpose indicated.” In fact, Commodore John R. Tucker was leading the crews of the C.S.S. Chicora, Palmetto State, and Charleston out of Charleston to reinforce the garrison at Wilmington, which was also being threatened by a Federal army. It seemed that nothing could stop the relentless Federal advance through the Carolinas.
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. 531-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 552-54; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 637-38; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 445