Tag Archives: Robert B. Rhett

The Battle of Averasboro

March 15, 1865 – A small Confederate force dug in near Averasboro and partially blocked the path of Major General William T. Sherman’s advance into North Carolina.

Sherman’s Federals moved out of Fayetteville on the 14th and began crossing the Cape Fear River on their way to Goldsboro, where they hoped to join forces with Major General John Schofield’s Federal Army of North Carolina. After three days of repairing bridges, Schofield’s men crossed the Neuse River and resumed their advance toward Goldsboro.

The Confederate high command still believed that Sherman’s true objective was Raleigh, and General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee warned General Joseph E. Johnston not to allow the Federals to cut the railroad supply line running from Raleigh to Petersburg and Richmond. If this happened, Johnston’s army would have to fall back toward Virginia, and if “forced back in this direction both armies would certainly starve.”

Johnston had no more than 24,000 men, most of whom were either pulled from garrison duty or belonged to state militias. Some were demoralized veterans from the Army of Tennessee. They were expected to stop an enemy that, if Sherman and Schofield joined forces, would number over 90,000. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis:

“The army under Genl Johnston is about being united at Raleigh. It is inferior in number to the enemy, and I fear its tone is not yet restored. It is in great part without field transportation and labours under other disadvantages, I think it would be better at this time if practicable to avoid a general engagement and endeavour to strike the enemy in detail. This is Genl Johnston’s plan, in which I hope he may succeed, and he may then recover all the ground he may be obliged to relinquish in accomplishing it.

“The greatest calamity that can befall us is the destruction of our armies. If they can be maintained we may recover from our reverses, but if lost we have no resource. I will endeavour to keep your Excellency advised of Genl Johnston’s intentions, but from his dispatches and reports of the condition of his army, I fear it may be necessary to relinquish Raleigh.”

Johnston hoped to defeat Sherman and Schofield while they were still separated, but since he still did not know Sherman’s true intentions, he had to divide his own force. General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates coming from Kinston were directed to guard Goldsboro, while Lieutenant General William Hardee’s small force coming up from Fayetteville was to guard Raleigh. The central command would be at Smithfield, between the two towns.

Confederate Lieut Gen William Hardee | Image Credit: Flickr.com

By the 15th, both the left and right wings of Sherman’s Federal army had crossed the Cape Fear River. Hardee’s 7,500 Confederates took positions on a ridge between the river and Averasboro, a small town about 30 miles south of Raleigh. This blocked Sherman’s left wing, specifically Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XX Corps in that wing. According to Sherman:

“On the 15th of March the whole army was across Cape Fear River, and at once began its march for Goldsboro’; the Seventeenth Corps still on the right, the Fifteenth next in order, then the Fourteenth and Twentieth on the extreme left; the cavalry acting in close concert with the left flank. With almost a certainty of being attacked on this flank, I had instructed General Slocum to send his corps-trains under strong escort by an interior road, holding four divisions ready for immediate battle.”

Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry screened Slocum’s advance on the left, probing for the enemy. The Federals ran into a Confederate skirmish line consisting mainly of the 1st South Carolina Heavy Artillery, which had previously been garrisoned at Charleston. A skirmish ensued in which the Federals took several prisoners.

The prisoners included Colonel Alfred M. Rhett, son of Robert B. Rhett, the fire-eating editor of the Charleston Mercury. Colonel Rhett defiantly warned Kilpatrick, “There are 50,000 fresh men ready and waiting for you” in South Carolina. Kilpatrick replied, “Yes and if that is true we will have to hunt the swamp to find the damned cowards.” Rhett was taken to Sherman’s headquarters, where he was questioned and turned over to Slocum’s provost-guard.

Hardee’s Confederates ultimately fended off Kilpatrick’s probe, and Slocum’s men camped within eight miles of Averasboro on the night of the 15th. As Sherman explained, his force “encountered pretty stubborn resistance by Hardee’s infantry, artillery, and cavalry, and the ground favored our enemy; for the deep river, Cape Fear, was on his right, and North River on his left, forcing us to attack him square in front. I proposed to drive Hardee well beyond Averysboro’, and then to turn to the right by Bentonville for Goldsboro.”

The next day, as Hardee resumed his attacks on Kilpatrick’s cavalry, Slocum’s XX Corps attacked the Confederate front. The Federals made little progress until Sherman ordered a brigade to move around and try outflanking Hardee’s right. This forced the Confederates to fall back to a second defensive line. They fended off three Federal charges, and when their flanks were about to crumble, Hardee withdrew to a third position on high ground behind a swamp.

The Confederates withstood repeated attacks from this new position throughout the afternoon. As night fell, Hardee learned that the Federals were crossing the Black River to turn his left flank. This compelled him to withdraw his men under cover of a stormy night toward Smithfield. Hardee reported to Johnston:

“The enemy have made repeated attempts to carry my lines and turn my flanks, but have been repulsed in every attempt. I shall retire toward Smithfield tonight. General Hampton says the enemy have crossed Black River at several places, and urges me to move rapidly to prevent being intercepted…”

The fight at Averasboro cost the Federals 682 casualties (95 killed, 533 wounded, and 54 missing), while the Confederates lost about 865. This was neither a major battle nor a Confederate victory, but it gave Johnston more time to concentrate his forces and possibly block the planned junction between Sherman and Schofield at Goldsboro. Hardee issued orders commending his troops for their effort and for “giving the enemy the first check he has received since leaving Atlanta.”

Sherman’s advance through the Carolinas had been nearly flawless thus far, but he made a serious mistake at Averasboro: he failed to put his right wing into the fight, which could have destroyed Hardee’s entire force. This not only allowed Hardee to escape, but the fight left Sherman’s left wing dangerously spread out and separated from the right by nearly 12 miles.

Sherman’s forces continued moving forward nonetheless, struggling along muddy roads and building bridges on the way.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22111-19; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 547; 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 17246-96, 17315-35; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 566-67; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 268; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 652-53; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 31, 56; 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. 829; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 452-53; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 304

The Star of the West Mission

January 2, 1861 – President James Buchanan decided to resupply Major Robert Anderson’s Federal troops at Charleston, South Carolina.

By the end of 1860, South Carolina militia had isolated Anderson’s men at Fort Sumter, an island fortress in Charleston Harbor. The Federals would eventually need supplies, but they had been denied any further assistance from the state. A delegation of South Carolinians had come to Washington to demand that President Buchanan remove all troops from Charleston, but Buchanan rejected those demands on December 31. Two days later, the delegates responded:

“You have resolved to hold by force what you have obtained through our misplaced confidence, and by refusing to disavow the action of Major Anderson, have converted his violation of orders into a legitimate act of your executive authority… If you choose to force this issue upon us, the State of South Carolina will accept it…”

Buchanan read this letter to his cabinet and then returned it to the delegates. He refused to officially accept it due to the nature of its language, and this ended negotiations between his administration and South Carolina. Buchanan then resolved to dispatch supplies and reinforcements to Anderson’s “starving garrison.” After receiving almost unanimous support from his cabinet, Buchanan instructed Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army, to direct a relief expedition.

The sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn received orders to be ready at Norfolk, Virginia for troops and supplies. However, Scott persuaded Buchanan to send a civilian vessel instead to better protect the mission’s secrecy. This turned what could have been a simple relief expedition into a complex, clandestine operation. It also proved very expensive, as Assistant Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas contracted the merchant ship Star of the West for $1,250 per day. Federal officials hoped that this ship, which traveled regularly between New York and New Orleans, would not attract the South Carolinians’ attention.

Star of the West, headed by Captain John McGowan, left New York City on the night of January 5 with supplies and 200 troops. But any hope for secrecy quickly evaporated, as the New York press immediately began leaking rumors of the ship’s mission to southern sympathizers. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson, the last southerner in Buchanan’s cabinet, resigned not only because he expected his home state of Mississippi to secede, but because he opposed Star of the West’s mission. Before leaving office, Thompson telegraphed Charleston officials that the ship was coming.

Star of the West | Image Credit: Library of Congress

Star of the West | Image Credit: Library of Congress

Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas also learned of the secret plan and notified South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens. But while South Carolinians received word of the ship’s impending arrival, nobody from the War Department notified Anderson that help was coming. On the 8th, Anderson finally learned of the expedition by reading about it in the Charleston Mercury. But since he had yet to receive official word from his superiors, he did not act upon the news.

Star of the West reached Charleston Harbor near sunrise on the 9th and steamed up the main channel toward Fort Sumter. The 200 troops of the 9th U.S. Infantry had orders to hide below decks to avoid detection, but by this time the South Carolinians were prepared to meet them.

At 6 a.m., cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, or The Citadel, fired on Star of the West from Morris Island. Soon batteries from Fort Moultrie also opened fire. A shot went across the ship’s bow, and a ricochet struck the vessel’s fore-chains. After sustaining a second hit, Captain McGowan decided that the mission was too dangerous and ordered his ship to return to New York.

The Federals at Fort Sumter, unaware of the ship’s presence or mission, did not assist Star of the West. When Anderson officially learned about the mission, he demanded an apology from Governor Pickens for firing on an unarmed vessel bearing the U.S. flag. Pickens refused, arguing that a foreign vessel reinforcing foreign troops on South Carolinian soil could not be permitted because the state was now independent.

Southerners accused Buchanan of trying to provoke a war. Buchanan replied that he merely tried to execute his role as military commander-in-chief. He also argued that his entire cabinet had agreed with the mission, but former Interior Secretary Thompson angrily countered that he had been the lone dissenter before resigning. Thompson called the mission a breach of good faith toward South Carolina. Meanwhile, the South Carolina delegation returned to their state after proposing to meet with delegates of other seceded states at Montgomery, Alabama on February 4 to discuss forming a provisional government.

The Star of the West incident galvanized extremists on both sides. Charleston Mercury editor Robert B. Rhett wrote that South Carolina “has not hesitated to strike the first blow, full in the face of her insulter. We would not exchange or recall that blow for millions! It has wiped out a half century of scorn and outrage.” An editorial in the Atlas and Argus of Albany, New York voiced the prevailing northern opinion by stating, “The authority and dignity of the Government must be vindicated at every hazard. The issue thus having been made, it must be met and sustained, if necessary, by the whole power of the navy and army.”

President Buchanan still hoped that cooler heads would prevail, so he ordered Anderson to take no offensive action while preparing to defend the garrison. At the same time, Anderson rejected Governor Pickens’s demands to surrender Fort Sumter to South Carolina.

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Sources

  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 3757, 3815-27
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-27
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 7, 9
  • Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 69-70
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 20-25
  • 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. 265-66
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 45-46
  • Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving, The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 180
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Star of the West; Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War