This week in Richmond history: General Sherman’s on the march

150 years ago: After Cheraw, Union general heads north

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles recognizing the 150th anniversary of General Sherman’s March through the Carolinas.

By Tony Crumbley
NC Postal History Society Journal

General William T. Sherman considered his march through the Carolinas the greatest of his military feats. The South, on the other hand, considered it the crowning display of Yankee barbarity. When Sherman set out from Savannah in January 1865 with 60,000 veteran soldiers, he was convinced that his concept of total war would bring about a speedy end to the war. Before him lay South Carolina, the birthplace of secession and beyond that was North Carolina and then Virginia where Grant and Lee stood deadlocked.

Gen. William T. Sherman

Gen. William T. Sherman

On December 30, 1864 Sherman began his move into South Carolina by moving Major General William T. Ward’s 20th Corp across the Savannah River into South Carolina. Because of bad weather and occasional fire from the few Confederate pickets on the other side, it took over a week to successfully move all 60,079 men, 2,500 wagons and 600 ambulances across. This crossing would, in fact, sever the communication tie of Sherman’s army from their friends and family back home.

For the month of January and February, Sherman’s troops played havoc on the State of South Carolina, burning everything within its path. Being cut off from its supply lines, Sherman ordered “bummers” to fan out from the troop’s path and bring in any usable supplies. The bummers took this as an order that if it wasn’t used or they couldn’t carry it, to burn it. This they did!

Never before or since has the state experienced such destruction, the scars of which can still be seen today, some 133 years later. One phase of Sherman’s plan of total war called for a demoralization of the Confederate armies in the field by the attacks on the home front. Sherman wrote, “The simple fact that a man’s home has been visited by the enemy makes a soldier in Lee’s or Johnston’s army very, very anxious to get home.”

Governor Vance, in fact, did receive letters from troops stationed at the front line stating that they could not complain of their conditions for it was their duty to protect the state but they were in fact concerned for home and family. They asked the Governor to do something for them in order that there be less desertion of the men who were feeling the need to protect their family. Governor Vance, however, could do little.

On March 7 and 8, Sherman’s army began to cross over into North Carolina at the Pee Dee River near Cheraw. Sherman had his generals issue orders for gentler treatment of North Carolinians. General Slocum’s orders read: “All officers and soldiers of this command are reminded that the State of North Carolina was one of the last States that passed the ordinance of secession. And from the commencement of the war there has been in this State a strong union party…it should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies of our government, and it is to be hoped that every effort will be made to prevent any wanton destruction of property, or any unkind treatment of citizens.”

From his headquarters at Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church, General Sherman sent a message to the commanding federal officers at Wilmington to send a boat up the Cape Fear River to meet Sherman in Fayetteville to re-supply him with bread, coffee and sugar. He noted they had an abundance of all else.

On the morning of March 11, General Howard ordered Captain Duncan to take all available mounted men at his headquarters and scout toward Fayetteville. Finding no Confederate resistance, Captain Duncan entered the city and surprised General Hampton. Captain Duncan’s 68 men were not enough to take the city. Eleven Federal’s were killed and twelve captured, including Captain Duncan. This gave General Hampton the necessary warning to move his troops across the Cape Fear River to safety and to burn the bridge before Sherman’s troops could take over.

Mayor Archibald McLean made formal surrender of Fayetteville to Lieutenant Colonel William E. Strong of Howard’s staff then to General Slocum. The United States flag was once again raised over the marketplace.

General Sherman reached Fayetteville on March 11 and set up headquarters in the old U.S. arsenal. On Sunday, March 12, the quietness of the city was broken by the shrill whistle of a steam boat, which meant only one thing, the courier had gotten through safely from Laurel Hill and this was the prompt reply from the Federals in control of Wilmington. Sherman states: “The effect was electric, and no one can realize the feeling unless, like us, he had been for months cut off from all communications with friends.”

The passage up the river of this steamboat, the army tug, Davidson, was unopposed until it was ten miles from Fayetteville, where some small detachments of Confederate cavalry fired upon it from the river banks. Acting Ensign Charles Ainsworth of the Davidson had taken precaution to cover the craft securely with cotton bales and no damage was done.

After a few minutes conference with Ensign Ainsworth about river conditions, Sherman instructed him to ready a start back at 6:00 p.m. and ordered Captain Byers of his staff to get ready to carry dispatches to Washington. He also authorized General Howard to send to Wilmington on the Davidson some of the refugees who were traveling with his army which at this point amount to more than 20,000 predominately black Southerners.

Carrying Captain Byers, the tug departed Fayetteville with a huge pile of mail cluttering its deck. Ensign Ainsworth’s offer to take personal correspondence back to Wilmington brought a tremendous and immediate response from the news hungry soldiers.

On March 14, the tug Davidson again arrived from Wilmington with Brigadier General George S. Dodge of the Quartermaster Corps on board. He reported the badly needed clothing was not to be had at Wilmington but that he brought some sugar, coffee and a bountiful supply of oats for the horses.

Evidently the Quartermasters in Wilmington were not familiar with the successful foraging tactics of the Federal “bummers.” If they had been, they would not have wasted ship space on forage for the animals. 40,000 pairs of shoes, not a cargo of oats, were needed at Fayetteville. One of Sherman’s Quartermasters, peeved at the sight of boat loads of forage, asked one of the vessel’s captains if he would like to return to Wilmington with a load of corn.

The Davidson has been followed up the Cape Fear by two gunboats. These boats joined the gunboat Eolus, which had been in Fayetteville since the evening of March 12.

During the occupation of Fayetteville, several skirmishes took place between Federal reconnaissance units operating across the Cape Fear River and the Confederate rear guard. These engagements were strictly minor in nature but in each affair the Confederate gave ground very grudgingly.

Perhaps few towns in the South surpassed Fayetteville in the ardor and liberality with which she supported the war. After secession became the law of the state, the leading men had been union men, not secessionists, but they were Confederate, and when the war began they rallied to the Southern cause.

Fayetteville received harsh treatment at the hands of Sherman’s army, not only because it was a stronghold of confederate loyalty but also because it allowed the bridge across the Cape Fear to be destroyed. General Sherman issued specific orders as to what property was to be destroyed in Fayetteville. He issued special field orders, No. 28, which instructed the destruction of all railroad property, all shops, factories, tanneries, etc. All of the above property was destroyed and much more. A lady living near Fayetteville told the following story of a visit from Sherman’s “bummers.”
“There was no place, no chamber, truck, drawer, desk, garret, closet or cellar that was private to their unholy eyes. Their rude hands spared nothing but our lives. Squad after squad unceasingly came and went and tramped through halls and rooms of our house day and night. At our house, they killed every chicken, goose, turkey, cow, calf and every living thing, even our pet dog. They took from old men, women and children alike, every garment of wearing apparel save what we had on. Such as it did not suit them to take away they tore to pieces before our eyes.”

So much for General Sherman’s orders for the citizens of North Carolina.

After a week in North Carolina, the invading army had found booty and destroyed property, but they had found little evidence of the supposedly strong union sentiment among the people. One Union major wrote that he found more persons in Columbia who had proved their loyalty to the Union than in all of North Carolina put together. The city of Fayetteville was offensively rebellious, he noted.

By March 15, Sherman and his entire army had crossed the Cape Fear and the march to Goldsboro had begun. Before leaving Fayetteville, Sherman wrote General Schofield at Newbern and to General Terry at Wilmington to move with their effective forces direct to Goldsboro where he expected to meet them by March 20.

On March 15, Sherman’ cavalry under the command of Kilpatrick struck the confederate skirmish lines of Confederate General Hardee. There were no skirmishing on the night of March 15 between Kilpatrick and the confederate troops. At 6:00 a.m. on March 16 the federal troops moved against the Confederate troops led by Taliafello. The Confederate loses were considerable during the morning’s fighting. The Federals pressed Hardee hard all afternoon and up into the early part of the evening but were unable to overtake the Confederate works. Around 8:00 p.m., Hardee started withdrawing his troops and artillery.

General Slochm and Kilpatrick reported their casualties for the day’s fighting at 682 killed, wounded, captured or missing. Of the casualties, 533 were wounded. This was a serious loss because none of the wounded could be left behind. Every injured man had to be carried in an ambulance.

The Battle of the 16th, though seemingly fierce by those participating, was little more than a skirmish as compared to the battle to be fought at Bentonville two days later. It is significant because the stout resistance put up by Hardee in the engagement stopped the advance of the Federal Troops. As a result, the columns became strung out and the distance between them gave General Johnston time to start preparation for his next grand stand, The Battle of Bentonville.

This article was written by Tony Crumbley for the North Carolina Postal History Society Journal and is published here with permission. 

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  • Joe Richardson

    I really enjoyed this article, looking forward to more of the series. Thanks for offering up to date news as well as interesting, informing articles such as the Gen. Sherman series.

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