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Chapter 44: skirmishing at Cheraw and Fayetteville and the Battle of Averysboro

Cheraw was pretty thoroughly defended with intrenchments and outworks; on my coming up with Mower's command ahead, I found him leading his division in his own indomitable style. The Confederate cavalry met us at Thompson's Creek, but being cavalry only, they quickly gave way to Mower's coming, but set the bridge on fire. Our men quenched the fire at once and followed speedily nearer to the town. A firm stand was made here by our adversaries to enable them to cover the next bridge across the Pedee with turpentine. At last, as the Confederates rushed across, they succeeded in setting behind them a quick fire, and one that became immediately so furious that Mower's men could not save the bridge.

Here, as at Columbia, a depot and several storehouses were already in flames when our men entered the city of Cheraw. Quite a largq amount of war material came into our hands by capture. By the newspapers which I found there the news of the taking of Charleston, and also of Wilmington, was confirmed.

Here we noticed the action of the Confederate Congress putting into service boys and old men. That body was also considering the expediency of organizing negro troops. In this we already had the start [135] of them. Terry was near us with negro brigades well in hand.

About this time old men and boys began to fall into our lines. Logan recommended on March 4th that all such prisoners belonging to the South Carolina militia be released upon their parole and oath not to serve again during the war. He remarked: “They now are but a burden to us, requiring an issue of subsistence when it is necessary to husband our supply, and they can scarcely be looked upon as fit subjects for imprisonment or exchange.” This sensible disposition of them was made.

There were two sources of chagrin which annoyed me at Cheraw: one was that a detachment which I sent to Florence had not been sufficiently vigorous in its reconnoissance. The officers conducting it, however, discovered a force of Confederate cavalry, and trains of cars loaded with troops, and brought back 20 or 30 prisoners.

The second chagrin was from an accident like that at Columbia. Charles R. Woods's division of infantry was massed near the river waiting their turn to cross, when a terrific explosion occurred. It was occasioned by our working parties having thrown together on the river slope masses of artillery shells, with considerable powder. The object had been to drown the powder in the river, and also to sink the shells in the water to render them useless. By carelessness considerable powder had been strewn along the ground. The teams passing over the bridge road had in some way ignited it and its lightning flashes passed to the main pile of shells. The sudden thunderous explosion for the time appeared to paralyze men and animals. The mules and horses near by ran [136] off wildly in a stampede. One officer and three enlisted men were killed outright, and at least a dozen or more of the soldiers were disabled. Thus disaster followed acts of inexcusable carelessness!

On March 5th, finding that Hardee had withdrawn from my front across the Great Pedee, which was about 500 feet broad, and as my bridge was already laid, the crossing of my command at Cheraw was soon completed. We now hastened on toward Fayetteville. Sherman, having news of accessions to Hardee's force from above and below and from the east, and also that his old contestant, Joseph E. Johnston, was in command, wrote me that he believed that the Confederates would make a stand for battle near Fayetteville west of the Cape Fear River. I answered that I thought not, unless we pushed them so hard that they could not get out of the way. The position might have been good against my column alone, but at this time Slocum was so near me that Johnston would have had to encounter Sherman's united force.

The events proved that my judgment was correct, for this astute Confederate commander, realizing his relative weakness, waited a little till the two wings had separated one from the other. As we shall shortly see, he struck Slocum first, because he was handiest, after Slocum had deviated northward and was passing through Averysboro.

Going on, March 8th, I made my headquarters for the night at Laurel Hill, Richmond County, N. C. It was this day that we crossed the line between South and North Carolina. The Fifteenth Corps was near me, and the Seventeenth a little in advance. Slocum's command, the left wing, was not many miles to the [137] north, and well up abreast. That evening Sherman requested me if possible while pursuing the enemy to so slow up my march as to let the left wing seize Fayetteville. The reason given was that Slocum's division would have the advantage which arose from the primary occupation of a town. Increase of supplies as well as honor thus usually came to the first occupants.

I was not far from Dan's Bridge when Captain Duncan, having my consent, with his scouts and a small escort pushed on ahead to Fayetteville. He found some show of a picket line which he avoided, and came to what is called Little Rock Fish Creek Bridge, which was unaccountably spared by the enemy.

Of this Duncan immediately took possession. Very early the next morning (March 11th) I instructed Duncan to take all our mounted men (his own and Captain King's) and scout toward Fayetteville and keep us informed of what was going on. He again encountered the enemy's pickets just before reaching the city. He drove them so easily before him that he did not anticipate much force ahead, and so pressed on into the city itself. Duncan, while caring for his men, discovered a large force of cavalry on some high ground ready to pounce upon him. He succeeded, however, in saving his command, but he himself in the rear was captured; he, however, escaped and came into bivouac and was described by Sherman as having been stripped of everything valuable, and being clothed in an old unpresentable dress. The account of Duncan's interviews with Butler, Hampton, and Hardee was very entertaining, and is still, as he vividly recalls it. Hardee, Duncan declares, treated him with kindness, but was very anxious to find how he had happened [138] to seize the bridge and pass the pickets with so small a force of horsemen.

Duncan's men reported to us that very day the circumstances, so that Giles A. Smith's column could not safely delay any longer. Smith sent forward at once a troop of mounted men. They joined the returning scouts, then followed up the Confederate cavalry as they ran back; when the Confederate rear guard was crossing the river our men soon had possession of the hill where the Fayetteville arsenal was situated.

Just as the last Confederate horseman was clearing the bridge over the Cape Fear, Potts's brigade, the leading one of Smith's division, arrived on the field. Potts first took position on Arsenal Hill, and then quickly deployed his skirmishers along the river bank under instructions to make every endeavor to save the bridge. But the preparation for its destruction was too complete.

The Confederates placed their cannon in a good position on the farther shore, and shelled out skirmishers, regardless of the houses of Fayetteville, while the long bridge was bursting into brilliant flame. As our columns came in from the south roads, Slocum's leading corps, the Fourteenth, entered the town from the northwest. The mayor, doubtless having been attracted by Captain Duncan's daring raid to the southern part of the town, hastened toward us, and so made a formal tender of the city to Lieutenant Colonel Strong of my staff.

Many of our men, mounted foragers and others, were found lying dead in the streets. Remembering Sherman's wishes, as soon as I met Slocum I retired outside the city limits, and there went into camp.

Logan halted his force at least five miles back. [139] We found the best practicable approaches for our pontoon bridge a mile below Fayetteville, opposite Mr. Cade's plantation. The banks, however, even here were steep and difficult. The water was subsiding, so that in a short time our bridge was depressed, and the wagons were lowered on one side of the river and, to use an old English word, “boosted” up by soldiers on the other side with much labor. When a bridgehead of sufficient extent had been made, I put my headquarters, March 13th, near Mr. Cade's house, and stayed there until the 16th of the same month.

Sherman very much wished to get communications to Wilmington, and, if possible, receive back word from the same, while Logan and I were anxious to reestablish mail communication. After consulting with Captain Duncan, I selected Sergeant Myron J. Amick, Fifteenth Illinois Cavalry, and Private Geo. W. Quimby, Thirty-second Wisconsin, the two enlisted men that had made with Duncan the perilous and successful expedition down the Ogeechee and communicated with the fleet; furnished with as much mail matter as well as dispatches as they could. comfortably carry, I started them off to Wilmington.

Sherman had sent another messenger to float down the Cape Fear. My party crossed the river at Campbell's Bridge and succeeded in avoiding squads of the enemy's cavalry or other hostiles whom they met, and finished their journey successfully in 48 hours. Just after our arrival at Fayetteville, and after the first excitement of the skirmishing had subsided, we heard the whistle of a steam tug below us on the Cape Fear River. This vessel had set out at once for Fayetteville on receiving news through Sergeant Amick and his companion of our whereabouts. Shortly before this, [140] some of Blair's men, skirmishing down the river, had discovered a small Confederate steamer and captured it, with its freight of cotton and forage.

The 15th of the month one of our gunboats reached us and was followed by other steamers. They brought us mail, sugar, coffee, shoes, and forage which were most welcome.

It was here that Sherman took advantage of returning steamers to send our sick to better accommodations and to forward mail for the whole command. The remaining space on the vessels was occupied by the refugees, whom I have before described. Besides these, a column of whites and negroes, with all their indescribable belongings, were organized in a military way and sent down the river road. From the numerous men going out of the service, I furnished them abundant guards and wagons sufficient to carry the small children, the sick, and the extra food. It was a singular spectacle that drew out of camp on Wednesday, March 15, 1865, and set out for Wilmington via Clinton. There were 4,500, mostly negroes, from my wing alone.

Feeling pretty sure that Joe Johnston, our new adversary, who was somewhere in our path, would soon make a stand or an attack, the entire command, under Sherman's instructions, stripped for battle; that is to say, the wagon trains, except those absolutely essential, were thrown back, kept well together and placed under special escort, covered, of course, by the rear guard.

Slocum, deviating from our direct march toward Goldsboro, went by the way of Kyle's Landing, aiming for Bentonville, while his wagon train followed the Goldsboro route. Kilpatrick's cavalry was clearing the way on Slocum's left and front. Slocum found, [141] March 6th, a large Confederate force across the way near Averysboro. It proved to be Hardee, not Johnston, in immediate command. Kilpatrick came upon the enemy behind intrenchments and moved to the right, while Slocum deployed two divisions of the Twentieth Corps in front of the enemy's line.

Sherman joined Slocum and directed him to send a brigade to the left so as to get a ford in rear of the Confederate intrenchments. This was successfully accomplished. The enemy retreated and MacBeth's Charleston battery with 217 of Rhett's men were captured. The Confederates were found behind another line of works, a short distance in rear of the first. Both operations constituted the battle. Slocum skirmished up to the new position, and went into camp “in their immediate front.” During the night Hardee retreated, leaving 108 dead for Slocum to bury and 68 wounded. We lost 12 officers and 65 men killed and 477 men wounded.

It is evident that my movement across the Black River and touching the Averysboro road on that same day, where I was waiting to turn back upon Hardee's left, was what caused him to retreat without further battle. Now, it is plain from all accounts that Johnston in good earnest was gathering in all the troops he could at or near Bentonville. A dispatch mentioned Stephen D. Lee, Stevenson, Stewart, Cheatham, Hampton, and IIardee as near at hand.

Johnston's instructions, which he received from Richmond, February 23d, at his residence in Lincolnton, N. C., were: “To concentrate all available forces and drive Sherman back.” “This was done,” Johnston alleges, “with a full consciousness on my part, however, that we could have no other object in continuing [142] the war than to obtain fair terms of peace; for the Southern cause must have appeared hopeless then to all intelligent and dispassionate Southern men.”

With these instructions and this natural feeling, Johnston gathered from all quarters, as near as I can estimate, from 20,000 to 25,000 men.

March 18th Slocum's wing was continuing its advance toward Bentonville. My wing the same day upon the next road to the south was doing the same thing, but from the character of the country I was obliged to deviate so much that our wings were separated more and more from each other till Logan turned northward and encamped near Alexander Benton's, about 11 miles south of Bentonville, while Blair was back near Troublefield's store. I was then with Logan's head of column and General Sherman was with Blair's.

Slocum at the same time appeared to be abreast of Logan, perhaps six miles to his left northwest of him. We had but little resistance on our front, and that from Confederate cavalry. The roads, which appeared fair, became immediately bad by use and so straggled my columns.

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