150 Years Ago in the Civil War
Fighting was intensifying, especially in the Carolinas, in the late winter of 1865. With its military situation rapidly deteriorating, the Confederacy made a last ditch effort at a negotiated settlement as William T. Sherman’s army moved almost at will across South Carolina and Ulysses S. Grant lengthened his siege line around Petersburg, Virginia.
On February 3rd, President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward met with a Confederate delegation consisting of Vice President Alexander Stevens, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Campbell, and Confederate Senator Robert M.T. Hunter aboard the sidewheel steamboat River Queen at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Francis Preston Blair, a northern politician and unofficial advisor to Lincoln who knew high officials in both Washington and Richmond, had gotten the two sides together. But a peace agreement was doomed from the start; the Confederate government–especially President Jefferson Davis– would only make a deal based on the concept of two countries, while Lincoln was adamant that peace could only come through restoration of the Union. The South had little leverage at this point with Union armies in control throughout much of the Confederacy and its remaining armies on the defensive. Though a prisoner of war exchange deal was worked out, little else was agreed upon.
While the peace talks were going on, Sherman was on the move. Though lead elements of his army had crossed the Savannah River into South Carolina in late January, bad weather had delayed many of his troops. By February 1st, his whole army was on the march, some 60,000 strong. Sherman’s first destination was South Carolina’s capitol, Columbia. The Federals viewed South Carolina has the birthplace of the rebellion, and were more destructive while on the march here than they had been in Georgia. Sweeping through the state with little opposition, Sherman smashed and burned his way to the outskirts of Columbia on the 16th. On the 17th, the city surrendered and was occupied.
That night, a combination of smoldering bales of cotton (set on fire by retreating Confederates), high winds, and widespread consumption of liquor by soldiers and
civilians alike led to the burning of much of the business district of Columbia. Arguments rage to this day as to who really burned Columbia with both sides blaming the other. Fires were already burning when the Federals occupied the city, and while some Union soldiers undoubtedly helped spread the flames (as they had been doing all along the march), many others helped fight the fires, including Sherman himself. (Read Colonel George Stone’s account of the occupation and burning of Columbia here). Sherman’s men continued to destroy anything of military value in for the next few days before continuing onward to the north.
With Sherman’s huge army now to the west, Confederate forces in Charleston evacuated that city as Columbia was being occupied. After years of unsuccessful attempts to take Charleston and retake Fort Sumter where the first shots of the war were fired, both were now in Union hands.
In North Carolina, a Union army under Major General John Schofield captured Wilmington. Although the reduction of Fort Fisher in January had ended Wilmington’s use as a port, the city itself had remained in Confederate hands. With the Federals now in control of Wilmington, the port could now be used as a supply base for Sherman as he made his way toward North Carolina.
In Virginia, the Union Army continued to put pressure on the Confederates defending Petersburg. On February 5th, cavalry and two Union infantry corps attacked Confederate supply lines southwest of Petersburg along Hatcher’s Run. Though the two day Federal offensive, known as the Battle of Hatcher’s run or Dabney’s Mill did not result in the capture of either the Boydton Plank Road or the South Side Railroad (the last rail line into Petersburg under Confederate control), the Union siege lines were extended farther west, further stretching the limited resources of the Rebel defenders.
But although their lines were stretched thin at Petersburg, they weren’t broken, and as Sherman continued northward though South Carolina, the Confederates were assembling several scattered units into a fighting force that would try to stop the Union general in North Carolina before he could link up with Grant in Virginia.