The Swamp Lizard Gets His Nickname

Federal soldiers moving across the Salkehatchie. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Federal soldiers moving across the Salkehatchie.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As the second week of February, 1865 opened Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s armies were nearing the South Carolina capitol, Columbia.  Since leaving Savannah, the Yankees had covered well over one hundred miles. In the course of their trek, the armies had crossed the Salkehatchie River and the North and South Forks of the Edisto River. The bridging of the Salkehatchie had been the most important. Winter rains had flooded its banks and the surrounding area was an overgrown swamp. This difficult terrain increased the risk of the Federals getting bogged down and delaying the march. Establishing a bridgehead on the north bank was critical to getting the columns under way. Leading the armies across the river was the XVII Corps division commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Anthony Mower.

Mower was considered one of the most aggressive division commanders in either of Sherman’s armies. He was a veteran of the early Mississippi Valley Campaigns, Corinth, Vicksburg and the Red River Campaign. His reputation as a hard fighter along with his experience as an Engineer during the Mexican War made Mower the ideal candidate for navigating the swollen Salkehatchie and its surrounding area.

On the first day of the operation, Mower “found the causeway through the swamp obstructed with felled timber and five bridges leading through the swamp destroyed.” Undeterred, Mower ordered up a regiment to protect his pioneers to clear a path through the swamp and open an avenue of advance for the rest of his command. The next day, Mower engaged Confederate forces and drove them back across Broxton’s Bridge. Continuing on, the Yankees encountered stiff enemy resistance. Leaving Colonel John Tillson’s brigade to occupy the Rebels on his front, Mower took the balance of his command around their flank. He then ordered the 25th Wisconsin infantry forward into the Confederate line. The Badgers “gallantly charged up the toward the enemy’s works and drove them…rapidly.”

Although this action was successful, the division was still in the swamp, which Mower estimated to be about a mile long. In water at an estimated one to eight feet in depth and “mud about waist deep,” Mower set his men to felling trees for a corduroy road.

The Union pioneers took up their construction work again the following morning. A soldier from the 32nd Wisconsin remembered “our regiment went into the swamp about daylight and were in there until about four o’clock in the afternoon before they affected a crossing. The woods were too thick to use much artillery but the musketry fire was murderous, a continual roll all the while. We drove the enemy from his fortifications and captured about thirty prisoners…our regt. got great praise from the Genl. commanding.”

By the end of the third day of the operation, Mower’s division had opened a route across the Salkehatchie and its surrounding swamps for the armies. Mower would shower praise on his men, writing that “no troops could behave better than did those of my division, they being in the water for nearly two days…they endured this without murmuring, seeming to feel confident that their labors would be crowned with success.” At the same time, the praise was reciprocated.

During the fighting, Mower had spent much of his time on the front lines with his soldiers, often sleeping in the icy swamp with them. His actions endeared him to his men and one morning after rising, Mower was seen to shake a heavy frost off his coat. The soldiers who witnessed this gave him the sobriquet “Swamp Lizard.” Interestingly, Mower was no stranger to nicknames. He had become known as “the Wolf” earlier in the war for a daring reconnaissance prior to the Battle of Iuka.

The Swamp Lizard. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Swamp Lizard. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I would like to extend a special thank you to Dr. John Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy. Dr. Coski generously provided a copy of an ancestor’s letter that was used in this post.

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