From the beginning of February to the latter part of March, 1865 Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army Group traversed the swamps, rivers and lowlands of the Carolinas. This was no small undertaking. Sherman faced a heady task. He would have to move 60,000 men at the height of winter and cut off from all supplies. Such an endeavor had been attempted before and was successful; late the previous year, Sherman had marched across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah. There was no reason to believe that it could not be done again by the force Sherman described as “having a confidence in itself that makes it almost invincible”. Even for seasoned veterans, that confidence would carry them a long way on an extended campaign.
Sherman’s objective on the march was to break up the railroads in North and South Carolina. Interestingly, the campaign was not built around engaging the enemy, but rather maneuvering into a position that would threaten Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Sherman believed that if he reached the area in North Carolina between Wilmington and Raleigh by early spring that “the game is then up with Lee”. Having to contend with two major Union forces, one in Virginia and the other in North Carolina could compel Lee to abandon his defense of Richmond and Petersburg.
In a larger sense, however, Sherman did not want to fight a battle. He would be operating without a major supply line and had to rely upon the land itself to subsist his armies. If Sherman remained stationary for an extended period, he would risk running out of food. Thus, it was essential for his columns to maintain a solid pace until they could be resupplied. To help avoid this consequence, Sherman’s army group-Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s Army of Georgia and Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee-marched on different, but parallel roads several miles apart.
Ideally, the separate columns remained in supporting distance of one another, averaging anywhere between 10 to 15 miles a day. To improve speed, the Federal soldiers only carried what they could on their person: weapon, ammunition, canteen, haversack and tin cup. Personal belongings were rolled up in a blanket which was slung across the right shoulder. No excess baggage was allowed; supply wagons for each corps were to only carry food and additional ammunition.
Sherman planned to resupply his armies at Goldsboro, North Carolina, but even this was no easy endeavor. The Union navy would have to land supplies along the coast at New Bern for further transport via railroad inland. To secure the town, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant plucked Maj. Gen. John Schofield’s XXIII Corps from Tennessee and transferred it to North Carolina.
Although he hoped not to fight a major engagement through the course of his 450 mile march, Sherman would have to on three occasions. On March 10, Confederate cavalry under Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton struck Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick at Monroe’s Crossroads. Six days later, enemy infantry delayed Slocum’s advance from Fayetteville, North Carolina for a full day near Averasboro. Then, on March 19, disaster nearly befell the army group.
Opposing Sherman in the Carolinas was a hodgepodge army assembled by Gen. Joseph Johnston. On March 19, Johnston attacked the Army of Georgia below the village of Bentonville. The offensive was executed when it was most advantageous to Johnston: he was able to isolate the Yankees in open country toward the latter part of the march when their food supply was getting dangerously low.
Johnston’s assault smashed Brig. Gen. William Carlin’s division and threatened to roll up the division of Brig. Gen. James Morgan. Morgan, however, held firm and if not for quick action by Slocum and a delayed advance by the rest of Johnston’s force barely averted a calamity. When Sherman arrived with the Army of the Tennessee the following day, Sherman was content to merely skirmish with Johnston, not wishing to further escalate the fighting. Feeding his men was foremost in his mind, as Sherman wrote after the war that his wagons had “but little food”. He was so determined not to engage in a major fight that on March 21st, when a reconnaissance in force caved in Johnston’s left and threatened to cut the enemy line of retreat, Sherman ordered the attacking division to disengage and return to the main line.
On the night of March 21st and continuing the following morning, Johnston withdrew from the field. Sherman was “content to let him go”. His columns entered Goldsboro on March 23. Upon reaching the town, Sherman later reflected “thus was concluded one of the longest and most important marches ever made by an organized army in a civilized country”.
There is no question that Sherman’s image is a blurry one today. The characteristics of his mode of warfare, primarily that of bringing the war to the civilian populace, will always draw discussion and controversy. At the same time, his march through the Carolinas was both an engineering and logistical marvel. The “March to the Sea” served merely as a tune-up for the Carolinas Campaign. Sherman believed in the soldiers he led and that confidence was reciprocated. He would not have undertaken such a dangerous endeavor had that trust not existed, which in and of itself is a wonderful testament to the spirit of the American fighting man and his commander.