(part two of two)
On February 1, 1865, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s might army crossed into South Carolina and began moving north. He kept his two wings separated for a variety of reasons: to confuse the Confederates as to his intentions, and to ensure that different wings were using different road networks. By February 2, they had reached the Salkahatchie River line.
The Union XVII Corps, of Sherman’s Left Wing, advanced on River’s and Broxton’s Bridges, while the XV Corps was ordered to advance on Buford’s Bridge. On February 2, the soldiers of Maj. Gen. Frank Blair’s XVII Corps reached their objections at River’s and Broxton’s Bridges. That day, Union soldiers of Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower’s division of the XVII Corps tried to force their way across the Salkahatchie at Broxton’s Bridge, but were unable to do so. They then marched six miles upstream, headed for River’s Bridge. Responding, Blair ordered his engineers to build bridges and roads across the Salkahatchie swamp to try to bypass Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ defenses at River’s Bridge.
The next day, February 3, two brigades of Mower’s division of the XVII Corps waded through the swamps and launched an all-out assault on the Confederate right. At the same time, another division of the XVII Corps waded the Salkahatchie downstream, flanking McLaws out of his strong position on the north bank of the river. Each side suffered about 100 casualties in this nasty engagement, but Beauregard’s little army could ill afford any losses. The Union victory gave Sherman’s Left Wing possession of the countryside to the north of the Salkahatchie, and ultimate resulted in the cutting of the South Carolina Railroad, an important supply line.
In the meantime, the XV Corps advanced on Buford’s Bridge, but its defenders were also forced to withdraw when McLaws was flanked out of his position at River’s Bridge. His flank turned, McLaws had no choice but to withdraw and fall back in the direction of Branchville. By doing so, McLaws abandoned southeastern South Carolina to the tender mercies of Sherman’s army. His soldiers blamed South Carolina for beginning the Civil War, and they were determined to punish its citizens for doing so. Thus began was later described as a carnival of destruction.
Beauregard’s carefully planned defense of the Salkahatchie River line hence lasted for a total of two days. It was doomed by having too few men to hold the position effectively, meaning that his defensive line had no depth. Similarly, Beauregard did not count on the efficiency and brilliance of the Union engineers and pioneers, who made the impassable swamps passable after all. Forced to fall back to the central part of the state, Beauregard now intended to stand and fight on the line of the Edisto River, south of the state capital at Columbia. However, he never got the chance. But that’s another story for another day.
Wade and I will very soon be ready to begin writing our detailed military study of Sherman’s passage through South Carolina. I expect to have more stories from that study as we proceed.