A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/Marching northward
On January 17 we crossed the Savannah River on our bridge of flatboats, and started on our new campaign to the North. We were at the outset met by such fearful weather that we were virtually brought to a standstill. Only a portion of our army had yet crossed to the South Carolina side, when a freshet of unprecedented height raised the river so suddenly that it swept away the bridge, overflowed Hutchinson Island, and carried off a lot of wagons and mules that were just about to start. The freshet came before there had been a drop of rain in our vicinity; but it began to rain immediately after, and it seemed as though it would never stop. The country everywhere became a perfect quagmire, and a dry spot was hard to find.
Slowly we proceeded up the east side of the Savannah River, the remainder of Sherman's army following on the right side. On the 29th, at Robertsville, we encountered a strong force of Wheeler's Cavalry, which delayed our column for a short time. Our Regiment was sent to the front to drive them off. The two right companies, under command of Captain Haskins, deployed as skirmishers, and soon swept the enemy away like chaff before the wind. On the 30th we opened communications with Sherman at Sister's Ferry, where he had brought the remainder of his army across into South Carolina.
We now left Savannah River, marching almost directly north. Profiting by our previous experiences, we early organized a foraging party of four men from each company. They had permission to mount themselves with captured animals as soon as possible. In a short time they not only had mounts, but sufficient pack animals to carry several days' provisions for the Regiment. The first time they came into camp they presented a motley appearance, riding horses and mules, and displaying every variety of saddle and harness known to man. But they were soon as well mounted as the cavalry, and had transportation and equipment for any service. As we marched northward, the enemy's's cavalry became more and more active on our flanks, so that our foragers were compelled to unite for protection. Our detail and that from the Second Massachusetts, under Lieutenant Thompson, were united almost from the start.
The low ground and the constant rains made marching so difficult that we rarely covered more than twelve miles in a day. Much of the way we were obliged to corduroy the roads for the trains. For this purpose we used fence rails when they were to be had; when there were none, we cut timber and brush. Reaching the Charleston & Augusta Railroad at Graham Station on February 7, we spent the next four days in destroying the tracks toward Augusta.
While we were in camp at Graham Station, Colonel Hawley, who now commanded our Brigade, and General Slocum, our Corps commander, had an argument as to the best method of tearing up a railroad track. Hawley contended that it was best to line up the men along the track, and at the word of command have them pick it up and turn it over. Slocum protested that this could not be done. A bet was made of a bottle of Apollinaris water, or something else, and Hawley sent for his old Regiment to try the experiment. When the order came to fall in without arms, our men were cooking their supper. Captain Woodford of Hawley's staff went along the line, while we were forming, and explained that the Colonel had made a bet as to what the Regiment could do. We were soon lined up along the track, and the command was given to take hold and lift. In the hands of those brawny men, that railroad was a plaything. It went over so fast, that some of the staff officers who had gathered to watch the performance, had to move lively to escape the flying rails and ties.
From Graham Station we marched northward through constant rain and mud, subsisting entirely on the country, without drawing rations except coffee or sugar, and generally we had plenty to eat; corn meal and bacon constituted our usual bill of fare. The army was in fine spirits. In thus picking up a living in such a country, where the only products of the soil seemed to be tar and rosin, and pitch pines the only visible vegetation, they felt confident of their ability to find a living anywhere.
Our Corps did not enter Columbia, but crossed the Saluda River about ten miles above. The Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee occupied the city, and destroyed everything in it. They released about sixty Union officers who were confined there; and between them and the soldiers and the whiskey that was found Columbia soon ceased to exist. Scarcely a private residence, even, was left. The only thing that would not burn was the new state-house, said to have been the finest in the Union, and this was mined and blown up. South Carolina was having a bitter taste of the horrors of war.
On February 21 we struck at Winnsboro the railroad running between Columbia and Charlotteville; and following this northward for a distance, destroyed it as we went along. Then turning toward the northeast, by way of Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and Chesterfield, we marched to Fayetteville, North Carolina.
During the entire march from Columbia to Fayetteville we had but three pleasant days; the rain was almost continuous. Our road, most of the way, was through swamps and creeks, where bridges had to be built and roads corduroyed. Frequently, from early morning until midnight, we worked in rain and mud to get our trains along for six or eight miles. The rough work soon wore out our clothing—many of the men were barefooted; many were wearing citizen's dress; the whole army looked more like Falstaff's ragged regiment than soldiers of the United States. But we met little opposition from the enemy. The spirit of four years before seemed to have been beaten out of them. We felt that the only Confederate troops that would still give us serious fighting, were those with Lee at Richmond.
Arriving at Fayetteville on March 12, we once more opened communication with the fleet, by way of Wilmington and Cape Fear River. On the 15th we set out on our way to Goldsboro, and the first night went early into camp, about ten miles from Fayetteville. At eight o'clock, however, we were sent out again into a dark and stormy night to go to the assistance of General Kilpatrick's Cavalry, which had met the enemy. For five miles we waded through mud and water to the place of danger, and bivouacked for the night in line, facing the enemy. In the morning we had some sharp skirmishing, but in the afternoon the enemy were driven from their position.
On the 19th General Carlin's Division of the Fourteenth Corps was attacked and thrown into confusion by General Joe Johnston's army near Bentonville. Our Brigade was rapidly pushed forward with a number of others, and formed in line of battle near the left of the Corps. The enemy made several attacks, the brunt of which fell upon the troops to the right, and then retreated. This battle, which the Union Army nicknamed the Battle of Acorn Run, in compliment to the badge of the Fourteenth Corps, was the last in which our Regiment was engaged during the war.
On the 22nd, we advanced once more, and found that the enemy was gone. Two days later we arrived at Goldsboro, and occupied the city without opposition. On the 27th, for the first time since we had left Savannah, rations were issued to the troops.
- A detailed description of the manner of destroying railroad track during Sherman's Campaign is given by Gen. H. W. Slocum, "Sherman's March from Savannah to Bentonville," in Century Magazine Old Series, xxxiv, p. 930.