River’s Bridge SHS | Ehrhardt, SC | March 19, 2016
A few weeks ago, we spent the day visiting River’s Bridge State Historic Site, one of the only places to see any action in South Carolina during the Civil War. It is nearly 2 hours from Charleston – pretty much in the middle of nowhere. 😉 We arrived at the site and started with walking around a graveyard/pavilion area with a few memorials. This was also toward the peak of the azalea season, and the gorgeous colorful flowers blossomed in the woods behind us!
Here, we ran into a park ranger, and he happened to have some free time and happily agreed to give us what he called the “5¢ tour”. He showed us to a building right there that we had walked right past, assuming it was for official park use only, but was actually a small informational museum. Because theft was an issue in the 70’s or 80’s, they no longer can have historical artifacts here, so they turned the building into a sort of memorial honoring those who fought on both sides and were lost in this battle.
After this, he took us to see the battlefield – Curtis will share what went on here!
After talking for awhile about the Revolutionary War, let’s fast forward 100 years back to the Civil War (isn’t it great living in a place with so much history).
Let us begin with a quick recap of the Civil War in South Carolina as we’ve seen it so far.
In December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Throughout the beginning of 1861, relations were tense as Union soldiers still occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In April 1861, Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War.
One of the first actions of the Federals in the war was to attempt at blocking all Confederate ports in what is known today as General Scott’s Anaconda Plan. One of the first ports to fall and actually be captured was Beaufort, SC and Hilton Head Island in November 1861. From Hilton Head, Federal forces attempted to capture Savannah by first attacking and capturing Fort Pulaski in April 1862. However, they were unsuccessful in pushing up the Savannah River and taking Savannah itself.
And there by and large ended the major engagements in the area until 1864. Lee knocked around Union Generals in Virginia and Maryland, Grant and Sherman operated around the Mississippi River, and numerous engagements happened in Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas, but the heart of the South remained rather untouched.
It wasn’t until the end of 1864 that the heartland started to feel the pains of war. In September 1864, General Sherman finally captured Atlanta, pushing General Hood’s army out of the way. Sherman then proceeded to march from Atlanta to Savannah, burning the countryside as he went – today known as Sherman’s March to the Sea (and still a sore point in some circles). He arrived in Savannah around Christmas 1864, but decided it was too beautiful to burn, and offered the city as a Christmas present to President Lincoln.
From there, General Grant, currently laying siege to St. Petersburg, VA, requested that Sherman embark on ships and sail to his aid in the siege. Sherman instead decided to march to Grant’s aid, crossing the Carolina’s in much the same fashion as he did Georgia. He was especially interested in giving South Carolina her “just desserts” for being the first to secede.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, the Army to oppose the Federal’s was still in the vicinity of Atlanta under the command of General Johnston. This left only a few garrisons at Augusta, GA and Charleston, SC to oppose the onslaught.
Sherman’s first objective – the state Capital of Columbia. But in order to further confuse his outnumbered opponents, he sent his three armies (six corps) in different paths. The Army of Georgia embarked on ships and sailed to Wilmington, NC to meet up with Sherman later. The Army of Ohio embarked and landed at Beaufort, feinting towards Charleston before rendezvousing with Sherman near Columbia (it was this troop movement that ultimately forced the defenders of Charleston to retreat). And finally the Army of the Tennessee drove due North from Savannah towards Columbia.
It is this third column that we are concerned about today. In order to reach Columbia from Savannah, one must cross three major rivers. From South to North, they are the Savannah, Salkehatchie, and the Edisto. When considering how to cross a river, by foot, in hostile territory, while being shot at, a great many things must be considered. In the case of the Salkehatchie, they were the following: cross too far North and get stuck in mud, cross in the middle and get stuck in swamps, cross too far south and have to cross a mile wide river. Sherman chose the middle path. The Army of the Tennessee crossed the Savannah by boat and then slogged through the back country during what was supposedly one of the wettest winters on record.
In the meantime, the Confederate soldiers under the command of Maj. General McLaws, who had unsuccessfully attempted to stop Sherman at Savannah, had tasked themselves with delaying Sherman’s march through the Carolinas until Johnston and the main army arrived. When it became apparent that the Army of the Tennessee would attempt to cross the Salkehatchie in the vicinity of Ehrhardt, they set to building earthen entrenchments to defend three bridge crossings.
On February 2, the XVII Corps (Union) under command of Maj. Gen. Francis Blair made contact with Confederate pickets at the southern crossing Broxton’s Bridge, but pushed on to the middle crossing of Rivers Bridge. In the lead here was Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower’s 1st Division with Three Brigades. Roughly 5000 men.
Across the river, McLaws’ men number a scant 1200. And due to their low number, they could not defend all points of the river but instead concentrated their forces in breast works right near the bridge and causeway. This proved their undoing.
Not knowing that they outnumbered the confederate forces almost five to one, Mower intended to attack with his three Brigades in echelon up the river. The following day (Feb. 3) third Brigade began the assault; slogging across the river, sometimes at above waist height, just above the causeway. All while under fire from battery and muskets. The Federals encountered fierce opposition, but it was soon discovered that the fortifications literally only covered the immediate vicinity of the causeway and the Federals soon gained a foothold on the opposite bank on the flank of the Confederates. Mower ordered a diversionary force to assault the causeway itself while the First and Second Brigades crossed well above the breach in order to turn the confederate right. But, the Confederates, aware of their precarious position abandoned their works and retreated down the road.
All in all, the battle was only a couple hours long. What had been intended to be a prolonged hinderance to Sherman’s Army had only delayed him a day or so. By February 17, he would be in Colombia and would later burn much of the city to the ground. And by April the War would be over.
The park ranger walked with us for the first long stretch of trail out on the battlefield, sharing this history with us and answering questions. He then left us so he could go to lunch (he also had to work late for a wedding that was taking place at the park!), but we were so grateful that he took the time to do this for us. He also seemed pretty excited to have “young people” from out of town show up and be ready to learn. 🙂 We finished the long walk around the battlefield on our own, then decided to stay a little longer and walk through the woods in the park. There were a lot of other random trails around, and it was a beautiful day to be out there – even if it was a “little” humid! (Little as in, it felt like it was in the 80’s, but when we got back in the car it said it was 65º. That was the warmest 65 ever! haha)
After that, we started the drive back, happy with what we had seen and learned today. (In case you’re wondering, we got 2 new counties as well. Winning!) Driving through the countryside of SC is so interesting to us – sometimes we’re driving past pastures and crops growing, and we see a beautiful farmhouse on a big piece of land, and it reminds us of the our home in the Midwest. We think to ourselves, “I think I could actually enjoy living out here!” But then 100 yards later, we’re driving past another thickly wooded swamp and we’re like “Nah, we’re good.” 🙂