A look back: Sherman’s March through the Upper Pee Dee

Photo of the Jacob Kelley House courtesy of Bill Segars.

Photo of the Jacob Kelley House courtesy of Bill Segars.

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpressonline.com

As the Union army of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman blazed a trail of destruction through the Confederate south in February and March of 1865, many homes were burned, many possessions stolen, and many lives lost. Some communities in the Upper Pee Dee region suffered great indignities at the hands of greedy Federal foragers, and the echoes of their terror still reverberate through family lore in Cheraw, Society Hill, and Hartsville.

Sherman’s army built up bloody momentum after the burning of Atlanta in November of 1864, and the Federals rolled uncontested to Savannah after a five-week “March to the Sea.” But razing Georgia did not slake their thirst for vengeance; Sherman wrote that his soldiers were eager to punish South Carolina, as it was the first state to secede.

Union army Maj. Gen John E. Smith

Union army Maj. Gen John E. Smith

“The truth is that the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance on South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her,” Sherman wrote in a letter dated December 24, 1864.

60,000 Union soldiers moved into South Carolina in early January of 1865. The Federals divided into two columns: the Right Wing (with the 17th and 15th Corps) and the Left Wing (with the 20th and 14th Corps). During their advance, the northern army lived off the land, foraging for food to feed soldiers and some 30,000 horses and mules. This often led to confrontations with landowners who resisted the forcible seizure of their crops and the butchery of their livestock.

Residents anticipating the arrival of Union armies tried their best to conceal food and valuables, often burying jewelry and money in barrels safely away from the main house. Sometimes those anticipating siege would gorge themselves on precious turkeys, hams, and alcohol to keep the nutrition and libations from enemy hands.

“Every day we had a real Christmas dinner,” wrote Elizabeth Alston Pringle of Cheraw, who was 19 at the time of Sherman’s march.
The Federals had to contend with muddy roads, flooding, and skirting attacks from Confederate mounted patrols, but they slogged toward Cheraw and foragers (who traveled ahead of the army) crossed Lynch’s River on Feb. 26, 1865. After a mighty struggle through flooded lowlands, the core of the northern troops followed and numerous violent clashes with Confederates under the command of Gen. Hardee and Maj. Gen. Matthew Butler ensued. Multiple fatalities – from heavy shelling, mini ball and cannon fire, and sabre slashes – occurred before the Yanks finally claimed Cheraw.

Though under orders to behave honorably – with Union Gen. Howard even banning cursing among his men – many among the occupying force seized the opportunity for theft. Large quantities of heirloom furniture and personal treasures had been shipped to Cheraw from the lowcountry for safekeeping, and the Union soldiers plundered these items with gusto.

The Federals withdrew from Cheraw on March 7, leaving raided homes, empty larders, dead horses, and shallow graves in their wake.
The behavior of many Union soldiers in this invading force can be traced up the chain of command to Sherman himself, who had a reputation for dealing harshly with Confederate soldiers and civilians alike. In one such instance, a Union forager was beaten to death near Lynch’s River, and a southern prisoner named James M. Miller was executed by firing squad in retaliation – this was done in accordance with standing orders from Gen. Sherman.

Union soldiers camped for a few days in early March near the Kelley Farm just outside Hartsville, and though family members suffered loss of their horses and mules, meat, corn, baled cotton, and personal possessions, the Federals were evidently kept in line by their commanding officer. John Eugene Smith was a Swiss born soldier brevetted as a Major General when he led the 15th Corps to the Kelley Farm.
When foragers first arrived on the property, they menaced the family and shot their dog, but one soldier suggested that the matriarch accompany him to headquarters and ask for a guard, who then stood watch and protected the home from those with a mind for destruction.
“Mother came back with a guard, who told her that all we could put in the house would be safe. We put some meat and corn right down on the floor,” wrote Martha Kelley, who passed away in 1931.

Maj. Gen Smith did write of one odd, daring skirmish during his time in our area. Near Big Black Creek, a party of 30 rebel cavalry charged between the 15th Infantry Advance and mounted corps, capturing one Union officer and killing one soldier. In a letter dated March 3, 1865, Smith wrote of the attack:

“It was supposed, until too late, that they were of our own men, being dressed in completed suits of Federal uniform. I sent what few mounted men I had with me in pursuit but did not succeed in overtaking them.”

Though Sherman’s march left many towns in ruin and many homes burned to the studs, Maj. Gen. Smith left the 1820-built Kelley home much as he found it, and the Jacob Kelley House stands today as one of the oldest and most historic homes in Darlington County.

Author: Duane Childers

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