SEAC: The Battle
After four years of war, the Southern Confederacy was nearing collapse. Among most Southern leaders, the hope of defeating the North had vanished. However, they knew to secure an equitable peace Southern soldiers had to stand firm on the battlefield. The need for a Confederate victory to force negotiation was obvious to both Southern leaders and soldiers.
The Confederacy was isolated and starving. The loss of the Mississippi River in 1863 and an increasingly effective naval blockade had slowed Southern import and export to a trickle. Manufacturing had virtually ceased, and the Confederacy’s reserves of manpower and materiel were exhausted.
At Petersburg, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s, C.S.A., Army of Northern Virginia, much reduced by attrition, faced a vastly superior Federal force. As the strength of the Federal Army continued to increase, General Lee’s ability to maneuver diminished. A static situation had developed, compelling both sides to entrench and await opportunity.
Further South, General William T. Sherman’s, U.S.A., hard-marching Federal force had captured Atlanta, Georgia in September 1864. General Sherman followed his successful Atlanta campaign with his much heralded "March to the Sea."
General Sherman’s intent was to cut a path of destruction through the South, bringing the horror of war home to the Southern people. The destruction General Sherman’s men wrought went beyond the usual militarily significant targets. Because the Federal Army had abandoned its supply line when departing Atlanta, it was necessary for Federal soldiers to live off the land. Once Sherman’s Army passed through an area, little was left for civilian use or to support the Confederate Army.
By demonstrating the North’s ability to march through the very heart of Dixie, General Sherman thought he could undermine support for continued resistance. His threat to Southern homes did increase desertions among Confederate soldiers in the field (Barrett 1956).
General Sherman’s force enjoyed minimal resistance on the march. Lieutenant General Wheeler’s Confederate Cavalry attacked Federal foraging parties and elements that strayed too far from the main body, but Lieutenant General Wheeler could do little else other than monitor General Sherman’s progress. The culmination of the march was the capture and occupation of Savannah, Georgia on December 21, 1864.
During several weeks of rest and refitting in Savannah, General Sherman contemplated his next move. The course of action he favored was to continue the march northward through the Carolinas and link up with General Grant in Virginia. General Grant, who initially wanted to extract General Sherman’s force by sea for transport to Virginia, acquiesced to General Sherman’s plan.
On January 19, 1865, General Sherman moved into South Carolina, exacting the same punishment on South Carolina that he had on Georgia. Attempting to impede General Sherman’s progress, the Confederate Cavalry maintained contact with the Federal force. Firefights became a daily occurrence. Skirmishing with Confederate Cavalry, General Sherman’s men entered Columbia, South Carolina on the 17th of February. During a night of destruction, the city caught fire and by morning was a smoldering ruin.
In North Carolina, the citizenry listened to the stories of refugees and read newspaper accounts of events occurring in South Carolina. Rumors were rampant as Sherman’s Army continued toward the state line. Reports of the burning of Columbia prompted calls on the Confederate Government to do something. Assurances that the invaders would be repelled did little to lessen citizen foreboding. North Carolina newspapers ran patriotic articles; rallies occurred, with many participants taking oaths to fight to the end.
On the 25th of February, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A., assumed command of the Army of Tennessee and the Departments of Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. It was General Johnston’s responsibility to stop General Sherman.
General Johnston established his headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. With General Sherman moving north, threatening the midsection of the state, it was probable Charlotte would be his objective. General Johnston’s problem was his lack of troops.
In route to join General Johnston were elements of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and Lieutenant General William J. Hardee’s, C.S.A., Corps. Lieutenant General Hardee had abandoned Savannah to General Sherman in December. After leaving Savannah, Lieutenant General Hardee had moved northward through South Carolina and was nearing the North Carolina state line. However, elements of the Army of Tennessee were still some days away.
As a result of continued harassment from the Federal base at New Bern, North Carolina and the attack on Fort Fisher on the 13th of January, Confederate forces within the state had been drawn to the coast. With Federal Major General A.H. Terry’s, U.S.A., capture of Fort Fisher on January 15th, the threat of a two-pronged Federal invasion from the coast was great. This threat made it necessary for large numbers of Confederate troops to remain in eastern North Carolina to repel any inland incursions by Federal forces.