Prelude to the Burning of Columbia, A Skirmish at Conagree Creek
Updated: Apr 11
by Gordon Thorsby
Sherman’s 67,000 man army crossed the Georgia line into South Carolina and encountered Confederate resistance at Aiken and White Pond. Southern resistance was primarily Wheeler’s cavalry and whatever the effort there was no positive outcome. It was simply to slow Sherman’s advance as much as possible and enable Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to assemble a new army near Charlotte, North Carolina at the NC/SC line.
Wheeler’s efforts were annoying, but Sherman was rushing anywhere. They burned and destroyed more effectively while at a leisurely pace. Meanwhile in Columbia, civilians of the town began to pack their bags and businesses and evacuate the town because it was in Sherman's path of destruction. Wheeler’s troopers were responsible for moving military stores out or destroying them. One of Beauregard’s staff officers opined that Confederate authorities bungled the removal of military supplies from the capital and Sherman’s capture of the capital would be militarily very profitable. Therefore, to slow the Federal advance further, felled trees in the roads and increased skirmishing slowed the Union approach.
The Confederate cavalry consisted of Brigadier Gen. George Dibrell's had approximately 2000 cavalry troopers in two brigades consisting of: Col. William Breckinridge’s (a relation) Kentucky brigade (1st/3rd, 2nd, 9th) veterans of Morgan’s raids and Col. William S. McLemore’s Tennessee Brigade (4th, 13th, and Shaw’s Cavalry) all veterans of Forrest’s hard riding cavalry. A militia of 500 boys and old men and three pieces of artillery completed Dibrell's force. This was the token army that delayed the Union XV Corps advance.
Brig. Gen George G. Dibrell
Union Major General John Logan commanded the XV Corps. Major General William Woods' First Division camped near Wolf's Plantation not far from the state capital city. On February15, it began its march on the muddy Old State Road toward Columbia with three divisions two miles in the rear. Scouts reported that cavalry was up ahead. Woods in his report, described the opposition as “stubborn throughout the entire day [and was] obliged to march with a heavy skirmish line constantly covering my advance.” Dibrell’s troopers dismounted and the militia manned trenches on the hill high above the river and ready to fight it out. The trenches were meant to be ten miles long, but the quantity of Negro slaves and freedmen had only dug a one-half mile trench. It would have to do.
Dibrell’s men delayed on the west side of the creek and then fell back across the Old State Bridge lighting it on fire as they crossed. The twisty creek was deep in many spots unfordable. Woods was ordered to force a crossing and disperse the large contingent of the enemy but the steep “banks fringed with undergrowth and bounded by marshy open fields” rendered the portion of the creek “impassable for artillery by the frequent rains of the week past.”
Woods ordered Col. R. F. Catterson's brigade of mostly Illinoisans to deploy his command to the right of the road. The instructions were to feel toward the left flank of the enemy s line and, if possible, to cross the river below him. Woods then ordered Col. George A. Stone's brigade of Iowans to the left across the open field into the woods bordering the river. His troops waded through mud and water up to their waists till they reached the banks of the stream. Both brigades moved under cover of a strong connected line of skirmishers. In reserve was Col. Charles Woods mixed brigade in the center straddling the road. Two more XV Corps divisions were coming up quickly for support and the 12th Wisconsin and De Gress’ Artillery started shelling the hill beyond.
Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (Library of Congress)
“The enemy opened quite briskly with artillery and musketry upon Colonel Stone’s advance” as skirmishing continued. Corps commanders Howard, Logan and Woods looked on patiently waiting for Hampton (actually Dibrell) to withdraw but the rebels were not doing as hoped.
Here is how Col. Woods reported the action:
"Stones skirmishers getting fairly on the flank of the rebel line, handsomely turned it, driving the skirmishers back beyond the river. The Fourth Iowa Infantry, moving still farther to the right and rear of the enemy, managed to affect a crossing over the stream above him, and at the same time Colonel Catterson having obtained a foothold below and my skirmishers pressing them very hard in front."
The fire on the bridge was put out and one section of the Twelfth Wisconsin Battery and a section of Degress' Battery began pounding the hill. The rest of De Gress' battery opened on the enemy's front as a flank movement was implemented.
Col. Woods ordered the Twenty-sixth Iowa Infantry to the left and succeeded in crossing upstream and achieving a "tete-de-pont of the enemy extended. Major Lubbers commanding the 26th executed handsomely assaulted Dibrell’s right flank, struck the rebel trench and as Col. Wood described it, "completely turned his position, for when [the] advance was made along the whole skirmish line the enemy broke from their works and retreated. The bridge though partially burned "but made passable for infantry and artillery in about ten minutes."
The four-hour fight cost Wood’s brigade 6 killed and 18 wounded. The rumors of Sherman's proximity to Columbia were no more. The booming of cannons could be heard in the distance. Dibrell’s losses were never reported but the wagons and ambulances bearing wounded from the skirmish at Little Conagree Creek began to rumble down the muddy streets. Now Columbia was in complete pandemonium.
XV Corps arrived the next day outside Columbia and found the Conagree River bridge (not to be confused with Conagree Creek) burnt by the Confederates the night before so Sherman settled down for the night. He ordered artillery on the lee shore to shelling the State House and the Arsenal hastening Confederate Cavalry and remaining civilians out of town.
Sherman wrote orders “for the government of Columbia while he encamped at Conagree Creek.” It was simple, plain and it was not generous like it was for Savannah.
General Orders No.26
General Howard will cross the Saluda and Broad Rivers as near their mouths as possible, occupy Columbia, destroy the public buildings, railroad property, manufacturing and machine shops, but will spare libraries, asylums, and private dwellings. He will then move on to Winnsboro, destroying en route utterly that section of the railroad back to the Wateree to be burned, switches broken, and such other destruction as he could find to accomplish consistent with proper celerity.
Old Columbia would change forever.
Note: The earthworks can be seen today from the Timmerman hiking Trail. A marker along the trail stands near the remains of the earthworks.
Official Records of the Rebellion, Series I Part XLVII, Part 1, Reports.
Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, by Barrett, John G., University of North Carolina Press, 1956, Pp. 656-67.
Battle of Congaree Creek, S.C. Military Order of the Stars and Bars, 2009.
Memoirs of William T. Sherman, by Sherman, William Tecumseh.
A Carnival of Destruction: Sherman's Invasion of South Carolina, Elmore, Thomas, Joggling Board Press 2012)
"One Drunk Colonel: The Last Stand to Protect Columbia," WIS10 News, Columbia SC, Updated: Feb. 16, 2015
15th Regiment S.C. Volunteer Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Dean Hunt Historian, Cayce Historical Museum, Cayce, SC.
Last Updated: April 11, 2023