Sherman’s Gateway to North Carolina, The Bridge at Cheraw
by Gordon Thorsby
Sherman’s forces steadily moved north from Columbia nearing the North Carolina state line. He faked west toward Charlotte with Kilpatrick’s Cavalry and turned east with his infantry toward Fayetteville. The XIV Corps crossed north to Mt. Croghan to advance in the direction of Sneedsborough (today near Morven, NC). Sherman accompanied Alphaeus William’s XX Corps to the town of Chesterfield. Across the road, the townspeople displayed a banner declaring that the citizens fully supported the Confederacy. Chesterfield was also the origin for the introduced of the article of secession. Uncle Billy fumed at the display and wanted the town to understand the full meaning of that banner. Guards were posted, people were forced out of their homes and every structure was put to the match. The only thing that remained standing were chimneys. Frank Blair’s XVII Corps traveled northeast up the road (present day SC 1) and saw the huge, black clouds billowing up from Chesterfield as it marched toward Cheraw (pronounced Shu-raw). Maj. Gen. John Logan’s XV Corps, was the farthest east and it advanced on Cheraw from the town of Society Hill. The plan was to cross the Pee Dee River at Cheraw and head directly toward Fayetteville 75 miles into North Carolina.
Cheraw was a beautiful town on the Pee Dee and a bee hive of activity on any given day before and during the war. River traffic brought boats to fill their decks with cotton bales. Other assorted agricultural goods were sent north to Wilmington, NC, and south to Charleston and eventually foreign markets across the Atlantic. Antebellum homes with large, stately trees lined Main Street (SC9) as visitors approached the town center. There was the 1841 Catholic Church with its pews donated by the Marquis de Lafayette, the 1821 Methodist Church and then there was Old St. David’s Church (1770). There was the beautiful Greek revival-style town Hall, the two story Merchant’s Bank across the street and the factories and warehouses along the river. It was in the square and on the shore that the daily hustle and bustle of buying occurred.
Cheraw Town Hall
Lt. General William Hardee moved his force of 10,000 men including the division of Lafayette McLaws north by rail to unite with Johnston’s forces. Hardee could not remove 3600 barrels of gunpowder, and 25,000 shells and rounds of ammunition from the warehouses so it was hidden in a ravine near the river. Every munition was sorely needed but trains were few.
Hardee's rearguard was Butler’s South Carolina Cavalry brigade in the town. Its objective was to hold the town as long as possible and then fire the bridge when all else failed. Butler positioned his cavalry west and slightly south of town. The town was strategically very defensible. The river bounds it on the east. Large swamps that flood at high precipitation periods (flooding in March, 1865) were impenetrable from the north and south . The only practical way in was from the west.
The Covered Bridge over the Pee Dee
On March 3, the market square was in a state of full pandemonium with horses running to and fro, troopers moving forward and units in columns proceeding down the hill to cross over the bridge. To add to the confusion, refugees crowded the streets as they attempted to flee from towns south of Cheraw. Civilians also retrieved valuables they had stored in the warehouses near the munitions, and army wagons loaded every munition possible and cross the river as quickly as possible.
Skirmishing began as elements of Blair’s XVII Corps drove in dismounted pickets of Pierce M.B. Young’s Cavalry. Confederate cavalry troopers on the west bank of the river were dismounted and all horses were walked across the bridge. Horseflesh was too valuable. Federal infantry fought Butler's troopers house to house as they gradually withdrew across the Pee Dee where the First Georgia Regulars was waiting. Finally, unable to delay any further, Butler ordered his men across the covered bridge and put it to the torch. Pierce’s skirmishers were seen descending from the town and running across through smoke and flames. A Union section of artillery began dropping shells into the First Georgia Regulars on the opposite bank. Even the Confederate ironclad, CSS Pee Dee attempted to get in the act cruising up river but could not arrive in time to lend full support. Union soldiers attempted to extinguish the flames but infantry and dismounted cavalry fire made their effort impossible. With the situation hopeless, both sides looked on as the beautiful bridge that residents of Cheraw cherished, collapsed into the rain swollen river banks. Sherman’s progress came to a halt.
The bridge now in the river, Sherman would have to wait for his pontoon train to catch up. While Sherman rested his troops, he took up residence in one home (see below) while O.O. Howard took up residence in a mansion 75 yards away. The soldiers celebrated Lincoln’s inauguration the next day with bonfires, drinking, dancing and generally whooping it up and the town of Cheraw was saved from the match except the town lawyer who was a signer of the Declaration of Secession.
Sherman's HQ Cheraw
On March 6, the rested blue army began its journey east to Fayetteville and more fighting.
The military stores that remained had to be addressed and a squad of soldiers was to destroy the munitions warehouses on the river. Unfortunately, instead of a controlled demolition, an unknown soldier blew the munitions dump it into a “cocked hat.” When the warehouse went up it took every other warehouse and half the town with it. Windows broke, shutters fell and plaster cracked in almost every structure in town that remained and even in buildings for miles around. Four soldiers were casualties in the careless mishap including the soldier who made the error.
Howard's HQ Cheraw adjacent to Sherman's
It is said that the Cheraw Ladies Society did get some payback just after the war by erecting a Confederate Soldiers Monument in Old St. David’s Graveyard honoring Confederate fallen. It is argued that is the oldest Confederate Monument.
Old St. David's Church Cheraw
Note: Cheraw is a wonderful town to go visit the beautiful homes of the antebellum and Victorian eras. Also, it is the hometown of Dizzy Gillepsie.
No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar, by Smith, Mark A. and Sokolosky, Wade, Savas Beatie, 2017, p.16.
Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, by Barrett John G., University of North Carolina Press, 1956, pp 106-107.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Vol.47.
Chamber of Commerce, City of Cheraw, SC.
Historical District, City of Cheraw, SC.