The Explosion in Cheraw, On Sherman's March Through the Carolinas
by Gordon Thorsby
The Accidental Ruins of Cheraw March,1865 (History of SC Collection)
In late February, 1865 and after much of Columbia had been put to the torch, Sherman’s Army advanced toward North Carolina and in the direction of the small border town of Cheraw on the Pee Dee River. Sherman had two goals, advance to New Bern, NC and cut off Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s retreating army. Meanwhile, Hardee moved his force of 10,000 men and valuable ammunition to Cheraw. By February 28th, Hardee was struggling to get his army north fast enough and the two armies were on intersecting paths, Carolina refugees fled north from Charleston with their belongings and valuables. Their objective was also Cheraw.
On March 3rd, Butler’s South Carolina Cavalry skirmished with Union Seventeenth Corps infantry allowing Hardee time to evacuate his men and materiel. Full evacuation proved impossible, and Hardee was forced to leave 500 wounded in hospitals and significant levels of ordnance. Butler eventually withdrew his troopers and burned the bridge across the Pee Dee blocking Sherman on the South Carolina side.
Sherman and Howard entered Cheraw at mid-morning while fighting still sputtered and set up their headquarters (homes still exist.) Sherman (right) decided to halt, rest and reorganize
his army in what was described as “a pleasant town.” Cheraw was going to be treated better than the rest of South Carolina. The troops would be celebrating because Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ceremony. Pvt. Carroll Bills, Fifer in the 39th Iowa Infantry and part of the Fifteenth Corps recorded in his diary:
“Arrive at Cheraw S.C. The 17th A.C. were the first here + had quite a brush with the enemy. There are large stores of wine, furniture, valuables, arms + munition here for safekeeping.”
The wine was indeed valuable. The Iowa private mentioned abandoned munitions of 24 cannon, 2,000 muskets, and 3600 kegs of powder" recovered. Bills did not mention 5000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 20,000 rounds of infantry ammunition. There was also a locomotive and between twelve and fifteen rail cars.
Frank Leslie Harper's Weekly
For Federal soldiers having fought and marched for several hundred miles, celebrating was easy especially when refugee wine available. They sang, drank, and danced while residents worried when captured artillery began going off as salutes. After Columbia, citizens feared the worst, but all remained relatively uneventful enough for high command...that is for a couple of days.
On March 5th, Surgeon E.P. Burton recorded that Sunday morning as it “really seemed like the Sabbath.” A fire from unknown causes started and the 7th Illinois under command of a Major Johnston was called out to fight the blazes. Johnston ordered some buildings torn down to prevent flames spreading and eventually, the fire was put out after damage to a portion of town. Around the same time, Pvt. Bills recorded:
“At 2PM, Col. Gillett of Genl. Howard's staff called for a detail of two commissioned officers & fifty men, and three teams to remove a quantity of gun-powder cartridges and shell from a ravine north-east part of the city where they had been thrown by the enemy on their evacuation. The detail was furnished under the order of Col. Gillett, cleared the ravine of Powder, shell and were dismissed by Col. Gillett.”
The munitions were located due east of the business district edge in a ravine placed there by Confederate forces prior to their retreat. The buildings “were built on a side hill. The front sills being on a level with the street where we were." and their basements opened out toward the Pee Dee to the east. The teams completed their tasks and were dismissed while Bills continued to serve at provost guard on the street.
On March 6th, a “shaky” pontoon bridge was finished, and brigades began crossing to trek north to New Bern, NC. A number of individuals wrote of their experiences and confirm one another's stories. Bills explained what happened next:
“We had passed part way through when we were obliged to halt some time and the brigade
went out of the street to the sidewalk and men sat down on doorsteps or whatever came handy, or stood in groups talking. While thus halted and resting, I had ridden a few rods back to see about our ambulance and was standing, or rather sitting on my horse talking when suddenly the earth seemed to heave up and then settle, with a tremor.”
Army Surgeon Bill Arminius in his diary explained, “At 7AM a tremendous explosion took place… which totally destroyed several houses, [It] stampeded a train [of mules] nearby and killed and wounded a number of soldiers belonging to a command that happened to be passing. "
Bills continued that the explosion, “hurled a row of frame houses into the air and almost suffocated, us with smoke. The buildings on the opposite side [side not blown up] of the street had been and still were burning and some sparks flew over to the side, we were on and the frame housing, which were stored in their cellar with powder.
My horse sprang up and down with terror. A blast of wind struck up as if to throw us off our horses and the next instant there was a mighty roar filling my ears and deafening me. Glancing up, the entire sky above seemed to be full of fragments and realizing that these must fall, I put spurs to my horse + road away as rapidly as possible. There was a confused sense of horses, men and teams running everywhere of cries and shouts and there my horse stopped running and finally we all stopped. Then I turned and rode back to the regiment. No one in it had been seriously hurt, but the regt. ahead had one man killed and one wounded.
Another soldier reported, "not a few soldiers found themselves going upstreet at an undignified pace." It was reported that ladies were hit and injured as debris from "falling houses" returned to earth. Most of the business was razed and more was now on fire. Those farther out from the district experienced damaged plaster, shattered and broke windows for miles away from the concussion.
Pvt. Carroll M. Bills, 39th Iowa, Fifer
According to Arminius, “On investigation it was ascertained that kegs of powder and shells had been buried by the enemy in the ravine, and trains of powder laid therefore reaching to the Street in several places, and loose powder had been scattered around. Just before the explosion a Regiment halted on the street & the soldiers observed the loose ...began igniting matches & applying them to the powder for amusement."
There were casualties. Bills reported “1 man was killed + 1 wounded in own brigade, but the 1st division lost 14 or 15 killed.”
With a major part of the town now gone, Sherman’s Army continued across the river and into North Carolina leaving Cheraw considerably worse off than when they came
Note 1: When Sherman found out that his secret plan to advance on New Bern, NC was no longer secret, he was in his headquarters in Cheraw.
Note 2: If you travel there today, the river course altered further east away from the town than where it was located in 1865.
Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, by Barrett, John G., University of North Carolina Press. 1956, PP108-110.
Diary of Carroll M. Bills, 39th Iowa, Article Published: Jan. 23, 2015.
Marching Through Georgia, Hedley, Fenwick Y., M.A. Donahue and Co., 1884.
Civil War Diary, Arminius Bill's 4 year Civil War Diary - Bill Memorial Library, University of Connecticut.
Historical Data Sources, In., P.O. Bos 25, Duxbury, MA 03332.
Cheraw SC website https://www.cheraw.com/about_cheraw/town_history/civil_war_sites.ph
Photos and Drawings:
Frank Lesie drawing, Harpers Weekly, Courtesy of University of South Carolina.
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