Rivers' Bridge, S.C.

Courtesy of  Richard Edling, Philadelphia, PA
Please contact Webmaster for any use of these images
Map2 (pdf)
Brochure (pdf)
Official Reports
Soldiers' Accounts

Rivers' Bridge, SC
February 2nd and 3rd.: Battle of Rivers' Bridge, Salkehatchie river, South Carolina. Place: Near present day Ehrhardt, South Carolina. *Earthworks still well preserved and is a South Carolina State Park. Primary troops engaged: Confederate: Harrison’s Brigade, McLaw's Division. (approx 1500 Confederates.) 3rd Arkansas Cavalry, Earl's Battery (South Carolina Palmetto Light Artillery). Union: First Division (Major General Joe Mower), 17th Corps. First Brigade, 2nd Brigade, Third Brigade. Fourth Division (Major General Giles Smith). First Brigade doing most of fighting. The 53rd Indiana of the First brigade and 13th Iowa Infantry of the Third brigade saw slight skirmishing at Broxton's Bridge.
On the morning of the 2nd of February the Union 17th corps plunged forward. Its goal, to push through the Salkehatchie River. The 25th Indiana Infantry had driven Confederate Cavalry before the First Division, until the gray horsemen had fallen back behind Broxton's bridge. Leaving the 25th Indiana here to hold the attention of the sizeable Confederate forces there. The 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry, who would become the player in at least a half dozen skirmishes in South Carolina, joined the First Division as the advance. To replace the detached Hoosiers (25th), the 32nd Wisconsin Infantry was moved to the front of the column of infantry.
Following the river road, the 9th Illinois drove another detachment of Confederate cavalry for 3 miles. In one particular charge in this action, a Lt. Colonel Kirby was wounded. However the johnnies began to resist rather stubbornly after this point. The Confederate Cavalry became so defiant as to force the 32nd Wisconsin to be deployed. This duo of the 9th Illinois and 32nd Wisconsin managed to drive back the roadblock. When the term roadblock is used it is a literal term. The Confederate cavalry blocking and screening the advance had only one goal. To detain and delay the advance as long as possible, and to determine his movements. To block the roads of advance, the Johnnies would literally fell trees in the road, forming a type of roadblock. Behind these barricades they would contest the advance, falling back at sight, however keeping the Union forces screened. For some of Sherman's men this tactic was one of a desperate enemy. However this notion would be dispelled for some Union men in only a few hours.
The deadly combo of the Illinoisans and Wisconsin men, proved too much as the Reb cavalry fell back to the River's bridge/Buford's bridge roads crossroads. Here two regiments of the Third brigade and the 9th Illinois were ordered to drive a half-mile up the Buford bridge road and to guard that approach. In effect securing the immediate left flank of the Federal column. With the remainder of the First division, Mower pushed to the right down the River's Bridge road with the 25th Wisconsin as skirmishers. Their advance was so rapid and complete that the confederates melted, leaving the 16 bridges across the Salkahatchie River intact. Intact for the Union juggernaut. This possibly sealed the fate of the Confederate defenders. With these bridges still remaining across the swollen swamp/river, possibly as much as a day or more of hard bridging was saved by the Union.
The Wisconsin skirmishers pushed and at a point where the road angled to the left, the first report of field pieces filled the swamp. Across the river, with earthworks for protection, were positioned two confederate guns. The fire of this small but formidable battery commanded the narrow causeway through the swamp. At least two of the Unionists fell in the fire. However the battery was supported by at least some infantry support. Deploying the skirmishers on either side of the road in the swamp the union command began to organize their forces. However even as Federal troops shuffled into position, the Confederate fire continued to harass their deployment. While the 43rd Ohio was deploying into position, its Colonel (Colonel Swayne) was struck by a Confederate shell. The rest of the division, (First and Second brigade) were deployed on the flanks of the skirmishers. Taking cover in the swollen and flooded swamp, which in some places was up to 8 feet deep, Mower sized up his option. Guarding the causeway to cross at River's bridge was two Confederate guns of the Earle's battery, Palmetto Light Artillery. Their well-maintained works sat on a bluff overlooking the swamp.
Manning these works was approximately 1500 Confederates, most of Harrison's brigade of Georgians. Complimenting these forces was a few other elements of dismounted cavalry. Mower was not the only one who was impressed by the works. A Confederate Major, when asked of his chances of holding the position retorted "I can hold this position till Christmas if you can keep them off my flank". To even reach dry ground to assault these works the advancing Union troops would have to either brave the hot concentrated fire on the causeway, or wade through the swollen swamp. All the while they would be under the constant Confederate fire. However the swamp, and sheer lack of numbers provided the Achilles heel, or for the Confederate defenders, Hell, to the position. The confederate defenders could rather easily hold the main crossings, however they could not guard every spot. A determined federal party could push through at an unguarded point, and be relatively safe from view. To counter this the Confederate Commander, George Harrison, proposed the works at River's bridge being enclosed on the flanks, and well picketed all along the river. The design being that once the Federals made their inevitable lodgment on the North side of the river, the immediate flank would be screened and protected from a flank attack until reinforcements from Broxton's bridge could be dispatched.
Feeling the works, and the position too strong to push across frontally, General Mower pulled all of his men, with the exception of a strong skirmish line from the swamp and to higher ground. The pioneer troops were put to work clearing a road through the dense swamp. At times these forgotten warriors of the Carolina's campaign would slush through water from two to as much as eight foot deep. Complicating the work was the fact that the river had been swollen, turning the usually tame and shallow swamp, into a flooded quagmire. After conferring with 17th Corps commander Frank Blair, Mower was given the order to push his command across and make a crossing the next day if possible. In the meantime the bridges through the swamp were to be built.
As darkness settled over the Salkehatchie the first serious obstacle to Sherman's march sat ominously. One can only guess what kinds of "picket chatter" occurred between the 1500 Confederates posted behind the parapets and the possibly freezing federal skirmishers in the swamp. For the Confederates the suspense must have been enormous. In front of this small band of 1500 men sat the army that had just ransacked their home state. The Georgians must have thought of the reports of Sherman's behavior in Georgia. The South Carolinians manning the guns and works must have thought of the homes that were literally at their back. They were all that stood between Sherman's advance, wherever it may go, and the large part of South Carolina. The darkness in the swamp must have been near pitch black, for the men of Sherman's command who picketed it. Beyond the river from them was obviously a well dug in, and determined force of Confederates. Would the Confederates make a strong fight, or would they like they had at Pocatalico, abandon a strong position in the night.
3rd of February
By sunup, Mower's command was at work. Local homes were torn down to provide planking for the swamp roads while two other separate roads were being cut through to the river. The purpose being that all three of his brigades would be able to move on the river on separate roads, which would put maximum movement and not let the halting of one column stop his whole command. With the river in front, a confederate attack was not a possibility. So it would come down the ability to ford the river with his whole command that would likely tell the tale of the day. The 27th Ohio Infantry of the First Brigade, commanded by Brig. General John W. Fuller would cut a road above the road through the swamp to the causeway. Above this road, detachments from the 25th Wisconsin Infantry and 63rd Ohio Infantry of the Second Brigade (commanded by Colonel Milton Montgomery) would also cut a road through the swamp, while the 35th New Jersey were sent with planks to cover the road. However the bulk of the First and Second Brigade were to remain at camp, yet ready to support. The Third Brigade, under command of Colonel John Tillson would man the road through the swamp approaching the causeway. Of his command the 10th Illinois Infantry were posted on the right of this road, the 32nd Wisconsin and 25th Indiana posted on the left of it.
For nearly a half mile in their front the Confederate battery commanded the road. And this was not counting the Confederate muskets, whose owners sat hidden behind their parapets. For nearly 2 weeks the Confederates had prepared this position. On a personal note, as a reenactor I have personally "assaulted these works". And this was from the friendly grassy landing just below them and not wading through the swamp. My most vivid memory was the fact that all we could see of the Johnny defenders were their hats and the puffs of their muskets. Once can only imagine what a difference 135 years without erosion and the fact of actual minie ball's whizzing must have done.
Tillson's brigade would soon be sent into action. Under fire of Confederate rifles, Tillson's men were thrown forward through the heavy quagmire. Pushing through the swamp for a half of a mile, the Third brigade halted at the first "branch" of the river. The murky dark water ran in 3 distinct channels, each too deep and unfordable. Long drawn out battle lines were useless in the swamp. But so was any attempt as long as the Confederate battery sat to shell their every move. To alleviate this Colonel Tillson ordered 15 picked men, from the protection of a rifle pit, to "keep the heads down of the battery" from 200 yards away. Three companies of the 32nd Wisconsin were sent forward to advance try to push across the 3 channels.
With the addition of 3 more companies of the 32nd sent as skirmishers, and the trusty fire of the "sharpshooters", the skirmishers slugged forward. Under a hot fire, the Wisconsin men plunged through, sometimes at waist deep, the cold swamp. Over fallen logs, the skirmishers forced across the two branches and then at by 12 o’clock they had forced across the final branch. Lt. Colonel Carleton, in command of the Skirmish line, sent out the call for more men. About 800 yards above the Confederate position at River's bridge the skirmishers had crossed the final creek. First the remaining three companies of the 32nd then the entire 25th Indiana were sent to exploit the breach.
Upon learning of the breach, Mower, ever the impetuous, hard driving soldier, ordered his two other Brigades, down the road to the swamp. It is here that the seeds of a small controversy were watered, pardon the pun. Upon ordering the First Brigade, under command of General Fuller across to support the attack, Fuller inquired an aide to Mower as to his dispositions upon crossing. Was he to align on the left of Tillson? Although this sounds like a very trivial concern, it would have its consequences. Fuller was informed to "use his own judgment" yet that Mower would be crossed shortly and that he wanted the enemy driven as rapidly as possible.
Meanwhile back at the bridge the 10th Illinois remained. Mower gave their captain, feeling he could force a crossing to the right of the causeway, the green light. The goal being to divert the confederate response to Tillson's flanking force. Only two companies of the 10th were able to cross before heavy Secessionist fire halted them. However the Illinoisans would not give their earned ground. Mower ordered the commander of the 10th Illinois, Captain Gillespie, to not try to force the rest of his command across, but to keep up a fire and a show of force. Upon hearing heavy firing to the left of their position, the Illinoisans would press again, and once again try to drive the position.
With the 10th's diversion stopped in its tracks, elements of Montgomery's (second brigade) were thrown directly up the causeway. Under fire from the battery, the 43rd Ohio Infantry and 3 companies of the 63rd Ohio were thrown forward However the fire once again was too heavy for the buckeyes just as it had been for the Illinoisans. With the their attempt to carry the works directly up the causeway halted by johnny fire, the rest of the 63rd Ohio and the 25th Wisconsin were thus ordered to support the original breach by the Third brigade on the left.
Upon the crossing of the Third brigade to support the 32nd Wisconsin's breach, Fuller (First brigade) was ordered to support also. After the "diversions", Montgomery's brigade was added to the mix. As the Third brigade reinforcements plodded through the swamp, they formed with the 25th Indiana and a part of the 32nd Wisconsin's skirmishers to form a battle line. Two 100-yard advances later, all the while under confederate fire; the skirmish line was forced to be rebolstered by a company of the 25th Indiana. However the johnny skirmishers were giving ground, falling back before Tillson's command.
At this time Fuller arrived with his First brigade. Being superior in rank to Tillson, he ordered Tillson's advance stopped while he dressed his brigade on Tillson's flank. Hearing of dry land ahead, and a reported order from Mower to advance, Tillson pushed his brigade forward instead. Emerging from the swamp and driving steadily forward through an open field, Tillson's Federals slowly overpowered their Confederate adversaries. However by this time the main Rebel forces holding the redoubt at the River's Bridge works were wise to the Federals foray. As Federal troops began their advance on the flank of the River's Bridge works, the outnumbered Confederates were ordered into a well-earned retreat. Their chief goal of holding their position until nightfall being nearly obtained, the Confederate infantry and battery fired heavy volleys, and then retired from the field behind the smokescreen.
At this time Fuller was attempting to form all three brigades across the river into line. Tillson's advance however had outdistanced his own, so Fuller was forced to advance with his own brigade without neither Montgomery nor Tillson to cooperate in a solid battle line. Fuller's plan was solid, he wished to use the left of his anticipated line (Montgomery) to swing in a right wheel and cut off the retreat route of the Johnnies. However his delay in trying to link up the entire command had possibly allowed the orderly retreat of the Confederates. Fuller pushed forward until abreast of Tillson, and after waiting for the arrival of the Second brigade, the left of the line pushed to the rear of the works. However the works were guarded now only by empty air, and the familiar, mud soaked men of the 10th Illinois. The two companies, who had earlier pushed forward, had seized the works after the withdrawal of its occupants. Almost fittingly the works were gained just as night was coming.
The fight for River's Bridge had been bloody. by small skirmish standards. Eight confederates were left KIA, 45 wounded and 44 captured. Union total casualties were 16 KIA, 85 wounded. Tillson's brigade suffered 1 officer KIA, 2 wounded, 8 men KIA, 74 wounded. Fuller lost 7 of the 39th Ohio wounded, 1 of 18th Missouri wounded. Montgomery lost in the 43rd Ohio, 6 KIA, 8 wounded; Sixty-third Ohio, 9 wounded (3 since died). Total loss of Montgomery's brigade in the two days, 9 killed and 23 wounded; total, 32. An confederate stand however would have been doomed ever since 5 o’clock that afternoon, when Giles Smith's division crossed over, and through their crossing cutting off any hope of reinforcements from Broxton's bridge. This Crossing was in between River's and Broxton's Bridge.


(2006) Battle of Rivers' Bridge interpretive marker


(2006)  Memorial area


(2006)  Interpretive marker in photo above

  (2006) Swamps near memorial

Rivers' Bridge, SC Page1    Page2    Page3    Page4    Page5    Page6    Page7    Page8    Page9    Page10    Next

Sites by State Home      Return to Site Index