Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sherman and Sokolosky

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure to chat with Wade Sokolosky over some coffee in comfortable Beaufort, North Carolina. Sokolosky, along with coauthor Mark Smith, wrote No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar, a well-regarded (and out of print) study of a portion of Sherman’s sweep through the Old North State late in the war. It was great to meet Wade and to learn about his research and writing. His current project covers the battle of Wyse Fork, which occurred east of Kinston during the 1865 Carolinas campaign.

During our discussion, we touched on Union strategy in eastern North Carolina throughout the war.  Among other things, we talked about the importance of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, a critical supply line for Confederate forces in Virginia. For much of the conflict, Union troops did not seriously threaten this rail line despite establishing a firm toehold in coastal N.C. in 1862. Instead, the garrisons at New Bern, Washington (N.C.), and Plymouth rarely ventured beyond the coast in strength and mostly limited their operations to the occasional raid. They also girded for Confederate offensives, which occurred in the spring of both 1863 and 1864. Throughout, the Union occupation relied on the navy's gunboats, which plied the sounds and rivers, and served as formidable floating batteries to protect the ground troops.

The challenges facing Union planners in North Carolina resembled those Grant confronted at Petersburg. For most of the campaign in central Virginia, Grant firmly tethered his offensive operations to his City Point supply base. However, in the spring of 1865, he unleashed a large infantry raid around the Confederate right flank and gained a decisive victory at Five Forks. Similarly, Sherman broke open matters that year in North Carolina when he arrived from Georgia with a 60,000-man force, which had operated for weeks without any line of communication to speak of. Once in North Carolina, he drew supplies and additional troops from the coast, including the ports at Morehead City and New Bern. With men and resources sufficient to push through to the rail junction at Goldsboro and then on to Raleigh, Sherman overwhelmed the weak Confederate forces in his way. In their book, Sokolosky and Smith provide some excellent analysis of Sherman's logistical operations during the Carolinas Campaign.