Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant knew the end of the war was near. He wrote of his grand strategy aimed at carving up the Confederacy during the winter of 1865 in his Personal Memoirs. One army, under Gen. Canby, was to move immediately on Mobile, AL, then secure Tuscaloosa, Selma and Montgomery. Gen. Sheridan was ordered to march up the Shenandoah Valley and take Lynchburg, VA. Cavalry forces were sent into eastern Tennessee and Mississippi. And the centerpiece of this strategy was “Sherman with a large army eating out the vitals of South Carolina.”
Gen. Sherman had taken Savannah just before Christmas. After a time to refit, resupply, and rest, the two wings of his army started to move into South Carolina about January 20th. The left (northern) wing was under Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, the right (southern) wing was under Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard. Howard moved toward Charleston, then swung north, bypassing the city. Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, fell to Sherman on February 17th. Much of the city was reduced to ashes, and great debates still rage over which side actually started the fires. In great peril of being cutoff from the rest of what remained of the Confederate army, Confederates abandoned Charleston to the Federals the next day.
On the question of who burned Columbia Grant wrote, “In any case, the example set by the Confederates in burning the village of Chambersburg, Pa., a town which was not garrisoned, would seem to make a defense of the act of firing the seat of government of the State most responsible for the conflict then raging, not imperative.”
Meanwhile, on the 15th of January, Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, was taken by combined Federal army and naval forces, and Wilmington, NC, the last major Confederate port on the eastern seaboard was cut off. A month later, when Gen. Schofield moved against Wilmington with a strong force, the Confederates abandoned the city. Schofield was put under Sherman’s command and ordered to move north toward Goldsboro, NC.
By the end of February, Sherman now had three strong armed columns ready to drive up though North Carolina toward Charlotte, Fayetteville, and Goldsboro. The distance between Sherman and Grant was decreasing every day. Grant, always a quartermaster at heart, paid close attention to his friend Sherman’s needs. “I took the precaution to provide for Sherman’s army,” Grant wrote, “in case he should be forced to turn in toward the sea coast before reaching North Carolina, by forwarding supplies to every place where he was liable to make such a deflection from his projected march. I also sent railroad rolling stock, of which we had a great abundance, now that we were not operating the roads in Virginia. The gauge of the North Carolina railroads, being the same as the Virginia railroads, had been altered too; these cars and locomotives were ready for use there without any change.”
And all the while Grant assured Sherman that he was well up on things at Petersburg. “From about Richmond I will watch Lee closely, and if he detaches much more (troops), or attempts to evacuate, will pitch in.”