Marching Through Georgia, November 25, 1864: Engineers to the front!

The narrative of events on November 25, 1864 for Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies involves several river crossings.  The activities put light on Sherman’s engineers.  Captain Orlando Poe, Sherman’s Chief Engineer, detailed engineer support (men and equipment) by assignment:

  • Right Wing:  1st Missouri Engineers under Lieutenant-Colonel William Tweeddale with 500 men in five companies; A pontoon train of 28 canvas boats and sufficient materials for a 580 foot bridge.
  • Left Wing: 58th Indiana Infantry under Colonel George Buell with ten companies numbering 775 men total; A pontoon train with 51 canvas pontoon boats, allowing for a 850 foot bridge.
  • General support:  1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics, 10 companies with 1,500 men, under Colonel J.B. Yates; and fifty wagons carrying tools numbering in the thousands in addition to the baggage of the regiment.

In addition, each wing brought along, on average, 350 entrenching tools and other tools for use by pioneer details.  The number of pioneers varied from day to day, but generally between one and seven 100 man “divisions” would serve the duties.  In addition, as the march proceeded larger and larger numbers of escaped slaves joined the march and were employed in construction tasks.  There was plenty of work to be done, and plenty of strong backs answering the call.

During the march, Poe recorded 3,460 feet of pontoon bridges laid by the engineers.  That figure does not include the number of repaired bridges or other means contrived to cross rivers and streams.  Nor does it count the miles of corduroy roads laid (over 40,000 for the Fifteenth Corps alone!).  On November 25-26, the engineers laid three pontoon spans totaling 1100 feet – roughly a third of the total employed during the campaign. These were to span the Oconee River and Buffalo Creek.


Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing sat stalled for the third day at the Oconee River.  Finding Jackson’s Ferry was nothing more than a memory, Seventeenth Corps kept pressure on the Confederates across the river.  Fifteenth Corps had the task of forcing a crossing downstream at Ball’s Ferry.  Major-General Peter Osterhaus’ corps was spread out that day, with Second Division probing the river crossing, First Division forming a rear guard perimeter along Big Sandy Creek, and Third and Forth Divisions moving up with the trains.  Brigadier-General William Hazen, commanding the Second Division, deployed two regiments of skirmishers at Ball’s Ferry.  However the Confederates were there in strength.  By mid-day, Osterhaus was frustrated and went back to report, as Howard later recalled in his autobiography:

Moving on from Gordon, November 25th, I came to the vicinity of the Oconee, and dismounted to rest and send dispatches near a house on the right side of the road, when Osterhaus, coming back, told me before he dismounted that he could get no farther, as the enemy was too strong on the other side.  I told him that that was no way to talk, but to keep deploying his skirmishers up and down the river until he got no return fire, and report.

He soon returned and assured me that he found no enemy a few hundred yards up the river. I then instructed him to send a brigade with the canvas boats, already put together, and push over the men rapidly into the clearings beyond, then come down the river and take the enemy in the flank….

Giving the order was one thing, implementing was another. The crossing site was closer to the Seventeenth Corps, so the troops came from that formation instead of Osterhaus’.  The selected crossing site was a shallow, rocky stretch opposing swampy ground.  But at least it was a spot to force a lodgement.  The 1st Missouri Engineers managed to build a ferry using ropes and the canvas boats.  From there the Federals built a lodgement on the far shore.  By nightfall, they were threatening the Confederate defenders downstream at Ball’s Ferry.  That evening, Major-General Henry C. Wayne telegraphed to Savannah, “… to save the men I will retire.”  The next day, the Missouri engineers would lay two pontoon bridges at Ball’s Ferry to allow the Right Wing to cross the Oconee… after a three day delay.

Just east of the Oconee that day, Major-General Joseph Wheeler moved his cavalry northward in his drive to get between the Federals and Augusta, on a route taking him through Sandersville. Reports indicated a strong Federal force was approaching the same town.  In order to best determine the Federal intentions, Wheeler hoped to reach Sandersville first.  But the Federals were just some six or seven miles short of the town when the day began.

Those few miles were not, however, an easy march.  Just outside of Hebron, the Twentieth Corps reached Buffalo Creek and found all bridges destroyed.  Like many streams in this part of Georgia, Buffalo Creek is not just a simple ribbon of water but rather a meandering flow through swampy lowlands.  Brigadier-General John Geary described this crossing:

This creek is an extensive, heavily timbered, swampy stream, being nearly half a mile wide where the road passes though it. The stream or swamp is here divided into eight channels, which are spanned by as many bridges, varying in length from 30 to 100 feet each. Between these earthen causeways are thrown up. These bridges had been destroyed by the enemy, and were reconstructed by 2 p.m., under the superintendence of Captain Poe…. By dark the road in my front was clear, and I crossed my command, encamping for the night one mile and a half east of the creek.  The crossing in the extreme darkness of the night and through the swampy roads east of the creek was a very laborious one.

Just north of the Twentieth Corps, Fourteenth Corps likewise forced a crossing over the creek.  In spite of the good work by Poe and his engineers, the line of march was delayed by several hours.  In consequence, Wheeler won the race to Sandersville.  That evening Confederate scouts skirmished with the lead elements of the Left Wing.

To the rear of the Left Wing, the last elements of the Fourteenth Corps left Milledgeville.  Not far behind them, Brigadier-General Samuel Ferguson arrived with a brigade of Confederate cavalry.  Yet another example of how dispersed and ill-positioned were the Confederate defenders of Georgia, Ferguson had slipped behind and to the left of the Federal march.  But with the force at his disposal and out of contact with points beyond, Ferguson could do little more than witness the wake of the Federal passing.  His men, however, were quick to requisition mounts from among the animals left by the Federals.

Further north, the Federal cavalry under Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick left the infantry behind in the first leg of their raid towards Millen.  Other than capturing a few Confederate guards, Kilpatrick passed without incident.

I’ll forgo a “march by markers” today, as this leg of the march is short of entries.  That should not be the case, in my opinion.  If one travels the backroads, there is plenty to note.  Georgia Highway 24, just west of Sandersville, passes over Buffalo Creek in the area that Poe built the bridges on November 24.  Thanks to Google Streets, here’s a view of that crossing over the modern bridges, looking to the east:


Just as Geary described, this bridge continues on for nearly a half mile.  Here’s the view looking back to the west.


I think the Twentieth Corps veterans would approve the modern bridge and road.  But can we at least get a marker noting their passing and the work by Confederates to delay the march?  Surely there is a small easement to be gained among the kaolin quarries.

At Ball’s Ferry, I hear there is some effort to provide updated interpretation.  The site is a state park and the Balls Ferry Historical Park Association has plans for interpretation.  But, alas, my sources have not passed along any photos!

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 272 and 897; Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, pages 79-80.)

Georgia’s Railroads: Sherman’s target and the Confederacy’s lifeline

One cannot discuss the March to the Sea without mentioning railroads.  And what usually comes to mind is this:

The destruction of the rail lines encountered on the way to Savannah was an important part of the March to the Sea.  Earlier in the war those rail lines moved legions on their way to Virginia.  Then later it brought some of them back to fight in Northern Georgia.  And when not moving troops, the vital supplies which kept the Confederate Army in the field came from Florida, Alabama, and other points through Georgia.  The rail lines connected the valuable manufacturing centers of Georgia.  Even with the loss of Atlanta, with the valuable rail hub and facilities, did not suppress the Georgia rail system.  In November 1864, the railroad net still reached across the state, shown here in dark red:


At that time, Macon had assumed the important role as the central rail hub of what remained.  The Muscogee Railroad connected to Columbus and from there into Alabama.  The Southwestern Railroad through the Flint River valley.  More important was the Central Georgia Railroad that ran to Savannah.  A branch line from the Georgia Central connected to the capital at Milledgeville.  And the Augusta & Waynesboro Railroad linked to Augusta’s depot with the Georgia Railroad.

Augusta and Savannah offered important rail connections into South Carolina, and thus to North Carolina and Virginia beyond.  And Savannah also terminated the Savannah & Gulf Railroad which swept down the coast then to the west.  The owners intended to link that line all the way to Albany, but that was not accomplished before the Civil War.  Had it been, the line would have provided a valuable link for the Confederacy.

These rail lines were a lifeline for the Confederacy during the later stages of the war.  And thus they were prime targets for Sherman.   Consider the line of the march (in green), overlaying that rail network:


Sherman’s march chewed up the Georgia Central, to say the least.  The Georgia Railroad and the line through Waynesboro suffered some damage also.  And at the end of the campaign, the Savannah & Gulf was destroyed to the Altamaha River.  The campaign erased a good portion of those dark red lines across the state map.

But as of November 24, 1864, much of that destruction was yet to come.   Consider the yellow boxes I’ve added to the second map. Earlier today I mentioned the movement of Georgia Militia from Macon to Savannah.  They used the rail lines south to Albany.  After marching to Thomasville, the troops moved again by rail to Savannah.  Had there been a rail line between Albany and Thomasville, it would have saved Georgians some blisters.  But even at that, the mobility afforded the Confederates by that patchwork of rail lines enabled a force which was defeated at Griswoldville and bypassed at Macon to get back into position confronting the Federals.

That also brings up another point.  When planning the march, Sherman suggested to authorities in Washington that forces in South Carolina might aid his operations with an attack on the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  That led to Halleck’s mid-November order to Foster and eventually to a fight at Honey Hill.  Which, by the way, saw those Georgia troops who “rode the rails” arrive in time to hand the Federals a stunning defeat.  See what I mean  – both target and lifeline.

Marching Through Georgia, November 24, 1864: Cold and Clear… more delays

Another cold and clear day 150 years ago in Georgia.  On the Left Wing of Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies, troops began movement out of Milledgeville.  But the Right Wing remained stalled at the Oconee River.  Though reinforcements arrived for the Confederate forces, those were still lacking unified and coherent leadership.


For the Left Wing, Twentieth Corps led the march out of camp at Milledgeville, with First Division on the road at 6 a.m.; Second Division following by thirty minutes; and Third Division following shortly after.  The line of march was toward Hebron, in a somewhat southeasterly route.  The eventual objective was Sandersville, which Major-General Henry Slocum hoped to reach in two days. Fourteenth Corps had the same long term march objective, but took a northeasterly route through Black Spring. However its lead division did not start until 7 a.m.  And the rear of the Corps would not clear Milledgeville until the next day.

For both columns, Slocum hoped to see fifteen miles distance during the short daylight hours.  But even with the two corps on separate routes, the roads were rutted and congested.  For Second Division’s march, Brigadier-General John Geary recorded:

November 24, in accordance with orders, moved at 7 a.m., but, finding the road completely blockaded with trains, I did not get my column fairly in motion until 10 o’clock. Just before dark crossed Town Creek, the bridge over which was very bad, and went into camp near Gum Creek, the First Division being encamped about three-quarters of a miles in advance, the Third Division about the same distance in my rear. The road traveled, although rather hilly, was in the main good. Marched during the day fourteen miles.

Slocum’s Orders for the Left Wing that day reflected a growing concern about the presence of Confederate threats:

Increased attention must be given to the care of trains, as it is known that the enemy intend to harass our march by means of cavalry. None but the regular organized foraging parties will be allowed to depart from the right and left of the road.  The foraging parties will, when necessary, seize wagons to bring their plunder to camp, after which the wagons should be burned. All useless and surplus wagons, ox-teams, &c., which now encumber our trains will be destroyed; and the commander of any brigade is hereby authorized to destroy any wagon that delays the march or opens a gap in the column, no matter to whom it belongs; and, generally, the troops will be distributed along the trains.

Slocum also ordered his pioneers up with the advance guard to facilitate rapid repairs to roads and bridges.

Another concern, voiced from Sherman down to the private foragers, was the Confederate “scorched earth” practices then being seen in front of the march.  Slocum closed the orders for the Left Wing, “Should the enemy burn forage and corn on our route houses, barns and cotton-gins must also be burned to keep them company.”  Harsh treatment, but the intent was word would get out – if the citizens prevented the Confederates from destroying forage, the Yankees would only take what they need to subsist.  Otherwise, the hard hand of war would follow.  Here, we see another myth of the march in play.  In reality, the damage due to Confederate forces reacting to the march contributed greatly to the destruction, and was often falsely attributed to Sherman’s men in post-war recollections.

Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry continued a somewhat administrative march.  The troopers passed through Milledgeville, sharing a road with Fourteenth Corps, to reach their new assignment on the left of the Left Wing.

The Right Wing’s movements were anything but administrative that day.  Major-General O.O. Howard still wanted to achieve two crossing points of the Oconee River – one at Jackson’s Ferry and the other in vicinity of Ball’s Ferry further downstream.  To facilitate this, his troops had to push the pontoon train up through the already heavily used roads. But there was a major problem with the plan.  One of the crossing points mentioned was at best a discontinued ferry and more a placename on the map.

Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps was to destroy the railroad up to the Oconee and secure the crossing site at Jackson’s Ferry.  Throughout the morning, Brigadier-General Giles Smith employed his Fourth Division of the corps toward those objectives.  But around noon he reported to Blair that the road to what was Jackson’s Ferry was not passable for the trains.  This prompted a report to Howard at 3:25 p.m. in which announced, “There is no Jackson’s Ferry or any practicable crossing between Milledgeville and Ball’s Ferry.”  Thus all efforts for crossing refocused to Fifteenth Corps’ sector.  As insurance, Howard sent a dispatch, carried by his brother, Colonel Charles H. Howard, to Sherman dropping the suggestion, “you may have to threaten them from the north….”

Major-General Peter Osterhaus’ Fifteenth Corps also had two assignments.  In the advance, First and Second Divisions were to proceed towards Irwinton, reaching for Ball’s Ferry.  Behind, Third and Fourth Divisions would guard Gordon to protect the Right Wing’s trains and rear.  With knowledge gained about Jackson’s Ferry, by the end of the day Ball’s Ferry became a critical objective for the entire wing.

That morning, Major-General Henry C. Wayne had delayed the Right Wing for a day and the 24th would make it two full days.  However, Wayne’s reports to Savannah indicated the situation was dire.  At around 9 p.m., Wayne reported the Federals had destroyed much of the trestle on the west side of the Oconee, but he still held the east bank.  He was concerned about the size of the Federal force, “The enemy are in heavy force on the other side. I believe I have more than Kilpatrick’s division in front of me.”  Major Alfred Hartridge, commanding an independent Confederate Army detachment assigned to the Oconee Bridge, discounted Wayne’s assessment, “The force of the enemy is, in my opinion, exaggerated. I do not think there are more than 800 men.”  While not contradicting Wayne, Hartridge did perform a valuable action that day.  His troops destroyed the bridges over Buffalo Creek to the north of Oconee.  This would block any potential attempt to flank the Confederate position from the north… which was what Howard had suggested that very day.

South of the Oconee Bridge, Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry completed their crossing of the river near Dublin and were marching north.  Out of position to threaten the Right Wing’s rear, Wheeler was, however, in position to aid Wayne. But other than the remainder of Brigadier-General Joseph Lewis’ Orphan Brigade, Wheeler sent no reinforcements to Wayne.  Wheeler was more concerned about getting to Sandersville and from there preventing any move on Augusta.

Major-General William Hardee, arriving in Savannah from his round-about journey from Macon, now took charge of the threatened sector.  He directed supplies to Wayne and gave orders to Wheeler.  And then Hardee rode the Georgia Central Railroad out to Tennille to counsel with Wayne.

Also arriving in “theater” was General P.G.T. Beauregard.  Though remaining in Macon, he approved the transfer of the Georgia State Troops and other formations from that town to help Hardee further east.  Major-General Gustavus Smith would recall that route went, “by rail to Albany; thence march to Thomasville; thence by rail to Savannah.”  Troops that had seen a terrible day on the field outside Griswoldville would see further action before the month ended.  This queues up a sidebar post about those Georgia railroads.

Following along with the March by way of markers today, there are some repetitive entries keeping pace with armies that were not moving much – Irwinton, Oconee, Toomsboro, and Tennille.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 272, 414, 532, 536, and 892.)