Marching Through Georgia, November 26, 1864: “A Rapid Ride to Millen” by the Cavalry

Often the discussion of cavalry operations during the March to the Sea begins with “Kill-cavalry again?” and ends somewhere with references to silver platters.  The real story is a bit more complex.  During portions of the campaign, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s division provided security for the two wings of the march.  At other times, Kilpatrick’s command also went out on long range raids of the type that always seemed to bring trouble.

Kilpatrick’s division consisted of two brigades.  The First Brigade, under Colonel Eli Murry, contained the 8th Indiana Cavalry; 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Kentucky Cavalry; and 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry.  Murry’s command was 2,800 strong at the start of the campaign.  Second Brigade, with 2,700 troopers under Colonel Smith Atkins, had the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry; 3rd Indiana Cavalry; 9th Michigan Cavalry; 5th, 9th and 10th Ohio Cavalry; and the McLaughlin (Ohio) Squadron.  Not brigaded were the 1st Alabama (US) Cavalry and 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry, which were employed to security details supporting the infantry columns.  The 10th Wisconsin Battery, under Captain Yates Beebe provided the only horse artillery for the march.  Initially four guns, Beebe “upgraded” to a six gun battery with two captured Ordnance Rifles at Lovejoy’s Station.

Kilpatrick’s chief opponent, Major-General Joseph Wheeler, had three divisions, but saw those detailed out over the campaign for various assignments.  At Sandersville on November 25, he had portions of Brigadier-General Alfred Iverson’s, Brigadier-General William Humes’, and Brigadier-General William Allen’s divisions.

When Kilpatrick left Milledgeville on November 24, his orders were to launch a raid aimed at breaking the railroad connecting Augusta and attempt a rescue of prisoners at Camp Lawton outside Millen.  Such a move would also raise alarms in Augusta, with the hope of the same effect as at Macon a week earlier.  As mentioned earlier, Kilpatrick’s division moved out along the same route as the Fourteenth Corps, then began the run northeast.  These were long marching days.  Beebe recorded his battery covered 123 miles between the 24th and 27th. The troopers continued on to the Shoals of the Ogeechee, some reaching that point by the evening of November 25.  There the Federals tripped the Confederate picket line.

When notified that Federals had hit Confederate pickets at the Shoals of the Ogeechee in the evening of the 25th, Wheeler left part of Iverson’s command to delay at Sandersville, and moved on the main road to Augusta.  I’m not completely sure as to what units Wheeler had with him, but his reports reference Humes’ Division (with brigades under Brigadier-General Thomas Harrison and Colonel Henry Ashby) and brigades under Brigadier-Generals Robert Anderson and George Dibrell from Iverson’s (I have fragmentary evidence that Allen’s Division remained with Iverson at that time).

Through the 26th both cavalry columns raced towards a point labeled Sylvan Crossroads on the map (which generally presents the respective routes of march).

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During the night, Kilpatrick dispatched a flying column under his Adjutant-General, Captain Llewellyn Estes, to complete the raiding tasks.  While Estes would drive on toward Camp Lawton, Captain Edward Hayes (another of Kilpatrick’s staff) would lead a detail to destroy the railroad bridge over Briar Creek.

The only lengthy first hand account I’ve ever located appeared in an 1883 issue of the National Tribune, written by Julius B. Kilbourne.  In a section titled “A Rapid Ride to Millen,” Kilbourne described Estes’ advance:

A little after daylight we stopped at a farmhouse where there was corn and fodder for our horses, and rested an hour or so.  While the boys made coffee to soften up their “hardtack,” the servants of the horse brought us some sweet potatoes and a little bacon, which gave us a good breakfast. Shortly after sunrise we were again in the saddle, having ridden within the past twenty-four hours over sixty miles. During the night we had passed several towns, the names of which we did not know; but the negroes told us we were still forty miles from Millen.

During the forenoon we made good progress, meeting with no opposition. About the many plantations which we passed we saw no one but now and then some gray-haired man walking about the house, looking at us as we passed. Their sons and their sons’ sons were all in the rebel service.

At noon we made another short stop to feed and water.  Here we in some way got the impression that the prisoners had been sent away from Millen, but could not altogether credit the report, but as we advanced the evidence became more conclusive.  About 4 o’clock we came in sight of the prison pen in which our poor boys had suffered so keenly – even death itself. How our hearts leaped with joy at the sight and at the thought that we should be able to effect their release!

Millen is situated on the Savannah and Charleston Railroad, and the stockade some distance to the north and near the branch road running to to Augusta.  Maj. Estis, with his scouts, made a reconnaissance, capturing the guard, – some thirty that had been left behind, – who informed us that the prisoners had been removed the Tuesday before, and that most of the officers had been sent to Columbia, S.C., while the privates had been taken south on the Gulf Railroad. After destroying the stockade and its surrounding buildings, Major Estis, with his command, as ordered, joined Kilpatrick south of Waynesboro’….

I would point out, in the interest of clarity, that it was the Augusta & Savannah Railroad running through Millen.

While Estes came up empty at Camp Lawton, Hayes managed to damage the railroad and burn part of the bridge.  To cover these advanced forces, Kilpatrick planned to move towards Waynesboro in force on November 27.  At the same time, Wheeler planned to move in force on his own – to intercept Kilpatrick.  These movements setup the first in a series of cavalry actions around the town that would take place over the week to follow.

(Citation from The National Tribune, Volume II, No. 40, May 17, 1883, page 1, column 5. Digital copy in LOC collection, online.)

Marching Through Georgia, November 26, 1864: Hard War in Sandersville, Georgia

Colonel Ezra Carman lead the 13th New Jersey across the Cornfield toward the East Woods at Antietam on September 17, 1862.  On July 2 and 3, 1863, he and the regiment stood on the right of the Federal line south of Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg.  Carman lead a brigade sent to respond to the New York City Draft Riots.  Then he and his regiment went west to guard supply lines during the relief of Chattanooga.  Carman and the regiment saw more action in the Atlanta Campaign during the spring and summer of 1864.  And 150 years ago today, Carman, led Second Brigade, First Division, Twentieth Corps, which included the 13th New Jersey, into Sandersville, Georgia.  A more varied service for a regiment and its commander, I’d be pressed to find.

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Having bridged Buffalo Creek, the Twentieth and Fourteenth Corps converged on Sandersville that morning.  Skirmishers from Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry contested that approach.  Carman recorded the advance:

November 26, the brigade this day had the advance; moved out of camp at 6:30 a.m., and after marching two miles, the Ninth Illinois [Mounted Infantry] in our front encountered the enemy, who were posted on a small creek, the road through which had been obstructed by fallen trees. The enemy were soon dislodged and pursued to Sandersville, at which place they made a stand, driving back our cavalry. I then deployed six companies of the Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers as skirmishers, with four companies in reserve, and advanced on them, the Ninth Illinois being disposed on the flanks. The enemy gave way before my skirmishers, and I entered town at the same time as did the Fourteenth Corps, who came in on another road to the left.  Moving to the right I followed the enemy through town and one mile beyond, skirmishing a little. My loss was two men wounded, belonging to the Thirteenth New Jersey Volunteers. I  was then recalled and ordered with the rest of the division to Tennille Station, on the Georgia Central Railroad, where I destroyed about three miles of track and encamped for the night.

The units of the Twentieth Corps covered between twelve and fifteen miles that day… not counting all the footsteps involved with wrecking railroads and other structures.

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For the most part, Sandersville’s residential buildings were untouched that day.  But Major-General William T. Sherman might have had other thoughts.  As Carman and others fought into town that day, Sherman noted the Confederate cavalry had burned fodder and other supplies to prevent them falling into Federal hands.  Sherman also noted that the Confederates had used the buildings of the town for cover in order to resist the Federal advance.  Taking that into account, Sherman may have considered retaliation… and justified such under the conventions of the time.

Conventions of the time?  Consider this Bible verse, Deuteronomy 20:19:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?

In that verse is a cornerstone for the Laws of War.  Not only was that applied to the besiegers, but to field armies – both aggressor or defender.  However, under this convention, should either party resort to destroying the “trees” then the other side was justified in retaliation to cutting down the trees… or in the case of Georgia in November 1864, burning out the farms.  (And large in the minds of military leaders at the time was the justification given by Napoleon for his actions during the march to and from Moscow.)

Likewise, Wheeler’s men had used the city and put it directly in the line of battle.  Wheeler was less concerned with Bible verses that day than tactical necessity.  But such situations get out of control (just ask the residents of Fredericksburg).  Had Sherman ordered the town of Sandersville to ashes, he would have rationalized such by pointing to Wheeler’s cavalry.

While the general and staff stayed in Sandersville that day, several citizens, mostly women, approached Sherman to plead for the city’s safety.  Major Henry Hitchcock, of Sherman’s staff, recorded the encounter in his diary:

Methodist preacher came to the house today and into room where General was, to “intercede for women and children.” Loud talker, vulgar fool – seemed to think he could talk General into anything. General bore with him ore than I expected or than he deserved, never lost his temper, never spoke even angrily, but gave some hard hits.  It seems a Confederate Major Hall burned the Buffalo Creek bridge, against remonstrance of citizens – so preacher says.  General gave him no comfort except, “I don’t war on women and children,” etc., and spoke sharply about firing in the streets, etc. Finally one of ladies whispered to preacher and he shut up and left.  General told ladies dwellings would not be burned, but Court House and stores would.

In this passage is a fine example of why we need to study the “nuts and bolts” of the campaign in order to put context to the “human” stories.  It is all good to talk about the burning of buildings, wrecking of railroads, stealing of foodstuffs, and other deprivations.  But we have to put that in context of what else was happening at that moment on the ground.  Otherwise we have shards of “memory” instead of a clear picture.  Worse, we lose the “human” element of the story completely.

In this case, Sherman heard something he needed to hear.  The citizens of Sandersville had resisted their own to the extent possible.  Far from the “defiant Confederate home front” indications are the people of Sandersville understood what “scorched earth” would bring to their community.   Sherman’s words on the subject had reached the intended audience, with the intended result.  Public buildings and commercial structures went up in flames, all but the Masonic Temple. But the homes, as Sherman promised, were not targeted.  (And as a side note, the County Courthouse was only nine years old at that time, having been rebuilt after an 1855 that had devastated the town worse than anything the Federals did in 1864.)

South of Tennille, the Right Wing proceeded across the Oconee at Ball’s Ferry. The pontoon bridges for the main crossing were not in place until around 10 a.m.  But that allowed much of the Fifteenth Corps to cross in daylight, though the swampy roads up from the ferry prevented anyone from making many miles beyond.  As happened with the Ocmulgee crossing a week earlier, while crossing at Ball’s Ferry, Howard ordered all of the extra mounts confiscated from the infantry.  And again, good animals were distributed among the train and authorized mounted formations.  Several hundred broken down horses and mules were killed at the crossing during the exchange.

Far to the north of the two main wings of Sherman’s force, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry rode hard to cross the Ogeechee River.  This move drew Wheeler’s cavalry out of Sandersville and well out of Sherman’s main path.  As this is, in my opinion, one of the under-discussed aspects of the march, I’ll take this up in a separate post (hopefully later today).

Following by way of the Georgia state markersSylvan Grove, Sandersville, Tennille, Irwin’s Crossroads, and Oconee are your stops.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 234; Henry Hitchcock, Marching with Sherman: passages from the letters and campaign diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Yale University Press, 1927, page 97.)

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.

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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:

BuffaloCreek1

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

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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.)