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).
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.)