Author Archives: Craig Swain

A demonstration “to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad”: Plans leading to Honey Hill

Give or take a day, 150 years ago at this time Major-General John Foster received a letter sent on November 13, 1864 by Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington.  For the most part, the letter told Foster what he already knew:

Major-General Sherman expects to leave Atlanta on the 16th instant for the interior of Georgia or Alabama, as circumstances may seem to require, and may come out either on the Atlantic coast or the Gulf. If the former, it will probably be at Savannah, Ossabaw Sound, Darien, or Fernandina. Supplies are being collected at Hilton Head, with transports to convey them to the point required. Supplies are also collected at Pensacola Bay, to be transported to any point he may require on the Gulf. Should Sherman come to the Atlantic coast, which I think most probable, he expects to reach there the early part of December, and wishes you, if possible, to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near Pocotaligo about that time. At all events a demonstration on that road will be of advantage. You will be able undoubtedly to learn his movements through rebel sources much earlier than from these headquarters, and will shape your action accordingly.

By the last days of November, Foster, like everyone else from Atlanta to Charleston, knew Sherman was on the march.  And it was clear Sherman was not going to a Gulf Coast port.  But where on the Atlantic?

What’s important here is the chain of events.  Foster had already started planning to meet this request even before receiving it.  He had solicited a proposal from Brigadier-General John Hatch for an operation up the Broad River towards Grahamville  – receiving that on November 21 at the latest.  On the 22nd, Foster received Halleck’s order.  On the same day, Foster issued orders to implement Hatch’s proposal.  Then on November 25, Foster replied that he’d received Halleck’s order and was executing.

Halleck’s orders were not restrictive to a simple demonstration.  He set an objective – cut the railroad.  Hatch’s proposal, likewise, had an objective – gain the railroad.  The main difference between those objectives was the actions proposed after gaining possession of the railroad.  Halleck wanted a demonstration that impeded Confederate movement.  Hatch looked to create a beachhead that could use the railroad to support future operations.  To say the two were one and the same would be a misstatement.

The orders Foster issued on November 22, to Hatch and to Brigadier-General E. P. Scammon (commanding in Florida), contained lengthy details.  He specified the number of troops, to be drawn from strong, seasoned regiments.  He specified each man would carry “his blanket, overcoat, rubber blanket or shelter-half, and one extra pair of good socks.”  Foster specified each man would carry 20 rounds with another 100 rounds per man brought along in crates.  The force would have a battery of artillery in support.  Plus he wanted as many mounted men as possible brought along.

The operation would draw from Morris Island, Hilton Head, and Florida all the troops not absolutely necessary for manning the lines.  This was a reach for a department already strapped for resources.  But a gamble worth taking considering the Confederate forces in theater would be drawn inland to face Sherman.

But the one thing lacking in all of Foster’s details was the objective.  To Hatch, he simply said, “fully concur with you in your views as to the point of attack.”  To Scammon, he simply said, “I am, therefore, getting ready to make an attack upon some point of the enemy’s line, so as to aid [Sherman].”  To Halleck, he responded, “I am preparing to carry out your instructions.”  At no point, in the written record, did Foster reconcile any differences between Halleck’s objective and that proposed by Hatch.

Foster did set a date for execution – November 27.  Later this backed off to the 28th.  While the objective might be ill-defined, the operation would go forward.  If it succeeded, the Federals would finally cut the railroad connecting Charleston and Savannah.  Since mid-1862 the Federals had attempted, without success, to do just that.  Such would limit the Confederates’ ability to shift troops in defense of threatened sectors.

But was this a realistic objective?  Could the forces at hand reach the railroad? Hold the railroad? And, that accomplished, would it aid Sherman’s advance?

All good questions that queue up some more blog posts.

At the same time Foster’s response was leaving Hilton Head for Washington, Halleck penned another order for the Department of the South.  The order issued on November 23rd would not arrive for another ten days:

Lieutenant-General Grant directs that the expenditure of ammunition upon Charleston and Fort Sumter be discontinued, except so far as may be necessary to prevent the enemy from establishing new batteries at the latter place. This is not intended to prohibit the throwing of occasional shell into Charleston, if circumstances should require. The object is to economize ordnance stores.

The focus of operations in the Department of the South was changing.  Savannah and Charleston were still prizes.  But those would be gained from the land side.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 328; Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 525-6, 535, and 547.)

Marching Through Georgia, November 23, 1864: Missed opportunity

November 23, 1864 was a clear, but still bitterly cold, day in Georgia.  In contrast to earlier days, the Federal advance was not quite as great.  Portions of the Left Wing remained in camps most of the day while tending to tasks around Milledgeville.  On the Right Wing, the column closed up as the trains made their way through Gordon.  One might surmise the Federals missed an opportunity on a good marching day.  Perhaps.  But that was inconsequential compared to the missed opportunity for the Confederates.

MarchNov23

On the Left Wing, the Fourteenth Corps closed the last of the trains and rear guard through Milledgeville on the 23rd. The Twentieth Corps remained camped around the state capital.  But the troops didn’t simply mill around camp.  Their day was spent primarily destroying supplies and selected facilities around the city.  The State Penitentiary was burned, as was the nearby arsenal and buildings associated with the railroad depot.

But the Governor’s Mansion and State Capitol were spared… at least from destruction. Though the soldiers did their damage.  Point should be made that when leaving the city days earlier, Governor Joseph Brown had evacuated with most of the property, down to the rugs and furnishings.

The soldiers held a mock legislative session in which they repealed the Ordnance of Secession.  When bundles of unsigned, and thus not ready for issue, state currency were found, the soldiers confiscated the lot.  Some was burned.  Others impressed the useless script for personal tasks which paper is often used.  And some of the invalid currency was passed to female factory workers and slaves.  But orders came down to avoid destruction of private property, with guards posted as needed.  For the most part, the Federal soldiers had enough public property for their mischief.

Major-General William T. Sherman took the time to issue a new set of orders outlining the next phase of the march.  Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick would transit from the right to the left and make demonstrations toward Augusta while heading for Millen, in hopes of recusing Federal prisoners held there.  The Right Wing would continue across the Oconee and take up a line of march south of the Georgia Central Railroad. The Left Wing would advance to that same railroad and thence on the north side toward Sandersville.  The proposed plan would bring the wings in closer proximity, but also prepare for a drive towards the Ogeechee River.

The Right Wing, however, had another day of marching on the 23rd.  Major-General O.O. Howard had the Fifteenth Corps proceed towards Irwinville.  However, with the trail of the wing reaching Gordon that day, Howard had Brigaider-General John Corse’s Fourth Division replaced as guard with the Third Division, under Brigadier-General John Smith.  With that switch, Howard wanted the pontoon trains expedited through Gordon to the fore of the column.  His intent was to have it in place for the crossing of the Oconee River.  And looking to that river, Howard pushed Seventeenth Corps forward along the railroad line to probe crossings.  The plan was for Seventeenth Corps to make a crossing the next day at a place called Jackson’s Ferry.  Problem was, there was no Jackson’s Ferry, save that indicated on Federal maps!

On the east side of the Oconee River, Major-General Henry C. Wayne, Georgia’s Adjutant and Inspector General, found himself employed in the capacity of field commander.  Wayne had arrived a few days earlier, with roughly a battalion’s strength, withdrawn from Gordon.  There he found Major Alfred Hartridge with an independent detachment of 186 soldiers, under direct orders from Lieutenant-General William Hardee to hold the railroad bridge outside Oconee.  Wayne had misgivings about such a stand, but was convinced to stay.

The position was one which could be held effectively by a small force, if lucky.  The railroad crossed a large swamp on the west side of the river, limiting approaches to the bridge.  Wayne had a small blockhouse built there to further deter the Federal approach.  To reinforce the forward position, he had an artillery piece mounted on a railcar.  When arriving on November 21, he reported to Major-General Lafayette McLaws that he expected to be attacked at any time.  But that threat was slow in developing.  The Fourth Kentucky Mounted Infantry, from the famous Orphan Brigade, arrived to reinforce on the 22nd.  Then later more reinforcements arrived to include cadets from the Georgia Military Academy.

Around mid-morning, advance scouts in front of the Seventeenth Corps reached Wayne’s defenses.  Brigadier-General Giles Smith, commanding Fourth Division of the corps, reported:

The [1st Alabama Cavalry] having the advance drove in the enemy’s skirmishers from a stockade about two miles from the bridge. The ground near the bridge being very swampy it could only be approached by the railroad.  The enemy were posted behind a second stockade, with infantry and artillery.  Colonel Potts, commanding First Brigade, was ordered to detach two regiments and drive them across the river.  One piece of artillery from Lieutenant Hurter’s First Minnesota Battery was taken down the track by hand to assist.  After a short skirmish this was accomplished, and two miles of trestle-work destroyed and about three miles of track, but the enemy could not be dislodged from the opposite side on account of the inaccessibility of the swamp.

Unable to press further, the Federals searched for other crossing points and found Ball’s Ferry downstream.   Smith dispatched a 150 man force from Station No. 15 to scout that location in the afternoon.  They succeeded in crossing but ran up against a Confederate force under Hartridge and fell back. To Savannah, Wayne reported at 9 p.m. that evening:

Major Hartridge has driven the enemy back across this river, but they have the flat. Austin, with the cadets, has gallantly held the bridge. The enemy are constructing a flat in the woods to try to cross below me to-night.  Send 5,000 .54 cartridges.

The advantage of position favored Wayne, but he knew eventually the Federal numbers would play against him.  All the Federals needed was one secure crossing and the Oconee line would fail.  But an opportunity lay on the west side of the river.  To accomplish a crossing, the Federals, who were already spread out from the march, had to develop the front.  Howard would need to feel out potential crossing points and spread out his command.  Meanwhile the trains were still far to the rear of the march and guarded by a single division of troops.

A Confederate move on Howard’s rear guard might disrupt the entire wing’s march.  But what forces might move in that direction?  Major-General Joseph Wheeler, with his cavalry force, would be the select formation for such a task.  But Wheeler had computed August was the next critical point to defend.  On November 23rd, his forces were moving by way of Dublin in hopes of getting in front of Sherman’s march.  Despite the rough day at Griswoldville, there were still a substantial number of Georgia state troops in Macon.  But orders came on the 23rd to move those forces south and then east, using some of the intact railroads, toward Savannah.

Perhaps seeking to bring some unity to the dis-jointed effort to respond, President Jefferson F. Davis telegraphed Major-General Ambrose Wright, in Augusta, urging him to assume control:

I deem it very fortunate that you are in position to exercise at the same time the authority of your Confederate and State commission.  The Adjutant-General, C.S.A., will issue an order placing you on duty in Georgia.

This presumptive move would further strain the relations between Richmond and the Georgia governor.  Still, no single authority on the Confederate side called the shots bringing a fog of confusion.  In that fog, a perfect opportunity to upset Sherman’s plans was missed.  More Confederate forces were moving away from the Federals on November 23, 1864 than were moving towards them.

Following along by the markers for November 23, 1864, there are several around Milledgeville pointing out important sites – Junction of the Left Wing, Route of the Twentieth Corps, Provost Guard camp, and Campsite of the Army.  Also in and around Milledgeville are Howell Cobb’s plantation (missed yesterday in my post, but not missed by Sherman’s men!), the Old Governor’s Mansion, Old State Capitol, Great Seal of Georgia, and State Hospital.  Other markers of note for this day’s activities are found in Scottsboro, McIntyre, Toomsboro, and Oconee.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 454, 887, 889.)

Marching Through Georgia, November 22, 1864: Milledgeville and Griswoldville

If there was a Weather Channel around, for November 22, 1864, the prediction offered would have been “cold with continued rain mixed with snow, clearing in the afternoon.”  The overnight temperatures froze General Mud, which was a small consolation for those marching on a cold day.  Maj0r-General William T. Sherman wanted to close the first phase of his march across Georgia on this day by concentrating the armies at Milledgeville and Gordon.  Not only was Milledgeville the state capital with military targets to include arsenals and depots, there were also means to cross the Oconee and establish a bridgehead on the east side.  For the Confederate authorities, what details were known of Sherman’s movements seemed to confirm the next stop would be Augusta.  The responses were not coordinated, which setup the largest field engagement of the campaign with tragic results.

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Orders for the Left Wing on the 22nd were simple – reach Milledgeville.  No resistance was expected, and little offered.  The Twentieth Corps under Brigadier-General Alpheus S. Williams had the honor of first entering the state capital.  To reach that goal, the corps had to cross the Little River.  Anticipating this, the day prior an advance column including the pontoon train under Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore put a 220 foot span, with ten boats, over the river.

When the last unit, Brigadier-General John Geary’s Second Division, crossed, the pontoons came up.  Reaching Millegeville, Williams sent forward two regiments to secure and guard the city.  After them came the rest of the corps.  Colonel Erza Carmen, commanding Second Brigade, First Division of the corps, wrote:

When within one mile of the city the Third Wisconsin and One hundred and seventh New York Volunteers were sent forward as guard to the city, Col. William Hawley… being appointed post commander.  The brigade then marched through the city, crossed the Oconee River, encamping near it. The State arsenal and a large amount of public property was destroyed at this place….

Hawley provided a detailed list of property seized and destroyed:

Burned–2,300 muskets, smooth-bore, caliber .69; 10,000 rounds cartridges, caliber .69; 300 sets accouterments; 5,000 lances; 1,500 cutlasses; 15 boxes U.S. standard weights and measures. Thrown into the river–170 boxes fixed artillery ammunition; 200 kegs powder; 16 hogsheads salt. A large amount of cotton, say 1,800 bales, was disposed of by General Sherman; the manner of disposition was not made known to me. About 1,500 pounds tobacco was taken by my order and distributed among the troops generally. Besides the property above enumerated, a large lot of miscellaneous articles, such as harness, saddles, canteens, tools for repairing war materials, caps, &c., was burned in the building situated in the square near the State House.

1,500 pounds of tobacco goes a long way.

On the Right Wing the priority of the day was to close up the wagon train which had been lagging since crossing the Ocmulgee River.  Brigadier-General John Corse, commanding the division guarding the trains, needed good roads.  That was partially addressed by the Third Division, Fifteenth Corps, which cut a road parallel to the main road to Gordon.  Corse also needed protection from the Confederate cavalry making sporadic attacks on the column.  Orders for the day had one brigade from the First Division, Fifteenth Corps to hold back at Clinton until the trains cleared.

Further southeast, where the cavalry maintained a screen outside Griswoldville, Brigadier-General Charles Wood was to have one brigade, under Colonel Milo Smith, guard the road to Gordon and Georgia Central Railroad near the Mountain Spring’s Church.  In front of them, along Little Sandy Creek, the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry maintained a picket line (with the 5th Kentucky Cavalry in reserve).  Wood’s second brigade, under Brigadier-General Charles Walcutt, would advance up the road toward Macon to put pressure on any Confederates in the sector.  And this was a “hot” sector.

That morning, Major-General Joseph Wheeler caught the 9th Pennsylvania off-guard.  A dawn attack on the line drove in the pickets and captured several.  Although the Pennsylvanians rallied, the situation played back and forth with charge and counter charge through the early dawn.  The scheduled advance of Walcutt’s infantry cleared the fighting. After a short advance, Walcutt selected a good position opposite, an open field, to guard the road and posted skirmishers forward.  In line with normal practice, the Federals began erecting breastworks.

Wheeler, still under orders from Lieutenant-General William Hardee to move east, decided he was not up against just Federal cavalry.  In response, he left the field and marched his command on a route further south.  That should have closed the action for the day.  But Wheeler had not provided information to all nearby commands. By breaking contact, Wheeler left an open situation with chance coming into play.

At the time Wheeler departed, a local defense battalion under Major Ferdinand Cook, followed by a combined division of militia and Georgia State Line troops under Brigadier-General Pleasant Philips, began moving east along the direct road to Gordon.  Around mid-morning, authorities in Macon recognized the danger Philips were walking into.  Major-General G.W. Smith send orders for Philips to avoid any engagement and to fall back to Macon if pressed.

Around mid-day, Cook and Philips began to run into Federal skirmishers.  About the same time Philips reached the destroyed pistol factory at Griswoldville, he received the orders from Macon urging caution.  Philips figured he was facing just over 1,000 Federals.  Between himself and Cook, Philips had some 4,500 men.  While caution was the order, Philips felt he could at least brush the Federals off the road before asking for an updated order from Macon.  That decision triggered the first “battle” on the March to the Sea.

Philips intended to overwhelm the Federal lines.  Though he held the advantage in artillery (a six gun battery against a two gun section), he intended his infantry to carry the day.  The advance started around 2:30 p.m. Soon after they advanced into the open field, the Georgians came under withering fire from the Federal infantry.  Writing in his official report, Colonel Robert F. Catterson, who replaced the wounded Walcutt, stated:

On came the enemy, endeavoring to gain possession of a ravine running parallel to and about 100 yards to our front, but the fire was so terrible that ere he reached it many of his number were stretched upon the plain.  It was at this moment that General Walcutt received a severe wound and was compelled to leave the field.

The Confederate attack stalled.  Though Catterson had to shift his forces around to meet pressure, the Federal line held.  With darkness, the fighting tapered off.  The Federals counted 14 killed and 42 wounded.  On the Confederate side total casualties numbered around 1,200.  One of the most lop-sided engagements of the war was fought due to mis-communication and poor intelligence.  The Federals wouldn’t have been there had Kilpatrick kept the cavalry pressed close to Macon one more day.  The Confederates wouldn’t have gone there had Wheeler provided full information to those in Macon.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 107, 234, and 248-9.)