Category Archives: American Civil War

“If General Sherman comes from inland…”: Department of the South plans for Sherman’s arrival

One of the things I like about discussing the March to the Sea is how the discussion leads into the Charleston-Savannah front… which if you haven’t noticed is sort of a favorite of mine.  For example, while the troops of Sherman’s armies were making their way to Milledgeville on November 21, 1864, several senior commanders on the coast of South Carolina were already proposing operations to complement those marching through Georgia.

Writing to Washington, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren offered a summary of the tactical situation on the coast.  Quoting Major-General John Foster’s estimate of the Confederate force, he reported 4,000 defending Savannah and 5,000 at Charleston.  Then Dahlgren recited details about the defenses around Savannah, reminding the Secretary of the Navy that the ironclads had tested Fort McAllister during the winter months of 1863.  But the bottom line was these defenses were built to deter an attack from the ocean’s direction.  Lacking forces, there was little Foster’s command could do.  But the arrival of troops from the inland side would, of course, change that equation.  Dahlgren thus concluded:

The true attack is upon Savannah or Charleston, in force, while a column severs the communication connecting them by passing up any of the streams which run up from the sea and intersects the railroad.

If General Sherman comes from inland and follows this plan he will certainly take both cities with little effort, and a force from the seaboard could do this for him as he approaches.

That thought had occurred to others.  Writing the same day, Brigadier-General John Hatch, who’d just been reassigned back to command the Northern District (Folly and Morris Islands) outside Charleston, offered his suggestion to Foster:

You were kind enough to ask me for my views relating to the cutting of the railroad between Savannah and Charleston. In my letter of yesterday I stated that I thought it would be best to strike the road from Broad River. The more I examine it the better satisfied I am that that is the true point of operations. By landing where the road from Grahamville strikes the river, opposite Whale Island, a march of less than twenty miles puts you on the road at Gopher Hill. One regiment, with a battery detached, should take the road to the right and throw up intrenchments on the bank of the creek where the road from the Coosawhatchie divides. The main force would throw up a strong fort at Gopher Hill, which is probably a commanding position; a detachment could then be sent to Ferebeeville, to fortify there.

Hatch had served for some time in the department, and knew the area well.  Looking first to Port Royal Sound and the Broad River:


His proposed operations looked something like this on the map:


Once in place, Hatch felt the force could defend that lodgement and then some:

The line from Gopher Hill to Broad River would then be entirely free from molestation, and constant communication could be kept up with Hilton Head, and supplies furnished Sherman’s army, if Lee, abandoning Richmond, should come down to protect Charleston. I would not injure the road, as Sherman may desire to use it. I would get up to Hilton Head the two locomotives from Jacksonville, and have them put in repair, if they need it; also, all the cars and extra pairs of wheels. Of these latter, there is quite a number at Jacksonville and some at Fernandina. There are also at Fernandina spare parts of locomotives that may be found useful.

He even thought of the trains to run supplies!

Hatch figured to pull from the garrisons of Hilton Head, Beaufort, and other points to constitute the force needed for the operation. However there was one significant factor Hatch overlooked.  The Confederates considered that sector a “sensitive” spot. Particularly since just two years before the Federals attempted a similar operation in the same area.  Routes through the marshes were narrow and a small force could easily block a larger force moving inland.

But Hatch’s plan had merit.  As with many of the coastal operations, a strong force could accomplish a lot with surprise and fast movement.  Standing on that merit, the plan would, in a few day’s time, form the basis for the next major operation for the Department of the South.  The next day Foster issued orders for Hatch to proceed.  Unfortunately, it would not turn out to be an easy operation by any measure.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 517-8; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 56-7.)


Marching Through Georgia, November 21, 1864: Bad weather, mistakes, but good foraging

One old folk saying goes to the effect “storms of November come together.”* Before leaving Atlanta in mid-November, Major-General William T. Sherman spoke of waiting for rains to pass, as if he accepted that sage wisdom.  For what it is worth, maybe the Farmer’s Almanac was correct… but there were two bunches of storms that November.  The second storm system to pass through Georgia lasted from November 18 to the morning of November 22.  And the trail end of that system was a cold front bringing temperatures to the freezing point and snow.  Lieutenant-General Richard Taylor, heading to Macon to take command of the situation, later wrote, “It was the bitterest weather I remember in this latitude.”  And Sherman’s campaign across Georgia, needing to move at a good rate, suffered setbacks due to that weather.

Looking at a map depicting this day’s marches, the Federal columns began to converge on two cities – Milledgeville and Gordon:


Brigadier-General John Geary’s account of his Second Division, Twentieth Corps is typical of the day’s march for the Left Wing that day:

November 21, a heavy rain fell all last night and continued throughout to-day, rendering the roads very deep and the streams much swollen. After entirely destroying Denham’s tannery and factory, I moved at 8 a.m. on the road to Philadelphia Church, reaching which I took the Milledgeville road, crossed Crooked Creek, and encamped at the forks of the road, one leading to Dennis’ Mill and station, the other to Waller’s Ferry, at the mouth of Little River. A very heavy, cold rain fell all day, and marching was quite difficult. The country passed through was a rich one and supplies were abundant. Distance marched, eight miles. The rain ceased toward night and the air became very cold Among our captures to-day was Colonel White, of the Thirty-seventh Tennessee Regiment. He had been in command of the post at Eatonton, and in attempting to escape from the other column of our troops fell into my hands.

Geary’s men passed Turnwold Plantation, where a young Joel Chandler Harris witnessed the Yankees march.  He reflected back on that experience in On the Plantation published in 1892.  The rest of Twentieth Corps passed through Eatonton and continued on the roads towards Milledgeville, stopping short of the Little River that day.

The Fourteenth Corps made poor progress due to the roads.  Worth noting, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis included this paragraph in the orders for the day:

Useless negroes are being accumulated to an extent which would be suicide to a column which must be constantly stripped for battle and prepared for the utmost celerity of movement. We cannot expect that the present unobstructed march will continue much longer. Our wagons are too much overladen to allow of their being filled with negro women and children or their baggage, and every additional mouth consumes food, which it requires risk to obtain. No negroes, therefore, or their baggage, will be allowed in wagons and none but the servants of mounted officers on horses or mules.

The presence of freed slaves following the Federals was a problem for all the columns.  But Davis seemed particularly annoyed at the issue, perhaps because the sluggish movement of his corps.

On the Right Wing, Major-General O.O. Howard summarized the day’s movements in a report to Sherman that evening:

We have reached Gordon with the head of the column. Giles Smith’s division is in camp there to-night; Woods’ division is also on the railroad, about five miles nearer Macon, and Hazen’s division within supporting distance; Mower’s and Leggett’s divisions are near the Macon and Milledgeville wagon roads; Corse, with the bridge train and the trains belonging to Kilpatrick, is yet between Clinton and Hillsborough.

Howard noted that his command was doing well living off the land, having barely touched their rations.  His wagon trains had exchanged broken down horses and mules and actually increased the number of draft animals.  All courtesy of the people of Georgia… such as “Carrie” Shy, Obediah Belcher, and David Langston. As for other property, “We have destroyed a large amount of cotton, the Planters’ Factory, a pistol factory and a mill at Griswold, the latter three by General Kilpatrick.”  Howard also noted his advanced scouts were already in Milledgeville, accepting the surrender of the town.  He estimated the Confederate concentration at Macon was 10,000 to 15,000.

In regard to the Federal cavalry commander, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick, if November 20 was one of his better days then perhaps November 21 was one of his worst.  Charged with blocking the roads leading north and east out of Macon, Kilpatrick did not maintain a presence close to the city.  Instead he backed off to the east.  Throughout the day his troopers sparred with those of Major-General Joseph Wheeler.  And then in the afternoon, Kilpatrick withdrew most of his forces, leaving the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry on screen along the Milledgeville Road. For Kilpatrick, mistake of sorts, but allowed given the need for fodder and to shift the cavalry for the next phase of the march.

This could not have come at a worse time.  Referring to the march map above, notice the gap between the lead elements of Fifteenth Corps and the trailing Fourth Division escorting the trains for the Right Wing.  Confederate cavalry were making small-scale sorties against the Federal trains, and the fear was a larger force might break through and cause a serious disruption.  But at least Kilpatrick left word for Major-General Peter Osterhaus, commanding Fifteenth Corps, prior to departing.  In response, Osterhaus received permission to deploy First Division, under Brigadier-General Charles Woods a few miles east of Griswoldville as a guard.


Second Division of the corps, minus one brigade held to defend Clinton, and Third Division would proceed on to Gordon.  The hope was these dispositions at Clinton and outside Griswoldville would prevent any further disruptions.

On the Confederate side, Lieutenant-General William Hardee decided that Macon was not the primary target and that troops needed to shift in order to meet a threat to Augusta.  He assumed the Federals were turning more east or north-east, and would leave the roads to Savannah clear.  Hardee sent Brigadier-General Ruben Carswell’s First Brigade Georgia Militia on a march eastward from Macon.  In addition, Hardee left instructions to start other elements of the militia, state line, and home guard to march east toward Gordon.  He requested Wheeler dispatch a regiment to help defend the Oconee Bridge.  Finally, Hardee himself left Macon on a circuitous route through Albany and Thomasville with the intent to get back to Savannah and Charleston using the railroads.

Though unknown to Hardee, Major-General Henry Wayne had already pulled his brigade of Georgia Militia from Gordon to the Oconee Bridge, anticipating a Federal advance.   And of course, also unknown to Hardee, Howard’s Right Wing was marching towards Gordon.

Mistakes on both sides of the line that day.  These queued up to a bloody battle that arguably shouldn’t have happened the next day.

Following the march for November 21st by markers, today one stops at Eatonton, Gordon (including one for J. Rufus Kelly’s defense of the town) and along the Fifteenth Corps line of march.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 271, 502, and 509; Taylor, Richard. Destruction and Reconstruction. New York: Bantam, 1992, page 250.)

I fail to find the exact line from the Farmer’s Almanac. But it’s an old saying my grandmother used on occasion.  If you have the line handy, please drop a comment.

Marching through Georgia, November 20, 1864: Rain, Mud, slow marching and raiding on Macon

On November 20, 1864, it was General Mud who came to the aid of Georgia’s defense. Rains turned the roads into muddy traces.  All along Major-General William T. Sherman’s line of march, the formations moved slowly. Dawn broke to offer a foggy, rainy morning.  That morning, the last division of the Fifteenth Corps, belonging to Brigadier-General John Corse, crossed the Ocmulgee as they brought up the rear guard behind the Right Wing’s trains.  To the north, the Left Wing turned south as they marched towards the state capital at Milledgeville.  These movements put all of Sherman’s armies on a path through a forty mile corridor between the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers – between Macon and Milledgeville.

A spirited Confederate defense might interrupt the Federal designs.  Two operations that day helped to distract the Confederates and prevent such interruption of the march – one planned and the other more a bit of luck.


For the Right Wing, the Ocmulgee now provided some safety for Major-General O.O. Howard’s right flank.  But the line of march was very close to the Confederate force at Macon.  Howard’s plan, derived from instructions passed earlier from Sherman, was to use Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry to distract the Confederates away from the vulnerable, slow-moving trains.  To accomplish this, Major-General Peter Osterhaus’ Fifteenth Corps had to march hard for Clinton to replace Kilaptrick’s cavalrymen then screening the advance.

But for the first time since leaving Atlanta, the Federals faced a sizable Confederate force in the field.  Major-General Joseph Wheeler advanced towards Clinton that morning with instructions to find the Federal main body.  In the morning fog, Wheeler’s troopers ran into Kilpatrick’s.  In the confusion, Confederate cavalry actually gain the town and captured Osterhaus’ servant.  But that proved a high water mark, as the presence of Federal infantry prompted Wheeler to retire.  This precipitated more fighting south of town. Though Wheeler would claim “We met this charge, checked and returned it with success….” the Federals held the valuable cross roads with no need to press further.  Colonel Thomas J. Jordon, commanding the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry, later bragged a 100 man detachment posted on the road south of Clinton “engaged two regiments of the enemy, holding them in check for two days….”

While that action secured Howard’s trains, it revealed to Wheeler the presence of Federal infantry.  To keep the Confederates guessing, Kilpatrick maneuvered with his second brigade to the east of Macon in a feint. All along the route the cavalry sparred with Confederate pickets.  But the main “fight” didn’t start until around 3:30 that afternoon.  The 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry formed a skirmish line along Walnut Creek opposing the Macon defenses.  After the Illinois men and their Spencer repeaters had developed the situation, the 10th Ohio Cavalry made a saber charge that overwhelmed the defenders on Dunlap’s Hill.  Under pressure from the other portions of the Confederate fortifications, the Ohio troopers fell back.  Another attack south of Dunlap’s Hill, from a detachment of the 92nd Illinois, attempted to gain the railroad bridge over Walnut Creek.  After initial gains, they too were repulsed.

I’m over simplifying a complex engagement that deserves more than a paragraph.  But the important point is Kilpatrick’s actions that afternoon masterfully served the required purpose.  Confederate authorities were sure he was isolating Macon, probing for a weak point, and setting up a larger Federal attack.  From far away in West Point, Mississippi, General P.G.T. Beauregard cautioned,

My views are that positions should be defended only so long as not to risk safety of troops and materials required for active operations in the field. Meanwhile removed to safe locality all Government property on line of enemy’s march, and consume or destroy supplies within his reach.

The problem with that was Macon was as much an industrial center (with an arsenal turning out cannons) as depot.  Foundries and factories don’t relocate so easily.  While Kilpatrick was making a show in front of Macon, just to the east at Station No. 18, Captain Frederick Ladd and a detachment of 100 from the 9th Michigan Cavalry sneaked into Griswoldville.  There Ladd and men destroyed the pistol factory of Samuel Griswold.  The Michigan troops left suffering only one wounded and two captured.  And the Confederacy had no more of these brass framed copies of Mr. Colt’s revolver:

“Hell on Wheels” fans may notice something familiar….

Kilpatrick’s cavalrymen also tore up the telegraph and railroad lines east of Macon (not before doing some SIGINT of their own).  This effectively isolated Lieutenant-General William Hardee, who’d arrived in Macon, from the rest of his command.

For the Left Wing, progress slowed to a crawl due to rains and muddy roads.  But one contingent that did make good time was not acting under orders. A small group broke off from Brigadier-General John Geary’s Second Division, Twentieth Corps and crossed the Oconee near Parks’ Mill.  This errant group, mostly of the 134th New York, acted without orders – for better or worse – made a deep “raid” of their own, as Geary later reported:

A small party sent out from my command crossed the river near the burnt bridge and went on foot seven mils to Greensborough, driving a small force of cavalry through the town and taking possession of it. After remaining in undisturbed possession of the town for several hours, and having convinced the inhabitants that the most of General Sherman’s army was close by with designs upon Augusta, this little party returned safely, recrossing the river in canoes. I learned the next day that the enemy were tearing up the Georgia railroad at Union Point, seven miles east of Greensborough , apparently being possessed with the idea that General Sherman’s army was moving on Augusta and using the railroad as it came.  From all I could learn, then and since, it is my opinion that my small command could, at that time, have penetrated to Augusta without serious opposition.

Perhaps Geary was correct, and his division might have taken Augusta at that time.  But within days reinforcements came to Augusta along with Lieutenant-General Braxton Bragg.  Just as with Macon, the concentration at Augusta kept Confederate resources spread out while Sherman maneuvered.  The Greensboro side trip had, though not by design, aided Sherman’s overall scheme.

Following along by way of historical markers, entries for today are at Parks’ Mill, Blountsville, Clinton, Macon, Dunlap Farm battlefield, Dunlap House, and Griswoldville Pistol Factory.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 270-1, 387, 407.)