November 30, 1864: A forgotten action at Honey Hill, South Carolina

I’ve often said that Honey Hill is relegated to footnote status in our histories of the war because of the contrasts.  At the same time Brigadier-General John Hatch’s men struggled against Confederate works along Euhaw Creek, a larger assault was made against Federal lines outside Franklin, Tennessee.  The actions in South Carolina pale in most comparisons a student may draw…  save perhaps that of valor where, all things considered, there is equity.

There is an excellent resource website covering the Battle of Honey Hill in detail, maintained by Gary W. Myers.  So allow me to briefly discuss the battle before touching upon a few points that factor into the March to the Sea and other threads I discuss here on this blog.

In yesterday’s post discussing the initial landings and movements, we saw that due to several issues Hatch had only reached an intersection about a third of the way to Grahamville on November 29.  On the morning of the 30th, he initially split his force.  One detail was to establish a perimeter around the crossroads and secure the route back to Boyd’s Neck.  This proved a valuable decision, as soon Confederate cavalry began probing down the road from Bee’s Creek (Point #1 on the map).

HoneyHillNov30

The other part of Hatch’s command resumed the march towards Grahamville that morning, but not starting until around 9 a.m.  From the start, Confederate cavalry skirmished and delayed the march.  At around 9:30 that morning the scouting elements of the Federal column reached Euhaw Creek and encountered a Confederate battery (Point #2). These were part of a defensive line originally setup in 1862 (which were, by the way, abandoned by General Robert E. Lee).  Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Colcock, in command of the local military district, selected this point as the best place to make a stand.  Standing about 15 feet in elevation above the creek, Honey Hill was not much of a hill.  But in the marshes of coastal South Carolina, those 15 feet might as well have been Marye’s Heights.

While the artillery further delayed the Federal deployment, Confederate reinforcements filed down from the railroad station.  The first regiments of Major-General Gustavus W. Smith’s Georgia troops had arrived at the station around 8 a.m.  Deferring to Colcock, Smith ordered his men into the trenches to support the artillery already in place. The first Georgians reached the fortifications around the same time the artillery fired on the Federal scouts. Colonel Ambrosio J. Gonzales, District Artillery Chief, arrived to assume direction of the artillery.

At that point, the battle was for all practical purposes decided.  The Confederates held good ground.  To assail that position, the Federals had to traverse a marshy creek while braving artillery fire.  But Hatch had his lead brigade, under Brigadier-General Edward Potter, deploy to develop the position.  Colonel Alfred Harwell’s brigade then attempted to deploy to the right of Potter.  The difficult terrain and Confederate artillery slowed these deployments.  Not until noon was the line properly developed.

A series of attacks started around noon.  First the 35th USCT made a charge up the road.  Later Potter’s Brigade, with companies from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts attached, made a go at the Confederate right and were repulsed with heavy loss.  Then to relieve pressure on that side of the line, part of Hartwell’s Brigade, reinforced with the Marine Battalion, attacked the Confederate left.  By mid-afternoon, the battle became more of an artillery duel.  The Federal batteries, already at disadvantage due to the terrain, began running low on ammunition.  By 4 p.m. only the boat howitzers from the Naval Brigade remained to compete with the Confederates.

As dusk settled, Hatch withdrew to the crossroads.  The attack had failed, in his assessment, due to the formidable nature of the defensive position and for want of more ammunition.   Hatch reported 746 casualties (89 killed, 629 wounded, and 28 missing).  Total Confederate casualties were less than 100.

The tactical assessment of Hatch’s failure has focused on maneuver options.  Typical of the criticism was question made by Major-General William T. Sherman, while touring the battlefield just over a month later  – “Hatch, why didn’t you flank them on the right?”  While that was, and still is, valid criticism, the situation was not so simple as that.  Hatch might have moved by way of a series of roads on the left to flank the Confederate position (Point #3 on my first map above).  But that would have taken hours, and in which time the Confederates certainly would have reacted.  Likewise, to use Sherman’s observations, Hatch might have moved by way of roads on the right (Point #4).  But recall the Confederate cavalry was already posted there.  Where Sherman’s response is valid, however, is that Hatch appeared to do nothing towards fully developing the Confederate position.  Had he done something akin to what the Federals did at Ball’s Ferry on the Oconee a few days earlier, perhaps Hatch would have found a weak point in the defense.   But on whole, that would be conjecture against the facts of the matter.

There is much to criticism, however, with Hatch’s delays getting to Honey Hill.  We might point to problems on November 29 or the late march on November 30.  Had any of these delays turned otherwise, Hatch arguably would have achieved his objective.

At the strategic level, most authorities cite this defeat as a lost opportunity for the Federals.  Again, I think reality is too complex to allow that to stand unsupported.  Hatch had on hand all of the forces the Department of the South could spare.  Had the situation on November 30 played out otherwise, Hatch certainly would have gained the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  However there were no more brigades to send for reinforcement.  At best, he would have a small perimeter astride the route between the two key cities.  He was not in position to sortie and further isolate Savannah.  At best, a victory might have prompted discussions about abandoning Savannah among the Confederate high command.  To say it would have precipitated a complete withdrawal at that point in time would argue against several statements made in public and private by those same leaders.  In short, success at Grahamville would have helped Sherman and would have hindered the Confederates, but it would not have been the deciding factor.  I can think of other places along the coast that would have served the purpose better.

But while Honey Hill was a disaster, it did lay the groundwork for several other operations.  Glossed over even more than Honey Hill, the Department of the South engaged in several other operations in support of Sherman’s investment of Savannah.  Those would turn out to be less bloody and generally more successful.  (And I’ll give them attention in due time.)

Another factor to consider when assessing Honey Hill is the use of USCT.  At other battles in which Federal forces had met failure while employing the USCT, Confederate papers were quick to make light of such.  Yet, over the following days the Charleston papers only mentioned the use of USCT in passing while lauding the “gallant Georgians.”  Though within a week, the South Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution thanking Smith and the Georgians “in repulsing the Yankee invaders and their negro allies….” Almost as if by December 1864 the presence of armed black troops in the deep south was commonplace.

Lastly, in regard to Honey Hill, I’d call attention to this map:

This colorful map from Robert Knox Sneden is often used as the key illustration for describing Honey Hill.  At the time of the battle Sneden was still a prisoner.  He was exchanged at Charleston on December 11th.  After that exchange, Sneden began making drawings of places associated with military activities in Georgia and South Carolina.  I won’t say his maps are the most accurate or the most detailed.  But they do add a lot of color.

 

Marching Through Georgia, November 30, 1864: Selecting routes for the next leg of the march

When reflecting on the March to the Sea, veterans of the Right Wing could claim, with some merit, the Left Wing had it easy.  The Left Wing had some pauses during the march (such as at Milledgeville).  Meanwhile, the Right Wing marched along the roads almost non-stop.  Such was the case on November 30, 1864 as most of the Left Wing remained at Louisville while the Right Wing advanced. But Major-General William T. Sherman ordered the pause for a valid military reason.  He was selecting the routes for the next leg of the march toward Savannah.

MarchNov30

Of the two corps in the Left Wing, only three divisions made significant movements on the 30th… and only one of those was advancing.  The previous day, First and Second Divisions of the Twentieth Corps advanced on the south side of the Ogeechee River as they destroyed track of the Georgia Central Railroad.  With the bridges at that point destroyed by Confederate cavalry, and the line of march in that sector already in use by the Seventeenth Corps, those two divisions backtracked to Louisville to rejoin the Corps.

First Division, Fourteenth Corps advanced southeast so Sebastopol in an attempt to secure a crossing point over the Ogeechee from the east end.  Although leading elements of the division arrived there in the afternoon, the move was redundant, as the Right Wing crossed downstream.

But those units remaining around Louisville did not have a quiet day.  Confederate cavalry harassed the Federals at several points.  Foragers ran into patrols that in turn resulted in running fights.  In at least one case an entire team of foragers were later found dead with head wounds, leading some to conclude they’d been executed.  Such incidents fueled discussions about execution of prisoners captured by Confederates.  Reporting on the outcome of his raid, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick requested to retain a group of Confederate officers as hostages.

Several of my men have been killed after [being] taken prisoners; others have been found with their bodies mutilated, throats cut, &c. I wish permission to send communication to General Wheeler, who is now in my immediate front, informing him of these facts, that I have prisoners of rank who I intend to retain as hostages, and will retaliate.

Sherman would respond to this request the next day.  So we’ll take up this issue again tomorrow.

Sherman, himself and staff, departed Louisville and joined the Seventeenth Corps line of march on the 30th.  To the Right Wing’s commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, Sherman explained the reasons for moving these forces on the south side of the Ogeechee.  Sherman related:

… your order of movement for [the 30th] is all right, except that he does not wish the Fifteenth Corps to cross the Ogeechee until he learns positively where the enemy propose to resist us. We find her that a brigade of the Twentieth Corps is in possession of the Ogeechee railroad bridge, having broken the railroad all the way up from Station 15. He has also learned that Kilpatrick was engaged in fighting the enemy yesterday north and east of Louisville, and rumors of intention to offer us battle about Millen reach us. To-morrow the Seventeenth Corps will cross at [Station] 9.5; and as soon as the commanding general can learn definitely the state of affairs north and east of the Ogeechee, he will give more definite orders concerning the Fifteenth Corps. In the meantime, he wishes that corps to be kept well in hand, ready to move rapidly to turn the position at Millen by crossing at Paramore’s Hill.

Recall when we looked at the rivers and topography along the march, the Ogeechee’s watershed contained several places where a defensive line could run directly across the line of advance.  But the advancing force could flank those positions from the opposite side of the Ogeechee.  In short, Sherman hedged his bets with the orders for the Fifteenth Corps.  And to set that up, the Right Wing was in motion while the Left Wing rested.

Major-General Peter Osterhaus, of the Fifteenth  Corps, described the terrain his command traversed that day:

The country here is almost a perfect wilderness–long-leaved pines cover the poor sandy soil but sparely, and exclude all other vegetation except where an occasional creek or marsh, lined with narrow skirts of shrub-like undergrowth, breaks this monotony; but what makes the soil almost worthless for agricultural purposes rendered it favorable to our operations. An energetic corps of axmen to corduroy roads across the creeks and marshes opens in a short time enough space for any number of columns.

To speed the movement forward, Osterhaus split the corps into two columns – the Second and Third Divisions on a road leading to Statesboro, well south of the Ogeechee; the First and Forth Divisions on the Old Savannah Road, closer to the river.  The Corps would maintain those separate columns practically to the end of the march.

The Seventeenth Corps continued their march along the Ogeechee to a point opposite Barton (Sometimes called Burton or  Station 9.5 in wartime correspondence, but today Midville).  Using repaired bridges and a 60-yard pontoon span, Major-General Frank Blair, Jr.’s Corps effected a crossing.  Soon Sherman and Staff joined them in crossing.  That evening, Major George W. Nichols, one of the staff officers, recorded the scene:

This evening I walked down to the river, where a striking and novel spectacle was visible.  The fires of pitch pine were flaring up into the mist and darkness; figures of men and horses loomed out of the dense shadows in gigantic proportions; torch-lights were blinking and flashing away off in the forests; and the still air echoed and re-echoed with the cries of teamsters and the wild shouts of the soldiers.  A long line of the troops marched across the foot-bridge, each soldier bearing a torch, and, as the column marched, the vivid light was reflected in quivering lines in the swift running stream.

Soon the fog, which here settles like a blanket over the swamps and forests of the river-bottoms, shut down upon the scene, and so dense and dark was it that torches were of but little use, and our men were directed here and there by the voice.

“Jim, are you there?” shouted one.

“Yes, I am here,” was the impatient answer.

“Well, then, go straight ahead.”

“Straight ahead!  Where in thunder is ‘straight ahead?’ ”

And so the troops shuffled upon and over each other, and finally blundered into their quarters for the night.

By faulty maps, on swampy roads, and through the fog, Sherman’s men were making their way through Georgia.

Following by markers for the march of November 30, 1864, the state system only has one entry for us today – Midville, which was formerly Burton/Barton.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 84, 572, 585-6; George W. Nichols, The Story of the Great March, from the Diary of a Staff Officer, New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1865, pages 73-4.)

 

November 29, 1864: Delays at Boyd’s Neck; Prelude to disaster at Honey Hill

While Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies made their way through Georgia in the closing days of November 1864, operations far away from his columns reflected the ripples caused by the March to the Sea.   In central Tennessee, actions at Spring Hill and Franklin by Lieutenant-General John B. Hood were in part justified as an effort to cause Sherman pause, if not recall.  As we well know, and other correspondents will likely discuss in detail, Hood’s operation failed at many levels. And along the South Carolina coast, an operation born of Sherman’s request turned into a disaster for the Department of the South.

As mentioned earlier, Major-General John Foster sent an operation up the Broad River out of Hilton Head. However, while the expedition would proceed towards the Charleston & Savannah Railroad, Foster had not detailed the objective of the mission.  Was the operation just a demonstration, or something more?

To accomplish this vaguely defined operation, Foster assigned two brigades to Brigadier-General John Hatch, the most experienced commander in theater at that time.  The order of battle was:

  • Brigadier-General Edward Potter’s brigade consisted of the 25th Ohio; 56th, 127th, 144th and 157th New York; and  32nd and 35th USCT.  Total of over 3,000 men.
  • Colonel Alfred Harwell’s brigade with the 54th and 55th Massachusetts; and 26th, 34th, and 102nd USCT.  Total of just over 1,000 men.
  • Fleet Brigade under Commander George Preble with a battalion of sailors and another of Marines (total of 360 men), supported by a battery of eight 12-pounder boat howitzers.
  • Artillery Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel William Ames with Batteries B and F, 3rd New York and Battery A, 3rd Rhode Island, bringing eight 12-pdr Napoleons and three 10-pdr Parrott rifles.
  • A company from the 1st New York Engineer Battalion and a company of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry.

Many of these regiments were veteran units, having served long in the department.  However, they had rarely operated in the field as part of a brigade or larger formation.  For most, the operations the previous July were the last such field movements.

In addition to the landing brigade, the Navy provided the steamers USS Mingoe, USS Pontiac, USS Sonoma, USS Harvest Moon, USS Pawnee, USS Winona, and USS Wissahickon.  Supporting were the tugs USS Pettit and USS Daffodil.  (This drew a significant number of vessels off the blockade of Charleston, which correspondingly gave opening to increased activity by blockade runners.)  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren himself would lead the naval force.

The tactical plan was very much straight forward, and along the lines of Hatch’s original plan.  The force would move by boat to Boyd’s Neck.  Engineers would build a dock to allow disembarkation of the artillery and horses.  From there the expedition would move inland towards Grahamville and thence to the railroad.

HoneyHill_NavMovement

Foster wanted to start this operation on November 27.  But logistics and other factors delayed the launch until the evening of November 28.  The troops boarded the vessels under cover of darkness.  At 2:30 a.m. on November 29, the ships proceeded into Port Royal Sound.  Almost from the start, problems arose.  The Wissahickon ran aground in the sound.  A dense fog rolled in to cover the waters.  Despite a detailed signal plan from Dahlgren, the fog prevented the ships from maintaining contact.  In the confusion, several army steamers ventured up the Chechesse River (dashed line on map above).  When Dahlgren arrived at the designated landing point at 8 a.m. (#1 on the map below), he had only five of his six steamers and none of the troop transports.  Slowly the other vessels trickled into position.

HoneyHill1

The Naval Brigade landed at 9 a.m. and secured the immediate area.  Hatch did not arrive at Boyd’s Neck until well after sunrise.  At 11 a.m. the Army’s landings commenced. Just happened that one of the last ships to arrive had on board the engineer detachment assigned to build the dock.  Not until 2 p.m. was the dock in place to land artillery and horses.  Around that time, Foster arrived to check the progress.  But within two hours both he and Dahlgren departed for Hilton Head, leaving Hatch to his tasks.

While waiting for the Army’s troops to disembark, Preble began moving his detachment inland to secure a cross roads (Point #2 on the map).  When he arrived, Preble took a road to the right, thinking that the direct route to Grahamville.  Along the way, the Naval Brigade encountered Confederate skirmishers, driving them along towards Bee’s Creek (Point #3).

The Confederates in sector were part of the 3rd Military District of South Carolina under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Colcock.  The skirmishers encountered by Preble were from the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, and were practically the only mobile force available in the sector (Colcock had under his command several fixed batteries closer to the railroad, but no infantry).  But the skirmishers had served their purpose.  As had happened on several occasions during the fighting along the South Carolina Coast, an alert from the advanced pickets allowed the Confederates time to move reinforcements by train.  At that time, Major-General Gustavus W. Smith with around 1,800 of the Georgia troops shifted from Macon, was just arriving in Savannah.  When Lieutenant-General William Hardee explained the situation to Smith, the Georgia officer agreed to continue his trains on to the threatened sector.

Meanwhile, once ashore, Potter’s Brigade moved to support Preble’s forces. Not until around dusk did Potter realize the mistaken route taken.  At that time he recalled his brigade and the naval forces. Returning to the intersection, the Federals again took the wrong road.  This time taking the left road past Bolan’s Church, Potter marched into the evening with designs on Grahamville.  Realizing this second misdirection, Hatch now recalled the men (Point #4).  Not until 2 a.m. the next morning did the Federals go into bivouac back near the cross roads.

November 29th was a story of bad luck and miscues for the Federals.  With over 5,000 men in position to move directly on the railroad, fog, delays, and misdirected marches contributed to a net advance of only a few miles.  The railroad remained in Confederate hands.  For perhaps the one time since the start of Sherman’s march, Confederate leaders were reacting directly to a threat.  Unlike the defenses elsewhere which lacked coordination and central control, on the evening of November 29th just north of Savannah, the defense of the railroad was falling into place.

Hatch, not knowing of Smith’s move to reinforce, looked forward to an advance of seven miles to the railroad on November 30.  In between Hatch and his objective was a low ridge called Honey Hill.

Marching Through Georgia, November 29, 1864: Return of the Cavalry, Wrecking the Georgia Central

As the month of November 1864 ran down, Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies had passed two river barriers to their march and were astride the Ogeechee River.  That river, and the Georgia Central Railroad that ran generally parallel, offered an avenue of advance towards the goal – Savannah.   But that goal was still 120 miles distant on November 29, 1864.

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On the Right Wing, the Fifteenth Corps began to close up after the misdirection of the previous day’s march.  After passing the intersection marked “Johnson” on their maps, the columns continued east.  Part of their line of march on the 29th picked up the Old Savannah Road, an ancient path south of the Ogeechee.  By nightfall, the First Division of Fifteenth Corps, in the lead, was at Summerville.  A road leading north from there led back to Station 9.5 (Burton or Barton) on the Georgia Central.  At this point in the march, the roads afforded means to keep the advancing columns in contact for mutual support (though it was not needed).

Still strung out along the roads after the Oconee River crossing, the Seventeenth Corps began to close up on the 29th.  The lead of the corps reached Rocky Creek, about a dozen miles short of the Ogeechee River, during the day’s march.

The Twentieth Corps, of the Left Wing, split into two columns on the 29th.  The First and Second Divisions continued their work destroying the Georgia Central.  Colonel Ezra Carman said his brigade destroyed four miles of track. In addition, his crew came across a large stash of lumber set-aside for bridges, labeled for Strawberry Plains and Chattanooga Creek.

This timber has been gotten out and made ready for use, even to having the pegs to unite it turned, and was intended, as I afterward learned from a citizen, for future operations of the enemy in East Tennessee.  I should estimate the number of feet in this pile of timber to be 1,500,000.

Carman’s men put it all to the torch.

Behind this, Brigadier-General John Geary’s Second Division marched twenty-one miles to catch up, having spent most of the previous days wrecking the rail lines further west.  Third Division, under Brigadier-General William Ward, moved through Lousiville to Big Creek, where the Confederates had destroyed the bridges.

Like the other columns, the Fourteenth Corps began closing up on the 29th as the trail units closed on Louisville.  For the most part the men of Major-General Jefferson C. Davis’s command spent the day resting.  However,  Staff officer Major James Connolly was not among those, as he recalled in his entry for the day:

I was awakened this morning before daylight, by somebody in my tent calling to me; it proved to be one of Kilpatrick’s staff officers, and he was very much excited.  He told me in broken sentences that they had been fighting day and night for the past three days; that Wheeler’s cavalry was all around them with a vastly superior force; that they were out of ammunition, and men and horses utterly worn out; that Kilpatrick didn’t know where our infantry was but had started him off at midnight last night to try and make his way to some infantry column and beg for support or they would all be lost.

No fan of the mounted arm, Connolly continued:

I have seen enough of Kilpatrick’s Cavalry to know that their stories of hard fighting are cut after Baron Munchausen’s style, but I also knew that Kilpatrick left us at the “Oconee” to make a raid toward “Augusta” and “Millen” and that he might possibly be seriously involved; this appeared more probable too on account of none of our infantry columns meeting with any serious opposition, so we couldn’t tell but that the whole force of the enemy was closing around Kilpatrick.

Connolly woke Brigadier-General Absalom Baird, commanding the Third Division, Fourteenth Corps.  And in turn the request went up to Corps Headquarters.  Soon Colonel Morton Hunter’s First Brigade went forward to aid the Cavalry.

The brigade was in motion before sunrise, and after marching about five miles they began to hear sounds of skirmishing ahead; selecting a good position they immediately formed a line, and in about ten minutes Kilpatrick’s jaded cavalry hove in sight, skirmishing with Wheeler and retiring before him; but when they saw the line of blue coated infantry drawn up in line across the road, and extending off into the woods on either side, they knew that they were saved, and sent up such shouts as never before were heard in these “Piney Woods” which our infantry responded to with right good will.  Mr. Wheeler, taking the hint, from this shouting, prudently refrained from pursuing any farther, and quietly withdrew; while Kilpatrick moved in near our camp and went into camp.

Major-General Joseph Wheeler figured Kilpatrick was “too much demoralized to again meet our cavalry” at that point.  He pulled his cavalry back to picket Brier Creek, fully convinced he’d saved Augusta.  Cavalry of both sides needed a rest before they could be employed again.

Following the march by markers, only one marker at Wadley covers this day’s activities.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 234;  James A Connolly, Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland: The Letters and Diary of Major James A. Connolly, Ed. by Paul M. Angle, Indiana University Press, 1996, pages 331-2.)

November 28, 1864: Kilpatrick and Wheeler dance again – Battle of Buck Head Creek

The cavalry actions along Brushy Creek on November 27, 1864 were but a preface for the main act that played out the next day.  Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick had accomplished some of his mission with the destruction of railroad lines leading to Augusta, though he failed to complete the destruction of the bridge over Brier Creek.  He had not rescued prisoners at Camp Lawton, as those had already been evacuated.  However, with the close pursuit by Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, Kilpatrick’s efforts had the effect of pulling the most important Confederate formations out of position to impede Major-General William T. Sherman’s march.

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After falling back from Waynesboro that afternoon, Kilpatrick placed Colonel Eli Murry’s First Brigade on a defensive line about three miles south of town.  He described the defenses as “two barricaded lines” with the 3rd and 5th Kentucky, 8th Indiana in the first; and 9th Pennsylvania and 5th Kentucky sharing the second.  Throughout the night Wheeler’s troopers probed Murry’s line with at least six distinct charges. As the Confederates approached the Federal positions, they would shout “Hunt their damned barricades” or “Go for them” or “We’ll show you how to desolate our homes and burn our towns” according to Murry.  But the attacks were unsuccessful.

Throughout the night, the other Federals destroyed several miles of track.  In Kilpatrick’s assessment, however, it was time for his troopers to fall back to the support of the infantry.  To effect this break in contact, Kilpatrick ordered Colonel Smith Atkins to move his brigade further south and establish a barricade line.  Before dawn, Murry’s brigade fell back through Atkins’ line.

Not one to remain inactive, Wheeler pushed Brigadier-General William Hume’s division on a flank march to the east with the aim to get behind the Federals.  With dawn came a dense fog and Hume still not in position.  Finding the Federals had slipped out of their lines, Wheeler pursued.  Encountering the next line of defenses, Wheeler probed then organized attacks on front and flank.  This setup a pattern repeated through the day.  The Federals effected a withdrawal by leapfrog, with the Confederates hounding them every step. As Murry later wrote in his report, “This was a day of unusual activity.”

For the most part, Kilpatrick remained at the front of the lines directing the retirements, while his brigade commanders saw to the lines of withdrawal.  During these bounding withdrawal movements, three incidents stand out from the reports.  At one of the barricade lines, the Confederates came up too quick for the comfort.  To break up the advance, Kilpatrick ordered up Captain John A.P. Glore with a battalion from the 5th Kentucky.  Glore’s charge was “gallant and well managed.”

During another withdrawal, Kilpatrick was personally directing the 8th Indiana and 9th Michigan to the next position.  The troops at the next line of defense misread the situation and began to withdraw before Kilpatrick’s group reached safety.  In the confusion, Confederate cavalry rushed in and nearly surrounded the two regiments along with Kilpatrick and staff.  “But the brave officers and men of these two regiments by their splendid fighting broke through the rebel lines and slowly fell back, repulsing every attack of the enemy until the main column was reached,” boasted Kilpatrick.  Wheeler reported he’d nearly captured the Federal cavalry chief, only to come away with Kilpatrick’s hat.

One of the Federal lines were established near Bellevue Plantation residence of Judge John Wright Carswell and his wife, Sarah Ann. During a lull in the action, several cavalrymen made their way to the house.  When they dismounted, the troopers tied their horses to the rosebushes at the front of the house.  While the Federals plundered the estate, their horses were pulling up the rosebushes.  Unable to stop the ransacking troopers, Carswell did untie the horses.  He stood there holding the rains of the mounts while the Federals searched through the plantation.  Though he’d lost much property that day, Carswell had saved the bushes his wife loved… later to be named “Sherman’s Rosebushes” to recall the event.

Bellevue Plantation, c.1768

As the fighting neared Buck Head Creek, Kilpatrick ordered the 5th Ohio Cavalry and Captain Yates Beebe’s 10th Wisconsin Battery to make a stand there.  When the last Federal troopers got over the creek, the buckeye troopers removed all the planks from the bridge (reports say the bridge was burned, but first hand accounts say it was wet and would not fire up).  Unable to press the pursuit, Wheeler sent columns around to find a crossing point elsewhere.  Eventually, the Confederates pulled the pews from nearby Buck Head Church to rebuild the bridge.  But the delay had cost Wheeler time, allowing Kilpatrick to prepare yet another formidable defense.

Old Buckhead Church and Two Markers

Three miles west of Buck Head Creek, using the aid of negros who’d been drawn to the Federal column, Kilpatrick created a stout barricade. “I now determined to give him a severe repulse before marching further,” resolved Kilpatrick.  While waiting for Wheeler’s force to catch up, men of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry noticed a lone Confederate scout in a distant field.

This was too much for Colonel [Matthew] Van Buskirk; his equilibrium was disturbed by it.  Said the Colonel to William Black, of Company K, who stood near the Colonel: “Will, hand me your gun, and I will shoot that fellow.” Will handed his gun to the Colonel; the Colonel took deliberate aim, and fired.  The Confederate soldier and his horse never stirred.  The Colonel blazed away again, but the Rebel remained as immovable as an equestrian statue.  Said Will: “Colonel, you are disgracing my gun; give it to me.” Will took his gun – one quick glance along the barrel from his dark eye, and the rifle cracked; the Rebel fell, and away went the horse, riderless.

Night approaching, Wheeler moved up about 1,200 of his command.  He would make one more, somewhat rushed, attempt to catch the Federals.  “Nothing could have exceeded the gallantry with which these troops responded to the bugle’s call, and hurled themselves upon the enemy, driving his confusion and finally encountering the breast-works.”  But with that, Wheeler had only reached the main line of resistance, and his command was repulsed for the final time that day.  He sent Colonel Henry Ashby’s Brigade in an attempt to cut off Kilpatrick’s escape route.  But Ashby got turned around on the back roads and failed the assignment.

With darkness as a cover, Kilpatrick resumed his withdraw, putting six more miles between himself and Wheeler before going into camp late that night.  Kilpatrick’s command suffered around fifty casualties that day.  Wheeler’s casualties numbered around seventy, including a severe wound to his chief of staff, Brigadier-General Felix Robertson.  To his superiors, Wheeler bragged that he’d saved Augusta and bested Kilpatrick.  For Kilpatrick, it was one more anxious night as he hoped to reach the safety of the Fourteenth Corps the following day.  Though his operation was largely unsuccessful on balance with the assigned missions, he had drawn Wheeler well out of position.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 363-4, 370,-1, and 408-9; Ninety-Second Illinois Volunteers, Freeport, Illinois: Journal Steam Publishing House and Bookbindery, 1875, page 186; Photos courtesy HMDB, David Seibert, and Mike Stroud, see links to markers.)

Marching Through Georgia, November 28, 1864: Maps confound the Federal advance!

One of the reasons I prefer to use “period” maps to depict the movements (both here for the March to the Sea and for other subjects) is that the maps themselves often prove the key to interpreting accounts written at the time.  We often see place names referenced in orders or in reports that are taken directly from those maps.  Commanders often did not know the land to the degree necessary to issue orders from memory.  Instead, they often did what we call today a “map recon” and issued orders using the maps as a reference.  In the case of the March to the Sea, the maps provided the commanders were based on county maps and other sources.  In some cases the maps were out of date or simply inaccurate.  As seen over the search for Jackson’s Ferry, this often got in the way of Federal plans.  Another such map inaccuracy disrupted plans on November 28, 1864.

MarchNov28

For the Fifteenth Corps on the right side of the Federal advance, Major-General Peter Osterhaus issued these orders for the marching on the 28th:

The corps will move forward to Johnson at 7 a.m. to-morrow, in the following order: The Fourth Division, Brigadier-General [John] Corse commanding, with trains, will move on the direct road, followed by the First Division, Brigadier-General [Charles] Woods commanding, with trains, &c. The right column will also move on the direct road from their present camp, Third Division, Brigadier-General [John] Smith commanding, in advance, accompanied by the pontoon trains and trains of department and corps headquarters, to be followed by the Second Division, Brigadier-General [William] Hazen Commanding.

Osterhaus also detailed Hazen to provide a regiment to act as rear guard. There was one serious problem with these orders.  While the town of “Johnson” existed on the Federal maps (see above), there was no such place in Johnson County, Georgia, through which the Federals were marching.  Johnson County, having been formed in 1858, had its county seat in Wrightsville, just east of the Ohoopee River.  (My thoughts are the error was in transcription from another map, where the map-maker mistook the small map name “Johnson” indicating the county for the name of a town, non-existent though it was.)

So an entire Federal corps marched off in search of a non-existent town.  Corse had his men on the road by 5:30 that morning.  Lead elements of the column confused local guides as they pressed for the “road to Johnson.”  In the lead that morning, Second Brigade of Corse’s Division, under Colonel Robert Adams, was directed down the road to the county court house in Wrightsville.  Not until later that day was the error realized.  Reporting to Major-General William T. Sherman, Right Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard explained that one brigade of Corse’s was at Wrightsville “having gotten off the road and mistaken that place for Johnson.”  Still, nobody in the chain of command was willing to admit the maps were wrong.  Marching instructions continued to mention the “road to Johnson.”

The end result of this confusion left two divisions of Osterhaus’ Corps reaching a point near Station No. 11 (modern day Bartow) on the Georgia Central Railroad while the other rest of the corps were spread out between the Ohoopee and Little Ohoopee Rivers to the south.  And there was Adams lone brigade marching up from Wrightsville.  The “mistake” was largely overlooked, if not covered up, in the official reports. Adams’ report seemed to have left out a paragraph between events of November 26 and those of December 3.  Only Major Wheelock Merriman of the 12th Illinois Infantry gives it any attention, saying “Marched sixteen miles on the 28th, passing through Wrightsville.”

Elsewhere along the march, the Seventeenth Corps split its march along the railroad and parallel roads leading east.  The Fourth Division of the corps brought up the rear with the trains, just clearing Irwin’s Crossroads that day.

The Twentieth Corps continue its march towards Louisville with objectives of wrecking more railroad miles and obtaining a crossing of the Ogeechee River.  Brigadier-General John Geary’s Second Division drew the task of destroying railroad lines through Davisboro.  “My orders were executed, and the remaining five miles of road, with a number of bridges, trestle-work and water-tanks, were effectually destroyed.”  While this was going on, Brigadier-General Samuel Ferguson’s cavalry brigade made its appearance.  But the Confederates were driven off by the skirmishers from the rear guard.  Geary’s men remained around Davisboro that evening.  Of note, Geary provided a good description of the terrain surrounding the town, as way of highlighting the difficulty destroying the railroad:

It is a continuous morass, known as Williamson’s Creek or Swamp. The stream is quite a large one, running in general direction parallel to the railroad and crossing it many times. The land in the vicinity of both sides is soft and swampy, with dense thickets of underbrush and vines.  Through this swamp the railroad is constructed on an embankment of borrowed earth thrown up from the sides, averaging from six to ten feet in height.  The superstructure consisted of cross-ties bedded in the earth, with string timbers pinned to them upon which the iron rails were spiked.  The mode of destruction was to tear up, pile, and burn the ties and string timbers, with the rails across, which, when heated, were destroyed by twisting.

Further along the Twentieth Corps’ march, Colonel Ezra Carman in the First Division reported destroying three miles of railroad on the way to Spiers Station (No. 11).

The rest of Twentieth Corps marched eastward. The road into Louisville crossed that river and then Rocky Comfort Creek before entering the town.  Confederates burned both bridges. Immediately, the engineers went to work, as Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, 58th Indiana reported:

… we reached Ogeechee River about 1 p.m. and found the bridge across the river burned, and seven others across the swamp, which was near three-quarters of a mile in width. I put a pontoon bridge across the river, using five boats and making 110 feet of bridge. I also set my men at work and cut a new road across the swamp, which we had to corduroy from the river through the entire swamp.

The Fourteenth Corps also found their way into Louisville slowed by burnt bridges.  Even after the pontoon bridges were in place, the corps trains did not get across until later the next day.  The burnt bridges left many soldiers resentful.  And they took out those feelings on the townspeople.  While days earlier Sandersville residents were spared the worst, Louisville’s citizens suffered.

As with previous day’s installments, I’ll cover the cavalry actions in a separate post.

Following the campaign by way of markers, today there are entries from Wrightsville, Bartow, the Ogeechee River, and Rocky Comfort Creek.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 141, 162, 272-3, 558, and 565.)

Riding Through Georgia, November 27, 1864: Kilpatrick and Wheeler fight along Brushy Creek

I know… I’m supposed to be following the artillery, but the cavalry actions on the March to the Sea need to get their due!  Yesterday I discussed the movements that brought Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Division and Maj0r-General Wheeler’s Cavarly Corps off to the north of the main Federal line of march.  Wheeler, thinking Kilpatrick was moving towards Augusta, sought to harass the rear of the Federal column and foil the raid.  The Confederates had a chance to capture the detached Federal cavalry, as had happened around Atlanta earlier in the summer.   Or so Wheeler thought.

On the night of November 26, Kilpatrick established camps between Sylvan Grove and Spread Oak (on the road to Waynesboro).  The 8th Indiana and 2nd Kentucky Cavalry formed the rear guard of the Division at Sylvan Grove, under Lieutenant-Colonel Fielder Jones of the 8th.  To their north was the rest of Colonel Eli Murray’s First Brigade.  And further north was the Second Brigade, under Colonel Smith Atkins.

One of the minor myths about the march is that Kilpatrick was “entertaining” two female companions on the morning Wheeler attacked his rear guard. And in the mix, Kilpatrick was forced to run, half dressed, leaving his hat behind.  Well… in the first place I would ask, why would any Ms. Scarlet spend time with a face like this?

In the second place, we have Federal accounts attesting the pickets were out.  Captain Joseph T. Forman, 2nd Kentucky Cavalry wrote concerning the night of November 26-27:

That night my command, with the Eight Indiana, was left at the forks of the road for picket, and to hold that position during the night.  At 12 o’clock we were attacked by a large body of cavalry, surprising our pickets and moving directly upon our camp. After being repulsed some four or five times they concluded to wait until daylight before making another advance.

It is clear the Federals knew of the Confederate presence.  And from the description of the action, I doubt the incident went unreported.  Particularly in light of other preparations the Federals made for defense.  So Kilpatrick was likely awake early that morning and tending his charge.

At dawn, the Confederates resumed the attacks, as Forman continued:

At that time they attacked and were again repulsed.  Finding they could not move us from our position by attacking in front, they threw a heavy column on our flanks.  While they were making this movement, Colonel Jones, who was in command, received orders to retire behind the barricades, which were built near brigade headquarters. He gave me orders to mount my regiment and form it across the road; after his command passed to bring up the rear. Before we got fully mounted and moved out the enemy advanced, firing upon our led horses, causing some little confusion.  I formed my command (after the Eighth Indiana had passed), moved back by alternate platoons, at the same time checking the rebel advance until we arrived at the barricades, where they were handsomely repulsed and driven off.

At the barricades, the Federals were prepared to meet Wheeler, as Murry recorded:

The enemy, attempting to follow, were effectually checked by the barricades of the Fifth Kentucky and Lieutenant Stetson with his artillery. At that time the enemy, covering my entire front, with two brigades on my left flank, dared not attack.

From initial contact until the repulse at the barricades, the fight could not have been more than an hour.  Atkins, commanding Second Brigade, stated, “At 7 a.m. First Brigade moved through mine and took the advance.”  Atkins had his own barricades prepared and held off the Confederate advance long enough for the entire Federal force to temporarily disengage.

This allowed Wheeler to move up.  He visited the house where Kilpatrick had spent the night (and perhaps this is where the story of females, undergarments, and hats came in).  Wheeler observed:

On reaching the house where General Kilpatrick had staid I learned that he and his officers had been overheard talking a great deal in private about Augusts. It was the opinion of citizens that this move was intended as a raid upon that place. Being mindful of the great damage that could be done by the enemy’s burning the valuable mills and property which were not protected by fortifications, including the factories in the vicinity, the large portion of the city outside of the fortifications, the arsenal and sand hills, I hoped by pressing him hard he might be turned from his purpose.

However, on disengaging, the Federals moved east on the road to Waynesboro.  This pleased Wheeler.  “On reaching Brier Creek Swamp we pressed the enemy so warmly that he turned off towards Waynesborough.”  In the view of the Confederate cavalry commander, his men had save Augusta.

After letting the First Brigade pass, Atkins disengaged his brigade, detailing the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry and the 9th Michigan Cavalry, along with one artillery piece, as a rear guard.  Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Van Buskirk, of the 92nd, orchestrated, by most accounts, a textbook action.  Using several more barricades along the road, the rear guard contested the Confederate advance.  At some point in the day, Buskirk had a bridge destroyed which necessitated a lengthy march upstream for the Confederate pursers.

On reaching Waynesboro, Kilpatrick ordered several buildings in town fired.  He then proceeded south of town.  That evening the Federals camped three miles south, along the railroad line (which they promptly set to wrecking).  Wheeler was close behind.  Finding the town in flames, he and his staff helped put out the fires.  Keeping up the pressure, he had his troopers probe the Federal lines all night.  On the morning of the 28th, both sides would resume fighting.

Normally I like to put a map up at the start of the narrative.  I’ve held off here as I want to explain how I “think” this looked on the map.  Back when I was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia, I took some time to trace through the area this action occurred.  Matching what I saw on the ground with the reports, here’s what I came up with:

My reasoning for these locations is, in brief:

MarchNov27cav

The accounts indicate the 8th Indiana and 2nd Kentucky were at Sylvan Grove, which was the cross roads where Finn’s Bridge Road met the road up from Louisville.

The time line between initial contact and the passage of the Second Brigade lines was very short, indicating only a few miles distance. Furthermore, accounts from both sides indicate once that passage occurred, the Federals turned east.  Thus the First Brigade barricade had to be between Sylvan Grove and Brushy Creek.  The Second Brigade line must have been between that place and the Waynesboro Road.  I think what Wheeler called “Brier Creek Swamp” was in fact Brushy Creek (just outside the town of Wrens today).

The Federal line of retreat was definitely on the road to Waynesboro.  There is a place where that road crosses back over Brushy Creek at Owen’s Mill bridge (85 foot long in the 1870s).  Maps from the immediate post war show a road network which would require several miles of backtracking if Owen’s Mill Bridge were out.  I think that is where the 92nd Illinois destroyed a bridge to delay Wheeler’s pursuit.

I’m not going to say that map perfectly depicts the action. But until further research, or someone coming along to offer more pointers, I’ll submit it into evidence.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 363, 370, 376-7, 390-1, and 408.)