Marching Through Georgia? Or waiting in Georgia? “Hurry up and wait” to start the March to the Sea

In the army, there is a phrase often thrown around – “hurry up and wait.”  When the superior command sets a time for action to occur, the subordinate commands will in turn set an earlier time for assembly an inspection.  When the division calls a formation at 8 a.m., the brigade will desire troops assembled by 7:30 just to be sure all is right.  Trickle that down to the squad level and the troops end up standing in the parking lot around the well known “zero dark thirty” hours.  That happened in the Civil War too.

From Major-General William T. Sherman’s headquarters on November 14, 1864 came Special Field Orders No. 124, providing instructions for the first leg of the march.  The armies will begin the movement on Millidgeville and Gordon tomorrow, the 15th of November, as follows (please refer to the earlier post in regard to the Federal formations and the “wings”):

I. The Right Wing will move, via McDonough and Monticello, to Gordon.

II. The Left Wing, General Slocum, will move, via Covington, Social Circle, and Madison, to Milledgville, destroying the railroad in a most thorough manner from Yellow River to Madison.

III. The cavalry, General Kilpatrick commanding, will move in concert with the Right Wing, feigning strong in the direction of Forsyth and Macon, but will cros the Ocmulgee on the pontoon bridge of General Howard.

IV. Each column will aim to reach its destination – viz. Gordon and Milledgeville – on the seventh day’s march, and each army commander will on arrival communicate with the other wing and the commanding general, who will accompany the Left Wing.

Yes, “intent” based instructions.  In comparison to orders issued… say, for the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign … these did not specify routes or even waypoints.  Just the endpoint objectives.  And Sherman did not specify the times of march.  For the Right Wing, Major-General O.O. Howard was supposed to “move” on November 15.  How did those orders look further down the chain?

A little more specificity in the orders Major-General O. O. Howard gave to the Army of the Tennessee.  Paragraph eleven of twelve read:

This army will move forward toward McDonough, Ga., making twenty miles, if practicable, as follows:

1. The First Alabama Cavalry, Colonel Spencer commanding, will take the advance at 5.30 a.m., on the direct Atlanta and McDonough road.

2. Maj. Gen. F. P. Blair, commanding Seventeenth Army Corps, will move his command at 6.30 a.m., following the First Alabama Cavalry, on the Atlanta and McDonough road.

3. Maj. Gen. P. J. Osterhaus, commanding Fifteenth Army Corps, will move out his command at daylight, taking the road to McDonough via Rough and Ready.

4. The train of these headquarters will follow the ordnance train of the leading division of the Fifteenth Corps. The engineer regiment with the bridge train and the supply trains of this headquarters, in charge of Colonel Conklin, chief quartermaster, will move in advance of the rear division of the Seventeenth Corps. The supply train of General Kilpatrick’s cavalry in the rear of that corps for rear guard. The cattle in charge of Lieutenant Todd, acting commissary of subsistence, will move on the Atlanta and McDonough road, pushing forward when practicable through the fields.

Notice the timing of the starts, with cavalry scouts in front at 5:30, followed by the Seventeenth Corps at 6:30 a.m.  The sun rose at 7:10 a.m. that day, at which time the Fifteenth Corps would begin.  I’ve also included the sub-paragraph discussing the army’s trains.  One of the many myths about the march is that Sherman’s men just lived off the land without much in the way of baggage behind. Not entirely true.  The march included a train several miles long.

For the Fifteenth Corps, Major-General Peter Osterhaus gave a four paragraph order, of which, the third read:

The command will move to-morrow from its present camp toward Rough and Ready as follows: First Division at 6.30 a.m., Second Division at 8 a.m., Artillery Brigade at 9.15 a.m., Third Division at 9.30 a.m., Fourth Division at 11 a.m.

So while the corps’ march started at dawn, the first division was supposed to start movement at 6:30 that morning.  Let us look further down the chain of command to First Division, Fifteenth Corps, where Brigadier-General Charles Woods gave these marching instructions for the lead division of the corps.  The first brigade of his division had to be on the move by 6:30 that morning.

Brigadier-General William B. Hazen’s Second Division, of the same corps, could sleep in some, but not much:

This division will move toward Rough and Ready to-morrow morning at 8 a.m., in the following order: First, Third Brigade, Col. Oliver commanding; second, Second Brigade, Col. W. S. Jones commanding; third, First Brigade, Col. Theodore Jones commanding. Reveille will be sounded at 5 a.m. Brigade commanders will see that their buglers repeat the calls sounded at these headquarters.

Yep, wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready to march at 8.

Fourth Division, under Brigadier-General John M. Corse, had more to do on the morning of the 15th.  Arrived from Rome, Georgia, Corse’s men had to resupply that morning from the Atlanta depots.  Although they would fall in at the trail of the corps, the division had to march into Atlanta, draw supplies, then march out on the roads behind the rest of the corps.  Corse intended to have his men up early:

This command will move to-morrow, the 15th instant, as follows: Captain Benjamin, acting assistant quartermaster of this division, will move his supply train at 4 a.m. sharp to Atlanta and load the train with supplies, and again join the command at once. The Second Brigade will act as escort, and take their brigade train with them. The remainder of the command will move at 7 a.m. in the following order: One regiment of the First Brigade, next the pioneer corps, and then the battery; all wagons will close on the battery–first, the First Brigade train; second, the Third Brigade train; third, the ordnance train; fourth, the ambulance corps. The First Brigade will march its other regiments on either side of the train. The Third Brigade will follow in the same manner, but will have one regiment act as rear guard.

So imagine the poor private in the 81st Iowa, Second Brigade, Fourth Division, Fifteenth Army Corps.  He’d be up well before 4 a.m. as part of the escort for the supply train.  Entering Atlanta (which was… remember… on fire at the time!), the formation would proceed to one of the many supply depots where the wagons would be loaded.  That accomplished, the private would be in a formation marching back out of Atlanta to rejoin the division.  Only then could he prepare rations or break down ammunition for the march.  And after that?  Waiting for all the other formations to clear the road.

There is a colloquial expression used in the military which refers to the initial movement of a unit out from a base camp into the field – uncoilation (often used in reference to a snake crawling out of a resting position or maybe a spring extending out, take your pick).  Those sort of operations are notorious for producing “hurry up and wait.”  For that poor private in the 81st Iowa, November 15th was not so much a day of marching through Georgia, but waiting in Georgia.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 451-458.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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