The record of the Savannah Campaign for November 18, 1864 is one that undermines a couple of myths associated with the March to the Sea. The first, which is held close by defenders and detractors alike is the notion that Major-General William T. Sherman had everything burned. Frankly, it’s an easy myth to bust (and I often sense some who make “hay” busting it are giving a superficial treatment to the larger subject). We’ll get to the “mythbusting” on that point later down in this post.
The other myth is often overlooked in the superficial treatments. Reading those, we get the sense that Sherman’s armies “walked” through Georgia without significant resistance, barriers, or risks. I cannot be more blunt. It is bunk history. Sherman’s columns faced Confederate forces throughout the march… but those forces were poorly directed, lead, and managed. To best handle that threat and keep the Confederates off blance, the plan called for speedy marches. The fall weather had the potential to turn the roads ugly. And several natural barriers, in the form of unfordable rivers, lay across the line of march. There was significant risk, as the activities of November 18 well illustrate.
Looking at the march’s route, notice a blue-green line splitting the map from top to bottom.
That is the Ocmulgee River and tributaries. Just outside Mechanicsville, Georgia, the Yellow, South, and Ulcofauhachee (now Alcovy) Rivers join to form the Ocmulgee. These rivers drain the Piedmont and pass through rolling hills. River banks often feature six to twelve foot high rock bluffs. While usually 60 to 90 feet wide, at places where the banks flatten out, and crossing points easier, the river expands to 120 feet or more. (Oh, and there’s a lot of good fishing there on the Ocmulgee, but you have to get a line wet.) In short, the Ocmulgee was a significant barrier for a Civil War army. And on November 18, every Federal column had to accomplish a crossing of the Ocmulgee or tributaries.
For the Left Wing, the line of march required crossing the Yellow River at one point and the Ulcofauhachee at two points. Colonel George Buell moved the pontooniers forward that morning to lay two spans over the Yellow River that allowed the Fourteenth Corps to pass towards Covington. Beyond that point, the corps found a broken bridge over the Ulcofauhachee that, when repaired, allowed infantry to pass. In much haste, Buell ordered up one of the Yellow River bridges and directed a span laid over the Ulcofauhachee, giving Major-General Jefferson C. Davis a bridgehead past the Ocmulgee’s last important tributary. During this advance, part of the Fourteenth Corps slipped up to the town of Oxford. One foraging party encountered a party from the 8th Texas Cavalry, and was nearly wiped out. But Federal searches for the spy Zora Fair came up empty.
To the north, the Twentieth Corps had crossed the Ulcofauhachee earlier in the day, passing through Social Circle and Rutledge to eventually reach Madison that evening. In front of them was the second major river barrier – the Oconee.
The Right Wing’s crossing of the Ocmulgee was not easy. Lieutenant-Colonel William Tweeddale’s 1st Missouri Engineers and the wing’s pontoon train were supposed to be at the fore of the march towards Planter’s Factory. But their advance was not on time. Brigadier-General John Smith’s Third Division, Fifteenth Corps was the vanguard of the wing. The 29th Missouri Infantry, mounted and detached as a strike force, made Planter’s Factory early in the morning. The Missourians secured flat-boats and proceeded to cross in small numbers. The some of Smith’s division followed, leaving artillery and wagons on the west side. Although this gave the Right Wing a bridgehead, it had no bridge! Worse, gathering rain clouds warned of storms to follow. Major-General O.O. Howard had a mess. And if not sorted out, could allow the Confederates to strike his command off balance and astride a river.
To the south of Howard’s wing, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick kept to his mission of distracting Confederate attention, feinting an advance on Macon. The cavalry followed the road leading to Forsyth but stopped at Towaliga River bridge. From there the troopers turned east to make their crossing of the Ocmulgee. While encountering only light resistance, Kilpatrick’s movements greatly influenced Confederate reactions.
“Stars” were arriving in Macon… in the form of generals reacting to the situation. Major-General Joseph Wheeler was just getting what he thought was the measure of the Federal force. Major-General G. W. Smith, in charge of a division of Georgia Militia, had his infantry heading for Macon. Major-General Howell Cobb, commanding the defenses of Macon, prepared the defenses … and sent frantic dispatches to everyone including authorities in Richmond. Lieutenant-General William Hardee was also heading to Macon, to see for himself how best to manage the threat to this sector of his department. But… General P.G.T. Beauregard had just ordered Lieutenant-General Richard Taylor to Macon with orders to take charge of the forces operating against Sherman. Lots of attention, but no coherent plan. The assessment of G.W. Smith exemplifies the cloud over the Confederates:
I received information this morning that a large force of the enemy were moving down the Georgia railroad. If this is so, and I am disposed to credit the man who sent the information, Sherman may stop on the Towaliga and move the mass of his forces east. In that case he will endeavor to break Central railroad to prevent our going by rail to Augusta.
So while all his infantry defended Macon, the Confederate general wondered if the movements were setting up another advance towards Augusta. Little did they know the Right Wing was vulnerable to attack just 40 miles northeast.
Thus Kilpatrick’s ride on November 18 brought vacillation in the Confederate command. That in turn bought a couple of days for Howard to get across the Ocmulgee. Due to the disorganization and rains that would come, Howard would need those days. Just after noon on the 18th, the Missouri engineers had a 264 foot pontoon bridge over the river. That span had to support two corps, trains, and a division of cavalry. Again, the march through Georgia was not a cake-walk by any means.
So as for the other myth? Consider some of the places mentioned along the Federal line of march for this day. Oxford, Georgia has a notable historic section that includes thirty structures from the 19th century. A good number of them date to before the Civil War. These include the Phi Gamma Hall on the Oxford College Campus. In Covington, Georgia is a Methodist Church which served as a hospital during the war. Not on your tourist maps (I’d bet) is the three-story Henderson Mill which was spared. Social Circle boasts a historic district that includes fifty structures, many of which pre-date the Civil War. The Historic Preservation Society of Social Circle is housed in Gunter Hall, ca. 1840-55. I would note that while the railroad through Social Circle received a lot of attention from the Federals on November 18, 1864, the soldiers reported the town-folk were not very sociable. That, in spite of the fact the Federals were very careful not to let the burning depots get out of hand.
(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 868.)