November 19, 1864 was a critical day for Maj0r-General William T. Sherman and his March to the Sea. The Left Wing of his force was past the Ocmulgee River crossings. But his Right Wing, under Major-General O.O. Howard was delayed in crossing at Planters’ Factory. The plan of the march depended upon rapid movements. But a few hundred feet of river presented more resistance to movement than the entire Confederate presence in the state.
To the north, on the Left Wing, the Twentieth Corps divided it’s march after leaving Madison. The 1st Division, under Brigadier-General John Geary moved along the Georgia Railroad to Buckhead Station and beyond to a long bridge over the Oconee River. “The railroad bridge, which was a fine structure, about 400 yards long and 60 feet high from the water, and was approached by several hundred yards of trestle-work at each end, was thoroughly destroyed.” A modern equivalent of that bridge crosses what is today Oconee Lake (created by a dam further downstream). In addition, Geary’s men destroyed over 500 bales of cotton, 50,000 bushels of corn, several cotton gins, and five miles of railroad.
The remainder of Twentieth Corps passed through Madison with much fanfare and marched southeast towards, but not reaching, Eatonton. The Fourteenth Corps marched hard from Covington to reach Shady Dale. All formations on the Left Wing put a lot of miles behind on November 19th.
But for the Right Wing, the day was a continuation of the 18th’s river crossing. Most of the Seventeenth Corps was across the river, though their rear guard and trains had not. Only one division of the Fifteenth Corps was across the Ocmulgee. And Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division was on the west side. To bounce the Ocmulgee, Howard’s wing needed an early start and all of the day.
Kilpatrick’s cavalry was first in the order to cross, beginning in the early morning darkness. To ease the traffic on the pontoon bridges, Brigadier-General William Hazen’s Second Division of the Fifteenth Corps would cross at nearby Roach’s Ferry. In closing his orders for the day, Howard added:
Corps commanders will prohibit their soldiers from entering houses, and enforce the order by severe penalties. More care must be taken in the selection of foragers. Many have been drunk and disorderly. Foraging for the different headquarters must be regulated. Division and brigade commanders will be required to be with their commands during the march.
In his report of the campaign, Howard described the crossing operations:
On the morning of the 19th instant regiments were detailed in each division to assist the trains in getting up the hill. The Fifteenth Corps, following “the cavalry, took country roads to Hillsborough. The Seventeenth Corps moved to the vicinity of Hillsborough via Monticello. The roads now becoming very heavy, the progress was slow. We had two bridges at the point of crossing, and they were kept full all day, yet the crossing was not completed by the rear guard until the morning of the 20th instant.
Major-General Peter Osterhaus, of the Fifteenth Corps, provided a little more detail and description:
At 7.30 a.m. November 19 the Seventeenth Corps yielded the bridge to us and we commenced crossing, General Hazen leading. General Smith had previously received orders to march on the direct road to Hillsborough, Generals Hazen and Woods were to follow Smith, while General Corse, who brought up the rear, had orders to march, via Monticello, to Hillsborough. This general was also directed to destroy, before leaving the west bank of the Ocmulgee, the cotton factory, &c.c which had been used for military purposes by the rebel Government. Rain, very bad roads, and the long trains of the whole Army of the Tennessee, including those of the cavalry, and the pontoon trains and some 4,000 head of beef-cattle, delayed General Corse considerably. His rear could not leave the river before next morning….
However, I am most fond of the more descriptive account offered in the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry in regard to their early morning crossing:
On the nineteenth of October, marched at one a.m.; raining hard, and as dark as a pocket; crossed the Ocmulgee on the pontoons, at Planters’ Factory, where two hundred girls were employed making cotton cloth for the Rebel army. Great fires were kept blazing on both banks of the river to light up the bridge. The light was so bright that it reflected the factory, and trees upon the banks, and the crossing columns of troops in the water as clearly and distinctly as if the river had been a mirror.
There’s a painting waiting for the artist, if you ask me.
Once on the east side, Howard attempted to ease congestion by fanning out the divisions. Most of the Seventeenth Corps moved by way of Monticello. The Fifteenth took some smaller roads in a direct southeasterly route. But the roads and the objectives brought both corps back to the main road south towards Clinton by day’s end. Howard directed the Seventeenth to use the left of the road while the Fifteenth took the right. By the end of the day, Kilpatrick’s cavalry were skirmishing with Wheeler’s men in Clinton.
As mentioned, the rear of the Right Wing did not clear the crossing until early the next morning. In their wake, all of the structures at Planters’ Factory lay in ruins (oddly, the nearby Smith’s Mill remained, according to its NRHP documentation).
One problem delaying movement was the large number of additional horses in the formation. Maybe this is a trend for Howard’s commands, since a year earlier the same occurred at Edward’s Ferry. Many of the infantry had taken up mounts during their “foraging.” Likewise many officers had accumulated additional “lead horses.” So during the long wait, Howard directed that the broken and weak animals in the trains be exchanged for fresh ones from confiscated mounts. The exchanged, cast-off animals were put up on the islands in the river downstream from the pontoons. Before leaving, the Federals killed the animals in order to prevent their capture by Confederates. For many decades after, visitors reported seeing horse bones along that stretch of the river.
Following along by the markers today, you can consult entries for Buckhead, Blue Springs, Monticello, Hillsboro, and Clinton. And a side note… backtracking to Madison, there is a marker discussing a direct result of Sherman’s march – the Freedman’s School in that community.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 66, 81-2, 270, and 493; Ninety-Second Illinois Volunteers, Freeport, Illinois: Journal Steam Publishing House and Bookbindery, 1875, page 175.)