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