One old folk saying goes to the effect “storms of November come together.”* Before leaving Atlanta in mid-November, Major-General William T. Sherman spoke of waiting for rains to pass, as if he accepted that sage wisdom. For what it is worth, maybe the Farmer’s Almanac was correct… but there were two bunches of storms that November. The second storm system to pass through Georgia lasted from November 18 to the morning of November 22. And the trail end of that system was a cold front bringing temperatures to the freezing point and snow. Lieutenant-General Richard Taylor, heading to Macon to take command of the situation, later wrote, “It was the bitterest weather I remember in this latitude.” And Sherman’s campaign across Georgia, needing to move at a good rate, suffered setbacks due to that weather.
Looking at a map depicting this day’s marches, the Federal columns began to converge on two cities – Milledgeville and Gordon:
Brigadier-General John Geary’s account of his Second Division, Twentieth Corps is typical of the day’s march for the Left Wing that day:
November 21, a heavy rain fell all last night and continued throughout to-day, rendering the roads very deep and the streams much swollen. After entirely destroying Denham’s tannery and factory, I moved at 8 a.m. on the road to Philadelphia Church, reaching which I took the Milledgeville road, crossed Crooked Creek, and encamped at the forks of the road, one leading to Dennis’ Mill and station, the other to Waller’s Ferry, at the mouth of Little River. A very heavy, cold rain fell all day, and marching was quite difficult. The country passed through was a rich one and supplies were abundant. Distance marched, eight miles. The rain ceased toward night and the air became very cold Among our captures to-day was Colonel White, of the Thirty-seventh Tennessee Regiment. He had been in command of the post at Eatonton, and in attempting to escape from the other column of our troops fell into my hands.
Geary’s men passed Turnwold Plantation, where a young Joel Chandler Harris witnessed the Yankees march. He reflected back on that experience in On the Plantation published in 1892. The rest of Twentieth Corps passed through Eatonton and continued on the roads towards Milledgeville, stopping short of the Little River that day.
The Fourteenth Corps made poor progress due to the roads. Worth noting, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis included this paragraph in the orders for the day:
Useless negroes are being accumulated to an extent which would be suicide to a column which must be constantly stripped for battle and prepared for the utmost celerity of movement. We cannot expect that the present unobstructed march will continue much longer. Our wagons are too much overladen to allow of their being filled with negro women and children or their baggage, and every additional mouth consumes food, which it requires risk to obtain. No negroes, therefore, or their baggage, will be allowed in wagons and none but the servants of mounted officers on horses or mules.
The presence of freed slaves following the Federals was a problem for all the columns. But Davis seemed particularly annoyed at the issue, perhaps because the sluggish movement of his corps.
On the Right Wing, Major-General O.O. Howard summarized the day’s movements in a report to Sherman that evening:
We have reached Gordon with the head of the column. Giles Smith’s division is in camp there to-night; Woods’ division is also on the railroad, about five miles nearer Macon, and Hazen’s division within supporting distance; Mower’s and Leggett’s divisions are near the Macon and Milledgeville wagon roads; Corse, with the bridge train and the trains belonging to Kilpatrick, is yet between Clinton and Hillsborough.
Howard noted that his command was doing well living off the land, having barely touched their rations. His wagon trains had exchanged broken down horses and mules and actually increased the number of draft animals. All courtesy of the people of Georgia… such as “Carrie” Shy, Obediah Belcher, and David Langston. As for other property, “We have destroyed a large amount of cotton, the Planters’ Factory, a pistol factory and a mill at Griswold, the latter three by General Kilpatrick.” Howard also noted his advanced scouts were already in Milledgeville, accepting the surrender of the town. He estimated the Confederate concentration at Macon was 10,000 to 15,000.
In regard to the Federal cavalry commander, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick, if November 20 was one of his better days then perhaps November 21 was one of his worst. Charged with blocking the roads leading north and east out of Macon, Kilpatrick did not maintain a presence close to the city. Instead he backed off to the east. Throughout the day his troopers sparred with those of Major-General Joseph Wheeler. And then in the afternoon, Kilpatrick withdrew most of his forces, leaving the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry on screen along the Milledgeville Road. For Kilpatrick, mistake of sorts, but allowed given the need for fodder and to shift the cavalry for the next phase of the march.
This could not have come at a worse time. Referring to the march map above, notice the gap between the lead elements of Fifteenth Corps and the trailing Fourth Division escorting the trains for the Right Wing. Confederate cavalry were making small-scale sorties against the Federal trains, and the fear was a larger force might break through and cause a serious disruption. But at least Kilpatrick left word for Major-General Peter Osterhaus, commanding Fifteenth Corps, prior to departing. In response, Osterhaus received permission to deploy First Division, under Brigadier-General Charles Woods a few miles east of Griswoldville as a guard.
Second Division of the corps, minus one brigade held to defend Clinton, and Third Division would proceed on to Gordon. The hope was these dispositions at Clinton and outside Griswoldville would prevent any further disruptions.
On the Confederate side, Lieutenant-General William Hardee decided that Macon was not the primary target and that troops needed to shift in order to meet a threat to Augusta. He assumed the Federals were turning more east or north-east, and would leave the roads to Savannah clear. Hardee sent Brigadier-General Ruben Carswell’s First Brigade Georgia Militia on a march eastward from Macon. In addition, Hardee left instructions to start other elements of the militia, state line, and home guard to march east toward Gordon. He requested Wheeler dispatch a regiment to help defend the Oconee Bridge. Finally, Hardee himself left Macon on a circuitous route through Albany and Thomasville with the intent to get back to Savannah and Charleston using the railroads.
Though unknown to Hardee, Major-General Henry Wayne had already pulled his brigade of Georgia Militia from Gordon to the Oconee Bridge, anticipating a Federal advance. And of course, also unknown to Hardee, Howard’s Right Wing was marching towards Gordon.
Mistakes on both sides of the line that day. These queued up to a bloody battle that arguably shouldn’t have happened the next day.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 271, 502, and 509; Taylor, Richard. Destruction and Reconstruction. New York: Bantam, 1992, page 250.)
∗ I fail to find the exact line from the Farmer’s Almanac. But it’s an old saying my grandmother used on occasion. If you have the line handy, please drop a comment.