If there was a Weather Channel around, for November 22, 1864, the prediction offered would have been “cold with continued rain mixed with snow, clearing in the afternoon.” The overnight temperatures froze General Mud, which was a small consolation for those marching on a cold day. Major-General William T. Sherman wanted to close the first phase of his march across Georgia on this day by concentrating the armies at Milledgeville and Gordon. Not only was Milledgeville the state capital with military targets to include arsenals and depots, there were also means to cross the Oconee and establish a bridgehead on the east side. For the Confederate authorities, what details were known of Sherman’s movements seemed to confirm the next stop would be Augusta. The responses were not coordinated, which setup the largest field engagement of the campaign with tragic results.
Orders for the Left Wing on the 22nd were simple – reach Milledgeville. No resistance was expected, and little offered. The Twentieth Corps under Brigadier-General Alpheus S. Williams had the honor of first entering the state capital. To reach that goal, the corps had to cross the Little River. Anticipating this, the day prior an advance column including the pontoon train under Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore put a 220 foot span, with ten boats, over the river.
When the last unit, Brigadier-General John Geary’s Second Division, crossed, the pontoons came up. Reaching Millegeville, Williams sent forward two regiments to secure and guard the city. After them came the rest of the corps. Colonel Erza Carmen, commanding Second Brigade, First Division of the corps, wrote:
When within one mile of the city the Third Wisconsin and One hundred and seventh New York Volunteers were sent forward as guard to the city, Col. William Hawley… being appointed post commander. The brigade then marched through the city, crossed the Oconee River, encamping near it. The State arsenal and a large amount of public property was destroyed at this place….
Hawley provided a detailed list of property seized and destroyed:
Burned–2,300 muskets, smooth-bore, caliber .69; 10,000 rounds cartridges, caliber .69; 300 sets accouterments; 5,000 lances; 1,500 cutlasses; 15 boxes U.S. standard weights and measures. Thrown into the river–170 boxes fixed artillery ammunition; 200 kegs powder; 16 hogsheads salt. A large amount of cotton, say 1,800 bales, was disposed of by General Sherman; the manner of disposition was not made known to me. About 1,500 pounds tobacco was taken by my order and distributed among the troops generally. Besides the property above enumerated, a large lot of miscellaneous articles, such as harness, saddles, canteens, tools for repairing war materials, caps, &c., was burned in the building situated in the square near the State House.
1,500 pounds of tobacco goes a long way.
On the Right Wing the priority of the day was to close up the wagon train which had been lagging since crossing the Ocmulgee River. Brigadier-General John Corse, commanding the division guarding the trains, needed good roads. That was partially addressed by the Third Division, Fifteenth Corps, which cut a road parallel to the main road to Gordon. Corse also needed protection from the Confederate cavalry making sporadic attacks on the column. Orders for the day had one brigade from the First Division, Fifteenth Corps to hold back at Clinton until the trains cleared.
Further southeast, where the cavalry maintained a screen outside Griswoldville, Brigadier-General Charles Wood was to have one brigade, under Colonel Milo Smith, guard the road to Gordon and Georgia Central Railroad near the Mountain Spring’s Church. In front of them, along Little Sandy Creek, the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry maintained a picket line (with the 5th Kentucky Cavalry in reserve). Wood’s second brigade, under Brigadier-General Charles Walcutt, would advance up the road toward Macon to put pressure on any Confederates in the sector. And this was a “hot” sector.
That morning, Major-General Joseph Wheeler caught the 9th Pennsylvania off-guard. A dawn attack on the line drove in the pickets and captured several. Although the Pennsylvanians rallied, the situation played back and forth with charge and counter charge through the early dawn. The scheduled advance of Walcutt’s infantry cleared the fighting. After a short advance, Walcutt selected a good position opposite, an open field, to guard the road and posted skirmishers forward. In line with normal practice, the Federals began erecting breastworks.
Wheeler, still under orders from Lieutenant-General William Hardee to move east, decided he was not up against just Federal cavalry. In response, he left the field and marched his command on a route further south. That should have closed the action for the day. But Wheeler had not provided information to all nearby commands. By breaking contact, Wheeler left an open situation with chance coming into play.
At the time Wheeler departed, a local defense battalion under Major Ferdinand Cook, followed by a combined division of militia and Georgia State Line troops under Brigadier-General Pleasant Philips, began moving east along the direct road to Gordon. Around mid-morning, authorities in Macon recognized the danger Philips were walking into. Major-General G.W. Smith send orders for Philips to avoid any engagement and to fall back to Macon if pressed.
Around mid-day, Cook and Philips began to run into Federal skirmishers. About the same time Philips reached the destroyed pistol factory at Griswoldville, he received the orders from Macon urging caution. Philips figured he was facing just over 1,000 Federals. Between himself and Cook, Philips had some 4,500 men. While caution was the order, Philips felt he could at least brush the Federals off the road before asking for an updated order from Macon. That decision triggered the first “battle” on the March to the Sea.
Philips intended to overwhelm the Federal lines. Though he held the advantage in artillery (a six gun battery against a two gun section), he intended his infantry to carry the day. The advance started around 2:30 p.m. Soon after they advanced into the open field, the Georgians came under withering fire from the Federal infantry. Writing in his official report, Colonel Robert F. Catterson, who replaced the wounded Walcutt, stated:
On came the enemy, endeavoring to gain possession of a ravine running parallel to and about 100 yards to our front, but the fire was so terrible that ere he reached it many of his number were stretched upon the plain. It was at this moment that General Walcutt received a severe wound and was compelled to leave the field.
The Confederate attack stalled. Though Catterson had to shift his forces around to meet pressure, the Federal line held. With darkness, the fighting tapered off. The Federals counted 14 killed and 42 wounded. On the Confederate side total casualties numbered around 1,200. One of the most lop-sided engagements of the war was fought due to mis-communication and poor intelligence. The Federals wouldn’t have been there had Kilpatrick kept the cavalry pressed close to Macon one more day. The Confederates wouldn’t have gone there had Wheeler provided full information to those in Macon.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 107, 234, and 248-9.)