Marching Through Georgia, November 23, 1864: Missed opportunity

November 23, 1864 was a clear, but still bitterly cold, day in Georgia.  In contrast to earlier days, the Federal advance was not quite as great.  Portions of the Left Wing remained in camps most of the day while tending to tasks around Milledgeville.  On the Right Wing, the column closed up as the trains made their way through Gordon.  One might surmise the Federals missed an opportunity on a good marching day.  Perhaps.  But that was inconsequential compared to the missed opportunity for the Confederates.


On the Left Wing, the Fourteenth Corps closed the last of the trains and rear guard through Milledgeville on the 23rd. The Twentieth Corps remained camped around the state capital.  But the troops didn’t simply mill around camp.  Their day was spent primarily destroying supplies and selected facilities around the city.  The State Penitentiary was burned, as was the nearby arsenal and buildings associated with the railroad depot.

But the Governor’s Mansion and State Capitol were spared… at least from destruction. Though the soldiers did their damage.  Point should be made that when leaving the city days earlier, Governor Joseph Brown had evacuated with most of the property, down to the rugs and furnishings.

The soldiers held a mock legislative session in which they repealed the Ordnance of Secession.  When bundles of unsigned, and thus not ready for issue, state currency were found, the soldiers confiscated the lot.  Some was burned.  Others impressed the useless script for personal tasks which paper is often used.  And some of the invalid currency was passed to female factory workers and slaves.  But orders came down to avoid destruction of private property, with guards posted as needed.  For the most part, the Federal soldiers had enough public property for their mischief.

Major-General William T. Sherman took the time to issue a new set of orders outlining the next phase of the march.  Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick would transit from the right to the left and make demonstrations toward Augusta while heading for Millen, in hopes of recusing Federal prisoners held there.  The Right Wing would continue across the Oconee and take up a line of march south of the Georgia Central Railroad. The Left Wing would advance to that same railroad and thence on the north side toward Sandersville.  The proposed plan would bring the wings in closer proximity, but also prepare for a drive towards the Ogeechee River.

The Right Wing, however, had another day of marching on the 23rd.  Major-General O.O. Howard had the Fifteenth Corps proceed towards Irwinville.  However, with the trail of the wing reaching Gordon that day, Howard had Brigaider-General John Corse’s Fourth Division replaced as guard with the Third Division, under Brigadier-General John Smith.  With that switch, Howard wanted the pontoon trains expedited through Gordon to the fore of the column.  His intent was to have it in place for the crossing of the Oconee River.  And looking to that river, Howard pushed Seventeenth Corps forward along the railroad line to probe crossings.  The plan was for Seventeenth Corps to make a crossing the next day at a place called Jackson’s Ferry.  Problem was, there was no Jackson’s Ferry, save that indicated on Federal maps!

On the east side of the Oconee River, Major-General Henry C. Wayne, Georgia’s Adjutant and Inspector General, found himself employed in the capacity of field commander.  Wayne had arrived a few days earlier, with roughly a battalion’s strength, withdrawn from Gordon.  There he found Major Alfred Hartridge with an independent detachment of 186 soldiers, under direct orders from Lieutenant-General William Hardee to hold the railroad bridge outside Oconee.  Wayne had misgivings about such a stand, but was convinced to stay.

The position was one which could be held effectively by a small force, if lucky.  The railroad crossed a large swamp on the west side of the river, limiting approaches to the bridge.  Wayne had a small blockhouse built there to further deter the Federal approach.  To reinforce the forward position, he had an artillery piece mounted on a railcar.  When arriving on November 21, he reported to Major-General Lafayette McLaws that he expected to be attacked at any time.  But that threat was slow in developing.  The Fourth Kentucky Mounted Infantry, from the famous Orphan Brigade, arrived to reinforce on the 22nd.  Then later more reinforcements arrived to include cadets from the Georgia Military Academy.

Around mid-morning, advance scouts in front of the Seventeenth Corps reached Wayne’s defenses.  Brigadier-General Giles Smith, commanding Fourth Division of the corps, reported:

The [1st Alabama Cavalry] having the advance drove in the enemy’s skirmishers from a stockade about two miles from the bridge. The ground near the bridge being very swampy it could only be approached by the railroad.  The enemy were posted behind a second stockade, with infantry and artillery.  Colonel Potts, commanding First Brigade, was ordered to detach two regiments and drive them across the river.  One piece of artillery from Lieutenant Hurter’s First Minnesota Battery was taken down the track by hand to assist.  After a short skirmish this was accomplished, and two miles of trestle-work destroyed and about three miles of track, but the enemy could not be dislodged from the opposite side on account of the inaccessibility of the swamp.

Unable to press further, the Federals searched for other crossing points and found Ball’s Ferry downstream.   Smith dispatched a 150 man force from Station No. 15 to scout that location in the afternoon.  They succeeded in crossing but ran up against a Confederate force under Hartridge and fell back. To Savannah, Wayne reported at 9 p.m. that evening:

Major Hartridge has driven the enemy back across this river, but they have the flat. Austin, with the cadets, has gallantly held the bridge. The enemy are constructing a flat in the woods to try to cross below me to-night.  Send 5,000 .54 cartridges.

The advantage of position favored Wayne, but he knew eventually the Federal numbers would play against him.  All the Federals needed was one secure crossing and the Oconee line would fail.  But an opportunity lay on the west side of the river.  To accomplish a crossing, the Federals, who were already spread out from the march, had to develop the front.  Howard would need to feel out potential crossing points and spread out his command.  Meanwhile the trains were still far to the rear of the march and guarded by a single division of troops.

A Confederate move on Howard’s rear guard might disrupt the entire wing’s march.  But what forces might move in that direction?  Major-General Joseph Wheeler, with his cavalry force, would be the select formation for such a task.  But Wheeler had computed August was the next critical point to defend.  On November 23rd, his forces were moving by way of Dublin in hopes of getting in front of Sherman’s march.  Despite the rough day at Griswoldville, there were still a substantial number of Georgia state troops in Macon.  But orders came on the 23rd to move those forces south and then east, using some of the intact railroads, toward Savannah.

Perhaps seeking to bring some unity to the dis-jointed effort to respond, President Jefferson F. Davis telegraphed Major-General Ambrose Wright, in Augusta, urging him to assume control:

I deem it very fortunate that you are in position to exercise at the same time the authority of your Confederate and State commission.  The Adjutant-General, C.S.A., will issue an order placing you on duty in Georgia.

This presumptive move would further strain the relations between Richmond and the Georgia governor.  Still, no single authority on the Confederate side called the shots bringing a fog of confusion.  In that fog, a perfect opportunity to upset Sherman’s plans was missed.  More Confederate forces were moving away from the Federals on November 23, 1864 than were moving towards them.

Following along by the markers for November 23, 1864, there are several around Milledgeville pointing out important sites – Junction of the Left Wing, Route of the Twentieth Corps, Provost Guard camp, and Campsite of the Army.  Also in and around Milledgeville are Howell Cobb’s plantation (missed yesterday in my post, but not missed by Sherman’s men!), the Old Governor’s Mansion, Old State Capitol, Great Seal of Georgia, and State Hospital.  Other markers of note for this day’s activities are found in Scottsboro, McIntyre, Toomsboro, and Oconee.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 454, 887, 889.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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