Another cold and clear day 150 years ago in Georgia. On the Left Wing of Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies, troops began movement out of Milledgeville. But the Right Wing remained stalled at the Oconee River. Though reinforcements arrived for the Confederate forces, those were still lacking unified and coherent leadership.
For the Left Wing, Twentieth Corps led the march out of camp at Milledgeville, with First Division on the road at 6 a.m.; Second Division following by thirty minutes; and Third Division following shortly after. The line of march was toward Hebron, in a somewhat southeasterly route. The eventual objective was Sandersville, which Major-General Henry Slocum hoped to reach in two days. Fourteenth Corps had the same long term march objective, but took a northeasterly route through Black Spring. However its lead division did not start until 7 a.m. And the rear of the Corps would not clear Milledgeville until the next day.
For both columns, Slocum hoped to see fifteen miles distance during the short daylight hours. But even with the two corps on separate routes, the roads were rutted and congested. For Second Division’s march, Brigadier-General John Geary recorded:
November 24, in accordance with orders, moved at 7 a.m., but, finding the road completely blockaded with trains, I did not get my column fairly in motion until 10 o’clock. Just before dark crossed Town Creek, the bridge over which was very bad, and went into camp near Gum Creek, the First Division being encamped about three-quarters of a miles in advance, the Third Division about the same distance in my rear. The road traveled, although rather hilly, was in the main good. Marched during the day fourteen miles.
Slocum’s Orders for the Left Wing that day reflected a growing concern about the presence of Confederate threats:
Increased attention must be given to the care of trains, as it is known that the enemy intend to harass our march by means of cavalry. None but the regular organized foraging parties will be allowed to depart from the right and left of the road. The foraging parties will, when necessary, seize wagons to bring their plunder to camp, after which the wagons should be burned. All useless and surplus wagons, ox-teams, &c., which now encumber our trains will be destroyed; and the commander of any brigade is hereby authorized to destroy any wagon that delays the march or opens a gap in the column, no matter to whom it belongs; and, generally, the troops will be distributed along the trains.
Slocum also ordered his pioneers up with the advance guard to facilitate rapid repairs to roads and bridges.
Another concern, voiced from Sherman down to the private foragers, was the Confederate “scorched earth” practices then being seen in front of the march. Slocum closed the orders for the Left Wing, “Should the enemy burn forage and corn on our route houses, barns and cotton-gins must also be burned to keep them company.” Harsh treatment, but the intent was word would get out – if the citizens prevented the Confederates from destroying forage, the Yankees would only take what they need to subsist. Otherwise, the hard hand of war would follow. Here, we see another myth of the march in play. In reality, the damage due to Confederate forces reacting to the march contributed greatly to the destruction, and was often falsely attributed to Sherman’s men in post-war recollections.
Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry continued a somewhat administrative march. The troopers passed through Milledgeville, sharing a road with Fourteenth Corps, to reach their new assignment on the left of the Left Wing.
The Right Wing’s movements were anything but administrative that day. Major-General O.O. Howard still wanted to achieve two crossing points of the Oconee River – one at Jackson’s Ferry and the other in vicinity of Ball’s Ferry further downstream. To facilitate this, his troops had to push the pontoon train up through the already heavily used roads. But there was a major problem with the plan. One of the crossing points mentioned was at best a discontinued ferry and more a placename on the map.
Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps was to destroy the railroad up to the Oconee and secure the crossing site at Jackson’s Ferry. Throughout the morning, Brigadier-General Giles Smith employed his Fourth Division of the corps toward those objectives. But around noon he reported to Blair that the road to what was Jackson’s Ferry was not passable for the trains. This prompted a report to Howard at 3:25 p.m. in which announced, “There is no Jackson’s Ferry or any practicable crossing between Milledgeville and Ball’s Ferry.” Thus all efforts for crossing refocused to Fifteenth Corps’ sector. As insurance, Howard sent a dispatch, carried by his brother, Colonel Charles H. Howard, to Sherman dropping the suggestion, “you may have to threaten them from the north….”
Major-General Peter Osterhaus’ Fifteenth Corps also had two assignments. In the advance, First and Second Divisions were to proceed towards Irwinton, reaching for Ball’s Ferry. Behind, Third and Fourth Divisions would guard Gordon to protect the Right Wing’s trains and rear. With knowledge gained about Jackson’s Ferry, by the end of the day Ball’s Ferry became a critical objective for the entire wing.
That morning, Major-General Henry C. Wayne had delayed the Right Wing for a day and the 24th would make it two full days. However, Wayne’s reports to Savannah indicated the situation was dire. At around 9 p.m., Wayne reported the Federals had destroyed much of the trestle on the west side of the Oconee, but he still held the east bank. He was concerned about the size of the Federal force, “The enemy are in heavy force on the other side. I believe I have more than Kilpatrick’s division in front of me.” Major Alfred Hartridge, commanding an independent Confederate Army detachment assigned to the Oconee Bridge, discounted Wayne’s assessment, “The force of the enemy is, in my opinion, exaggerated. I do not think there are more than 800 men.” While not contradicting Wayne, Hartridge did perform a valuable action that day. His troops destroyed the bridges over Buffalo Creek to the north of Oconee. This would block any potential attempt to flank the Confederate position from the north… which was what Howard had suggested that very day.
South of the Oconee Bridge, Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry completed their crossing of the river near Dublin and were marching north. Out of position to threaten the Right Wing’s rear, Wheeler was, however, in position to aid Wayne. But other than the remainder of Brigadier-General Joseph Lewis’ Orphan Brigade, Wheeler sent no reinforcements to Wayne. Wheeler was more concerned about getting to Sandersville and from there preventing any move on Augusta.
Major-General William Hardee, arriving in Savannah from his round-about journey from Macon, now took charge of the threatened sector. He directed supplies to Wayne and gave orders to Wheeler. And then Hardee rode the Georgia Central Railroad out to Tennille to counsel with Wayne.
Also arriving in “theater” was General P.G.T. Beauregard. Though remaining in Macon, he approved the transfer of the Georgia State Troops and other formations from that town to help Hardee further east. Major-General Gustavus Smith would recall that route went, “by rail to Albany; thence march to Thomasville; thence by rail to Savannah.” Troops that had seen a terrible day on the field outside Griswoldville would see further action before the month ended. This queues up a sidebar post about those Georgia railroads.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 272, 414, 532, 536, and 892.)