The narrative of events on November 25, 1864 for Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies involves several river crossings. The activities put light on Sherman’s engineers. Captain Orlando Poe, Sherman’s Chief Engineer, detailed engineer support (men and equipment) by assignment:
- Right Wing: 1st Missouri Engineers under Lieutenant-Colonel William Tweeddale with 500 men in five companies; A pontoon train of 28 canvas boats and sufficient materials for a 580 foot bridge.
- Left Wing: 58th Indiana Infantry under Colonel George Buell with ten companies numbering 775 men total; A pontoon train with 51 canvas pontoon boats, allowing for a 850 foot bridge.
- General support: 1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics, 10 companies with 1,500 men, under Colonel J.B. Yates; and fifty wagons carrying tools numbering in the thousands in addition to the baggage of the regiment.
In addition, each wing brought along, on average, 350 entrenching tools and other tools for use by pioneer details. The number of pioneers varied from day to day, but generally between one and seven 100 man “divisions” would serve the duties. In addition, as the march proceeded larger and larger numbers of escaped slaves joined the march and were employed in construction tasks. There was plenty of work to be done, and plenty of strong backs answering the call.
During the march, Poe recorded 3,460 feet of pontoon bridges laid by the engineers. That figure does not include the number of repaired bridges or other means contrived to cross rivers and streams. Nor does it count the miles of corduroy roads laid (over 40,000 for the Fifteenth Corps alone!). On November 25-26, the engineers laid three pontoon spans totaling 1100 feet – roughly a third of the total employed during the campaign. These were to span the Oconee River and Buffalo Creek.
Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing sat stalled for the third day at the Oconee River. Finding Jackson’s Ferry was nothing more than a memory, Seventeenth Corps kept pressure on the Confederates across the river. Fifteenth Corps had the task of forcing a crossing downstream at Ball’s Ferry. Major-General Peter Osterhaus’ corps was spread out that day, with Second Division probing the river crossing, First Division forming a rear guard perimeter along Big Sandy Creek, and Third and Forth Divisions moving up with the trains. Brigadier-General William Hazen, commanding the Second Division, deployed two regiments of skirmishers at Ball’s Ferry. However the Confederates were there in strength. By mid-day, Osterhaus was frustrated and went back to report, as Howard later recalled in his autobiography:
Moving on from Gordon, November 25th, I came to the vicinity of the Oconee, and dismounted to rest and send dispatches near a house on the right side of the road, when Osterhaus, coming back, told me before he dismounted that he could get no farther, as the enemy was too strong on the other side. I told him that that was no way to talk, but to keep deploying his skirmishers up and down the river until he got no return fire, and report.
He soon returned and assured me that he found no enemy a few hundred yards up the river. I then instructed him to send a brigade with the canvas boats, already put together, and push over the men rapidly into the clearings beyond, then come down the river and take the enemy in the flank….
Giving the order was one thing, implementing was another. The crossing site was closer to the Seventeenth Corps, so the troops came from that formation instead of Osterhaus’. The selected crossing site was a shallow, rocky stretch opposing swampy ground. But at least it was a spot to force a lodgement. The 1st Missouri Engineers managed to build a ferry using ropes and the canvas boats. From there the Federals built a lodgement on the far shore. By nightfall, they were threatening the Confederate defenders downstream at Ball’s Ferry. That evening, Major-General Henry C. Wayne telegraphed to Savannah, “… to save the men I will retire.” The next day, the Missouri engineers would lay two pontoon bridges at Ball’s Ferry to allow the Right Wing to cross the Oconee… after a three day delay.
Just east of the Oconee that day, Major-General Joseph Wheeler moved his cavalry northward in his drive to get between the Federals and Augusta, on a route taking him through Sandersville. Reports indicated a strong Federal force was approaching the same town. In order to best determine the Federal intentions, Wheeler hoped to reach Sandersville first. But the Federals were just some six or seven miles short of the town when the day began.
Those few miles were not, however, an easy march. Just outside of Hebron, the Twentieth Corps reached Buffalo Creek and found all bridges destroyed. Like many streams in this part of Georgia, Buffalo Creek is not just a simple ribbon of water but rather a meandering flow through swampy lowlands. Brigadier-General John Geary described this crossing:
This creek is an extensive, heavily timbered, swampy stream, being nearly half a mile wide where the road passes though it. The stream or swamp is here divided into eight channels, which are spanned by as many bridges, varying in length from 30 to 100 feet each. Between these earthen causeways are thrown up. These bridges had been destroyed by the enemy, and were reconstructed by 2 p.m., under the superintendence of Captain Poe…. By dark the road in my front was clear, and I crossed my command, encamping for the night one mile and a half east of the creek. The crossing in the extreme darkness of the night and through the swampy roads east of the creek was a very laborious one.
Just north of the Twentieth Corps, Fourteenth Corps likewise forced a crossing over the creek. In spite of the good work by Poe and his engineers, the line of march was delayed by several hours. In consequence, Wheeler won the race to Sandersville. That evening Confederate scouts skirmished with the lead elements of the Left Wing.
To the rear of the Left Wing, the last elements of the Fourteenth Corps left Milledgeville. Not far behind them, Brigadier-General Samuel Ferguson arrived with a brigade of Confederate cavalry. Yet another example of how dispersed and ill-positioned were the Confederate defenders of Georgia, Ferguson had slipped behind and to the left of the Federal march. But with the force at his disposal and out of contact with points beyond, Ferguson could do little more than witness the wake of the Federal passing. His men, however, were quick to requisition mounts from among the animals left by the Federals.
Further north, the Federal cavalry under Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick left the infantry behind in the first leg of their raid towards Millen. Other than capturing a few Confederate guards, Kilpatrick passed without incident.
I’ll forgo a “march by markers” today, as this leg of the march is short of entries. That should not be the case, in my opinion. If one travels the backroads, there is plenty to note. Georgia Highway 24, just west of Sandersville, passes over Buffalo Creek in the area that Poe built the bridges on November 24. Thanks to Google Streets, here’s a view of that crossing over the modern bridges, looking to the east:
Just as Geary described, this bridge continues on for nearly a half mile. Here’s the view looking back to the west.
I think the Twentieth Corps veterans would approve the modern bridge and road. But can we at least get a marker noting their passing and the work by Confederates to delay the march? Surely there is a small easement to be gained among the kaolin quarries.
At Ball’s Ferry, I hear there is some effort to provide updated interpretation. The site is a state park and the Balls Ferry Historical Park Association has plans for interpretation. But, alas, my sources have not passed along any photos!
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 272 and 897; Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, pages 79-80.)