Riding Through Georgia, November 27, 1864: Kilpatrick and Wheeler fight along Brushy Creek

I know… I’m supposed to be following the artillery, but the cavalry actions on the March to the Sea need to get their due!  Yesterday I discussed the movements that brought Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Division and Maj0r-General Wheeler’s Cavarly Corps off to the north of the main Federal line of march.  Wheeler, thinking Kilpatrick was moving towards Augusta, sought to harass the rear of the Federal column and foil the raid.  The Confederates had a chance to capture the detached Federal cavalry, as had happened around Atlanta earlier in the summer.   Or so Wheeler thought.

On the night of November 26, Kilpatrick established camps between Sylvan Grove and Spread Oak (on the road to Waynesboro).  The 8th Indiana and 2nd Kentucky Cavalry formed the rear guard of the Division at Sylvan Grove, under Lieutenant-Colonel Fielder Jones of the 8th.  To their north was the rest of Colonel Eli Murray’s First Brigade.  And further north was the Second Brigade, under Colonel Smith Atkins.

One of the minor myths about the march is that Kilpatrick was “entertaining” two female companions on the morning Wheeler attacked his rear guard. And in the mix, Kilpatrick was forced to run, half dressed, leaving his hat behind.  Well… in the first place I would ask, why would any Ms. Scarlet spend time with a face like this?

In the second place, we have Federal accounts attesting the pickets were out.  Captain Joseph T. Forman, 2nd Kentucky Cavalry wrote concerning the night of November 26-27:

That night my command, with the Eight Indiana, was left at the forks of the road for picket, and to hold that position during the night.  At 12 o’clock we were attacked by a large body of cavalry, surprising our pickets and moving directly upon our camp. After being repulsed some four or five times they concluded to wait until daylight before making another advance.

It is clear the Federals knew of the Confederate presence.  And from the description of the action, I doubt the incident went unreported.  Particularly in light of other preparations the Federals made for defense.  So Kilpatrick was likely awake early that morning and tending his charge.

At dawn, the Confederates resumed the attacks, as Forman continued:

At that time they attacked and were again repulsed.  Finding they could not move us from our position by attacking in front, they threw a heavy column on our flanks.  While they were making this movement, Colonel Jones, who was in command, received orders to retire behind the barricades, which were built near brigade headquarters. He gave me orders to mount my regiment and form it across the road; after his command passed to bring up the rear. Before we got fully mounted and moved out the enemy advanced, firing upon our led horses, causing some little confusion.  I formed my command (after the Eighth Indiana had passed), moved back by alternate platoons, at the same time checking the rebel advance until we arrived at the barricades, where they were handsomely repulsed and driven off.

At the barricades, the Federals were prepared to meet Wheeler, as Murry recorded:

The enemy, attempting to follow, were effectually checked by the barricades of the Fifth Kentucky and Lieutenant Stetson with his artillery. At that time the enemy, covering my entire front, with two brigades on my left flank, dared not attack.

From initial contact until the repulse at the barricades, the fight could not have been more than an hour.  Atkins, commanding Second Brigade, stated, “At 7 a.m. First Brigade moved through mine and took the advance.”  Atkins had his own barricades prepared and held off the Confederate advance long enough for the entire Federal force to temporarily disengage.

This allowed Wheeler to move up.  He visited the house where Kilpatrick had spent the night (and perhaps this is where the story of females, undergarments, and hats came in).  Wheeler observed:

On reaching the house where General Kilpatrick had staid I learned that he and his officers had been overheard talking a great deal in private about Augusts. It was the opinion of citizens that this move was intended as a raid upon that place. Being mindful of the great damage that could be done by the enemy’s burning the valuable mills and property which were not protected by fortifications, including the factories in the vicinity, the large portion of the city outside of the fortifications, the arsenal and sand hills, I hoped by pressing him hard he might be turned from his purpose.

However, on disengaging, the Federals moved east on the road to Waynesboro.  This pleased Wheeler.  “On reaching Brier Creek Swamp we pressed the enemy so warmly that he turned off towards Waynesborough.”  In the view of the Confederate cavalry commander, his men had save Augusta.

After letting the First Brigade pass, Atkins disengaged his brigade, detailing the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry and the 9th Michigan Cavalry, along with one artillery piece, as a rear guard.  Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Van Buskirk, of the 92nd, orchestrated, by most accounts, a textbook action.  Using several more barricades along the road, the rear guard contested the Confederate advance.  At some point in the day, Buskirk had a bridge destroyed which necessitated a lengthy march upstream for the Confederate pursers.

On reaching Waynesboro, Kilpatrick ordered several buildings in town fired.  He then proceeded south of town.  That evening the Federals camped three miles south, along the railroad line (which they promptly set to wrecking).  Wheeler was close behind.  Finding the town in flames, he and his staff helped put out the fires.  Keeping up the pressure, he had his troopers probe the Federal lines all night.  On the morning of the 28th, both sides would resume fighting.

Normally I like to put a map up at the start of the narrative.  I’ve held off here as I want to explain how I “think” this looked on the map.  Back when I was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia, I took some time to trace through the area this action occurred.  Matching what I saw on the ground with the reports, here’s what I came up with:

My reasoning for these locations is, in brief:

MarchNov27cav

The accounts indicate the 8th Indiana and 2nd Kentucky were at Sylvan Grove, which was the cross roads where Finn’s Bridge Road met the road up from Louisville.

The time line between initial contact and the passage of the Second Brigade lines was very short, indicating only a few miles distance. Furthermore, accounts from both sides indicate once that passage occurred, the Federals turned east.  Thus the First Brigade barricade had to be between Sylvan Grove and Brushy Creek.  The Second Brigade line must have been between that place and the Waynesboro Road.  I think what Wheeler called “Brier Creek Swamp” was in fact Brushy Creek (just outside the town of Wrens today).

The Federal line of retreat was definitely on the road to Waynesboro.  There is a place where that road crosses back over Brushy Creek at Owen’s Mill bridge (85 foot long in the 1870s).  Maps from the immediate post war show a road network which would require several miles of backtracking if Owen’s Mill Bridge were out.  I think that is where the 92nd Illinois destroyed a bridge to delay Wheeler’s pursuit.

I’m not going to say that map perfectly depicts the action. But until further research, or someone coming along to offer more pointers, I’ll submit it into evidence.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 363, 370, 376-7, 390-1, and 408.)

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