The cavalry actions along Brushy Creek on November 27, 1864 were but a preface for the main act that played out the next day. Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick had accomplished some of his mission with the destruction of railroad lines leading to Augusta, though he failed to complete the destruction of the bridge over Brier Creek. He had not rescued prisoners at Camp Lawton, as those had already been evacuated. However, with the close pursuit by Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, Kilpatrick’s efforts had the effect of pulling the most important Confederate formations out of position to impede Major-General William T. Sherman’s march.
After falling back from Waynesboro that afternoon, Kilpatrick placed Colonel Eli Murry’s First Brigade on a defensive line about three miles south of town. He described the defenses as “two barricaded lines” with the 3rd and 5th Kentucky, 8th Indiana in the first; and 9th Pennsylvania and 5th Kentucky sharing the second. Throughout the night Wheeler’s troopers probed Murry’s line with at least six distinct charges. As the Confederates approached the Federal positions, they would shout “Hunt their damned barricades” or “Go for them” or “We’ll show you how to desolate our homes and burn our towns” according to Murry. But the attacks were unsuccessful.
Throughout the night, the other Federals destroyed several miles of track. In Kilpatrick’s assessment, however, it was time for his troopers to fall back to the support of the infantry. To effect this break in contact, Kilpatrick ordered Colonel Smith Atkins to move his brigade further south and establish a barricade line. Before dawn, Murry’s brigade fell back through Atkins’ line.
Not one to remain inactive, Wheeler pushed Brigadier-General William Hume’s division on a flank march to the east with the aim to get behind the Federals. With dawn came a dense fog and Hume still not in position. Finding the Federals had slipped out of their lines, Wheeler pursued. Encountering the next line of defenses, Wheeler probed then organized attacks on front and flank. This setup a pattern repeated through the day. The Federals effected a withdrawal by leapfrog, with the Confederates hounding them every step. As Murry later wrote in his report, “This was a day of unusual activity.”
For the most part, Kilpatrick remained at the front of the lines directing the retirements, while his brigade commanders saw to the lines of withdrawal. During these bounding withdrawal movements, three incidents stand out from the reports. At one of the barricade lines, the Confederates came up too quick for the comfort. To break up the advance, Kilpatrick ordered up Captain John A.P. Glore with a battalion from the 5th Kentucky. Glore’s charge was “gallant and well managed.”
During another withdrawal, Kilpatrick was personally directing the 8th Indiana and 9th Michigan to the next position. The troops at the next line of defense misread the situation and began to withdraw before Kilpatrick’s group reached safety. In the confusion, Confederate cavalry rushed in and nearly surrounded the two regiments along with Kilpatrick and staff. “But the brave officers and men of these two regiments by their splendid fighting broke through the rebel lines and slowly fell back, repulsing every attack of the enemy until the main column was reached,” boasted Kilpatrick. Wheeler reported he’d nearly captured the Federal cavalry chief, only to come away with Kilpatrick’s hat.
One of the Federal lines were established near Bellevue Plantation residence of Judge John Wright Carswell and his wife, Sarah Ann. During a lull in the action, several cavalrymen made their way to the house. When they dismounted, the troopers tied their horses to the rosebushes at the front of the house. While the Federals plundered the estate, their horses were pulling up the rosebushes. Unable to stop the ransacking troopers, Carswell did untie the horses. He stood there holding the rains of the mounts while the Federals searched through the plantation. Though he’d lost much property that day, Carswell had saved the bushes his wife loved… later to be named “Sherman’s Rosebushes” to recall the event.
As the fighting neared Buck Head Creek, Kilpatrick ordered the 5th Ohio Cavalry and Captain Yates Beebe’s 10th Wisconsin Battery to make a stand there. When the last Federal troopers got over the creek, the buckeye troopers removed all the planks from the bridge (reports say the bridge was burned, but first hand accounts say it was wet and would not fire up). Unable to press the pursuit, Wheeler sent columns around to find a crossing point elsewhere. Eventually, the Confederates pulled the pews from nearby Buck Head Church to rebuild the bridge. But the delay had cost Wheeler time, allowing Kilpatrick to prepare yet another formidable defense.
Three miles west of Buck Head Creek, using the aid of negros who’d been drawn to the Federal column, Kilpatrick created a stout barricade. “I now determined to give him a severe repulse before marching further,” resolved Kilpatrick. While waiting for Wheeler’s force to catch up, men of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry noticed a lone Confederate scout in a distant field.
This was too much for Colonel [Matthew] Van Buskirk; his equilibrium was disturbed by it. Said the Colonel to William Black, of Company K, who stood near the Colonel: “Will, hand me your gun, and I will shoot that fellow.” Will handed his gun to the Colonel; the Colonel took deliberate aim, and fired. The Confederate soldier and his horse never stirred. The Colonel blazed away again, but the Rebel remained as immovable as an equestrian statue. Said Will: “Colonel, you are disgracing my gun; give it to me.” Will took his gun – one quick glance along the barrel from his dark eye, and the rifle cracked; the Rebel fell, and away went the horse, riderless.
Night approaching, Wheeler moved up about 1,200 of his command. He would make one more, somewhat rushed, attempt to catch the Federals. “Nothing could have exceeded the gallantry with which these troops responded to the bugle’s call, and hurled themselves upon the enemy, driving his confusion and finally encountering the breast-works.” But with that, Wheeler had only reached the main line of resistance, and his command was repulsed for the final time that day. He sent Colonel Henry Ashby’s Brigade in an attempt to cut off Kilpatrick’s escape route. But Ashby got turned around on the back roads and failed the assignment.
With darkness as a cover, Kilpatrick resumed his withdraw, putting six more miles between himself and Wheeler before going into camp late that night. Kilpatrick’s command suffered around fifty casualties that day. Wheeler’s casualties numbered around seventy, including a severe wound to his chief of staff, Brigadier-General Felix Robertson. To his superiors, Wheeler bragged that he’d saved Augusta and bested Kilpatrick. For Kilpatrick, it was one more anxious night as he hoped to reach the safety of the Fourteenth Corps the following day. Though his operation was largely unsuccessful on balance with the assigned missions, he had drawn Wheeler well out of position.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 363-4, 370,-1, and 408-9; Ninety-Second Illinois Volunteers, Freeport, Illinois: Journal Steam Publishing House and Bookbindery, 1875, page 186; Photos courtesy HMDB, David Seibert, and Mike Stroud, see links to markers.)